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Task versus project management online

Liz Pearce
May 17, 2012

Many people tend to think of online task management and online project management as interchangeable. This confusion can be dangerous to the long-term success of your organisation, especially when it comes to tool selection and risk management. It’s important to differentiate between the two, so that expectations can be set properly across the organisation and with outside stakeholders.

Tasks in projects

It goes without saying that tasks are the building blocks of projects. Projects are always made up of tasks, but tasks are not necessarily always part of projects. When we start to tackle a project, one of the first things we do is to break it down into discreet tasks. Those tasks are typically short in duration and assigned to one person. The focused team or team member will do a great job of knocking off tasks from their list, and in doing so they may collectively get entire projects done, too.

But every task on our to-do list is not necessarily part of a project. Most of us who work on projects also have some collection of additional tasks listed on Post-It notes, online trackers, and whiteboards. We’re scrambling to manage and prioritise both project tasks and non-project tasks (not to mention collaborate on them!), which begs for an online tracking solution.

But how is managing projects online different than managing tasks online? To answer that question, let’s look at the different choices available to us.

Online task management

Do a search for ‘online project management’, and you’ll see hundreds of products that label themselves as project management tools. But beware: if you try to find anything more sophisticated than task due dates or a list of milestones, you’ll often be disappointed.

Led by Basecamp, these task management tools have been extremely effective in two key ways: they’ve provided a common web-based interface in which teams can work together and collaborate. And they’ve given those teams a way to list tasks and due dates that is sufficient for front-line workers who are primarily concerned with their own productivity.

Simple? Yes. Powerful? Debatable. They beat the heck out of Post-It notes, but if you only go so far as managing lists of tasks, you may expose your project team to some unintended risks.

Online project management

For teams trying to get major initiatives accomplished, or even many smaller concurrent projects, simple task lists with due dates won’t quite cut it. Task management applications don’t give the project manager who is tasked with overseeing the project (or portfolio of projects) any insight into these key areas:

  • Task estimation: How long will each task take? How long will the project as a whole take?
  • Project scheduling: Will the person assigned to the work actually be able to complete it by the due date? Will the project as a whole be done on time?
  • Resource and capacity planning: Does the team have enough resources to complete the project to spec, or do scope-cutting or resource balancing steps need to be taken?
  • Portfolio-wide management: What projects are priorities for the organisation? Are they adequately resourced?
  • Risk management: Is the right amount of progress being made? Are there areas of risk in the plan that need attention?

Understanding these aspects of your project doesn’t require an advanced degree or formal certification. But it does require a bit more information than you can put into your task management tool. Things like availability and work estimates create another axis of information that informs critical business decisions, which directly impact the bottom line.

Project management software packages have their differences, too. Some, like Clarizen or AtTask, mimic the traditional Microsoft Project way of scheduling and ask you to define start and end dates for each tasks or set up a series of predecessors or dependencies in order to ‘build’ your schedules. An alternative to these tools is LiquidPlanner, which automatically generates schedules based off of the priority order of your tasks and who they are assigned to.

Tools like Wrike focus on collaboration features like email integration. One size doesn’t fit all here; you’ll need to watch a demo, use free trial versions, and consider which mix of features fits your team best.

Online task management is a great way to get teams accustomed to the basic principles of online project management. It helps keep team members focused on what they need to get done every day, and it provides an easy way for collaborating online.

But while task management applications serve the front line workers well, project managers require a more sophisticated set of controls on the back end. If you seek the best of both worlds, look into programs that give individual contributors a ‘task list’ type view into their project work and a way to track non-project tasks, and at the same time give project managers the tools they need to see and manage the big picture.

Author avatar
Liz Pearce
Liz Pearce is the chief executive officer of LiquidPlanner, a collaboration and project management tool development company. She has worked for Sony Computer Entertainment America, Google, and in marketing, product and project management roles. Pearce holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Communications and a Masters of Arts in Telecommunications from The George Washington University.
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