No matter what kind of project you’re managing, there’s a direct, causal relationship between process and outcome. In other words, it’s not just what you’re working on that matters but how you work on it.
Traditionally, the project management discipline has prized control and long-term forecasting over the particulars of work in progress. But considering 46 percent of all projects still fail to meet their original goals and intent, there’s a growing demand for real-time visibility into the movement of tasks and resources.
Visual project management is a new approach (and new technology) designed to address some of these challenges. By embracing it, teams and organizations can complete projects of any type with greater speed and efficiency.
What is Visual Project Management?
For the most part, visual PM is exactly what it sounds like: a project management strategy designed to increase success through visualization of project components, such as data and tasks. Mark Woeppel, the author of Visual Project Management, describes it like this:
“Visual Project Management is a process that uses visualization of the delivery process to drive team behaviors.”
Visual features can be a valuable asset for any project style, but they’re most commonly associated with agile methods such as Scrum and Kanban. In some ways, visual PM takes its cue from the good old-fashioned whiteboard. The whiteboard has served as a roadmap, progress tracker, and collaboration tool for all kinds of development teams.
But the history of visual PM is much older than the whiteboard.
The oldest roots date back to 1896, when Polish economist Karol Adamiecki created the “harmonogram” — a floating bar chart used to show tasks or resources changing across time. Not long after, in 1912, the famous Gantt Chart was born — used first to build ships during WWI and later to construct the Hoover Dam.
Adamiecki’s “harmonogram.” aom.org
Michael Dubakov, Founder and CEO of Targetprocess, says that visual PM started to crystalize around 2010 with the popularity of the Kanban approach. “One of the Kanban principles is to visualize workflow in order to better understand what is going on and what can be improved.”
Modern visual project management software is much more advanced, but its purpose is the same: to provide greater flexibility and improved outcomes through visibility into bottlenecks, tasks interdependencies, progress, and priorities. “In the recent 5 years we have seen a spread of visual tools like Kanban boards, timelines, and integrated BI systems with powerful reporting,” says Dubakov. In all kinds of industries (especially the IT world) visual project management is now helping teams stay in sync and respond to changing requirements.
In terms of actual methodology, many of the visual tools that have proven useful combine the best aspects of Kanban and lean production with the Scrum foundation that dev teams are used to. Some users have taken to calling this style “Scrum-ban.”
Common visual features include:
- Real-time dashboards
- Graphic reports (Gantt, burndown, etc.)
- Boards (Kanban)
- Product Roadmaps
The Changing Landscape
When fully embraced, visual project management can bring some dramatic improvements to the way teams collaborate and work. As modern software continues to evolve, more teams will adopt visual tools to improve their development lifecycles, over time raising the benchmark for an efficient project delivery process.
Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways visual tools can impact the future of project management. As your organization plans products and strategies for this year, try to pull some of these ideas into the conversation.
The Ability to Isolate Problem Areas Faster
As your teams work through various projects, there will inevitably be obstacles — things that slow the movement of tasks, stories, or feature requests during a sprint. Without the necessary visibility, it’s difficult for a project manager to troubleshoot delays or recurring problems.
A visual project management solution can make spotting and solving these “blockers” much easier. You get a real-time picture of where each component of a project rests, so you can quickly identify bottlenecks and trace issues to their source. For example, let’s say you notice that user stories are repeatedly getting “stuck” in the testing phase or re-entering a later sprint due to unsatisfactory completion. By visualizing the workflow, you can isolate the root cause and then communicate with the relevant team members to initiate change.
Better Resource Planning and Allocation
Resource and requirements planning is one of the most crucial components of any project: get it wrong, and you’ll have a project that gets delivered both late and over budget. There’s a little more leeway with agile projects (since work is done in short iterations), but decision-makers still need to stay responsive to changing requirements and be able to shift priorities or reassign team members when necessary.
The speed of change demands fast resource management. The right visual tools can help you tighten your development lifecycle by maximizing your use of resources—both in the planning phase and in continued optimization during the project. A visual resource planning feature, for example, shows where your team members are assigned and what tasks they’re working on. You can also drill down to assess individual skill sets and schedule availability.
More Projects Completed On-Time
One of the first principles of the Agile Manifesto is “. . . early and continuous delivery.” If your goals are built around this principle, it’s important to remove every possible impediment and give developers maximum visibility. Without the right tools, project information gets siloed into email threads, chat conversations, and spreadsheets, and team members have a hard time remembering who’s working on what. Ultimately, this leads to redundant efforts and a longer cycle time.
Visual PM can speed progress by conveying real-time project information in a way that is easier to access, understand, and share. It also makes it easier for team leaders to track work in progress and remove impediments before they delay the product. A Kanban board — which uses “cards” to move tasks through different stages of the project — is a perfect example of visual workflow optimization.
The Spread of Project Management Solutions
Finally, the growing popularity of visual features means that project management software itself will become easier to implement and easier to use for all team members. Even smaller companies with limited experience can set up a cloud-based visual PM solution in less than a day. That means small, agile teams can become even more agile without the overhead of a consulting service or an expensive, time-consuming implementation.
With agility at a maximum, project teams can improve the customer experience by running faster iterations with fewer bugs. Thus, visual PM tools create a more sustainable, scalable development model.
There is, of course, room to grow. Dubakov points to a general lack of research in the visual PM field. “To my knowledge, there are no people who understand both domains well enough in order to lead the visual management movement,” he says. In the coming years, we can hope to see additional research and innovation in some of the following areas:
- Using visual PM tools to aid decision-making
- Different visual approaches for different sub-domains
- Visualizations for planning, capacity management, tracking, and forecasting
- Process management and problem resolution
- Closer integration between visual PM and business intelligence tools
Visual project management isn’t some radical new approach that turns the discipline upside down. It’s just a set of tools and techniques that reinforce what we already know: people work and manage projects more efficiently when they’re “in the loop,” and when they have a clear picture of how project components move and interconnect. The best way to represent and share this information in real time is not with a list, or a spreadsheet, or a series of emails, but with a visual.
Aleks Peterson is the content manager at TechnologyAdvice, a B2B research firm that connects buyers and sellers of business technology.
In June 2016, we switched most of the people inside our company to open allocation. They have the freedom to start their own initiatives that are aligned with the central goal of providing a better user experience and fixing critical problems in Targetprocess product.
10 months have passed, and we can now analyze the experiment results. In this post I'll share my opinion about the experiment and mix it with the opinions of the people who participated.
Here is the current initiatives Roadmap. A very good thing is that almost all initiatives were implemented on time. It means people respected their commitments and did their best to keep promises. A bad thing is that some of the implemented features were still not deployed to production servers due to huge infrastructure changes caused by the microservices approach. Basically, you can't give a promise to release something when the infrastructure is not ready.
Another trivial observation is a struggle to fit R&D activities into the Initiatives model. If a team doesn't know how to attack the problem, it created "Research initiative", thus we timebox research. Then, when a solution is found, the team starts a usual Initiative with the results.
Overall, we wanted to solve the problem of speedy delivery, and we got mixed results. Yes, most features were implemented on time, but the infrastructure held them back.
Small Lesson #1. People don't like deadlines, but... deadlines work (when you have no problems with infrastructure).
Deadlines lead to cut corners, worse quality, and poorer solutions. In my personal opinion, this is not a huge problem, since you always have to balance quality and time. Estimates are not forced and, overall, teams have enough time to complete features with good quality.
Freedom of choice
Freedom boosted motivation. People were more enthusiastic to fix some old problems and work on things they wanted to improve a long time ago. Here are some feedback quotes:
On its own, the idea is great and summarizes the essence of any modern social science since it gives freedom to choose your work, stimulates an individual's initiative, pro-activity and creative potential
It inspires people to take ownership of our product. A good practice for freedom, responsibility, and trust.
People feel more passionate and responsible about what they build, I guess. We finally have kind of deadlines, that we stick to. We have a clear definition of done for features, with clear deliverables such as product demo, blog post, working piece of software etc. It seems we deliver better quality, faster and more often.
Initiatives force you to focus on a single task. It improves timely delivery, but hurts mutual help. You might think twice to dedicate several hours of your time to help someone from another team. Sometimes it is good, but sometimes it can lead to local optimization. Sure, you will have your feature delivered on time, but from a company level your help may be extremely valuable.
I think this trade-off is OK. If you like to help other people, you can act in the Free Agent role rather than join an initiative. Or, you become more creative and try to teach people quickly instead of doing everything yourself.
This got worse. Ideas are quite diverse and I hoped to have an emergent vision as a result. I don't think it happened though. We indeed fixed several important problems, but some of the top problems are still there, like extremely poor notifications. I defined a wide goal to improve UX and increase NPS, but this goal was too broad and almost all features can be stretched to fit this goal. In my opinion, this lead to a slight feeling that our direction is unknown and the product has no vision.
Small Lesson #2: Define a bold goal for the year and quite narrow goals for the quarters.
And a quote:
The scope we do is driven by someone's desire but not by market demand. Sure, there is a filter which guarantees that useless feature won't pass. But this filter doesn't guarantee that necessary feature will go into development (because nobody would like to take them and HEADs cannot force). Important items can be in a backlog for years.
One of the worst decisions we've made is a reward for successful Initiative completion. Teams that complete an Initiative got several Orange Days (which can be converted to Days Off). This immediately downplays the contribution of all people outside Initiatives.
Initiatives violate our core value: trust. A company should trust that their people will do their best to get a job done. Initiatives might give off the impression that "we don't trust you will do great work without a reward, so we give you a bonus that will stimulate you to complete work on time". It is assumed that development speed is low due to lack of deadlines, but in reality, complexity of integration and some external blockers are the cause.
Some one still needs to do the "dirty jobs" and I don't think that it's fair that this work is not rewarded with orange time.
We wanted to stimulate the Initiatives practice with an additional reward, but it was a bad idea. In fact, freedom of choice and regular intrinsic motivation is enough to make great things.
Small Lesson #3: Don't underestimate intrinsic motivation.
Lack of Training
Another mistake we've made is poor guidance. Yes, I wrote about the practice, ran clarification sessions, and answered questions. But after this initial kickstart, I did a poor job of supporting and promoting it.
I should have worked with key people and ran educational session about how to define top problems, how to do UX, how to test results, etc. Self-organization requires good skills and great understanding of the business context. I relied on cheap self-organization, but this doesn't work in the complex environment of a B2B SaaS company.
Huge lesson #4: Adaptive self-organization demands high energy costs.
In general, people liked the idea, but implementation was far from perfect. Can this model replace traditional Product Managers and Product Owners? Yes, it can. However, make sure that you do the following to avoid our mistakes:
- 20% of people should be highly experienced, have deep understanding of business context and good understanding of product development practices. If you don't have it, run training programs and maybe in a year people will be ready.
- Education should not stop.
- Information transparency is extremely important. You should have a process to collect requests from customers using various channels, aggregate their feedback and help people to distill top problems to focus on.
- Be careful with bonuses and rewards. By default it is easier to not have them at all.
- Implement freedom gradually.
#5 demands clarification. Imagine, you have a completely strict process where people got all assignments from managers. Here is an example of gradual freedom:
Choose own tasks from a story > Choose own stories from a backlog > Choose large features from backlog > Participate in backlog creation > Choose anything you believe is right.
If you jump to complete freedom from the typical Scrum practice of "Choose own stories from a backlog", people will feel frustration. Help them one step at a time.
Will we stick to Initiatives model?
I think we will go one step back and let people choose features from a backlog and participate in backlog creation, running required training programs for product development in parallel. With more experience we will restart the Initiatives practice. It is fun and works quite nice, but we were unprepared for it as a company, and I was unprepared for it as a leader.
Restore deleted projects or users
You can now easily "undelete" Projects and Users from the "Deleted items" menu in Settings. Previously, it was not possible to restore deleted Projects and Users without using the API.
Please find more info in the guide.
Visual Reports Improved
We recently made some nice improvements to the Visual Reports Editor. Read about them at this dedicated blogpost.
We really appreciate your feedback on our reports editor. What do you like about it? What could be improved? Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fixed incorrect effort calculation in Burn Down charts when a Feature is removed
- Added support for decimal values in custom fields on the Timesheet
- Fixed: Contributors could not create Releases for Projects that they were not a member of
- Fixed an exception that would occur when Test Plans and Test Cases on the same Board had different tags
- Deleted Users will now have a strikeout through their name if someone tries to @mention them in comments
- Processes are now sorted alphabetically in the Quick Add menu
- Fixed an exception ('Oops...Something's wrong') that would occur when adding an 'Effort' custom unit to cards in a Person/State view
- Fixed an inability to delete a Process that is used by deleted Projects
Period scale for date axis
Dates are now scaled as continuous axes by default. If you need to use periodic scales for dates, you can switch scale type from the field popup.
Legend filtering has been improved. Now, several categories in the legend can be selected, and changes will be reflected on the chart.
The mechanics of tooltip have been improved. Projection to axis was added for stacked bars and areas to see the total value of the stacked items.
We will really appreciate your feedback on our reports editor. What do you like about it? What could be improved? Let us know what you think at email@example.com