If you are a freelancer, or you work in a very small team, it might be difficult to find tools to manage your projects effectively.
This is even more difficult if you often work on multiple projects at the same time.
Sure, if you check Capterra or Google to find Project Management Software, you will easily find 700+ tools (!). However, when I looked at the top ones, they ended up in one of three types I wanted to avoid.
They were either way too complicated, or, ironically too simplistic (basically To Do lists), or whole Business Management Software (CRM or ERP). The latter would include proposals, invoicing, accounting or CRM and marketing functions.
These are nice features, but if you can do more, it does not mean you can do less better than other solutions.
What did I need to manage tasks and clients?
Our small team is really like a group of freelancers. We all have our expertise. We provide services to clients as a team, even though any of us may act as the primary contact to any client.
I already had tools for proposals and accounting. This is why solutions including quoting or invoicing were not necessarily attractive to me.
My difficulties were with emails, files from clients, and how to track them within specific projects.
On the other hand, how to deal with multiple projects, possibly multiple clients at the same time, without dropping tasks.
More specifically, a tricky aspect of project management in Agile teams like ours, is managing shifting priorities.
Let me explore each aspect of these challenges, and what solution I found.
Many project management and task management systems ignore the importance of emails. Emails are supposed to be “passe”. Reality is, most corporations use emails all the time, and so are our clients.
More importantly, they use emails to tell us what they need and send critical files and documents.
I needed a way to track all these emails for active projects.
Outlook is fine, of course, but it is difficult to organize emails per project. Even if you do, there is no way to do the next critical step : attach tasks to them.
Well, I know Outlook evolved and with other Microsoft tools, it is now easier to do than before.
But I needed a tool that looked at emails completely differently.
Emails for us, are really input documents and references for the entire team. They need to be part of the project, not the other way around (project part of the email). Also, the ideal tool makes emails in projects visible to everyone in the team, in case they are assigned a task specific to that email.
Once emails are really part of the project, like any other document, file or task, I can easily see the history and progression of communication, for each project, separately. Bottom line, emails are very important in our case, this is why any tool we use for project management must handle emails as first class citizens.
There are many project management software, and they often believe you have to be a certain way. If you manage projects, you absolutely need Gantt charts or Kanban cards.
I always found this really strange. In my job as a freelancer or in a team of highly skilled workers, the last thing we wanted to deal with are Gantt charts.
These charts give you the illusion of control. After all, it is nice to see dependencies between tasks, a kind of sequence, critical path, etc. But it was an illusion in our case, because we often worked on multiple projects in parallel.
Gantt charts are really, really, really bad at dealing with multiple projects. You can try to make projects task-like, and mix dependencies. Really, it does not work. As soon as a priority change, for one of these projects, the entire chart is worthless.
Kanban is a bit better. Kanban cards ignore dependencies, so they are easier to schedule. They work great for a team as well. However, they do nothing to address working on multiple independent projects at the same time.
The visual aspect of project management, for our use case, is really pointless. Forget graphs, charts and cards.
What worked for us, almost immediately, was to let go the complexity of Gantt or the visual appeal of Kanban.
Instead, we use simple lists. In real life, this is what I see for our clients as well. They often use excel to track multiple projects.
The beauty with lists, everyone understand them.
They are easy to manipulate, to track status, to follow up. And they are also beautifully addictive.
This is why so many people, including clients, just use Excel. We wanted, and needed something better though.
We now use a tool that track tasks and projects as simple lists. But those lists are smart. The system can reorder tasks easily. More importantly, managing multiple projects is the same as having a list of lists. Therefore, we can also reorder this list and affect priorities for all tasks.
Each freelancer has a list of its own tasks, for the day. It is all about these smart lists. It is like having a super smart Excel, mostly managed on your behalf, by the AI project manager (Sam).
This was my goal : focus on my job, not on project management. Even though project management is unavoidable, for productivity and efficiency, it does not have to be a burden and a distraction.
I do not use a tool that forces me to work on charts or Kanban cards. I use a tool that allows me to know what to do next, despite working with a remote team on multiple projects at the same time.
Files, files, files
With emails and tasks under control, as a group, we still had a problem with files and documents.
We already treated emails as documents. This also took care of email attachments, neatly and automatically filed in the right project by the AI tool.
However, clients often need to send us files too big for emails, and so do we.
Sharing files with them was not too difficult. There are many options like Google drive, Microsoft one drive, not to mention Dropbox.
These come with drawbacks though. They are disconnected from our project management system. It is difficult to track what we shared, for which project, and when. Ideally, I also needed to disable or expire a share easily, again, from within project management.
This history is important. Knowing what you shared and when with clients is really useful. Further, it is also very helpful for the entire team (including remote freelancers) to see these files and documents.
Local workers can easily access our network drives, but not so remote workers.
Once we moved to a cloud based task management, including file sharing, everyone can see the same thing at the same time, from anywhere.
Even more challenging is receiving large files from clients.
They often use their own file sharing system. This is a problem, actually. Every client has a different one, and they often are cumbersome to work with. At one point we needed to create many accounts with all these providers (dropbox, google etc..), for many members of our team. It was getting a bit ridiculous.
Instead, I wanted, as part of our task management system, a way, for all our clients, to easily send us large files. Now, with the new system, they have a special web link they use to upload files. Clients absolutely do not need to register anywhere, in any tool, or install anything. They just go to a web address we give them, specifically for their project, and follow instructions to select and upload their file. This supports GB size files, without problems, and with cloud speed uploads.
Even better, we receive files as a team, in some sort of inbox in the project management tool.
Anyone in the team can accept or reject the new upload. As soon as accepted, it goes directly in the right project, within the file history for everyone to use when needed.
Clients love it, and we love it. win-win.
Find the best tool for what you struggle with
It is all about productivity, not what others are using. In your search to improve how to manage your business, you should focus on what you are struggling with, not generic answers that look good.
Also, you should make sure the tool will add as little as possible to your workload.
Your job is not to manage a ton of tools. They should make your life easier, truly.
In my experience, it is often better to avoid tools trying to do too many things. You see this all the time.
Maybe when they started they did a couple of things very well. Now, it is a confusing mess of too many functions.
Instead, think about using a few specialized tools. Each should do several things well, but not too many. It is useful to have more functionality in each tool, lowering the total number of software you need. It is easier to master them all, and it costs less.
For example, try to combine proposals with invoicing, and accounting if possible.
Use a chat collaboration tool for your team if you have to. Although, in our experience, we are able to minimize project chats, since our project tool make them redundant, mostly, thanks to task delegation, history and project logs.
So, use a project management or task management, try to combine it with document management if possible.
In our case, we use SAM9000 since early access. Learn more about it here.