What is the best project management app for a digital agency?

Despite being a WordPress DEVELOPMENT agency, our most frequently asked question is “what should we use to manage digital projects and development agencies”. You’d expect we get questions on WordPress development or HTML5 or web design – But no.

Our top two subjects are “what tools do we use to manage our digital agency?” and “how do we operate virtually?”.

Connected have used all sorts of applications and services over the years, but their was a clear turning point in 2010. Pre-2010 we used a waterfall methodology for project management and post we moved to an Agile methodlogy.

Often the same project management application can be used with both methodologies but there are clear differences.

Waterfall Project Management

The essence of waterfall is a sequential task list with a start and an end date and fixed deliverables. This is the commonest form of project management as it’s:

Simple to understand, all of us understand linear task lists and due dates
Lots of applications can provide this, from a basic Excel spreadsheet to (horrible) Microsoft Project
Favoured by traditional project management professionals who love Gantt charts and enterprise resource management
It’s not scary or different

It’s the default for any agency that hasn’t actively implemented an alternative such as agile. It works quite well for web development as it includes basic lists and with simple resource planning you can deliver good services and product in a timely fashion. It doesn’t require much discipline and can, if not micro-managed, turn into a huge car crash.

During our Waterfall period we used a number of tools including Excel Spreadsheets, and XMB Forum (wow) and the original Basecamp from 37 signals. We don’t use Waterfall anymore but if we were forced into it, I’d use Podio with the excellent App store to find a perfect digital agency project app. If you needed to manage resource budgeting then I’d use this app.

Agile Project Management

The difference is night and day. Agile is based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and deliverables evolve through collaboration between self-organised teams. Sounds complex? Not really, in many ways it’s simpler as it shifts the burden of managing delivery from a dedicated project manager (we’d had 2 of those) to a cross-skilled team.

The key elements are flexibility and collaboration so you do need a team (and your client) to be open and involved at every stage and level. Operational delivery of the solution is then down to the self-organised teams.

Cheaper, faster and better end-delivery is the outcome as agile promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery. This is delivered using a number of key tools/approaches such as time-boxing and rapid iteration.

If you are not familiar with agile that might sound like a) gooble-de-gook and b) expensively complex to implement. Far from it, you can fully plan and deliver even a large project using a single whiteboard and some post-it notes.

We’re a digital agency so using Post-It notes would be wrong, at a technological level. Instead we use Basecamp (again) but curated into a careful structure to avoid list-madness or for more sophisticated clients we use Pivotal Tracker or Trello. All three work well on all devices.

Why is project management so important

Our history as a high-end web development house forced us early on to have high levels of development discipline – this is fairly uncommon within with the new web development world and especially rare in WordPress agencies – most of which were born in a different time and evolved from single individuals acting as contractors and freelancers.

The Connected agency world understands the need to communicate to stakeholders and collaborate vertically and horizontally. This is what drove us to Agile as the old-fashioned project world just didn’t fit well with fast development and iterative delivery.

Four years ago, Seth Godin wrote a beautifully simple post guiding companies of how to catch-up with the digital revolution, point 8 was “Do not approve any project that isn’t run on Basecamp”.

Basecamp has since acquired competitors but in 2009 it was head and shoulders above the rest. Connected started using it the year before, it has outlasted most of the service providers we use today (except Google Mail, maybe).

  • Wonderful post and thanks for the difference between Waterfall and Agile. I think the agile approach works better with marketing teams and digital agencies as things are constantly in a change not to mention client requirements being updated incrementally. Keeping that in mind, I would highly recommend you take a look at Brightpod.com – a project management app that we have specially built for digital agencies. It has got the best of Basecamp + Trello. All the best.

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    Don’t forget Podio. http://www.podio.com

    • Martin Dower

      Ronnie, we use Podio. Extensively http://www.connected-uk.com/?s=podio and even wrote an article on it 15 months ago http://www.connected-uk.com/2012/12/podio-simplified-projects-and-communications/

      • Ronnie Rocket

        So you went from Basecamp to Podio (we did this process ourselves) and back again now using them both depending on what suits you the best, the client the best, the project the best or all of the above?

        • Martin Dower

          Bit of both. Most clients just couldn’t get into the swing of agile and social collaboration so for client project management/collaboration we use Basecamp and for internal stuff and spunkier clients we use Pivotal Tracker. We did take a lot of the work-flows from Podio over into Basecamp.

          We’re always evolving. It *will* change again sometime soon 🙂

  • Leesa Derycke

    Very well written, thanks for the article. Have you checked out http://www.proofhub.com yet?

    • Martin Dower

      Thanks Leesa for your nice comments. Yes, we did look at Proofhub but it didn’t fit the way *we* work. We’re agile-based for project management (http://www.connected-uk.com/2013/08/re-visiting-our-agile-journey-a-retrospective/) and Proofhub is centered around waterfall with Gant charts and milestones so it didn’t suit us – sure looked good though for agencies and companies using trad project control

  • The “waterfall” comparison on project management is interesting. Actually most of the projects would have tasks and their respective time limit and all our projects are time lined too.

    I use Replicon PM software – http://www.replicon.com/project-and-program-management for project management, as it is simple and hassle free. Moreover, we also use their time tracking and time off modules. So now we have one system doing all these.

  • Dan L. Hammers

    Thank you for sharing these PM tools! Another tool to consider in this category is Talygen (http://online-project-management-tool.com). It’s a SaaS based project management tool that track and manage your project progress.

  • Olivia Jennifer

    An agile process tends to focus on iterations, and
    client feedback, to allow for the inevitability of changing requirements
    whereas a waterfall process tries to define all requirements up front, and
    tends to be inflexible to changing requirements. You can learn more about agile
    and scrum by referring to some free resources
    (http://www.scrumstudy.com/free-resources.asp) provided by scrumstudy or by attending any agile scrum certification
    courses. I would personally suggest Agile Expert Certified course or a Scrum
    Master Certification
    to you.

  • Ella Mapple

    It will definitely ease your work of handling a big
    project. As a project manager I use scrum in my projects. One of my friends
    referred me to use the Guide to Scrum Body of Knowledge by http://www.scrumstudy.com.
    I like the concepts of sprints, daily standup meetings, etc. the SBOK Helped me
    alot in Understanding how Agile
    Project Management
    works.If you want to know the difference between Scrumstudy, Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org – please visit this blog: http://scrum-training.blogspot.in/

  • Dorthy Toussaint

    This will let you add some phrase for SEO ans it lets your readers with images know what
    the image is. You don’t always have to provide a link to everything you talk about in a post.
    To apply this knowledge, identify the “20 percent factors” within your business and
    focus more resources on them.

  • Lea

    Just came to know about the list of top ten project management software and to me it seems to be handy list. Check out -> https://toptenpmsoftwares.wordpress.com/

  • Colvin Warner

    For digital marketing agencies I think tools like wrike, trello and proofhub are very useful. I personally prefer proofhub and basecamp.