How To Pick The Right Project Planning Software, Tool or App For Your Project

By Kate Eby | October 17, 2018

Every project needs a plan, and every plan relies on a solid roadmap to guide the work. However, much of the planning process can get mired in repetitive tasks and manual data gathering. This article is your guide to the range of tools that project planners use — from creating diagrams to writing documentation and organizing tasks. Use our free checklist to identify the features that you need for your project and for your organization.

What Are Project Planning Tools?

Project planning is the heart of a project’s life cycle. A successful plan maps out what you will do, who will do it, when they will do it, and how much it will cost. Project planning requires a diverse set of skills and the right set of tools. Here are some of the main categories of project planning tools.

  • Network Diagram: A network diagram maps out how activities in a project are connected. Project planners use it to show the order of tasks and any project dependencies.

  • Critical Path Method (CPM): The critical path method is a step-by-step technique that identifies the critical tasks of a project and how long they will take. If these tasks take longer than projected, the entire project is at risk of not being completed on time.

  • Program (or Project) Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT): A PERT chart is a version of a network diagram that organizes, coordinates, and schedules project tasks.

  • Gantt Chart: A Gantt chart displays project tasks in a timeline and depicts the schedule using color-coded bar charts.

  • Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): A work breakdown structure divides deliverables into manageable tasks and activities that project planners use to create schedules and cost estimates.

  • Product Breakdown Structure (PBS): A project breakdown structure takes a different approach than the WBS, as it divides the project into the parts you need to complete the work.

  • Project Documentation: While planning your project, you will create all kinds of documents, charts, and narratives that provide the details for implementing the work. These documents can include the project charter, baseline plans, and requirement lists.

  • Logic Network: A logic network diagram shows the sequence of activities, and can help project planners identify the critical path and project dependencies.

  • Writing Tools: Reports, plans, and other documentation rely on text documents that describe the work.

  • Spreadsheet Tools: Spreadsheets are used in a variety of ways in project planning, from managing budgets to monitoring work breakdown structures.

  • Chart Makers: While words and spreadsheets can depict many elements of your project, visual displays (such as infographics, bar graphs, and pie charts) can give your team and stakeholders a clear, at-a-glance picture of the project.

  • Visual Collaboration Tools: Sticky notes and whiteboards are basic tools that allow your team to collaborate in project planning. Using online tools, your team can work together virtually as you brainstorm and plan your project.

  • Knowledge Management Tools: Your team needs a place to store and share the assets that they collect to plan the project.

  • Resource Planning Tools: As you schedule, plan, and manage your project, you will want specialized tools to track your budget, materials, staffing, and time.

Each of these kinds of tools can be used individually to create a series of text documents, spreadsheets, and charts. But robust software systems that integrate planning, scheduling, and tracking make your project planning easier.

What’s the Difference between Project Planning and Project Management?

According to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), project planning is the second part of project management. Project planning defines the scope of your project, the deliverables and tasks, the schedule, resources, and performance measures. The success of your project depends on how well you create a plan for the project. The plan is your detailed, step-by-step guide to accomplishing your goals. Since project planning is part of project management, many software systems include planning tools as part of a complete project management solution.

Who Needs Project Planning Tools?

Whether you’re planning a wedding or building an office complex, you’ll rely on project tools for personal or business use. From simple spreadsheets that track RSVPs to complex diagrams that show the critical path in construction, every project depends on planning and tracking tools to ensure success. Unique industries like software, construction, marketing, and professional services have tools tailored to their work to help with project planning.

The easiest way to plan your project is with online software. While many software systems include a complete project management solution, they also provide dedicated planning tools such as Gantt chart software and online collaboration. As a bonus, software isn’t limited to a particular project methodology. Whether you’re working in Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, or Kanban, software can help you plan, track issues, and collaborate.

What Are the Benefits of Project Planning Tools and Software?

Gone are the days when project planning required stacks of paper, folders, and hand-drawn charts cluttering your desk. Software lets you plan a project from start to finish, setting benchmarks for your scope, timeline, and budget. A secure system allows you to do the following:

  • Manage all the project planning steps with a combination of tools integrated into the software system

  • Use templates to create your project documentation

  • Track your project’s status and productivity in real time

  • Store all your documents in a central repository

  • Group related tasks in a shared project workspace

  • Use dashboards for a real-time snapshot of your project’s tasks, events, and progress

  • Comment on tasks

  • See real-time updates that keep your project in context

  • Reduce costs by standardizing and tracking expenses in a unified system across departments

  • Give everyone the access they need to the project’s data from a central repository

  • Assign tasks to team members and track their progress

  • Avoid unnecessary administrative work, such as status meetings and communicating by email for documents, updates, and approvals

  • Track billing and hours, and send invoices using templates available in the system

  • Use project data for future projects, estimating schedules, hours, and budgets

What Tools Do Project Managers Use?

A project manager’s most vital role is to bring value to the company through successful completion of any project. Tools help a manager organize information and communicate clearly to team members and stakeholders. Below is a breakdown of the tools a project manager needs.

Writing Tools

Words, whether on a screen or a piece of paper, are the foundation of any project plan. The writing tool you use for all the documents in your project plan should be able to do the following:

  • Provide simple formatting tools

  • Offer an outline view

  • Check spelling and grammar

  • Offer copy and paste functionality

  • Provide templates with standard headers and footers

  • Have naming conventions that help you identify documents with important details (such as project ID and client name)

  • Export and import into other tools in the software platform

  • Offer the ability to save the document

  • Offer the ability to share the document with secure links

  • Provide version control capabilities for editing and revision

  • Manage notes and comments

Spreadsheet Tools

Spreadsheets let you organize, analyze, and store data in a tabular form. Since spreadsheets are flexible and expandable, you can format data as needed. Spreadsheets are a handy tool for creating budgets for each deliverable of a project and developing the cost baseline. They can be customized to highlight plan project tasks, list the start and finish date, and show the percentage of the task that has been completed.

Chart Making Tools

Words and numbers don’t convey the full scope of a project. Visuals are ideal for depicting complex data and processes, including the network or logic diagrams, PERT or Gantt charts, a work or product breakdown structure, and other graphics that illustrate the tasks, workflow, schedules, and dependencies.

Diagrams and illustrations can depict the following:

  • The start and end dates

  • The overall project schedule

  • Each task for every deliverable

  • The arrangement of tasks and their dependencies

  • Critical path tasks

Visual Collaboration Tools

The best project planning happens with a team. Ask questions, brainstorm ideas, and get others’ buy-in as you map out your process and planning. Online visual collaboration tools go far beyond whiteboards or sticky notes on a wall. Collaboration software, such as a Kanban board, provides a visual method to organize activities, while other visual tools bring your team’s creativity to life. Whether you’re using mobile technology that puts data and video on a multitude of small screens or software that integrates rich media content with static graphics, collaboration goes far beyond video conferencing or those conference room meetings.

Knowledge Management Tools

Project planners need a system to gather, store, and share research and assets. What’s more, it’s imperative to have easy access to the institutional knowledge that can help guide a project. Knowledge bases, customer relationship systems, and even FAQs are included in this set of tools. Knowledge is power, and efficient knowledge management tools give you a strategic advantage.

Resource Planning Tools

These tools help you identify and estimate every resource (people, costs, equipment, materials, facilities, etc.) and ensure that you have the right resources when needed. Software gives you real-time updates on the resources available in your company and the status of potential vendors and subcontractors.

Resource planning tools can help you identify the following:

  • Key resources

  • Team member availability

  • Budgeting

  • Project constraints

  • Task dependencies

Task Management Tools

A work breakdown structure or network diagram documents all the tasks and subtasks for a project. You can easily break down these tasks into an activity list. Alternatively, software tools can help you develop full tasks lists that you can organize, structure, and group. Once those details are mapped out, you can assign people to the tasks. These tools meet basic business need in managing the team’s progress, workload, assignments, and milestones. Some tools even include time tracking, timesheets, and invoices.

Want to go beyond flat task lists? Consider building mind maps. At the center of the map is the key task for the day or for the project. From there, draw branches with the subtasks, activities, deadlines, or other elements you need to complete the key task. You’ll notice relationships among certain branches that you can connect with lines or arrows. When complete, the map will provide a clear picture of the project’s priorities and dependencies.

Project and Task Collaboration Tools

When creating and organizing tasks, you’ll need feedback from your team and stakeholders to ensure you haven’t overlooked anything. This kind of collaboration keeps everyone engaged and on track. Basic collaboration tools include discussion boards, direct messaging, screen-sharing, and video conferencing.

Scheduling Tools

The project schedule communicates the tasks that need to be completed, which resources are allocated to the work, and the timeframe for each task; all of this data rolls up into the overall schedule. Use online tools to help create the project schedule, set due dates, and track completion. Other scheduling tools include a team calendar that provides real-time access to workload, vacations, and staffing resources. These tools can show you all the deadlines and the total elapsed time on the project, as well as costs and other dependencies.

Risk Identification Tools

Project planners are charged with identifying any risks to the project or product. They have to consider the probability of those risks and prioritize the potential impact. And, of course, once the key risks are identified, planners have to devise ways to prevent them. Many of the techniques planners use to identify risks, such as stakeholder interviews or performing a SWOT analysis, can be simplified by using online templates. Software can analyze data efficiently and effectively, helping you identify, evaluate, and prioritize risks. Some project planning software also feature risk registers, risk assessments, and calculators that you can customize for your project and budget.

What Tools, Software and Apps Are Right for You?

With so many tools and techniques, you want to find the best fit for you and your organization. When making the selection, consider your organization’s needs, structure, budget, and staffing to find the best solution. Below is a discussion of the characteristics of each tool, software, and app to evaluate.

Team Characteristics

Identify the needs of your team. How many people need access to the platform? Can the software give everyone the bandwidth and access they require? How do you set permissions for the project planner, team members, or staff in other departments? Are there external users or customers who need access to the software and tools? Identify who will be assigning and sorting tasks and ensure that the software gives the right people access at the right time. Consider whether you will be working in Agile, Scrum, or Waterfall. Some software platforms are better at handling one methodology over another. Also, understand your team’s communication and collaboration style. What kinds of online tools will make the work seamless?


Software costs depend on a range of variables. Before spending money on a new system, see what free tools are available, especially if you are in a small organization or team of fewer than five people. Many programs let you upgrade through a “freemium” approach. Some software is free, and additional services or features can be added for a price. Ask whether you pay per feature or per user, or, as with some programs, you pay a set price for a number of “seats.” Evaluate what is included in product tiers.

Project Tracking and Reporting

The heart of project planning is establishing baselines for scope, schedule, and cost. Software helps you create these baselines and then track a project’s progress. Customizable calendars and dashboards provide real-time updates on schedules and tasks. Alerts can automate sending project updates and are useful for monitoring progress. Some software also allows you to structure and filter activities by work product or team member, and offer feedback and commenting options.

Consider a package that lets you easily import and export data into reports. Software should have the ability to export into a number of formats, including PDFs, text documents, and spreadsheets. Explore what tools they use to track time, billable hours, invoicing, and reporting.

Software Installation and Ease of Use

Software offers several options: You may want to buy and host software and servers on-premises — this option gives you total control, but also requires that your organization provide the software expertise and IT staffing to support the programs and updates. You may consider Software as a Service (SaaS) options, which host the software and data in the cloud through a third party that manages hosting and updates. A SaaS solution is less expensive than installing an on-premises system, and provides your team with access from any desktop or mobile device with an internet connection. Once everyone has access to the source of project information, an SaaS system encourages collaboration and participation by team members.

You may also consider mobile apps rather than full SaaS services. Apps (short for web applications) perform specific functions rather than a full suite of services. These solutions may feature milestones and task lists, messaging or other collaboration tools, and document storage and management. They also integrate with other apps and popular tools to provide customization capabilities.

When you’re reviewing software, consider the following:

  • How transparent is the company about the product roadmap and the new functionality it is building?

  • How frequently does the company issue releases and software updates?

  • How easy is the software installation and set-up?

  • Do you have access to the code from the vendor or an open-source code repository?

  • Is the program compatible with Windows, OSX and Linux?

  • What type of support does it offer?

Training and Customer Support

Research how easy it is to learn any software system or app and where to go if you have questions. Some systems have responsive customer service programs with online chat, phone support, and robust ticketing for submitting software issues. Learn the ways you can offer feedback and make suggestions about future improvements to the software.

When implementing a new system, everyone needs to learn to use it with the least amount of disruption to the organization and workflow. Beyond reaching out to customer support for asking immediate questions, find out how you will learn the ins and outs of the program, what kind of training is included (such as tutorials, in-person training or online courses, or a knowledge base for users to share information).

What Project Planning Software Do Successful Companies Use?

The most successful companies know how to pick the right tools for the right job. As a best practice, identify and rank the core functions of your company and find the tools that support your priorities. Use this checklist as a starting point to create a list of tools.


Project Planning Tool Checklist

Download Project Planning Tools Checklist

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