Back in September, Peter Campbell kicked off a discussion about project management in this space. I wanted to pick up the thread by focusing in on Basecamp
. Among project management-related tools, Basecamp has the buzz. It is quite common when we start a new project, that someone from the team involved will have used it and know their way around it.
The company 37Signals offers Basecamp as a pay as you go hosted service. On their web site, 37Signals tags Basecamp, “Get projects done.” Searching Google for “Basecamp ‘project management’” yields 227,000 hits this morning. All that said, it is a mistake to consider Basecamp a project management system. It is much better to think of it as a communication tool that supports project management.
Interestingly, the 37Signals tagline expands to “Basecamp is the smarter, easier, more elegant way to collaborate on your internal and client projects.” Facilitating collaboration is definitely Basecamp’s strength. As a standard practice for our web and other projects, we store project documents (tracking revisions); set major project dates (milestones); track tasks that follow from those milestones; collaboratively edit and design documents; and above all, as a way to have easy, lively blog-like discussions of project issues. You can follow projects messaging via email or subscribe to an RSS feed.
There is a lot you can do with these tools to keep a project moving ahead and keep a whole team, typically including client staff and consultants. From a formal project management point of view, however, you may miss some things or find what’s there incomplete:
- You can’t assign dates to individual tasks (only to entire task lists associated with a milestone). This is perhaps the biggest grievance on the Basecamp forums features wanted list.
- You also can’t prioritize tasks or assign more than one person to them. These things mean that you can’t really use the Todo lists as an issue or “bug” tracker.
- You can’t create Gantt charts or other formal project management diagrams.
- You can create templates for individual todo lists, but you can’t template a whole project. So, we have a todo list template for our steps in a configuring a new Drupal install, but not a template for everything that has to happen from design to go live.
- You can track time spent on tasks, but you can’t bill from that time. There are add-ons that help with this.
- It is easy to maintain multiple projects with multiple client teams and keep them separate and secure, but you can’t assign project-level administrators. All administrative roles are global to all projects.
- Somewhat different: the collaborative note pages (“writeboards”) use a wiki like mark-up language. Most folks would probably refer a standard editor.
- Basecamp alone doesn’t have group chat, though you can add it in using 37Signals’ “Campfire.” This allows twitter-like project-based discussion.
Despite these gaps, Basecamp makes a lot of sense when your style of project management emphasizes collaboration. This is particularly so where you need to have collaborative teams including both client staff and outside designers, strategists, developers, which is typical for us. Further, I find myself often in the situation of convening teams that include folks thrust in the position of managing software or web projects for the first time. They have the budget, they have the goals, they represent users with needs, but they aren’t used to what happens next.
Basecamp is in the space as other systems we have tried, including Central Desktop
, Zoho Projects
, Active Collab
, and, yes, our own Drupal-based imitation of some of the features. My thoughts here to some degree apply to all of them, even where some of these have some of the features not (yet) in Basecamp. Emphasizing what we called the client-side coordination of project management, we have found Basecamp’s well-engineered, intuitive, Web 2.0-ish, framework a plus.
Basecamp presents the most essential features for collaborative, iterative, even agile development in an appealing, less techy, less threatening way. It is a compromise, but using things that have more of a full project management mold may produce a drop off in team us. We find greater fall back on just emailing the project manager and expecting him/her to repost messages.
In the Basecamp forums, users express a lot of frustration with 37Signals nonchalance about some of the feature requests mentioned above. It has to be said that they do regularly add features. In the last year or so, they added the ability to response to emailed messages from within your email. They added discussion threads on individual tasks (todo’s). These and some other functional and usability improvements have made a difference. When I read some of the frustration and even anger at 37Signals (ok, see http://www.whybasecampsux.org), I also think about what which of the front line features, including ones we want, might tip things back toward less team participation. If individual tasks had space for due dates, priorities, and multiple team members, would that discourage the client staff from quickly easily throwing things onto lists for everyone to process?
In other words, it’s a trade off.
For those out there using Basecamp, here are some of the things we have found that make a difference:
- Show people in person how to use it as part of a planning meeting. Don’t rely on just adding people and sending a message.
- Although you can’t “clone” a project or have a project template, you can create todo list templates and these can really help frame standard approaches in your project streams.
- Continue to monitor regular email, copy messages into Basecamp and respond there, and don’t make a big deal about it. Over time, folks will likely grasp the advantages of using the system and drift over.
- Make sure you choose everyone’s best email address.
- Use external links to incorporate external tools that might have your higher end PM functions. Create a project note (“writeboard”) with web links to google docs or spreadsheets, hosted project diagrams, wiki pages, issue tracker, code repository, or resources from other systems you use. This keeps everything centralized.
- Check out the add-ins to Basecamp. There are both free scripts (for example, see these cool Firefox scripts for basecamp: http://userscripts.org/scripts/search?q=basecamp) as well as paid resources. (http://www.basecamphq.com/extras) For example, one I like that is cool and inexpensive is ThickToast from vb123.com. It allows you to take the standard XML export of your project data and bring it into an Access or SQL server database for further analysis or integration. There are also tools to integrate with popular products for time tracking, SVN code repository, billing and more.
So, bottom line for us has been, get past the idea that adopting Basecamp, or other such communication software, will give you a complete project management system. Instead focus on its use as a tool to support collaborative styles within a project management framework.