When you have a busy day, what’s the first thing you do to keep track of your tasks for the day? If you’re a smart person, you probably make a to-do list. It’s the most intuitive and obvious strategy, allowing you to collect all your thoughts in one place and then process them at your leisure. It also serves a valuable record-keeping function. If you track thoughtfully, you’ll be able to use these records to audit what you did for each day, gradually tracking your tasks backward until you find the information you did. When troubleshooting with a client or—heaven forbid—dealing with an audit or complaint, having an independent record of everything that’s been accomplished by a particular staff member or for a particular client is invaluable. Zoho Projects and other project management tools provide vital insights and capabilities for managing projects of any scale.
As an intelligent person, you might imagine that you can store your daily to-do list in your head. And indeed, you almost certainly can, because it’s not very hard. But it is extremely efficient. Your brain is so much more than just a piece of paper for holding information. When you write down information, you have the opportunity to excise it from your brain for the time being, using the paper as an additional memory tool. To do lists and, more broadly, project management software, gives you brain the freedom it needs to imagine the next great feature of your product or the next amazing service to wow your clients.
Project management software is essentially a company-wide, longitudinal to do list. It functions as a tool for tracking what employees are doing at a given time, of course, but also provides far more features than simply that. By providing an eagle-eye planning perspective—what they call the “30,000 feet view” in the world of Getting Things Done—you can monitor and manage a project both in the broadest and most specific senses. As a result, project management software plays a key role in project planning, estimating cost, invoicing for completed work, tracking relative employee productivity, and virtually anything else you can imagine. Because project management is, at its core, task tracking, any business can use it. Indeed, every business should use it.
Step 1: Visualize Your Workflow
In order to plan a project, you first need to understand what that project entails. At the most basic level, a project is simply a list of tasks. So, start by writing down all those tasks. Dump all of the thoughts you have onto a piece of paper or a digital to-do list. In Zoho Projects, you can create an arbitrarily long list of tasks and subtasks.
Pro Tip: What Makes a Task?When creating a workflow, you need to break large projects down into individual steps, or “tasks.” A task is a single objective, typically encapsulating one activity or action that brings us closer to achieving the primary goal of the project. For example, if you were a photographer, you wouldn’t want to use “Shoot photos” as a task, because it’s too generic. Instead, you want to break that down into individual steps: pack equipment bag, charge batteries, pick up assistant, drive to shoot location, pre-scout location… the list goes on. The more detail you can include, the better, but try to find the balance between needless specificity and useless generalities.
If you do it right, your tasks won’t just function as a reminder, but as documentation for how the job should be done. The checklist defines the workflow for estimating but also for completely, so don’t be afraid to include relevant detail.
Step 2: Estimate Task Duration
A list of tasks doesn’t capture the entirety of a project. You also need to estimate the cost for each step, which includes the number of person-hours required to complete the step.
If you haven’t tracked the time it takes to complete your project’s steps in the past, try timing the steps of your next project. You can also attempt to estimate each task’s duration based on your previous experience. If you’re unsure, it’s better to guess too long than guess too short. If you guess too short, you could wind up delaying the entire project.
In addition to time estimation, Zoho Projects offers Milestones. These milestones indicate various goals which are required to complete the project successfully. With milestones, you can pin certain events to certain dates, then determine the required task duration to meet those goals.
Step 3: Define the Required Resources
Some tasks can be completed alone. But other tasks require other team members, equipment, or resources. To continue our photographer example, equipment required for a photo shoot would include lighting and camera gear. A more corporate project might use resources like conference rooms, projectors, or a certain portion of the budget.
Resources aren’t just things, either. They can also be people or teams. For example, a step in a project might require collaborating with the design team to finalize a pitch deck’s visual aesthetic. Make sure that you’re defining these resources clearly and explicitly.
When the resources required are clearly defined, you can create resource utilization charts, which are like Gantt charts for resources. This describes not only the availability of the resource for other uses, but it also helps determine the value of a given resource for your organization.
But most importantly, the resource utilization chart calls out and prevents overlapping resource requirements, avoiding double-booking by catching it far in advance. This type of long-term planning is the secret of any successful project manager, and prior vigilance can prevent many common causes of delay and disruption.
Step 4: Using Gantt Charts
Estimating the proper task duration unlocks an incredible resource: Gantt charts. These layer tasks charts convey two crucial pieces of information about a project: the duration of each task, and which tasks are dependent on the prior completion of other tasks. For example, sending a slide deck to a client requires you to first create the slide deck: that’s an obvious example of task dependencies, but they can get more detailed than that.
Pro Tip: Reading Gantt ChartsGantt charts are read across, from left to right. The length of each bar in the Gantt chart indicates the amount of time the task is expected to take, while the “waterfall” of task blocks connected by lines indicates task dependency. Tasks in the same vertical line occur simultaneously, showing where independent employees are within the project in relationship to one another.
Gantt charts aren’t just static in Zoho Projects. The tasks on the chart can be dynamically rearranged by dragging and dropping tasks. You can also analyze the critical path of your project to understand the rippling impact of delays in a specific task. Different chart views provide a different perspective for different employees, including overview reports called milestones or step-by-step views for actually completing the tasks.
Step 5: Working Together
While it’s always useful to keep your personal tasks organized, that’s only a fraction of a project management platform’s functionality. The key feature of any project management software, including Zoho Projects, is collaboration. Your project management software can be used to delegate tasks, assign reoccurring steps to individuals, and track the progress of teams and individuals during and after the project.
With a strong social project management focus and a built-in intranet functionality, Zoho Projects allows for Facebook-style communication across your team and throughout the project’s status. Forums can contain detailed discussion for later reference, chat provides instant communication between team members from within the app. Zoho Projects can archive these messages as well, providing an insightful record of your employees’ thought processes and task status. For more employee detail, the activity stream allows managers to view and analyze individual productivity and time management.
Finally, Zoho Projects can create simple internal webpages which are invaluable for any kind of documentation or handbook materials. These pages can include most anything you’ll find on a regular webpage, providing an extensible tool that can collect all types of documentation media—photo, video, text—all in one place.
Even after the project is finished, your project management software is still important. Zoho Projects can reuse any task list as a template for future projects, providing repeatability for core product offerings within your company. And like other Zoho products, Projects integrates with other parts of Zoho’s complete business software suite, including Zoho Analytics and