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.
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.
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