Best Project Management Software for 2021
Project management software helps project managers and teams complete client requirements and manage time, budget, and scope constraints. This business application provides benefits especially if chosen correctly to match an organization’s requirements.
The top 10 project management software
Project management tools are expanding their functions and crossing boundaries with their combination of features, further complicating the user’s selection process. We built a list of the best project management software for different types of industry and business needs to assist you in this crucial selection process.
What is project management software?
Project management software helps project managers, teams, and individual contributors complete tasks, organize client requirements, and manage time, budget, and scope constraints.
Companies that use the right project management benefit by delivering projects that provide the expected results within cost and on time. This guide covers the types of project management implementation, the major features you should look for, and what companies of all sizes should consider when making a purchase.
Types of project management software implementation
When software became available and affordable to business, companies replaced their pen-and-paper project tracking systems with project management software. But technology continues to evolve, so desktop applications improved in features, scale, and security that allowed multiple users access to the software over a company’s own data network. When cloud computing presented options and advantages, project management software vendors offered their subscription-based products over the internet to businesses of all sizes. It also opened the market to more providers offering a variety of systems.
Web-based project management software
Web-based project management software is accessible from any internet-connected web browser through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription. These online platforms cater to businesses of all sizes across industries. Users in various locations can access the tool from different devices such as desktops, tablets, and smartphones to get up-to-date project status and information from a central database.
Today’s web-based project management programs have a rich set of features that can compete with enterprise systems. Many of these apps provide several methods to visualize project tasks and goal progress, collaborate with coworkers, automate workflows, share files, message team members, and integrate with email. By expanding their feature sets, many web-based project management tools also fall into the categories of collaboration software or business process management software.
On-premise project management software
On-premise project management software resides on the company’s own server. The server will be inside their data center and managed by its IT employees. Companies often purchase a single on-premise license and may have to purchase additional upgrades or updates.
Companies prefer on-premise software for their concern on security as well as long-term costs. When the company runs the software on their private servers, they have full control over the data storage and security protocols to protect that data. Enterprises with 50, 100, or more users can save from monthly subscription costs if they purchase one-time license fees used in on-premise project management software. They also have control when to schedule software updates to make preparations and not experience any downtime due to an automatic product update inherent in SaaS systems.
Integrated vs. best of breed software
Today’s project management software includes several features and tools to manage a wide array of business project scopes. Specialized software can manage simple projects satisfactorily. A best-of-breed application specializes in one particular capability, such as task management, scheduling, or time tracking. Integrated suite applications combine several functions like task management, Gantt charting, and time tracking. Businesses prefer integrated tools for a unified solution that provides visibility, improves collaboration, and supports accountability.
Startups and small businesses need a simple project management solution with fewer features that cover basic functionality. Task management, team collaboration, document management, and email integrations are the common features in simple project management software.
A comprehensive project management software has more features that cover core project management functions such as scheduling, resource management, and financial management on top of more advanced project management features. A PM suite will have a higher cost but also deliver accurate estimates, dependencies control, unlimited projects within a single instance, real-time progress tracking, and comprehensive reports that justifies the price of the solution. These tools also require more oversight and time to be more effective in managing projects. Larger organizations and teams prefer integrated project management software, especially for more complex projects.
Free project management software
Free project management software is available for home use, for very small teams of 1-2 people, and as a fully-featured free and open source system. Many of these tools are offered as a free tier by project management vendors that also provide various levels of paid service. Free tiers may have more limited features, may be restricted to a few users, or may come with limited personalized support. However, many small teams and those just testing out a new tool may find these options useful to help in their decision-making process.
Open source is a valuable option for large teams looking for a free project management software. These tools provide all of the same features you may find in a subscription or on-premise tool and many of these tools are highly customizable for different project types. However, access to support, implementation help, and custom changes will need to be managed by an in-house or third party development team.
Industry-specific project management systems
Not every industry is best-served with a standard project management system, and so industry-specific project management tools were developed to reduce the amount of customization a company will need upon implementation. Construction, software development, financial services, healthcare, and law all have features and customizations that make them better suited to industry work.
In industry-specific tools, you can expect to find collaboration tools, expense tracking, portfolio management, contractor management, resource management, and more. These tools may also help you manage a creative team, a remote team, or a specialized project within your larger portfolio.
Project management software features
As you research your next project management software, you’ll likely choose the right tool by the features it offers. The right features for your team will depend on the size of your team, the complexity of the projects you run, and the use case you will use the software in.
Task management software features let project team members create, update, and manage the progress of tasks throughout a project’s lifetime. This feature allows team members to:
- Set dependencies on a task
- Create and manage subtasks from larger tasks
- Set a task to repeat or recur at a specified time or date
- Assign tasks to one or more people
- Import a list of tasks from an external file
Task management is essential in a project management software. The best project management tools offer visual task management in Kanban boards, Gantt charts, waterfall dependencies, and burndown charts. These tools give a visual representation of project progress that is often easier to understand than a set of lists or items in a spreadsheet.
Collaboration tools help solve complex projects.
These features ensure that everyone who can see a task or portion of the project can comment, add assets to, and notate changes in the same interface where all of the project information is stored. Visual task representations, messaging, task descriptions, notation features, asset upload capabilities, tags, email integrations, calendar tools, and more are considered collaboration features.
Collaboration tools enable project teams and stakeholders to
- Exchange information
- Hold discussions
- Send comments or approvals
- Put context to project files
- Directly message one another
Creative teams may run several smaller projects concurrently, and can make use of Gantt charts and cross-team approvals to keep work flowing to reach deadlines. Large teams should use collaboration tools to keep the project up to date, alert team members to major and minor changes, and centralize assets.
Software support documentation helps new and existing team members troubleshoot issues within the software and learn to use the tools quickly. Documentation and support tools that shorten the learning curve include:
- Help desk articles
- Support videos
- Periodic educational webinars
- In-software tooltips
- Email or phone support
Some tools offer email and phone support only to paying subscribers, while others offer only online documentation or customer forums for any plan. If you think your team will need personalized support, look for tools with good support ratings.
Email features within a project management tool will:
- Send notifications to individual team members regarding the status of their projects
- Send alerts regarding due dates, keywords, or status changes to individuals or the entire team
- Make new or update existing tasks via email
- Add comments, files, or custom labels to an existing task
This feature significantly increases productivity as the user can manage tasks and updates from their inbox without logging in to the tool. Individual members should also be able to set limits on the frequency and types of email notifications they receive.
A good project management app provides a space for teams to store and manage files directly in the tool or by using an integrated third-party solution. Document management features that are indispensable in a PM software are:
- A centralized document storage
- The ability to attach documents to tasks
- The ability to attach notes and comments to uploaded documents
- Multiple document upload using drag and drop functionality
- Document organization within folders, projects, or custom settings
- Version control
- Security features that can restrict document sharing to a small team, an entire project, or outside parties
An online PM app also provides cloud storage space or integrates with a third-party service that provides it. Basecamp is a project management tool that is built around a centralized project document and also provides some asset upload capabilities.
Also read: Basecamp vs. Microsoft 365 Comparison
Project portfolio management
Large teams that manage many concurrent, complex projects may need to track each of those projects separately while also retaining the ability to report on and analyze their progression. Project portfolio management software gives companies an interface to run several projects within one or more portfolios. The project managers and stakeholders can then take a high level view of project progress, quickly identify bottlenecks, and drill down into problem areas with each project. These tools are also instrumental in team resource allocation and expense tracking across a number of project timelines, as they can show where slack can be taken up by other individuals.
A key feature of project portfolio management software is its ability to scale. These tools can manage unlimited projects with their own separate settings and workflows, but have reporting tools that are powerful enough to give a top-level view. Microsoft Project, Jira, and Wrike all provide project portfolio management features.
Also read: Microsoft Project Software Review
Today’s work has moved from the office desk to the field. Mobile access via native project management apps helps all types of teams, and are especially useful for distributed or remote teams. It provides a familiar interface and functionality so users can catch up on work, track progress, and message their teammates easily while on the go. PM vendors offer mobile app solutions on various platforms and technology such as iOS, Android, and HTML5.
Third-party integrations or API
The best project management tools have a solid core of PM features that allow users to manage an entire project effectively. It also has multiple integrations directly or via APIs for features and data sources outside of the project management tool. A flexible solution can readily integrate with many popular apps and services in use by companies today such as G Suite, Microsoft 365, Salesforce, or Dropbox. Zoho Projects, Wrike, Asana, and many other project management vendors offer a lot of integrations to connect to many other business software types.
White label, branding, and custom settings
When used for external clients, project management software will help teams with additional features such as white labeling, custom branding, or customization settings. These features often appeal to sales and marketing agencies and global or multinational corporations who want to adapt their tool to meet language and cultural requirements.
Project management software has reporting functionality included—but to varying degrees. Consider the depth of your reporting needs and whether the software you’re considering meets those needs. Another feature to consider is the ability to export project data to a third-party business intelligence tool if your company has one or is planning to have one. Helpful reporting features might track progress by due date or task type, update stakeholders on resource allocation, give a list of unfinished tasks, use tags to filter data, and estimate on-time delivery.
A PM software with scheduling functionality promotes organization in large, multiple, and remote teams. It allows the user to set schedules on tasks, create a project timeline with milestones, and determine dependencies and resources. For some, this is an essential project management function. However, for organizations with simple projects, short-duration projects, recurring tasks, or small teams, this may not be as important.
Time management features in a project management app let team members track how much time they spend on independent tasks, let project managers set ideal time goals for the project, and integrate with a timesheet or payroll app. Teams with long-term projects or that regularly employ contractors may find these tools especially useful. In software options built for large teams or industries with contractors, these features may also be called resource management and include expense tracking features. Microsoft Project offers resource management tools in their Project Plan 3 and Project Plan 5 pricing tiers.
Buying considerations for small businesses
Small businesses relying on spreadsheets or whiteboards miss an opportunity to manage their projects more efficiently. They can enjoy the advantages of a modern solution and still stay within budget with careful planning and mindful selection of important items while purchasing an affordable PM solution.
While it may be helpful for everyone on the team to have access to a project management tool, many options base price on user seats. Companies can identify the essential personnel who need paid access and those who can collaborate for free through other channels such as email or integration. Smaller organizations can easily bring the rest of the team up-to-date through reports that are generated without costs.
Free or low-priced options
While every company wants to save money on their software, free and low-priced options are especially attractive to small businesses who run on a shoestring budget. Affordable plans have limitations on the number of access or features, so it is important to plan for growth or expansion.
Open source project management can provide a free or low-cost option, but these tools often do not provide the technical support or frequent updates that free or inexpensive SaaS tools cover.
Task and project visualizations help teams see the progress of multiple projects running at the same time. These tools can assist in managing the progress of the initiative, but they can also be useful for project planning by giving a visual mind map of the project timeline. Whether it’s through a Kanban board, Gantt chart, burndown chart, or other custom visualization, these tools give an overview of the project’s progress. Small businesses should identify what data or metric is important for them to see and check that their choice of PM solution can display them by default or will allow for customization.
Buying considerations for medium-sized businesses
Growing businesses face different challenges such as the task of scaling their company requirements. Project management software can help these businesses make a mind map of their upcoming projects, define their project processes, refine existing inefficiencies, and improve overall project outcomes.
Mid-sized businesses have the tendency to adapt a greater number of solutions over time. As such, the ability of a project management software to integrate to these existing solutions plays a greater role. The candidate solution should have native app connections, capable of API calls, or include webhook features to automatically data transfer and speed up processes.
Time tracking software helps teams track contract work, employee hours, and billable time spent on projects. Project management software should include features that tie work hours directly to individual tasks. The solution should also be able to compute hours across projects or filter hours for individual contributors. You should also look for connections to accounting or payroll systems via export or direct integration.
Time tracking reports are useful for building a project plan because they give the team an idea of how long previous tasks have taken. This can give the project manager and the individual contributors more context when they go to assign tasks.
Reporting and analytics
Larger teams have a greater need to track and analyze key project data that comes from multiple sources. They need a project management software with a reporting and analytics engine to display the following metrics to help in the successful delivery of projects:
- Total tasks assigned to project and to individual team members
- Total time needed for task and overall project completion
- Tasks by completion stage
- Points, hours, or other metrics to indicate task and project weight
Reporting and analytics can also be useful to help the team benchmark successful projects and understand where they can streamline their processes in the future. Many teams use the project management software’s analytics in their retrospectives and for project planning.
Buying considerations for enterprise businesses
Large companies have the financial and infrastructure resources to implement enterprise-scale solutions. They need to find the right project management software that will maximize their resources as well as provide them the insights from across a huge amount of data while keeping data secure.
Enterprise businesses thrive on automation and connected apps. Whether your project management tool lives inside an ERP or business process management (BPM) system, or exists as a standalone solution, integrations are essential. API connections and native plugins ensure key information flows quickly into the project management tool and reporting metrics flow back out to the right systems.
Reporting and analytics
Reporting and analytics features in enterprise project management systems play a vital role for the software to be widely useful. These features show bottlenecks in the process or other indicators of needed efficiencies. They help the team build a future project plan based on real data from previous projects and provide a talking point for otherwise subjective measures. Enterprise companies need to check if their business intelligence tool can seamlessly integrate, import directly, or is compatible with the export format of their candidate PM solution.
Data safety and security should matter to companies of any size, but enterprise companies need user controls to effectively manage data access. An enterprise company looking for their next project management solution should carefully consider how the tools provide administrative authority over access to projects, the number of available user seats, and granular access to capabilities and tasks.
Implementing the right project management software for your business
Companies should carefully plan how they roll out a new project management software. The project manager responsible should get the support of major stakeholders—from C-level executives to end-users of the project team. Project managers should include a schedule that allocates the time to learn how to use the software before taking a major project. That way, each and every project will be set up properly. Be ready with support documents and some training materials to ensure that individuals don’t have to spend too much time learning about these project management tools and can quickly pivot back to their normal workloads.
We’ve outlined the best project management software tools at the top of the page. For less fully-featured options, you may look through our Top 10 Task Management Software article to help you find the right option for your needs.