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The Best Project Management Software for 2021


What Is Project Management Software?

Let’s say you’re building a house. It’s a complex process where some tasks must be done in a particular order. You cannot install windows if you haven’t put up the walls yet. You probably have dozens of people helping you build the house, too, and you have to know which days people are available to pour the foundation, lay the tile, and so forth. The way to track all the jobs that need to be done in a complex project and the people doing them is to use project management software.

Project management software is a type of online and collaborative app where everyone who’s working on a project can go to see who’s doing what when, and whether each job is on track to be done on time. Everyone sees which tasks are assigned to them and when to start working. The person managing the project and assigning the work can see what needs to be done and who is potentially free to do it. Everyone involved gives progress updates on their tasks as needed and marks off tasks when completed.

For this roundup, we stick to traditional project management apps, which all offer Gantt charts among other tools for tracking, organizing, and scheduling project work.

Gantt chart view in Zoho Projects

What Can You Do With a Project Management App?

Project management apps let you track nearly any kind of project, whether it’s launching a marketing campaign, creating a new product, or building a house or website. Teams that use project management apps are typically tracking more than one project at a time. The software helps them figure out when to schedule work based on when things need to get done and the human resources available to do it.

The very best project management apps help teams handle common problems, such as slipped deadlines, by sounding a warning before a deadline slips and offering to automatically reschedule tasks that are affected down the line. They generate reports that give managers insight into which team members have too much—or too little—work on their plates. Many let you track project budgets, too, and log billable hours so that you can bill clients for time worked. 

The most important thing to know about project management apps, as opposed to other kinds of work-management apps, is that they are for projects. That might sound like a tautology, but it’s important.

Gantt chart view in ProofHub

Projects vs. Other Kinds of Work

Projects are a specific type of work. They are sets of tasks that have a start date, end date, and deliverable. Building a house is a project. Launching a new website is a project. 

So what’s not a project? Maintaining a website is not a project. Instead, it’s an example of ongoing work with no clear beginning or end date much less a deliverable. Answering help emails from customers is ongoing work. Writing daily content for a blog could technically be considered a project—each post has a clear start, end, and deliverable—but it’s such a simple project that most people don’t need to build a schedule to manage it. Whenever you have work with a short turnaround time, it’s worth asking whether putting it into full-scale project management software would be overkill.

Work isn’t always black and white, project or non-project. Sometimes there’s overlap or your team needs to do both project and non-project work simultaneously. For that reason, some project management apps help you manage other kinds of work in addition to projects (it’s often bug-tracking or issue-tracking). 

There are other kinds of collaboration apps that are better for managing non-project work, such as Trello, Asana, Basecamp, and Airtable. Even with some of these apps, you can manage lightweight projects, too. See? Plenty of overlap.

Teamwork dashboard

The Best Free Project Management Software

A few of the best project management software systems have free versions. Usually, these free versions are severely limited in some way. For example, you might be allowed to manage only one or two projects with the free version or invite a handful of people to work alongside you. Plus you usually don’t get all the best features of the app in the free version. Still, if you have a small team and need to only manage one or two projects, it might work.

You can get a free account from Zoho Projects, Teamwork, Wrike, TeamGantt, ProofHub, and a few others that did not make this list, such as Volerro and AceProject. Redmine is a 100 percent free project management app, but you have to install and maintain it yourself. It’s not an off-the-shelf product, but rather an open-source alternative.

TeamGantt Gantt overlay

The Best Project Management Apps for Small Businesses

If your team needs to manage and track a couple of projects, but you’re less concerned with employee scheduling, collecting timesheets to bill clients, and comparing the progress of dozens of projects in development, a low-cost tool such as Zoho Projects (about $3-$6 per person per month) or Teamwork ($12.50 per person per month) is the best bet. We also like GanttPRO and TeamGantt for small teams on a budget.

There’s no need to spend more than about $15 per person per month if you aren’t going to use the tools that are unique to more expensive software, so stick with something more modest. It might be perfectly adequate for your needs.

LiquidPlanner

The Best Project Management Apps for Large Organizations

Large organizations have starkly different needs than small businesses. Organizations with hundreds or thousands of employees and hundreds of projects use project management apps for scheduling, insights into their resources, budget-tracking, revenue projection, time-tracking for billing purposes, among other reasons.

For a large company, it’s important to be able to manage not just individuals, but also teams. If you have 15 hours of work for a junior designer, and it doesn’t matter which junior designer does it, you want to be able to see how much work all the junior designers have assigned to them and whether you can free up one of them for the task. For the same reason, all the managers and team leads in your company should be able to see what tasks are high priority and which projects are in danger of slipping so that they can triage accordingly.

For large organizations handling complex projects and many team members, our top choice is LiquidPlanner, with Celoxis not far behind it.

Wrike spaces new

The Best Project Management App With Special Features

Teams that aren’t quite small businesses, but also aren’t enormous organizations may have special needs that they want their project management software to address.

For example, for managing both project and non-project work, we recommend Wrike or Celoxis. (LiquidPlanner is a good pick too, but it’s best for large groups.) If your team spends a lot of time discussing and iterating visual assets, ProofHub is a great choice. Volerro has some tools for proofing, too, although it didn’t score high enough to make this roundup. Smartsheet is good for building automations into your project management. And Paymo, another app that didn’t quite make the cut for this roundup, comes with billing and invoicing software built right into it.

Choosing What’s Best for Your Team

Choosing the right project management software can take time. It’s important to consider what kind of work your team does, how many people are in the organization, and how you want to run your business. There are a lot of excellent options to fit every budget.

With a reliable project management app in place, people can collaborate with greater ease on project work. Plus, business owners and team managers can get useful insights into how their teams work, whether projects are on track, and how to guide them back to a successful place when they slip.

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