Best Practices

What to Look for in Project Management Software?

Jonathan Friedman
June 29, 2020
What to Look for in Project Management Software?

Organizations today use multiple tools for specific purposes to manage complex projects. This means there is no enterprise-wide single source of truth that enables strategic planning and efficient execution when it comes to project management. Rather, it’s left to program managers and project managers to scramble together reports and statuses to keep leadership in the loop and teams aligned. Even then, human error persists. That is, until TrueNxus.

With no single source of truth, strategic thinking becomes cumbersome because it’s difficult to see how projects are being executed against their original plans. This leads to a lack of transparency and accountability, which hurts productivity, efficiency, and organizations’ bottom lines. 

The reason organizations do this is because every project management software on the market today was built for a specific type of organization or project. Essentially, they’re forced to use multiple tools for specific purposes because there isn’t one integrated system that can meet all of their unique needs, causing extreme inefficiency for all project stakeholders.

With a background in management consulting and experience in managing hundreds of projects ranging in size and complexity across multiple domains and industries, the following is a framework I’ve created to help organizations think about their project management needs and current platforms out there so they can find that ‘just right’ goldilocks solution. That way they can spend more time delivering their projects, less time managing them, and ensure projects are executed efficiently. 

How to think about the best project management software

Project management can be a messy business. The way an organization manages and executes projects can vary greatly depending on its size, business units, and how it operates. Not to mention there are different project management methodologies. This makes it especially tricky for organizations to figure out what is the best project management software to leverage for their specific needs. 

To simplify this, TrueNxus developed the Project Management Solution Matrix to give organizations a framework for how to think about selecting the best project management software so they can make better decisions and choose the right platform for their business.

Framework for how to think about selecting a project management solution

At the highest level, this framework breaks down project management software across two main drivers: Planning & Execution and Working Together. 

Both can then be broken down into two types:

Planning & Execution:

  1. Strategic: Long-term. Focused on projects and requires strategic decision making, and coordinated actions across an organization.
  2. Tactical: Short-term. Focused on tasks and small activities executed by a small team or group of people

Working Together:

  1. Collaboration: Let’s create something new. Dense interdependent connections, high trust. Collective resources. Power is shared between teams and organizations. Commitment and accountability to the network first, then community and parent organization.
  2. Coordination: Let’s achieve a common activity or task. Structured communication flows. Power remains with the parent entity. Commitment and accountability are at the parent entity

This framework gives organizations a holistic view of the best project management software and helps them see where their project management needs fall in the matrix so they can determine which tools and applications would be the best fit for them. This is especially useful as organizations’ teams and businesses mature in project complexity, with the need to scale cross-functional and cross-business units and evaluate new solutions.

Understanding your organization’s project management software needs

Depending on the organizational structure and needs, a different project management solution is needed

The four quadrants in this framework represent the different needs of organizations and the capabilities of solutions today when it comes to project management. 

Here’s a breakdown of each quadrant:

  1. The Question mark (tactical and coordinated): software in this quadrant are “question marks” because they are extremely flexible but only practical for a few people or if there is one central project manager coordinating across teams and business units. 

            Takeaway: The tools in this quadrant are great for ad hoc task management.

  1. The Machine (tactical and collaborative): software here are extremely efficient for small intra-department teams and are like “machines” when it comes to repeatable task management. 

            Takeaway: The tools in this quadrant are great for small teams with repeatable tasks.

  1. The Ladder (strategic and coordinated): software in this quadrant are like “ladders” in that they require hierarchical command and control within a centralized organization. These tools have robust reporting capabilities but are extremely inflexible for domains (i.e., finance, operations) outside of IT. 

            Takeaway: The tools in this quadrant are only right for IT departments.

  1. The Star (strategic and collaborative): software here are “stars” because they are the most pragmatic solutions in matrixed organizations. They are flexible enough to be used in both centralized and decentralized organizational structures and are scalable for intra-department and enterprise-wide projects. 

            Takeaway: The tools in this quadrant are perfect for complex cross-functional projects.

Using this framework as a backdrop for understanding the different capabilities of project management solutions, there aren’t any options on the market currently that fit into The Star quadrant. The other three quadrants require a specific organizational structure for the company, department, or the team to be successful in planning and executing projects.

The growing pains of project management software

As an organization or a team starts tackling more complex projects, they all follow the same sequence in trying to either create a custom tool internally or leverage a project management system in the marketplace today. 

As organizations grow, they all eventually need a project management software that works in matrixed organizations

Every organization or team begins with a “question mark”

All organizations or teams begin projects by creating a list of tasks they need to do. They start with a presentation like MS PowerPoint or Google Slides to make the list because they also want to present the plan and progress against it to leadership. Then, when there are too many tasks to track in their presentation they move to spreadsheets like MS Excel and Google Sheets. The benefit of tools in the “question mark”  is that you can start from scratch and customize the tool to your needs. It’s great for task management, but the drawback is that you really do have to start from scratch every time you kick off a new project. 

If you’ve ever been in consulting, a client-facing role, or interacted with the most senior leaders of a company, you’ve likely used presentations and spreadsheets at the same time. However, these tools only work if there is one individual or group that acts as the main point of contact, like a project manager, to coordinate across the disparate project team members. In order to get updates, you end up being on the phone constantly, sending emails, swapping versions of the plan with others, and so on. With that kind of system, there needs to be one point of contact to reconcile everything and it’s inefficient at best. See the article, 4 Reasons to Invest in Smarter Project Management for more information.

When a project becomes more complex and a small team gets comfortable with repeatable tasks, they move to the “machine”

For small teams that execute the same or similar repeatable tasks, they then look for a solution that helps them provide visibility on the status of tasks and/or projects to their team’s leadership. This kind of solution could also be used to assign work or automate tasks with workflows. These tools are great for collaborating with a small team, but the drawback is that tools like these (think: Trello, or, only work well for small teams executing repeatable task management. 

Organizations and teams that try to use these kinds of tools for projects that require cross-functional teams or different business units to collaborate start to hit a wall in terms of functionality and efficiency.

Alternatively, when a project becomes more complex and a larger department wants to scale and automate reporting, organizations move to the “ladder”

For organizations that have a lot of projects and need centralized strategic planning and visibility into execution, there are a ton of solutions in the marketplace like LiquidPlanner, Clarizen, or Workfront. “Ladders” allow for strategic planning and robust reporting, but here’s the problem: they require a centralized organizational structure to be successful. That means one person, or entity within a team, department or business unit makes all the decisions and provides direction because the reporting structure is hierarchical. Nothing can be done without their input or approval, which leads to a lot of micro-management, leaving program and project managers scrambling to ensure process adherence.

Few organizations and industries are actually set up for such a “ladder” solution to be successful. The one place these solutions happen to be successful is in engineering-like departments and industries. This means “ladder” solutions are really only scalable in IT departments or Professional Services organizations where there are a large number of program and project managers to ensure process adherence.

Finally, when a project requires cross-functional teams and different business units to collaborate strategically, organizations look for a “star” - one project management software that is scalable enterprise-wide

As organizations experience success and growth, their projects become ever more interconnected and interdependent. At the same time, the teams and departments that help fuel the growth also continue to grow and the tools they choose to use for project management continue to move along the predictable sequence as project complexity increases.

Senior leadership also needs visibility into enterprise-wide projects. Executives want to understand the strategic plan and have visibility into execution progress across either a select number of high profile projects or all projects. The organization soon realizes they cannot provide this transparency easily, at least not with the wide-variations of solutions being used across the organization.

They, in turn, look for a “star” - a project management software that is both strategic and collaborative. They want a solution that works for projects in intra-department, client delivery, and cross-functional and cross business unit strategic initiatives.  

Organizations soon realize that no solution in their portfolio of project management tools, or in the market, is flexible for what they need. The organization then reverts back to a coordinated - not collaborative - effort to get visibility into project statuses across the enterprise. In order to do this, organizations increase internal headcount or hire consultants to build out new processes. The preferred tools used to plan and report execution progress revert back to “question marks” - specifically spreadsheets and presentations - since they’re the most flexible for a select group of people to control. The end result? Inefficiency and low productivity persist.

The goldilocks of project management software

TrueNxus's Project Management Solution matrix: software competitive landscape

After working on hundreds of projects in organizations with complex projects, I became frustrated with the lack of “star” solutions in the market. Organizations need cloud based project management software that enable strategic insights and collaboration across teams and business units to execute projects effectively and efficiently. That’s why I built TrueNxus. It’s designed for organizations that need to manage projects across teams, business units, as well as intra-department projects and client delivery. 

It’s time organizations had a solution to help them untangle project management so they can accomplish more with less. This is especially true today when everyone is working from home. If you’re looking to implement an enterprise-wide project management software that works for all types of projects, and you want to increase productivity, efficiency, and accountability across stakeholders, reach out to our sales team today.