5 Top Problems with Traditional Project Management Tools: Old Tools, New Rules

Old Tools, New Rules

This post is part one in our five part series on the problems with traditional project management tools. If you’d like to continue reading in the series, visit Part 2: The Illusion of Control, Part 3: Breaking the Cycle, Part 4: One Source of Truth, and Part 5: Resolving Bias Through Data to learn about each of the 5 top problems with traditional project management tools!

Project Management tools are easy to rag on — they’re one of those categories of software that are almost universally despised by the people who have to use them. The current standards, whether dedicated tools like Microsoft Project or co-opted tools like Excel and email, are in use more because they’re what we’ve always done rather than because they are well-suited to solve people’s problems.

It’s worth digging in a little to really understand why that’s true. Those tools — at least the purpose-built ones — weren’t designed to be cruel torture devices or to waste massive amounts of time and money. For reference, according to the Project Management Institute’s 2017 global project management survey an average of US$97 million is wasted for every US$1 billion invested in project management. That’s not a great success rate.

Old Tools, New Rules

We believe there are five things wrong with those tools and the philosophy behind them.

Microsoft Project launched 33 years ago and it’s still the status quo of project management today. The world has changed a tremendous amount since then, with our businesses evolving into almost completely different environments, complete with radically new technologies and a greatly accelerated pace. It’s time for new tools that match the new rules.

The first version of Microsoft Project was released for MS DOS in 1984. Here’s a somewhat more recent screenshot of what it looked like:

MSProject from 1984

The world has changed a lot in the intervening 33 years. That’s a lot of Gantt charts inflicted on hapless project teams. Thousands and thousands of person-years of status meetings. Some people’s entire careers have gone by since that fateful first release without any real change in the status quo.

Traditional Office
The world your project management tools come from

Imagine how different running a project was three decades ago. Most people on the project team probably didn’t have computers on their desks, so many dots lost their lives to dot matrix printouts of endless project plans. The pace of business was notably slower because the technology simply didn’t support it going any faster. A waterfall Gantt chart was a pretty reasonable way to manage a group of people doing something together, especially if most of them were in the same physical location and teleconferences had yet to become a regular part of the day.

Fast forward to today. We have always-connected supercomputers in our pockets. We’re online 24/7 and can videoconference in HD from almost anywhere on the planet. We’re chatting on Slack with people around the world while we collaborate through tools like SenseiOS® in real-time. It’s no big surprise that the old tools just aren’t up to managing today’s projects. It’s not the tools themselves that are the problem, but rather the underlying philosophy that you can manage a project that moves at the pace of today’s world with command-and-control.

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Jay Goldman

Jay thinks he might be the luckiest guy in the world because he got to co-found Sensei Labs and spend his days working hard to invent the Future of Work alongside this amazing crew. He’s focused on technology, design, and the art of leadership. In addition to writing here, Jay co-wrote the New York Times Bestseller THE DECODED COMPANY: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers (Portfolio/Penguin), cooked up the O’Reilly Facebook Cookbook, and contributed to the Harvard Business Review. He frequently speaks to teams and companies about the Future of Work, including at TEDx, NASA, Harvard Business School, Google, and Twitter’s World Headquarters.

First Organizational Chart

Conductor, Technology

5 Top Problems with Project Management, Part 2: The Illusion of Control

Part 2/5. Project management has changed a lot over the years. From early form of program management in ancient Egypt to some of the first org charts in the 19th century, those data-poor projects with long timelines could be controlled with rigid, inflexible management structures. Jay argues that it’s time to give up the Illusion of Control baked so deeply in yesterday’s mindset and tools and adopt the role of Conductor, orchestrating projects to awesome conclusions.

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A row of many mobile devices

Conductor, Working

5 Top Problems with Project Management, Part 4: One Source of Truth

In today’s always-connected workplaces, every team has ten ways to communicate, five different ways to track status, and a long digital trail of Excel spreadsheets and abandoned SharePoint sites. Imagine, instead, a system that sits at the center of your project and keeps a record of everything that’s happening. It’s not updated after the fact but, rather, becomes the place that work actually happens. A single Source of Truth.

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