The Project Management Debate

After following the crowds and signing up to Basecamp to run our in house and client projects we soon found its limitations. Whilst it was good for the basic running of project milestones and task lists, we found that a poor toolset for resource allocation and changing job timeframes on the fly was inhibiting us. If it takes 15 minutes to administer the project management change, then why use it? The tool is there to help, not add another layer of work and confusion.


So we went round the houses looking at all and sundry in the project management world. We tried all the basecamp extensions to add that extra layer of functionality and ease we were looking for. The closest we came was with PPM Roadmap, which put on a slick layer of resource utilisation, gantt charting and click and drag job hour and milestone changes. However we found it to have a clunky unintuitive interface, even after their big Gantt chart update, just didn’t cut it, and so we moved on.


So we went back to basics. What do we want? As a must have we want a system that can:

  • Act as a CRM – introduce leads, respond to leads with recorded comms (from us and client) and give an indication of where the potential client is in the service life cycle
  • Easily manage projects – In its simplest form we wanted to be able to transfer converted leads into projects, easily load task and milestone templates, invite clients to collaborate through the system (great for managing expectations and being transparent on workflows) that told us what needed to be done by when
  • Manage resource allocation – there is nothing quite as wasteful in my head as wasted time (ho ho ho, they ain’t making any more of it) so above all else we wanted to make sure we were busy for as much billable time as possible.
  • Map critical paths – we want to know where our dependencies are up to, when we are coming online so that we don’t waste time or effort and can plan ahead
  • Invoicing – we would like to be be able to record billable hours and then feed this into a month end invoice to be sent to the client
  • Calendars sync – across the whole business we want to see who has what on which day, when milestones need to be hit and when meetings are taking place
  • Communication – to be able to chat about projects freely and easily (recorded)

Now we are cooking, so what application does this well? You have some very good value options that we looked at including Zoho but I wasn’t keen on the user interface, the level of support and the billing of micro additions confused me, so guess what, we scrapped them. We then looked at some more focused creative agency setups such as Streamtime which has been heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread. We found the issue here is that it just wasn’t intuitive enough and it felt like it was going to take 3 months to learn. In fairness this could still be the best thing since sliced bread but we just felt it was too much like hard work to get to know, and we couldn’t find the time to devote to it that was required.


This isn’t really about what was wrong with every other system but how, in my mind, there isn’t one system that just works beautifully, there is always a need to just bridge the gap between many to get what you want. I suppose it’s like everything in life, there are small shops that sell one type of product really well or one boutique restaurant that does one dish amazingly well. So we decided to use what we had to make it work as best we could for us. We are now 3 months in with probably 30-50hrs of research time employed.


So what are we doing:

1. We use Highrise (37signals suite) to manage our leads from contact to client (with recorded comms during this process)

2. We create projects in Basecamp with to-dos and milestone. We also add the client to the project so they can see what we are doing and what we need from them. All email comms are recorded throughout the process in basecamp

3. We use a couple of real whiteboards (not virtual ones) in the office. One contains all live projects with the milestones that we are currently at, this helps quickly visualise where we are at as a company, and where we need to allocate more work. The other whiteboard is a person orientated task board, including what’s being done today and what is pending to be done. At the beginning of each week we have a 10 min quick fire session where everyone lists what they need to accomplish in the week and then colour coded sticky notes (for each service and including internal jobs) are placed on the board under their name. We even put the completed jobs on the poster board next to each of us so we can assess what we have achieved each week, its nice to se a big pile of tasks completed at the end of the week.highrise
4. We use Xero for our invoicing and accounting which is a brilliant program, we create quick and easy invoices form the Basecamp client time allocation records (which take 2 mins) at the end of each month. Xero syncs nicely with our bank for reconciliation and it has great cash flow, profit and loss and forecasting tools.


5. We use Google calendars to sync all our calendars. We share the Basecamp and Highrise feed with all our company Google account calendars calendars and then share these calendars internally. We are now at the point where we use Google calendars to do meetings, holidays and day to day bookings and the Basecamp feed shows the milestones. Don’t sync to dos on your Google calendars as it turns it into a jumbled mess of activity that cant be deciphered.


6. And lastly how do we communicate to each other. Firstly we talk, not continuously, but each Monday morning we have a 10 minute chat and task list, and at the end of the week on the Friday we assess what’s been done and how well we worked across the projects. Once a month we have a sit down for an hour to discuss internal procedures, our marketing material and look at our finances/forecasting/pipeline. We use Skype to talk or send each other bits of info and anything client or internal project related will be relayed though the Basecamp project message system via email.


I’m sure as we grow this will change but that’s what’s working for us right now.