Corkboard with post-it notes. Project management. Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

When do I need a Project Management System?

Most businesses start out with a free tool, like Asana or Trello. But at some point, those free tools probably won’t cut it and it’s time to transition to something more robust.  

When is the right time to start thinking about moving to a "real" project management system?

Task Management versus Project Management

If we're going to talk about project management, we have to start with what "project" really means, because every project tool on the market sells themselves as project management, but many of them can more accurately be described as task management. There's actually two different categories of project management - task management tools and project management ones.

If we're going to talk about what a task management tool is versus a project management one - we need to start with the basics and define tasks and projects. Here's my highly scientific one:

Task = item on your to-do list

Project = groups of tasks that need to be coordinated or scheduled in conjunction with other groups of tasks

If you only have tasks, then a task management software will probably work out for you. Once you start dipping into projects, you're probably starting to outgrow those basic tools.

Task Management Software

Task management software does just what it sounds like - manages tasks. It functions as a checklist or a post-it board and will get the job done as long as what you’re trying to manage isn’t too complex. So, if you don’t have many team members or your projects are pretty basic, task management is the way to go.

Some examples of task management software are Asana, Trello, and Todoist. They are great at what they do (and they’re where most people start), but once you start getting into trying to create schedules, manage resources or create task dependencies, you’re going to start getting frustrated.

Project Management Software

True project management software has way more functionality and gives you the ability to plan out an entire project, create timelines, budgets, manage your staff (so you can tell who has the bandwidth for particular tasks), automate your workflow and more. It's task management on steroids. Examples of project management software are Accelo, WorkflowMax, and Monday.

So, when does Task Management stop cutting it?

No one can tell you precisely when your business will outgrow task management software and need to move into project management. Sometimes, the answer is never.

If you have a small team, you intend to stay small, and your client work isn’t all that complex, and you’re not repeating processes that much, you might be fine on a task management software forever.

But, if that’s not the case, here are some indicators that you might be outgrowing your current system.

Complex Projects

Project complexity is probably the number one reason to move to a new software platform. If your projects contain multiple phases of work or tasks that depend on other tasks (think task A should start when task B is complete), it’s going to be tough to manage those within something that’s designed just to manage tasks. You can probably make it happen, but you’re going to be using workarounds and hacks.

So, even if your team is small, if your projects are big, it might be time to transition.

Project Templates

If you find that you’re doing the same thing over and over and over, it might be time to harness the power of project templates.

This is probably the function that’s easiest to fudge when you’re using a task management software. You can create saved groups of tasks and copy them when you need to. That works for a little while - but often you can’t copy the details of the task, or who it’s assigned to, or attachments, etc.

Moving to a project management tool that can handle templates of task dependencies, assignments and schedules can drastically improve your workflow and reduce the amount of time you spend at the beginning of a project, setting up the work.

Team Growth

When your team grows, often your software tools should grow too.

It’s easy to manage who does what when your team is only two or three of you. But when your team gets larger, it’s hard to remember who is working on which project and to manage everyone’s workload to make sure it’s evenly distributed. You also need to make sure you’re not planning projects at a time when your team is already overtasked.

Good project management software will help you manage your resources and smooth out the workload.

Business Analytics

When you need to start answering questions about how efficient your staff (or you) are, how profitable each project is, how much time it takes you to complete each task or project, it’s probably time to move to a new platform. Most project management tools come with some decent reporting tools, so you can have a better picture of your business and make better decisions.

Where are your team members spending their time? What parts of your process are time-sucks and how can you start dealing with that?

Task management tools might give you the basics, but it’s not going to get you as much information as a project management tool because task management isn’t designed to collect all the information you need to produce those reports.

Business Automation

When you start looking to automate parts of your business, sometimes that’s an indicator that it might be time to move to a more robust software. You can automate some of your business with task management software, but a lot of it will be going through tools like Zapier, and it may or may not meet your needs. Most robust project management tools will allow you to automate a good chunk of your workflow within the software itself. That means that it's easier to set up and easier to modify the automation as you refine your processes.

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