Have you looked in the mirror lately and said to yourself, “I wish my life were more difficult”? I’m no fortune teller, but I’m willing to bet that thought isn’t even on your radar. Heck, it’s probably not even in the same universe as you are. If you’re a project manager, life’s stressed and frazzled enough. Which is why you need project management software features that will ease the burden and bring some order to the chaos.
No matter what situation you’re in — projects on fire because you don’t have any PM tools or merely wanting to upgrade because your current system doesn’t do enough — I have good news.
There are plenty of products that come with a host of capabilities specifically designed to improve your project workflows, team engagement and productivity. The right tool will also go a long way in helping you avoid the dread-inducing scope creep.
The goal of this article is to give you an overview of some of the top features in PM software and why having them will make your projects run smoother. Here’s what’s on tap:
- Project management software definition
- Questions to keep in mind
- Top features and their benefits
- Next steps
What Is Project Management Software?
Project management software is specific software to plan, organize and manage all aspects of a project. With these tools, project managers can:
- Track every detail related to a project
- Assign tasks to users
- Monitor performance
- Ensure teams hit deadlines
- Keep tabs on employee workload
- Include outside users to facilitate greater collaboration
- And more
In short, project management solutions are the foundation of executing a project on time, on budget and without unnecessary headaches.
Questions to Keep In Mind
Now that we’ve looked at the definition, here are a couple considerations you should take into account while combing the internet for the project management solution that will best serve you.
Does the App Cater to a Specific Type of User?
Not all PM tools are created equal. For the most part, they can serve whatever project management needs you have. And the features, which we’ll get to in a second, generally look the same no matter which vendor website you end up on.
But know that some cater to specific industries or types of project.
Jira, for example, proclaims itself as the top software tool for development teams. Because of that distinction, it includes features specific to the dev world — features like Scrum boards to track sprints.
No, they’re not training for the Olympics. In the world of software development, the Agile methodology is a common PM process. It emphasizes flexibility as teams move through the project in an iterative fashion, using “sprints” that typically last two weeks as guidelines for moving the project forward.
Like I said, most products you look at are less particular in their offerings, but knowing that differences exist will help you as you search for the right PM software for your team.
You could certainly still use Jira even if you’re not working on developing a new software product, but the project management features it has may make less sense than another tool like Zoho Projects or Monday.com.
Is the Solution Cloud-Based or On-Premise?
Given the popularity of cloud technology, this question may seem so 2009 that it doesn’t even feel relevant. That said, while most project management software lives in the cloud, some offer on-premise options. Two of the most notable in that area are Jira and Microsoft Project.
The two main differences in cloud vs on-premise software are the hosting location (captain obvious speaking) and the price structure. In most cases, cloud project management software comes with per-month pricing tiers, which often depend on how many users you need. If you buy the on-premise program, however, you’ll likely pay a one-time fee that’s significantly higher than the monthly rates, but that may make more sense if you need to include a lot of users.
Now that we have those details covered let’s get to the main event.
PM Software Features and How They Catapult Project Performance
The majority of tools come with pre-built options for various use-cases and methodologies. Say goodbye to repeatedly entering the same tasks or creating new templates from scratch and say hello to time-savings and more productivity.
Pre-built options too limiting? No worries. All the most popular vendors let you create custom project templates so you can make the program work exactly how you need it to.
This is useful since it lets you tailor each template based on individual team needs. For example, the marketing team may need fields that the dev team doesn’t and vice versa. With customization, you have full control.
Include features like notification settings, specific formatting options like row data, matrices to track performance and more. Once created, you can save the templates for repeated use.
Benefit to your team: Simplification and control. To hit deadlines and achieve goals, you need everything to be as streamlined and efficient as possible while making sure you adequately set each team up for success.
With a project management solution, you can keep all your team communication in one location. No more hopping around from email to your messaging app.
Project management software features like @mentions make it easy to collaborate among team members and make sure nothing slips through the cracks. And with #tags, you can quickly sort relevant info instead of spending time tracking down messages. Depending on the solution, you may even have access to functions like message boards, direct message threads and group chat.
This feature can be a lifesaver, especially if you’re running an in-depth project that involves numerous moving parts, deadlines and deliverables. Document management makes it easy for any user to attach files quickly, so you can keep all the project info centralized and seamlessly share important documents with your team.
Does your team have a favorite cloud tool for file storage? The majority of project management software integrates with applications like OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox and Box. Some use built-in integration, while others need third-party plugins.
Take collaboration to the next level with guest accounts. Administrators can provide access for external stakeholders, as well as invite clients, vendors, freelancers or outside consultants to participate in the project. In most cases, you can customize the privileges, such as restricting guests to a “view only” mode or only sharing public boards to maintain the security of information stored on private boards.
The options available vary by provider, so if including outside users is a top requirement, know exactly which features are available and which aren’t.
For example, Airtable allows access via link sharing, so guests can access a form customized to only display fields the user wants to show. And with Asana, you can share specific tasks or projects without granting permission to see the entire workspace. Guests can add, edit, assign and follow tasks in the project, as well as invite other members.
Say you have a complex project that requires multiple teams. That’s where user groups come in handy. Make sure everyone’s on the same page and can easily interact with their team or other teams working on the project.
The ability to create user groups is a common project management software feature, but each program implements the idea a bit differently. Besides assigning roles and tasks, you can generally configure each group’s access privileges.
Benefit to your team: Collaboration tools foster an environment where your team can thrive. Employees that feel like they’re part of a larger effort are more motivated, and according to one study, 97 percent of employees and executives think having no alignment plays a central role in a task or project’s outcome.
Collaboration tools also facilitate easy communication, and as anyone who’s worked on a project knows, the road to project hell is paved with poor communication (to paraphrase Stephen King).
Finally, you’ll have seamless collaboration with outside resources and stakeholders to ensure every contributor can access and impact the project from start to finish. And on the team level, defined groups will bring clarity and accountability.
Plans and Schedules
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Well, a project without a plan is a set of goals you won’t be able to complete. The first step on the road to project success is to create a plan. Luckily, PM tools do a fantastic job helping you lay out your destination and every step along the way.
The function of choice is a Gantt chart, where users can manage milestones, events, task dates and task dependencies. Some products use different terminology and layouts to accomplish the same thing. In Monday.com and Asana, Timelines replace Gantt charts, while other programs incorporate calendars that can overlay or sync with external calendar apps such as Google Calendar.
With a plan sketched out, you can schedule every phase to keep your team on track. Schedules are to a project what the white and yellow road lines are to driving: they keep everything flowing and provide guidelines for steering the project toward successful completion.
Benefit to your team: First, you’ll have a comprehensive framework for executing your project, no matter how complex. Second, once the plan is in place, everyone can visualize deadlines, edit dates and reminders, and track milestones. The result? A complete view of each detail involved that keeps everyone on the same page.
Much the same as project templates, using PM software gives you a range of pre-built templates for your reports. A variety of out-of-the-box options enable you to track various KPIs and project parameters ranging from status and priority to burndown charts and utilization reports.
And don’t worry — they won’t remain trapped in your PM program. Download and export features let you store the reports the way you need. For example, Smartsheet users can directly download any pre-built template as an Excel file with all the info pre-populated.
You also have flexibility with custom reports. Filter the parameters that you care about and design your report to share with your team and stakeholders. Some programs let you customize the reports in the format you desire. And a few place a high emphasis on usability.
Mavenlink Pro, for instance, has an intuitive interface that lets users create custom reports by accessing the “Insights” tab, then clicking on the “Custom Reports” tab to generate the report. And Monday.com supports smooth customization that doesn’t require any technical background.
Benefit to your team: Reports give you an exact view of the project’s performance at any given time. Get a bird’s-eye view of progress and keep tabs on individual users. Using these real-time insights, you can make adjustments to ensure the project stays on track.
Budgets. Those elusive creatures that are so often the bane of projects. And yet, staying under budget is a vital metric for determining whether a project is successful. Doesn’t seem quite fair.
Project management tools can help. It feels like a catch-22 — managing costs is a constant problem, yet hitting those budget goals is critical. You can’t afford to be in the dark when it comes to the financial state of your project.
On the whole, apps incorporate at least basic budgeting functions, and if they don’t, they’ll often support integrations and plugins to give you more control. Either way, a budgeting solution lets you set a realistic budget and provides insights into expenses, invoices and other costs.
Benefit to your team: Budget data helps you make informed decisions throughout the project so you can stay on top of the costs before they spiral out of control. And a complete view of projected and actual expenses helps you calculate profits.
Another advantage is that tracking your budget patterns across various projects will help you estimate future project timelines and budgets. If you know you spent $1,000 on content and design work for your last advertising promotion, you can plan accordingly for the next one.
Task Management with Cards and Charts and Boards (Oh My!)
Part of the appeal of project management software is the intuitive organization, possible thanks to various user-friendly layouts. Instead of cramming info into a document or spreadsheet, PM tools offer a variety of visually appealing formats to help you monitor and manage the plethora of tasks attached to a given project.
If you need to rearrange some details and create task dependencies to visualize how everything fits together, drag-and-drop features let you do so without frustration.
Here are a few of the most common project management software features:
- Gantt charts: Want a 360-degree view of the project? This is the place to go. See which tasks in the project are related thanks to features like color coding, get the full picture of the timeline, highlight overdue items, track completion percentage and more. Gantt charts are also handy for seeing and editing task dependencies.
- Scrum boards: A feature more particular to software that caters to developer teams, Scrum boards divide a project into three phases: to-do, in progress and done. The Scrum framework focuses on sprints, which have a defined start and end date. With that in mind, Scrum boards help teams organize their tasks based on the sprint timeframe.
- Kanban boards: Technically a tool from the Agile project management side of things, Kanban boards let you lay out specific project details in a user-friendly format using cards and columns. After you create a board for a particular project, arrange columns to denote each stage of the process and create cards to represent individual tasks.
At first glance, the differences between Scrum and Kanban may not be obvious. But the two methods do have differences. Knowing what they are will help you select which approach is better suited for your team.
Benefit to your team: Before project management software, keeping track of every detail was akin to planning a trip around the world with all the in-laws. Chaotic. Emails here, docs there, timelines and tasks bouncing around. The result? Missed deadlines, confusion on who’s responsible for what, stress galore … the list goes on.
The beauty of project management tools is that they bring organization to the chaos. No more searching high and low for information. No more mountain of emails to scale. Manage every task and subtask using a variety of layout options and functions.
We already touched on file storage integrations, but the best project management software doesn’t stop there. What kind of integrations are we talking about? Think CRM, email, source code repositories like Github and identity management systems.
Typically, you’ll use an integration vendor, connector or third-party plugin to accomplish your integrations. When it comes to email, Zapier is a favorite tool used by products like Basecamp and Airtable. Other products facilitate direct integration with email clients including Gmail and Outlook.
On the CRM side, Salesforce stands out as a top integration option, though some vendors like Zoho have their own CRM that syncs with their project management software. On the other hand, Monday.com acts as a CRM in itself by letting users track prospects and clients as a to-do list and also by managing customer interactions with an intuitive and visual interface (though it also supports CRM systems through Zapier).
Source Code Repository Integration
Another common integration is with source code repositories, which is a fancy way of saying you can attach branches, issues and pull requests to the cards or tasks in your program and then view the status of pull requests.
Identity Management System Integration
With identity management system integration, your team will be able to sign into your PM application with their corporate credentials and enjoy single-sign-on (SSO) capabilities. Streamline access, ensure the right people have the proper permission level and keep your logins secure.
Benefit to your team: Your project no longer exists as an island, disconnected from other business platforms. You’ll have greater visibility and transparency into how your projects fit into the larger ecosystem of your business without needing to navigate among a host of apps.
Dashboards act as the mission control for your project. Assimilate all your relevant information into a visual, summarized format. Not only will this let you keep your finger on the pulse of the project in one location, but senior management will also have a window into all projects, resources allocated, real-time updates and in-depth view of critical metrics.
Benefit to your team: Dashboards make it easy to get an at-a-glance overview of your projects, pipeline and statuses. Because when you don’t have to get bogged down in the details, you’ll be free to focus your efforts on running a smooth project.
Another great feature of project management tools is the ability to customize your workflows, so the program serves your needs better. Typically, PM software comes with pre-built workflows but makes it easy to modify the activities to fit your needs.
You can define rules that trigger automatic actions in response to an activity. For example, send an email notification every time a task status updates or someone progresses a card to the next column in the process.
Benefit to your team: Streamlined processes, heightened access to information, automated actions, control over the process — it’s a pretty exhaustive list. Bottom line: you’ll be able to structure your workflow to ensure everyone is as efficient as possible.
If your project involves the production of a physical product, you’ll need to manage other necessary supplies like materials and equipment. By detailing the required resources at the outset, you can effectively manage what your team needs as well as identify overuse or shortages of particular resources.
And by managing your people “resources” (aka your team), you stay on top of who has time to spare, who’s fully occupied and who’s getting buried in their tasks.
To illustrate, say one team member who’s a UI engineer— Kelly — has had more hours than she can handle for the past two weeks. Her performance has dropped, and she’s falling behind on deadlines.
Your chart lets you identify that Ian only has 25 hours of work on his plate this week and can afford to take the excess load. Now Kelly’s free to hammer through her task list, and Ian can fill the gap to make sure the team sticks to the project timelines.
Benefit to your team: With a project management solution, it’s easy to keep track of the health of your team, make sure no one is on the verge of burnout and ensure everyone performs at the top of their game. And by tracking other resources, you can make sure your team’s always equipped with the necessary materials and tools to get the job done.
Where Do You Go From Here?
Whew, that was quite the list, and we didn’t even cover every feature the typical project management software includes.
Now you have a framework for understanding some of the essential functions and how they can make your teams more productive and your projects more efficient. Project management tools come packed with capabilities and customizations that will make the software work for you, not the other way around.
If you’re wondering what your next steps should be, we have you covered. Get a head start on your selection process by grabbing our requirements template, which will help you sort through the countless options available and narrow down your list based on your individual needs. And product demos are useful in seeing the program in action.
Once you have a shortlist, look into free trial options. Reading a bunch of facts or seeing the software in action is nice, but to truly test the functionality and fit of a product, you’ll need to use it firsthand. Many vendors offer a free trial period so you can take the software for a test drive and see if it meets your needs.
Because with the right software, you’ll save hours and have the tools you need to keep every project on schedule, on budget, efficient and productive.
Which project management features would be the most helpful to you? Leave your thoughts in the comments!