Get with the project

A review of two project-management tools for small businesses.

In business school back in the 1980s, I rebelled against the tyranny of Gantt charts. They were fine to look at and made a certain amount of sense, but they were such an effort to build. Why waste brain power on a picture of a project, I railed, when you could use a to-do list and just get on with the project? The grade I got in that class taught me more than the class itself. You can’t fight any force that holds a team together on a project. Well, you can, but you’ll fail.

The bare facts of project management are these: For every project, you need to design a plan, organize people and resources, and finally, communicate the schedule with everyone involved. Mess up on any of these steps, and your project is pretty much doomed. And the Gantt chart, with its column of steps and graphical lines showing the duration of each task, is one of the simplest and most effective ways to communicate the outline of a project to all concerned. Failure to grasp that basic fact almost flunked me out of the course–a mistake I didn’t make again.

But I still hold that I was right about one thing: Charting a project by hand is a waste of effort. That’s why I favor the software approach to managing projects. That said, as the head of a small business, I find that high-end project management tools such as TurboProject Professional 4 and Microsoft Project 2000 are still too complex. For most projects facing small businesses (unless the small business in question builds helicopters or manages the economy of a medium-sized country), I favor the simple but effective approach taken by Experience in Software Project KickStart 3.0 and KIDASA Milestones Simplicity 2000. These tools tackle each of the three basic stages of project management. Project KickStart provides more hand-holding and robust features, while MileStones Simplicity focuses more on clear presentation and the simplicity its name suggests.

Kick into gear

Project KickStart 3.0 is often described as a novice’s project-management tool. I don’t agree. Sure, it features a project advisor and idea generator that act as tutors for beginners. But it has a lot to offer for experienced project managers who hate the fiddling associated with the job. And if project management is only one of the things you need to worry about, a simple approach to planning and executing a project is obviously a good thing.

Project Kickstart 3.0 throws you right into an eight-step process that begins with naming your project, and ends with a Gantt chart, a contact list of people involved with the project, and a schedule to share with them. The first major step is to identify the phases the project will contain. There’s an advisory window with sample phases you can drag and drop into the phase-building window–a big plus if you’re inexperienced or in a hurry. Next up, you determine the goals of each phase (again, a task that has a library of presets from which to pick and choose). A feature unique to Project KickStart is a Similar Projects step that allows you to bring in ideas and tasks that you used in previous projects–a handy step that prevents you from having to reinvent the wheel every time you take on a new task, and which also jogs your memory about things that worked (and didn’t) in previous projects.

For Microsoft Office users, Project KickStart has some distinct benefits. Outlook users benefit from KickStart’s ability to import people and export schedules to Outlook. During Project KickStart’s fifth step, in which you associate people with a project, you can open up Outlook’s address book and just pick names from it. At the end of the scheduling phase of a project, you can send it to Outlook, where you will be able to track the project’s progress in a familiar interface.

The best-laid plans…

If all projects went smoothly, there would be no need to manage them. But they don’t, so Project KickStart has an Obstacles step that more than adequately covers potential pitfalls–which are listed in one of the program’s characteristic drag-and-drop libraries. Stumbling blocks that can bring a project to a screeching halt, like component delivery and special shipping requirements, are easy to forestall with a little advanced planning–so Project KickStart makes you think about this step even before you assign individual tasks to specific personnel.

The program doesn’t track specific dependencies, which means you can’t build a critical path analysis for extremely complicated projects. This deficiency relegates it to projects that are small or medium in size or complexity. But the program does double duty–it’s not just a simple stand-alone project manager, but a first-step tool that you can use to build outlines to import to Microsoft Project, Project Scheduler, SureTrak, FastTrack Schedule, and KIDASA’s Milestones Professional 2000. If you need to build critical-path analysis or do complex costing-tasks that require more muscle than Project KickStart can flex–it still has a place in the first phase of planning the project. For less demanding projects, however, Project KickStart’s links to Microsoft Office apps Word, Excel, and Outlook make it excellent for spreading the plan, complete with a Gantt chart to gauge progress.

Simplicity itself

Some projects, though, don’t need the planning strengths of Project KickStart–they need to present something graphical and easy to interpret to the people involved. That’s the strength of Milestones Simplicity. It’s more focused on graphical presentation than on training the mind to focus on the details of a project. Milestones Simplicity’s setup wizard concentrates on the schedule presentation rather than on the schedule itself–which is fine for less complex projects or those that you have to explain to less ready minds.

Milestones Simplicity provides some fancy graphics tools for gussying up its Gantt chart–all contained in a well-designed combination toolbox–as well as some attractive designs for most effectively communicating the steps in the schedule. These aren’t just pretty clip-art elements, either. They enable you to highlight particular areas with shading or special symbols, and annotate parts of the schedule that are either critical to the operation’s success or confusing for the lay reader to interpret. Particularly handy is the ability to link tasks with vertical and horizontal dependencies–a tool that isn’t quite enough to create a true critical-path analysis, but which nonetheless comes in very handy.

The program can publish project outlines to HTML files for use on the Internet or an intranet–as well as exporting them to PowerPoint or Word. There’s a useful print preview that enables you to optimize the look of your outline to whatever print options you have–and there’s also a free viewer that enables non-owners of the software to open, view, and print schedules direct from your files.

Mission impossible

It’s almost impossible to move any project ahead without a solid plan and even more solid communication. That’s why these programs exist–and why I use them. For simpler projects with fewer stumbling blocks, Milestones Simplicity’s excellent presentation tools are a boon. For medium-sized, medium-complexity projects, the thought-provoking steps in Project KickStart are a godsend. The peace of mind KickStart afforded me by including a forced focus on obstacles can’t be measured–unlike the Gantt chart for the next big project I take on.

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