If you’ve decided to invest in a new project management tool, you want to make sure you’re purchasing the best one for you.

Don’t get distracted by all the bells and whistles when searching for the best project management software for your enterprise. The same goes for aesthetics — just because something looks beautiful doesn't mean it has substance. You can live without the superficial extras. Just don’t miss a key feature that’s critical to your team’s success.

Sometimes it's the seemingly simplest of features that deliver the biggest value. Here are five powerful yet simple elements to look for when searching for a project management tool.

1. Work intake forms

Even a simple project management tool should offer features to enter, prioritize, track, and maintain work intake forms.

A work request could include any of the following:

  • Starting a new project
  • Adding new scope
  • Completing a change
  • Kicking off the next phase
  • Beginning your task

Without a formalized tool, these requests could be delivered verbally, through instant messenger, email, or another channel. It can take a lot of effort and create a great deal of confusion to manage requests this way, particularly if there is a large volume of them.

Without an organized and centralized process, there could be missed, duplicate, or even conflicting requests. Plus, changes could end up being made to the project without the proper impact assessments or approvals.

These risks are why it’s so critical to have a clear work intake process, including standardized forms and templates.

Forms can ensure that all the information is captured the first time, that tasks are properly scheduled and prioritized, and that everyone is clear on what needs to be done.

Housing these forms and process within your project management system allows them to be centralized somewhere that all stakeholders can monitor, which will improve communication and accountability.

Team members will be able to see not only what they are working on, but also what others are doing, and what’s coming up soon.

Look for a tool that is smart enough to send the right information to the right people automatically. Instead of having to name the workflow every time, it should be established and follow standard approval routes and notification channels.

2. Multiple project and task views

We are all different people, and we each do things a little differently. Embracing this diversity can boost productivity, enhance creativity, and grow the company’s profits.

Allowing your team members to work in their own way and modify the tool to fit their individual preferences will also increase adoption of the software.

If a project management tool doesn’t offer simple customization that allows different task and project views, then it’s missing a critical component. When your team finds the software cumbersome or difficult to use, they won’t want to use it.  

The simple solution is to select the best project management software that caters to different work styles and objectives. You need the ability to easily switch between views so that stakeholders can manage the data in one place and still see it in multiple formats.

Some of the views you should look for are:

  • Table view. This view is similar to the standard layout of a spreadsheet and is what many people are already used to and comfortable with.
  • Gantt Chart or timeline view. This allows you to visualize the project and how all of the tasks connect. The timeline has become a staple in project management software since it was invented in 1910.   
  • List view. List view is an excellent high-level chronological overview, similar to a “to-do” or task list.
  • Board view. This view is a card view that is often popular with software development teams and agile project managers. It makes it easy to file tasks into columns such as to-do, in progress, and done.

3. Templates

Most simple project management systems allow for the creation and modification of templates. It’s important to make sure that even if you’re considering a free project management tool that you make sure it includes this feature.

The ability to save common, recurring projects as templates allows teams to simply clone them each time a new project starts. Rather than having to start from scratch, this functionality means that key components like dependencies, task duration, workflows, assignees, and reports are simply copied over.

The use of templates creates the following benefits:

  • Time savings. Projects and tasks can be created faster and more efficiently when you’re not starting from scratch, which frees resources for more complex or custom projects.
  • Improved planning. Templates can act as a checklist, making sure you ask the right questions and consider all the key project variables. The use of solid templates created from successful projects can help drive predictable outcomes and repeatable wins.
  • Lower risk. The use of templates helps ensure key data fields and project tasks are not omitted. If your templates incorporate standard baselines and lessons learned, this further reduces project risks.
  • Better comparison. Using the same template for all similar projects makes it much easier to compare them to each other. This allows for better program and portfolio management. It can also help highlight interdependencies since every project manager will be able to review and understand the schedules and plans of the others.

4. Custom workflow statuses

Another powerful yet simple project management software feature is the ability to define custom workflows based on your team's unique processes. Look for a tool that allows for the workflows to have statuses that map directly to each of your process stages.  

For example, what if a tool only provides the following three stage options?

  • In progress
  • In revisions
  • In review

What stage will you classify a task under if it’s in testing? Is this In revisions or In review? What if you want the design stage separate from the production stage, but your only option is In progress?

You can quickly see how this lack of customization can lead to miscommunications, confusion, and inaccurate reporting of progress. Labeling individual tasks with statuses that align with your project’s processes and workflows makes it much easier to identify which process step work is in and whether it’s progressing on track.

You should also ensure that any project management app you’re considering can provide a simple yet robust dashboard view of all the workflow statuses within a project. Viewing projects by status in this way will allow you to see how work is flowing through the different processes.

This seems simple, but it can reveal a lot, such as:

  • Are projects getting stuck in a certain step?
  • Does a step often get skipped?
  • Is there a recurring problem in any of the processes?

One example of a recurring problem is if testing is consistently taking longer than originally planned. Another example is if change requests are regularly getting sent back for revisions before approval.

Pinpointing these issues can help you remove bottlenecks, optimize your workflows, and improve the quality of your project deliverables.

5. Automated task assignment

Figuring out who to ask for help on a task or project can take time. Particularly in larger companies, or organizations with high turnover, it can be challenging to know who is responsible for what.

A task may not find its way to the right person, or it can get stuck in a certain step of the process if it's not appropriately handed off to the correct person at the correct time. If tasks are not closely monitored and managed, sometimes a request can sit there for weeks with no movement due to it being unclear who’s responsible for it.

The ability to autoroute requests to the appropriate person based on project details can solve these issues. In addition, the ability to tie certain workflow statuses to certain team members can ensure that tasks are automatically moved to the right person as soon as they’re ready for them.

Instead of relying on everyone knowing who’s responsible for what and passing it on to that person at the right time, you can store all of that information inside your project management software.

For example, let’s say that Mary is your Senior Reviewer and that she always reviews content. You should look for a project management feature that allows you to set either of the following automated assignments:

  • Option 1: As soon as a task is put into the Review status, it's auto-assigned to Mary, and she’s notified that the ball is in her court.
  • Option 2: As soon as a task is put into the Review status, it's auto-assigned to anyone with the job title of Senior Reviewer, and they are notified.

When considering which option you prefer, it’s important to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

For example, if Mary quits, is out sick, or goes on vacation, then Option 1 could result in the task being held up unless Mary she’s auto-forwarded her tasks to someone else. Option 2 reduces the risk of a task being stuck with someone who is unavailable to complete it.

On the other hand, if you have multiple Senior Reviewers in the system, Option 2 could result in the same task going to more than one person. This could lead to a duplication of effort or confusion over who is actually responsible for it.

The power of simplicity

These 5 features may seem like they’re simple enough to be found in any web-based project management software, but that’s not always the case.

Make sure you’re not distracted by all the fancy packaging and that you confirm these key components are included. Without them, you’ll be losing important functionality that can significantly improve your projects’ performance.

Why not try out Wrike for free today? It includes all of the features mentioned above, plus so much more.

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