Project Management Visionaries: At Task

This is the second entry in the PM Visionary Series.

I’ve spent well over a year getting to know Ty Kiisel of At Task Software. We’ve spent a lot of time on each other’s blogs, and I’ve been on his Talking Work podcast. Despite the fact that we’ve never met, I’ve come to think of him as a good friend. So it’s my great pleasure to have the opportunity to publish his thoughts on At Task’s vision. In today’s piece, explore his reaction to the Chaos Report, Genyo Takeda’s (Nintendo) influence, and software that gets in the way. Please give Ty a warm welcome to Papercut Edge by leaving your comments on his article below!

What Inspires AtTask

PM Software Visionaries - At Task LogoI don’t often write about AtTask, but I’m writing today for two reasons. First, Geoff’s kind encouragement is hard to resist, and the things that fundamentally inspire our company are core to why I write about leading project teams and managing projects. I also believe AtTask is significantly different from every other project management software on the market today.

The Chaos Survey and Failing Projects

A few years ago our company came to the realization that project and portfolio management (PPM) software and the way projects were managed was essentially broken. I recognize that some of my colleagues who work in project management questions whether or not the Chaos Survey’s embarrassing project failure statistics are an accurate representation of the state of projects, however they represent a trend that should be a real concern to our profession. I’ve also heard it reported that 50 percent of new Project Management Offices (PMO’s) fail in the first 18 months. Holy cow, by anyone’s measure, these are horrible statistics—even if they aren’t completely accurate.

In my opinion, PPM software should share some of the blame. With the exception of accounting software, PM software has been around the longest—and most of the software feels that way. The dirty little secret of project management software is that it is so difficult for most people to use, nobody does. What’s more, some software, even after a years-long implementation, is unable to provide value to the organizations that were told their software was “best in class PPM software.”

Communicate Effectively with At Task StreamWhat Makes the AtTask Vision Unique?

AtTask CEO Scott Johnson’s vision has always been to help people better understand and organize their work. You didn’t have to look too hard to see that the current paradigm espoused by PM software companies (including us at the time) didn’t help. Feature rich software failed to provide the value expected. Additionally, it didn’t matter whose software it was—PPM software was broken. Of course, an internal champion could keep things going for a while, but as soon as he or she left to another company or another department, software usage would suffer, project managers would have to resort to manually collecting status again, and business leaders lost whatever visibility they had into projects.

If you’ve been a working project professional for any length of time, this comes as no surprise.

Johnson wanted to help organizations manage work—and realized that business-as-usual wasn’t going to do it. We decided to take a different approach. We started visiting customers and non-customers to sit in their cubes, attend their status meetings, watch them interact with each other, their sticky notes, their white boards, their spreadsheets—and their software.

PPM Software and the Wii

Genyo Takeda, the developer of the Nintendo Wii, describes very well why the conventional wisdom about how PPM software is designed is fundamentally flawed. “This may sound paradoxical, but if we had followed the existing road-maps we would have aimed to make it ‘faster and flashier.’ In other words, we would have tried to improve the speed at which it displays stunning graphics. But we could not help but ask ourselves, ‘How big an impact would that direction really have on our customers?’”

We asked ourselves the same questions. Continuing to add and refine specific and obscure PPM features wasn’t really helping organizations better understand and organize their work.

Takeda continued, “There is no end to the desire of those who just want more. Give them one, they ask for two. Give them two, and the next time they will ask for five instead of three. Then they will want ten, thirty, a hundred, their desire growing exponentially. Giving in to this will lead us nowhere in the end. I started feeling unsure about following this path about a year into development.”

The way Takeda changed video games resonates with me. Most project management software development is driven by feature requests (what end users and developers think they need). It doesn’t help that the people buying the software aren’t always the people using the software. Most of the PPM practices we use today are 50-100 years old and aren’t really effective at helping today’s knowledge worker deal with the creative problem solving that goes on within most project teams.

Of course, contextual inquiry is expensive. It takes hours sitting beside users, watching them interact with the process. The result of not doing this has resulted in unimaginative software that is tedious and cumbersome to use.

So What Did We Really Learn?

For starters, we learned that polling our customers and incorporating feature requests wasn’t really helping them meet their objectives. By watching the process with fresh eyes, we learned that PPM software didn’t work the way people really worked—in fact, it got in the way. We also learned that the most ignored member of the project management process was actually the linchpin to whether or not projects were successful.

Facilitate Success with At Task StreamWe discovered that the critical person that determined whether or not a project was successful wasn’t the project manager or the sponsor—it was an individual team member. We also recognized that if we could capture project information at the source (the individual contributor), we could achieve a more accurate picture of project status for informing decisions. Business leaders really need more qualitative information than a simple Green, Red or Yellow indicator.

Providing Value—Making Project Management Work

Our conclusions are so obvious now, it seems that everyone is giving lip service to them. As an organization, we believe that those closest to the work understand it best. We also believe that people want to do something meaningful and contribute to something greater than themselves. Today’s workforce wants to be empowered to make those contributions. They also want recognition for what they do by their managers and peers.

To do that, democratizing the process and making project management more “social” just seems to make sense. However, it’s not about incorporating a Twitter or Facebook feed into the software. It’s about creating an environment where people can work they way they naturally work and have meaningful conversations about their work (Twitter-like, but not Twitter).

These conversations provide context to otherwise marginally meaningful status indicators, giving opportunity to peers and managers to provide feedback and give the same kind of recognition people get on other social media.

Democratizing work allows team members to have input into time-lines and deliverables, giving them a sense of ownership. This type of ownership doesn’t exist within a top-down management culture.

And, it requires something more than a simple user interface makeover. Project management software needs to help people work the way they naturally work and collaborate with their peers in a way that makes sense and provides value at the grass-roots level. We need to change the way we think about managing work, which will change the way we build software to do it. We’ve embraced that paradigm-shift, and that’s what makes AtTask different and what is driving our company and our product development. We challenge other project management software providers to do the same. Until they do, our industry will struggle with poor adoption in organizations, failing projects and worse—irrelevance.

Ty Kiisel, At Task Software
Ty Kiisel is a work management evangelist; “accidental” project manager and marketing veteran with over 25 years of experience. He writes about project management, leading teams, and basically getting work done for AtTask, Inc.. Ty’s blog is syndicated daily on Alltop, CIOZone, Gantthead, and IT Toolbox. He also writes a regular tips article for IT World and contributes as one of their Trusted Voices. Ty makes the concepts and best practices of work management accessible to both the expert and novice (or accidental) project professional by weaving personal experiences, historical references and other anecdotes into daily discussions around effective leadership approaches that maximize the effectiveness of teams. His bi-weekly podcast, TalkingWork, introduces successful work management practices to a new audience with an entertaining and informative format including interviews with industry experts and successful business leaders. Ty is a contributor to two books, one to be released later this year, The Project Pain Reliever and the recently published Business Driven PPM.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • Elizabeth

    It’s really interesting to hear Ty’s views. It is hard to get people to use project management tools, but why should they have to? It saves the project manager a job if the team members do it themselves, but it doesn’t help them be more efficient. The advantage of something like AtTask is that you store all the project knowledge as well, which makes it useful for everyone to use and keep up to date.

  • Hey, Elizabeth! Excellent points. To your question about why people should have to use a PM tool? Well, they absolutely don’t. But they do have to inform the project manager about time and progress. And from my perspective, this is my biggest issue with any reporting approach, whether it’s an online or offline activity (i.e., here’s my hours for the week in Excel). The project manager can do all kinds of slicing and dicing of the data, but if the data’s wrong, it’s wrong. In every organization I’ve ever worked for, this has been an activity performed once per week, often begrudgingly, by the team members. This has two main results:

    1) reports are slapped together, with more attention on just getting it out of the way than being accurate
    2) any inaccuracies can have a significant cumulative effect over time

    also,

    3) depending on the number of tasks a team member is responsible for in a given week, reporting can be a big job, during which time no other work is happening…and all team members tend to do their reports at the same time on a Friday so it’s basically a project-wide shutdown for an hour

    In geographically diverse teams, or programs with multiple levels of staff, these problems are amplified.

    To fight this, my only recourse has been to ask my people to keep a notepad with them and write down their time as they do each task…but I can’t make them. If only there were some way to distribute reporting across each work event rather than make it a weekly thing…..

    And as a bonus? Micro updates that force transparency….

    I don’t know for a fact that At Task makes this easier (I’m not a user), but what I do see is that they’re really trying to fix some fundamental problems about how projects are run. I dig that. 🙂

    I’d be interested in hearing an At Task user’s experience in this area….

  • Hi Elizabeth,

    You’re absolutely right, it is difficult to get team members to use software tools that don’t provide them any value. I believe that if we can simplify and streamline the process for collecting project data, project managers can spend less time doing what can be automated (collecting project status and building reports) and more time doing what can’t be automated (removing roadblocks, facilitating collaboration and actually leading teams). By giving individual team members something that actually provides value to them, project leaders are able to easily and seamlessly get the information they and other business leaders need to inform decisions.

    Of course, doing this doesn’t necessarily require a project management software solution. However, if you believe the statistics, our profession has failed (to one degree or another) at leading projects to successful outcomes. Something needs to change or the role of “project manager” will continue to be marginalized and eventually become irrelevant. I believe that a different approach to the process and a different approach to software could provide an answer.

    I disagree that engaging team members in the PM process doesn’t make them more efficient. I have observed that when team members understand the vision of a project, take ownership of their contribution to the project and make commitments about that contribution, it does make them more efficient and happier about what they do. The right type of management approach combined with tools that facilitate that approach, is what I advocate. (This is in addition to keeping all the project data in one place as opposed to disparate systems and desktops.)

    If we (project leaders) ever want to see our role in organizations earn the respect of other line-of-business leaders within the organization, we really do need to start thinking about how the technical tools we use as project leaders interact with the leadership skills required to lead project teams.

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