Project Management, Collaboration, and How Our Brains Work

accelerate-your-team-with-online-workspaces-assemblaI’ve been struggling with the learning curves inherent in adapting new project management and collaboration tools for my own company and have previously blogged about the way my own brain processes information – and a GUI – quite differently from that of my company’s project manager.

The more I explore project management and collaboration options, the more clearly I see that I gravitate toward either the simpler (Basecamp) or the more visual (5pm). I have a very hard time with linear (Wrike) although I do like Wrike’s reminder lists a lot. And despite loving graphics, for some reason the visual of a Gantt Chart view just doesn’t compute with me.

The two most recent project management/collaboration tools I’m looking at are Assembla and ProjectThingy. Knowing more about how my brain accepts – and rejects – data input and the presentation of that data,  I’ve been approaching both of these tools in a new, more informed way.

The Workstream of Assembla

My first impression of Assembla was “this was created by software programmers for software programmers.” Nothing wrong with that, however: Assembla has a linear, straightforward and literal interface. No nonsense, no superfluous frills. It’s functional, practical and pragmatic.

David Parmet at Assembla says the app’s tools are for anyone working in a distributed team. You have the option of selecting pre-configured spaces including Software Development, Team Collaboration, Graphic Designers, and an Enhanced Subversion Repository. While the focus is broader than software developers, the options seem to be prioritized with developers in mind. As a marketer, for example, I didn’t feel immediately accommodated.

Parmet points out that Assembla also has staffing management tools built in. The entire work arrangement including contract and time management can be handled through the system’s staffing tool.

Andy Singleton, CEO and founder of Assembla, validated my observation that the company’s target market is software developers with distributed teams.

“We provide them with a comprehensive set of tools for code management, task management (such as) ticketing, collaboration, time tracking, and what we call workstreaming – a view of what the team is doing, through alerts and the “Stream” page.,” says Singleton, adding, “This helps them start work faster and be more productive.”

Singleton does emphasize that the non-development team can take advantage of Assembla workspaces and tools available to everyone on any team. About a third of the Assembla workspaces consist of general collaboration tools such as a wiki, messaging, alerts, etc.

Assembla launched in 2006 and grew to 100K users as a mainly free service. In Q4 08, Assembla converted private workspaces to a paid model and since then, the company has been aggressively adding new features and improvements. Upcoming features include:

1. Templates – any Assembla workspace can be used as a template for another space. Assembla will provide a “commission” if your clients subscribe to their service using your customized, branded workspace.

2. Developer’s Toolkit – In the spirit of open source, Assembla offers developers a kit to add tools and make all of their code available with an open (but not free) license.

3. Assembla’s workstreaming features, according to Singleton, include:

  • Email, RSS, and web views of events in any tool (released)
  • A user/stream page where you can see events from all of your spaces
  • Micro-blogging to any message space from users/stream
  • A portfolio/stream view where you can see events from all spaces in a portfolio (released)
  • Webhooks tool for sending events to any REST-enabled application (released)
  • Event API tool for attaching outside application events to the Assembla stream, with their own icons and alert formats. Together these tools will provide integration with Twitter, Yammer, Basecamp, Facebook, etc.

Moving on to ProjectThingy

projectthingy-embeddable-project-and-large-file-collaboration-widget-that-lives-on-your-site-1ProjectThingy takes an entirely different approach to project collaboration. They give you code that you place on your site and suddenly your own web site is enabled with useful – albeit basic – collaboration tools. There isn’t really a project management component to ProjectThingy, but its streamlined features are made better somehow because they reside on your own site.

From the ProjectThingy Dashboard, you can see:

1. Projects
2. Milestones
3. Work Items (where you can add files or links)
4. Messages (where you can assign tasks)

That’s it. But when it comes to collaboration, aren’t those the core items we need anyway?

ProjectThingy is simple, but just because it’s simple it doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in usefulness. My brain immediately gets what I can do with it and how I can use it. It has its limitations (no RSS subscriptions or alerts, for example), but it is really easy to use. 5pm, on the other hand, had a steep learning curve for some of my virtual team members and others still aren’t using it properly.

ProjectThingy founder Chris Ritke loves the idea of building real applications as embeddable widgets and he started with UploadThingy (an embeddable large file upload form) in May 2008. He started ProjectThingy around the Fall of 2008 but was hesitant to make it publicly available until more recently.

“Let’s face it – project collaboration is a boring old thing,” Ritke admits. “But I think this new twist is exciting – and I’m seeing a lot of interest in the concept.”

ProjectThingy’s CSS is minimal so the look and feel of your Dashboard basically is your own site’s design. Ritke cops to the simplicity of his app’s functionality and that the real focus is on collaborating and sharing versus scheduling.

Says Ritke, “In these days of blogs and Twitter, I think it’s important to focus on keeping team members connected. And also team members trusting and respecting each other. So you’ll see that all team members have the same permissions. Because if you need permissions because you don’t trust your team then I would say there’s something wrong with the team culture – too many permissions just make everything unnecessarily complicated.”

Another plus about ProjectThingy is that file attachments can be up to 1GB. No Gantt charts on the horizon for ProjectThingy, says Ritke. That’s certainly a relief for my brain. He is, however, toying with a CRM-type Thingy as well as a number of other Thingies already in the works.

So, which one to use?

Because these two applications – Assembla and ProjectThingy – are meant to serve slightly different purposes, it is hard to pick one over the other and that decision needs to be based first on your need to get things done and then how your brain works: which one suits the way that your brain likes to receive information and interact with an application.

My brain works quite happily with ProjectThingy. What about yours?

Update

Ritke from ProjectThingy emailed to say that his app does have email alerts: they are in the My Profile area. “Maybe they’re a little hidden,” he wrote. Well, they did hide from me! In My Profile, you have a number of choices for the alerts you’d like to receive including messages assigned to you and work items assigned to you.

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