There are so many essential tools for project managers available. You can get everything from apps dedicated to task lists to collaboration tools, to tools that calculate project risk and model outcomes for you. But faced with all this, have you ever wondered what you really, really need?

I have!

Here is my list of top 9 essential tools for project managers, the things that I believe you can't do without.

1. Lessons learned reports

Working with clients to get as much feedback as possible to improve future performance, lessons learned reports are something that I value highly. You should too. They let you see what has happened on the project from a (largely) impartial perspective and give you the chance to improve on those items in the future. Schedule lessons learned meetings in to your project on a regular basis and write up the reports quickly before you forget what you have discussed. Don't forget to implement any changes, otherwise you won't see any benefits from gathering the lessons learned in the first place.

2. Gantt charts

Gantt charts

I know some people will say that you can manage projects without a Gantt chart. I agree - I know that you can, and I have done so myself successfully in the past. But if you are managing a large, complex project I feel that a Gantt chart adds something that a standard task list (or any other way of displaying tasks) can't offer.

It's the graphical representation of tasks over time that I think makes the difference. I know that licences are expensive and that you can't always print out your Gantt chart neatly (I've spent many hours sticking bits of paper together to get a complete chart for the wall - by the time you've done that it is out of date). A tool like Seavus Project Viewer will help you share the .mpp files' Gantt chart with others, even if they don't have Microsoft Project. I have found that once people have got used to looking at Gantt charts they do find it easy enough to interpret them.

3. Project Management Software

It goes without saying that if you are using a Gantt chart you'll need some kind of project management software. You don't have to use Microsoft Project, of course, but producing your Gantt chart by hand or in a spreadsheet application is going to be nearly impossible - hard to maintain, difficult to change and time consuming all round. So get yourself a project management tool to do the heavy lifting for you.

There are loads out there and your company probably already has one that is perfectly adequate for what you want to do. Just remember to use it!

4. Change management process

Change management process

OK, perhaps this isn't really a tool in the same way that the others are. How about 'change management request template' as the tool, and this then feeds into the process.

Without change management, your Gantt chart will be out of date, and you won't be able to implement any of the lessons that you have learned - you won't be able to make changes to the way you work to incorporate any of the valuable feedback. Getting change management right means that you'll be able to go with the flow, adapt to how your environment changes and deliver something that people actually want! That's essential, isn't it?

5. Scope statement


Finally, for today at least, don't forget a well-crafted scope statement. This is essential to get your project off on the right foot. Too vague and you won't know what you are trying to do. Too detailed and you'll probably find that you never get started with any actual work as the different stakeholders thrash out the scope for weeks and weeks.

Get your team in a room (or meet virtually) and make sure that everyone agrees with what needs to be done on the project. Write it down, get the document approved and ensure everyone who needs a copy has a copy. It should be a document that you refer to often to check that you are on track to deliver everything required.

So far we looked at 5 essential tools for project managers, such as: lessons learned reports, Gantt charts, project management software, a change management process and the project scope statement. 4 more essential tools for project managers to go. Let's examine requirements documentation, stakeholder matrix, status reports, project initiation meeting.

6. Requirements documentation

Everyone does know what they are doing, right? Unless you have clear documentation for all your requirements then chances are that even if they think they know what they are supposed to be doing, they will probably end up delivering something that the customer doesn't want or that doesn't quite fit the brief.

Scope statementIt is time consuming to put together full requirements documentation for all your project's requirements - no one says that it isn't! But it is worth doing properly.

Even in environments where requirements change quickly or you genuinely don't have the time to document in detail it is still worth doing the best you can and making sure that the scope of any requirements is updated as you go along.

7. Stakeholder matrix

In project management we talk a lot about stakeholder engagement (A Guide To The Project Management Body of Knowledge - PMBOK Guide 5th Edition even includes a new section about it), and you can't do a project without the involvement of other people. They have a vested interest in getting something delivered at the end of the project and that, amongst other reasons, is why stakeholders contribute to projects. It's not surprising that we should think stakeholders are so important.

So dust off that stakeholder matrix. Don't have one? Ask a colleague for a template, or search online - you'll be able to find one easily.

Project Management SoftwareIf you've done a basic project management class then you've probably covered the impact/influence grid and a bit about stakeholder analysis. The matrix is a great tool as it helps you not only identify who is a stakeholder on the project but also how they will affect the project as it moves forward. Will they help or hinder? The matrix will tell you so you can then plan your strategies to manage the personalities on the team.

8. Status reports

You'll hear stakeholders ask one question over and over again: 'How's it going?' They want to know about project status on a regular basis. That's why good project status reporting is important (if you want to know more about how to improve your reports.

A status report should cover everything that stakeholders need in order to make effective decisions about the project. That includes:

  • An update on the current progress against the schedule
  • News about any major outstanding risks and issues
  • The latest on the budget
  • Anything else that's relevant to this point in the project - you'll have to use your judgement here.

9. Project initiation meeting

Last time I included something that was only a 'tool' if you stretched the definition, and this time there is one of those too. I think calling a project initiation or kick off meeting a 'tool' is a bit of a stretch, but it is essential in my view if you want to start things off properly.

A project initiation meeting is held at the beginning of the project (obviously) and it's used to set the tone and direction for the project. You'll discuss the key project objectives and how you will achieve them, the roles and responsibilities of people on the team and how you will engage the customer. By the end of the session, everyone should know what they are supposed to do, at least at a high level. This kind of discussion really gets everyone on the same page so they can start work on the right things.

You'll have to carry on building morale and keeping people on the same page throughout the project - it isn't enough to hold one meeting and expect that 6 months down the line people remember what the project's goals are. Keep reiterating these facts as the project moves along!