How Structured Project Management Software Blocks Collaboration

I’m not a great fan of Gantt charts.

They have their place. Project management suites and all their bells and whistles serve structured, large projects with lots of moving parts well. I can’t imagine attempting to get a product out on time and on budget without some sort of project management system in place.

Yet, the reality is that most businesses have far more informal workflows than formal, structured ones. Many of these informal workflows are spontaneous. They appear and disappear with a specific need. Rarely are they hierarchical in nature, originating from a leader who directs his minions.

So neither can I imagine using any of these powerhouse project management applications for managing less complex projects, such as writing an eBook or ordering lunch for 20 people. I’m rarely trying to land a satellite on a comet.

The truth is, engaged, well-trained employees can manage much of what they need to do without being micro-managed by their managers. Why should their project management tool micro-manage them as well?

High-Overhead Project Management Stifles Collaboration

If project management suites were really that effective, then why doesn’t Microsoft Project dominate the world? It’s been free for decades.

People don’t use it, or similar programs, for the vast majority of their work because project management software is too structured. The projects where these programs add value are those filled with minutely-defined processes that have to be repeated over and over again the same way because of the budgets, scope of variables, and timeframes involved.

But they offer little flexibility or accommodate the conversations taking place around a project.

The vast majority of workflows are unstructured or use basic checklists. What they require, more than tracking resource availability and dependencies, is managed collaboration among those responsible.

This means a tool that provides employees a framework within which they can discuss and share project-related issues and content. If they’re spending time updating effort hours spent on each task, they’re spending less time actually getting stuff done.

Thus the highly-structured, highly-granular project management tools designed to improve project efficiency often themselves become the barrier to achieving productive, efficient collaboration on a simpler scale. They’re a particular wrinkle in the Collaboration Paradox.

Task Management Isn’t Collaboration

Repeatable processes. Measures of accountability. All important aspects of managing a productive, sustainable organization. Task (or project) management has become the assembly line of the Knowledge Information Age. Yet people aren’t machines and task management isn’t collaboration.

I estimate that 80 percent of what we do in the office everyday is informal process. Most of us are repeating the same collection of tasks, even as the specific client or topic varies. These informal processes are often the substance of what employees are doing, where they provide their value.

An account manager comes in each day and knows what she needs to do. What she checks for updates, who she checks in with, and what output is expected from her. And that’s how it is for most employees. If I have to make up a detailed task list because she doesn’t already possess the knowledge and skills to get the job done, I’ve made a big mistake.

The challenge isn’t getting tasks done or delegated. The challenge is getting them done effectively and efficiently. When we recognize that the real work gets done because people are communicating about what they’re doing, the importance of combining the substance of the work with the conversations around it becomes clear.

Tools that only let team members talk through Gantt charts and sub-task deadlines skew employee effort towards workflow overkill and away from a scheme that supports more fluid collaborations and their conversations.

“Informal” Doesn’t Mean “Unimportant”

Simpler, informal projects rely on the expertise, professionalism, and collaboration of a team. Part of it is attitude and cultural. Employees need to be willing to hold and be held accountable by their co-workers, and not just rely on a hierarchy to manage them.

It’s also part mechanics. Employees need a project management tool that meets the level of complexity (or not) of the project. Because the simple, informal projects going on every day are hugely important to a business’s success. These projects shouldn’t get sucked into the abyss of micro-management.

Originally published at on September 19, 2015.