Smartsheet: Frustrated with online project management no longer

smartsheet1It’s been a while since I posted anything that wasn’t related to Salesforce, hasn’t it? Here’s something a little different, but still cheerleading technology and tools I like, which I used to do a lot more of.

Over 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post about my quest to find decent project management software for Fight Colorectal Cancer. That post was quite popular for a while and still gets a fair number of page views. Commenters either sympathized, or used the post’s page rank to promote their own wares.

Right around the time I started at KELL Partners last year, I helped our team implement Smartsheet as our main tool for keeping track of timelines, requirements and deliverables with clients and internal projects. Truth be told, had Smartsheet existed in this form 3 years ago, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated. It meets all the requirements I mentioned in that post and then some.

Right now we have 389 active sheets in our Team account. I’ve been asked a few times, “Why Smartsheet? Why aren’t you just using Google Docs?”

Yes, some of what we’re doing in Smartsheet could be done in Google Docs. But aside from the fact that KELL doesn’t use Google Apps so documents wouldn’t be centralized and owned by the company, Smartsheet does so much more than just flat spreadsheets. Every time I use it, I find some cool new way to make it work better.

What is Smartsheet? It’s an Excel/Google Doc-like online app that generates spreadsheets that are more dynamic than just rows & columns. In addition to spreadsheets, there’s quite a bit of Microsoft Project thrown in (it can even import Project files). The interface is very simple to learn and use, which makes it ideal for sharing with clients of all technical backgrounds. You need a paid account to create sheets after the free trial expires. But those sheets can be shared with anyone, either through a named user or through a publish link that anyone can view if they know it.

Here’s why I think Smartsheet is a better choice than Google Docs for team collaboration, so I can just point to this post in the future.

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Frustrated with online project management tools

I am tearing my hair out. Or I will, as soon as I can figure out where the task is to do that and who’s responsible.

We have a team of 7 staff members. Each of us works on different projects for different programs. From time to time, we work with consultants or outside vendors.
We are an efficient bunch, but what we lack is centralized project and task coordination. We need to be able to see how our projects are progressing over time. Where the bottlenecks are. What is falling behind. What the next year will look like for projects we know we’re going to take on but haven’t started yet.
Folks are comfortable in email and instant messenger. It’s where most of the conversation happens between us and we get a lot accomplished. Yet working this way, we miss that “big picture” overview.
It seems obvious that there should be a tool we can use to help us here. We don’t have a server so we don’t want desktop software. We want something that works in the cloud. You would think that with so many choices we’d find exactly what we need.
I have spent the last week or two trying more of these online project management tools than I can count. Many of them are here. 
So frustrated that none are singing to me the way Salesforce or Google Apps did when I first tried them out.
Here’s what I want:
  • Uncluttered interface – folks have to spend less time managing projects than doing them. It doesn’t have to be simple or designed for idiots – I work with very smart, technically capable people. It needs to be streamlined and without features and distractions we don’t need.
  • A task management system folks will actually use – When they finish a task, will they remember to go to this tool and check it off?
  • Centralized administration and management – Administrator can create/assign projects – only assigned managers can edit milestones and the phases of the project
  • Bird’s eye view of all projects and where they stand (“What’s the next step? Who’s responsible?”) – Dashboard shows status of active tasks – not just recent activity
  • Gantt and/or clear calendar view that includes milestones and multi-day phases – bonus if it syncs with Google Calendar
  • Integration with email (receive notification via email, bonus if you can reply to attach discussion to a task)
  • Files only as essential for project – not just to dump stuff
  • Invite outside users to projects as needed
  • Don’t want tickets/case management, don’t want wikis, don’t want blogs, don’t want “here’s what I’m eating for lunch” status updates – need to be able to to tailor interface to only what we need/want. We have other tools, I want to avoid duplication as much as possible.
  • works across platforms and modern browsers – not so much an issue these days, but still needs to be considered
  • Cost: total of under $50 per month but can make a case for spending more if it’s exceptional.
What follows is my impression of what I’ve tried so far and why it falls short.
The biggest problem with these tools is that they are designed for teams that work with clients. Or they are designed for teams that work on software development. Or they are designed for teams that work work with clients on software development. What about project management for teams that produce newsletters? For teams that are working on a conference or event? For teams that are tracking a year-long editorial and strategy calendar for fundraising campaigns? Not so much.
I’ve been whining about this in Twitter a bit. I’ve been asked to summarize my findings. 
These are the tools I’ve evaluated/looked at and why I like them/don’t like them.