Project Management without Software: The Complete Guide

Project management without software

Is project management software necessary?

Does your project really need project management software? Can you only depend on using Excel as a project management tool and deliver effectively?

We’ll answer these questions and more when we discuss what are your options for project management without software are, how it’s done, why it’s done, the pros and cons of running your projects this way, and what are your alternatives.

How to Manage a Project without Software

As you know, project management is the art of planning who does what when to accomplish a goal. The basic building block of project management is the project plan. This project plan is then used to manage the project from launch to delivery, tracking the progress of each stage and individual tasks along the way.

How do create your project plan without software? You have two basic options:

  1. Use a (physical) Kanban board
  2. Use spreadsheets

Option 1: The Kanban Board

project management without software

The Kanban board is a visual way of breaking up your projects into tasks and sort them by status. In the example Kanban board above, there are four main statuses for tasks: backlog, ready, doing, and done. “Ready” is broken down further into three sub-statuses, “cool,” “warm,” and “hot.” Each Post-It note is a task. As each task is dealt with, it migrates across the board from left to right, as it moves from backlog to finished.

There are Kanban software options available, but the DIY version works just as well. (If not better!) Kanban is a very collaborative system. If you haven’t done this before, imagine a designated office wall with hundreds of Post-It notes, and how team members will be interacting with the board as they move their tasks across the status columns. The estimated cost may appear to be just the pushpin board (or an empty wall), some sticky notes, and pens. It creates a visual presentation of the project: everyone can follow the project, just by seeing where each paper is located.

Pros: Cost, ease of use, collaboration, transparency

Cons: It can get pretty messy, pretty quickly. The more complex the project, the harder it is for you to accurately monitor all the moving parts using a Kanban board.

Option 2: The Spreadsheet

project management without software spreadsheet

Spreadsheets are available in Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets (okay, technically that’s software), or by hand. While spreadsheets lack visualization and transparency, they are helpful in time tracking and seeing (and computing) data over long stretches of time – especially budget tracking. Spreadsheets are not exactly communicative, or collaborative – even using Google Sheets or another similar multi-user spreadsheet program will not drive team interaction or communication.

Using spreadsheets does allow you to create a Gantt chart. There are multiple Excel Gantt chart templates available online for download (click that link, there is one available there!). A Gantt chart will help you plan your project, though it will require constant updating. Once again, the cost here is minimal (if not zero): paper and pens, or a Google account.

Pros: Gantt chart, cost, budget tracking

Cons: Transparency, communication, ease of use

Why Would You Run Project Management Without Software?

Using a project management software is obvious: schedule adherence, transparency, and progress monitoring, among others. But this doesn’t make project management software absolutely necessary. A common reason why some people try to run project management without software is because of the cost. Project management software can cost $8-50 per user per month, and that adds up as a significant line item in a small organization’s budget!

Besides the cost of the platform itself, there are other considerations. Finding the right fit for your organization’s work style and workflow is not a simple task – software is designed around principles, but they aren’t necessarily the ones you use in your work. Onboarding time will cut into work hours. Your team will need to learn to use the tool, and that time spent is time you don’t have for getting things done. Finally, choosing software comes with another cost. It remains difficult to transfer projects between platforms, and if you do choose a tool you may be stuck with it for the duration of the project.

There are certain types of projects, or workflows, or organizations that don’t necessarily need project management software.

1) Low-Complexity Projects

Projects that are fairly straightforward and lack complexity are simple enough to manage without software. Even if you believe in the value-added by project management software, you don’t need a Porsche 911 to drive to the corner store for milk. A simple, straightforward workflow-based project (such as a marketing team launching a new product, for example) can be planned and managed with the two options listed above – or even with a word document.

2) Small Teams In One Location

If you’re a team of three people, and you all sit in the same office, you may find that project management software does save you time and effort – but the savings don’t equal the cost. Either of the two options above can help you track task status and project progress. It might be lacking the bells and whistles, but you can get on by just fine without it.

3) Agile/Bottom-Up Driven Organizations

Project management is (usually) a top-down process. Not every team is built with a hierarchy, and not every project is built around a launch-to-delivery plan. Continuous delivery projects like software development may find it easier to use a collaboration tool to coordinate workflow. The Kanban board can serve as a project tracker. With those two tools, the basics are already in place – project management software may not add much value on top of that! (It is worth noting that JIRA, stripped to its core, is built on these two tools – the Kanban board and a workflow coordination system.)

Calculating the True Cost

Most people take it for granted that project management software comes with a cost, and running your project without it will save money. We have imagined this is the case up until now in this article.

This may or may not be true. How do you measure cost?

Assume, for example, that project management software will save your team something like three hours a week in time. Factoring in the time it takes to check in with team members for progress updates or find the data you are looking for, this is a conservative estimate. Or you chose to use a spreadsheet for your project management needs, and it requires 15 hours at the beginning of the project to create and fine-tune, and another two hours per week to update. Those man-hours also come with a cost. Nobody works for free, after all. If your team earns $20 an hour, then the three-hour inefficiency in project management from the first example is costing your team $60 per week, while if you used software, it would only cost you $30 per month.

So are you really saving $30?

What do You Lose by Running Project Management without Software?

This is a question often left unasked. Project management software is more than just a cost. It adds value in many ways. Choosing to go without means choosing to give up all the value it provides.

Project management software provides clarity

The harder it is for a team member to understand their task and role in the project, the more inefficient the project will be. “Oh, I didn’t know that Jimmy needed the figures to start on the marketing materials!” Those words are all too common when the project plan isn’t clear for all – and they mean delays and wasted resources. Project schedule adherence requires clarity.

Project management software provides employee engagement

Sure, the DIY Kanban board will keep employees engaged with the board, and the project – but project management software is a feedback mechanism for team members, too. The progress reporting that a good project management tool provides is not just for the project manager! Team members are rewarded for their efforts by seeing the progress they make. An engaged team is a happy team and a more productive one.

Project management software provides much-needed tools

Your project management tool has features that make managing your project so much easier. Three small examples among many – workload balancing, budget tracking, and planned vs. actual tracking. How do you keep track of your team’s work capacity on a Kanban board? How do you track changes to the project plan on a Gantt chart? Maybe your spreadsheet tracks line items in a budget, but can it do so within the project management interface?

Project management software provides transparency

From C-level management down to the granular level of the individual project team, project management software is a central hub for organizational endeavours – and lays open all the data for all to see. Transparency is more than just its own value – it also streamlines operations for the entire team.

Why You Might Need Project Management Software After All

Both sides of the issue are compelling, and the final answer really comes down to the numbers and particular situation of your organization. Is running project management without software creating inefficiency in your organization? How much does that inefficiency cost you, in man-hours and time? Are the “extra” tools and features of project management software being missed? How much does the project management software that is right for your organization cost?

Once you calculate the true cost of project management software and factor in the value added by it, you may be surprised to discover it is a net gain for the organization’s bottom line.