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).