The Virtual Toolkit for Project Managers
Over the past couple of years, my project management journey’s have taken me to projects that seem more a more distributed. Multiple locations, different vendors, time zone challenges, language barriers... you name it. Over the course of that time, I’ve found myself experimenting with ways to enhance communication, deliverable reviews, and basic project management techniques. Finally, I found the time to compile a list of tools that have worked for me for dealing with distributed teams. This list is, in no way, meant to be complete. It’s meant to inform and hopefully, generate further discussion and sharing about other tools out there that others have found effective as well.
Communication Tools - Today, these are almost table stakes for project managers. Almost every project manager better be proficient in using Cisco’s Webex collaboration tool, JoinMe, GotoMeeting, Skype, or any other virtual meeting tools available on the market.
Deliverable Reviews - Sure you can use one of the collaboration tools above to walk through a document, but waiting until a meeting to provide feedback seems so inefficient. What I've seen work is a combination of products out there. For document reviews in MS Word, providing comments in the document, but also embedding audio comments helps. Being able to hear someone explain their feedback, enables more context to be provided and a clearer understanding of what they are trying to communicate. Lately, the project team that I have been working with has been using pdf's, providing comments in the pdf's and then recording themselves using the Mac's web camera, and then using Quicktime X to record their desktop as well. This technique, allows a more real time review of the document, where you can see and hear the person in the corner of the screen, and then watch them make edits and comment on the material. I've found this works great especially for more visual/creative type deliverables like screen mockups and wireframes. For more visual information architecture deliverables, you need a more visual way to provide feedback. Here is a YouTube link that shows you exactly how to do this.
Mobile - The above tools work great for web-based work, but when it comes to mobile, you are a bit more constrained depending on how many UDID's you have to share across your team. I've found the Reflector application by Air Squirrels works excellent for show and tell of mobile apps. The ability to take your mobile device and, through Airplay, reflect the device on your Mac or PC, allows you to demo your mobile application to anyone distributed when combining with the communication tools above.
Document Sharing - Microsoft Sharepoint seems to work fine for distributed teams IF they have a Sharepoint license of their own. Many smaller vendors and design boutiques don't have the funds to support such an application. Therefore, I recommend Dropbox or box.net. I absolutely love Dropbox and it's ability to share a folder of material with other team members. There are other such apps out there but Dropbox for me seems to be best in bread right now.
Project Schedules - When working with distributed teams who are also different vendors, not everyone has MS Project (or wants to have it). Sure you can save your schedule as a pdf file and send it around, but it seems that nobody really looks at or cares to look at anything with an extension of .mpp. What's worked for me lately is building my schedule in MS Project and then integrating it i2e Consulting's app Project Planning Pro allows me to put my schedule on my iPad and then both show and share the schedule in a more meaningful way to my team. The app LiquidPlanner also seems to be pretty decent if you want to just use your iPad for planning and managing your projects. However, personally, I still need some of the power of MS project for bigger projects. For smaller projects, going lite by using tools like Evernote or GoTask (by Gotap) seems to work well.
In addition to using the app Project Planning Pro, I like the app Risk Register + for managing risk and integrating my risk register into Project Planning Pro for a complete experience. i2e's products seem to "get it" when it comes to project management.
Pet Peev - There are plenty of software tools for managing projects out there ranging from Rally to Planbox, but all those tools require you to add each member of your team through email. Each member needs an account. However, at the beginning stages of your project, many times you don't know who exactly is going to be on your team, so without the ability to add generic resources and model your schedule through what-if scenarios, I find these tools a bit constraining.
I know there are a ton of tools out there. The tools above have worked for me. However, I'm always interested in finding a new tool to break down the walls distributed teams. Let me know what works for you!