Chapter 9: Project management software & tools

Project management tools and software help teams more effectively manage project tasks, timelines, budget, and resources. They also make project organization, scheduling, tracking, and reporting more efficient, while improving collaboration among team members.

In this chapter, we’ll provide an overview of the commonly used tools and software, the benefits of using PM software, and information on how to choose the right tool for your team.

Benefits of using project management software

Project management software improves planning, collaboration, visibility, and productivity, and is an essential aspect of the modern, often distributed, workforce.

The top five benefits of PM software, include:

  1. Improved planning: Most PM software allow you to create project timelines, plan budgets, and assign tasks to team members — and make updates in real-time, on a platform that everyone can access at once. Project planning is much easier when you have all this information organized in one live, central location, rather than in a static project plan, which presents version control issues.
  2. Greater visibility and accountability: PM software provides a real-time, single source of project progress, including team member responsibilities and individual task status. This level of visibility keeps team members accountable and ensures work gets done on time and within budget.
  3. Increased productivity: You can use PM software to build workflows that streamline processes and automate repetitive work. For instance, you might set automatic alerts to notify team members when tasks are complete or need review, reducing time spent on emails and meetings.
  4. Better collaboration: In today’s distributed workforce, PM software plays a huge role in helping teams collaborate from wherever they work. Provide team members with the appropriate permissions so everyone can collaborate — view project status, leave feedback on items, attach additional documentation, and chat with team members — in real time.
  5. Improved decision making: Most PM software includes reporting features, which surface real-time data to keep you informed on project progress, risks, or delays. Use this information to make better informed business decisions throughout the project lifecycle.

Use project management software to help improve any of the following efforts:

  • Project planning
  • Project scheduling
  • Task assignment
  • Time tracking
  • Budgeting and cost management
  • Resource allocation
  • Project portfolio management
  • Reporting and charting
  • Business process management (BPM)
  • Document storage
  • Workflow management
  • Quality management

Everyone can benefit from using project management software, regardless of whether you are a formal PM or simply want your team to be more organized and productive in their efforts.

If you’re not sure whether it’s time to invest in a PM software solution, consider the following:

  • Do you or your team habitually miss deadlines?
  • Does project quality often suffer due to miscommunications?
  • Are your formal processes inefficient, or do team members bypass them because they aren’t useful or reliable?
  • Is your team or company in a period of growth that may require more sophisticated, scalable tools and processes?
  • Does your team or company allow remote work, which requires asynchronous communication and collaboration?

If you answered yes to one or more of the previous questions, then it’s time to look for a better way to manage your projects.

10 key features of the best project management software

The leading project management software solutions are cloud-based, easy to use, and provide several collaboration features, such as scheduling, file storage, alerts and notifications, and resource management. Here are the top 10 features to look for:

  1. Cloud-based: Cloud-based solutions best support the modern, distributed workforce by enabling your team to access and update information anytime, anywhere, keeping everyone up to date in real time.
  2. Ease of use: The best tool is the one that your team will actually use. Have your team sign up for the free trials so you can gain feedback and see if the tool is easy to learn and use.
  3. Collaboration features: Your tool should be easy to share among both internal and external stakeholders and allow your team to update progress, leave comments, and provide feedback in context with the work getting done.
  4. Planning and scheduling: Look for software that allows you to schedule tasks, assign them to team members, and adjust timelines as necessary. The best options also provide ways to view the schedule however best suits your team’s work style.
  5. File storage: You should be able to upload all project documentation to your tool to keep details in context with project plans and ensure all team members have access to the right information.
  6. Built-in visualizations: Whether you want to use Gantt charts, Kanban boards, or other graphics to show project progress, look for a tool that has built-in visualization features. Additionally, top-tier solutions will provide graphs and charts to roll up key performance metrics.
  7. Reporting and dashboards: The more advanced software includes reporting features that allow you to surface high-level, real-time performance and status,  and enables stakeholders to drill down for more details.
  8. Automation: Find a tool that allows you to automate repetitive tasks, such as update requests, reminders, and approvals — without the need to hardcode formulas or enlist the IT team.
  9. Mobile: Your tool should be mobile-friendly, so team members can access their work on the go from any device.
  10. Resource management: Closely managing your resources is critical to the success of your project. Ensure your PM solution allows you to specify project roles, assign role-level permissions, and adjust resource capacity in real time.

How to choose the right project management software for you

The best project management software is one that your team will actually use. To kick off the selection process, take time to consider your needs, project complexity, budget, security requirements, current tools, and the size of your team or organization.

Additionally, you should identify what you want to accomplish with a software solution. Some desired outcomes include the ability to:

  • Simply organize and assign project tasks, create project schedules, and set automatic alerts and reminders. 
  • Create dashboards and reports from existing data. 
  • Build custom processes and workflows. (You can learn more about the key features of PM software below.) 

Or, maybe it’s a mix of all three outcomes. Either way, get clear on the problems you want to solve, as this information will help drive your search.

Once you know your needs and desired outcomes, consider the following factors:

  • Type of projects you manage: Some tools are tailored to certain departments or industries, such as creative or IT.
  • PM methodology in place: If you’ve selected a PM methodology to follow, then you’ll need a system that fits the framework. Also, some solutions feature built-in tools, like Gantt charts or Kanban boards, that may support your methodology. 
  • Number of people who need access: Determine how many people will need access to the program, and the level of permissions they need (i.e., team members will need to edit the data, while external stakeholders may only need to view it).
  • Documentation: Identify if and how you will need to store documentation in this tool, and what file types the tool needs to accommodate.
  • Budget: Come up with a financial and time budget that your company is willing to invest in new PM software.
  • Resistance to new technology: Consider any resistance your team may have to learning and using a new program. Look for a solution that is easy to get started with to cut down on pushback.  

Now that you know your basic constraints, it’s time to start shopping around. Ask the following questions for any solution you’re considering:

  • How easy and intuitive is the tool to use?
  • How many licenses does the tool or plan support?
  • Will external collaborators, who may not have a license, be able to view or update the information stored in the tool?
  • How flexible is the tool? Will the end-user be able to build custom processes if needed? Or is help from IT necessary?
  • Can the tool generate shareable reports or dashboards?
  • Does the tool integrate with your existing business systems?
  • Does the solution offer training or support? How long is this support available, and what are the additional costs?

In addition, consider the long-term strategy behind your purchase. It will take time for people to get comfortable using any new tool, so think beyond your immediate need and determine how the tool will integrate into your larger processes and initiatives.

Visit our in-depth guide on how to choose the right PM software to learn more.

General project management tools

Some of the most commonly used project management tools include Gantt charts, work breakdown structures (WBS), and workflow diagrams. Many PM softwares include these features, but we’ll break down the basics first.

Gantt charts

A Gantt chart is a project management tool used for project planning and scheduling. Put simply, it is a timeline bar chart that shows the start and end dates of each individual task.

Gantt charts visually represent the start date, end date, and duration of each task in a project to show the estimated duration of the project as a whole. They also often show dependencies between tasks, which provides team members with a visual understanding of how the work fits together on the project timeline.

PM Guide Gantt Chart

While you can use a static Gantt chart and adjust dates manually, many PM software solutions offer a Gantt chart function or view. This option makes it easier to change dates and task durations as needed, and  maintain a single version of the project schedule so everyone stays on the same page.

Visit our complete guide to Gantt charts to learn more, and learn about the advantages and limitations of using a Gantt chart.

Kanban boards

A Kanban board is a visual board that shows task status by displaying tasks in columns marked to-do, in progress, and done. Kanban boards are primarily used in the Kanban methodology, but any project team can use them. 

Kanban boards were originally physical “cards” placed within handwritten columns. Team members would write each task on a sticky note and physically move it through the status columns as work progressed. Some teams still use physical boards to monitor task status.

PM Guide Kanban board

Online Kanban boards have the same basic functionality, but are more lightweight, allow for real-time access, and can be easily shared with and updated by team members.

Beyond simply displaying task status, Kanban boards can help you:

  • Limit work in progres (WIP): Having too many things going on at one time decreases productivity and creates delays. By clearly displaying the number of tasks currently in progress, Kanban boards help you limit WIP.
  • Maximize efficiency: In the Kanban methodology, efficiency is referred to as flow. Kanban boards help you identify bottlenecks so that you can address it and keep work moving smoothly and efficiently.

Learn everything you need to know about Kanban cards in our guide.

PERT charts

A program evaluation and review technique (PERT) chart is a visual tool used to map out all project tasks. Use a PERT chart to break down a project into smaller tasks, identify task dependencies, and estimate project duration.

A PERT chart is similar in function to a Gantt chart, but  is laid out differently. Rather than a straight timeline that shows tasks on a left-to-right horizontal axis, a PERT chart represents larger tasks or milestones as nodes (typically boxes or circles), connected by arrows to show dependencies. 

PM Guide PERT chart

PERT charts are most often used in projects where time, rather than cost, is the limiting resource. You can use a PERT chart to estimate how long a project will take, find areas of flexibility, and gauge where delays might occur.

Learn more about the difference between Gantt and PERT charts and how to create your own PERT chart.

Work breakdown structure

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a visual tool that breaks down a project into smaller, more manageable tasks and displays them in a hierarchy. In project management, a WBS helps to define and track individual project tasks.

To create a WBS, start with the final project deliverable or objective, and then break it down successively into smaller parts. Continue subdividing each chunk of work into more manageable pieces of work, until you are left with individual tasks, which you can then assign to team members. 

PM Guide work breakdown structure

The main benefit of a WBS is that it makes a project feel more manageable. Additionally, you can use a work breakdown structure in cost and timeline estimating, and to define repeatable processes for future projects. 

Learn more about WBS in our guide, and find free WBS templates to get started.

Visualizations

In project management, a visualization is any tool that displays project information — including schedules, roles and responsibilities, budget, and progress — in a visual format. PM visualizations include Gantt and PERT charts, infographics, dashboards, and more.

Representing project data and information in a visual way can streamline  communication with  team members and project stakeholders. Additionally, visualizations can help you identify errors, bottlenecks, or gaps in your project plan. Strong, effective visualizations show the most important data, have a clear purpose, and move from big picture to more detailed information. 

Many PM software solutions can create visualizations by connecting directly to your data. This saves time and ensures your visualizations are up to date. Learn more about designing a data dashboard in our guide.

Personal productivity tools

A personal productivity tool is any tool that you use to increase your own productivity. This could be a simple online to-do list, or more sophisticated task management software.

There is a huge variety of personal productivity tools on the market today — essentially, anything designed to help you ward off distraction can be included. 

For example, solutions range from tools that mute alerts and notifications, track your time, limit your non-work website usage, or organize your deadlines. 

You can use personal productivity tools for work or personal responsibilities, depending on your needs.

Simple PM software

Simple project management software is intended to help you manage any type of project, and should be intuitive enough that it doesn’t require training to get started.

Simple project management software will allow you to do the basics, including:

  • Share and collaborate with team members and external stakeholders
  • Track changes in real time to eliminate version control issues
  • Store project documentation to create one source of truth
  • Create detailed project plans, and schedule and assign project tasks
  • Automate tasks to reduce manual, repetitive work
  • Roll up project data into simple, shareable reports and dashboards
  • Manage resources to ensure you have the right people doing the work

Learn more and get started with simple project management software.

Project scheduling software

Project scheduling software allows you to create a detailed schedule of your project from start to finish, assign ownership, and manage deadlines.

In addition to the basic PM software capabilities, look for the following features in project scheduling software:

  • Gantt charts that enable you to easily identify the critical path
  • Notifications for upcoming deadlines, schedule changes, or status updates
  • Reporting and dashboard capabilities to showcase project progress
  • Flexibility to adjust the schedule as needed 
  • A calendar view option for a traditional way to view longer term projects
  • Integrations with other calendar tools, such as Google Calendar, to see deadlines and team member availability across apps 

Learn more about the features to look for in project scheduling software.

Project portfolio management software

The purpose of project portfolio management (PPM) software is to increase productivity by providing a single location to manage all aspects of your portfolio of projects, including project intake and prioritization, resource management, execution, and reporting.

Look for PPM software that has the following core capabilities:

  • Project intake and prioritization: Whether through a form or another mechanism, your PPM solution should enable you to consistently intake new projects to your queue. Then, it should alert you as new requests come in so you can rank and prioritize these requests to support strategic objectives and ensure you tackle the most important work first.
  • Resource management: Gain visibility into team members’ bandwidth so you can allocate resources appropriately — including capacity planning for future project needs. Ensure your PPM solution allows you to track and manage resources directly in context with your project plans.
  • Project execution: As with general PM software, your PPM solution should enable you to plan, track, and manage all aspects of your project timeline and budget in real time, to anticipate changes and avoid cost overruns.
  • Reporting: PPM-specific solutions need to provide visibility into multiple projects at once. Roll up individual project data into sophisticated reports and dashboards that give you insight into the portfolio as a whole. You should also be able to share these reports with executives and key stakeholders. 

Visit our comprehensive guide to learn more about PPM and how to choose the right software for you.

Resource management software

Resource management software helps you manage and schedule people resources in your organization. Resource management software improves productivity by ensuring that you don’t over- or under-allocate resources.

The top features for resource management software include:

  • Ability to accommodate different types of teams, schedules, and projects
  • Dashboards to surface high-level resource availability in context with project needs
  • Multiple permissions levels so team members only have access to the information they need
  • Easy time tracking for team members to log their hours worked
  • Capacity planning to allocate resources across the project pipeline
  • Reporting to surface relevant data in order to spot trends and forecast hiring needs

Learn more about resource management and find free templates in our beginner’s guide.

Task management software

Task management software is a simplified version of PM software that enables you to track individual tasks to increase personal, team, and organizational productivity. 

Look for the following features in task management software:

  • Task assignment and individualized task lists to keep work organized
  • Multiple view options so team members can view their task lists in the way that works for them
  • Automation features to easily track task status, such as color coding and notifications
  • Integrations with the tools you already use, so that you can import your tasks and stay up to date across platforms

Visit our overview page to learn more about task management software.

Workflow automation software

Workflow automation software refers to tools that automate business processes with the goal of streamlining processes, eliminating bottlenecks and process gaps, and improving efficiency within a team or organization.

The critical features of workflow automation software include:

  • If/then functionality, so you can set basic logic to trigger next-step actions within your workflow (e.g., if a box is checked as complete, then a team member will receive a notification to move onto the next step)
  • Flexibility so you can create unique processes that support the way your team or organization works
  • Low or no-code functionality so teams can implement the solution without needing the help of IT
  • Automatic notifications, reminders, and status updates to keep processes moving
  • Audit trails so you can easily investigate process delays, gaps, or bottlenecks
  • Integrations with existing tools, so you can pull data, contact information, and more into one seamless workflow solution without manual effort

Reporting features to assess both project progress and the workflows themselves

Learn more about the benefits of workflow automation and what to look for in a software solution.