Free: Does It Mean What You Think it Means?
A street salesman was trying to drum up business. He spotted a family with a small child and started to boast about his product and finally, including a necessary accessory, said:
“It’s free! It’s free!”
The family just kept walking but the little boy, as he was passing by, looked up at the salesman and said:
“So what, I’m four.”
Tools That Will Help Not Hurt
Scenario: The boss wants you to be a project leader to convert one of the offices to a conference room. He wants a project plan, to include the necessary charts and other documentation necessary to keep track of the project. He has also given you a budget – one that will not carry you too far to getting the software that you have heard many of the other project managers talking about; software like Microsoft™ Project and Microsoft Visio™, along with Excel, Word and the rest of the Microsoft ™Suite of products.
The good news is it’s possible to get professional results using free software. However, this article is not to just discuss free software, but free software with a purpose.
1. A Calendar
Let’s go back to the original scenario. The new project lead needs some project software and has a very limited budget to pull it all together.
Normally, the first thing that project need to reconcile is time. They need to understand the start and end of the project (usually the ending is given to them by their management in the words –“Get it done by X date”). The easiest and free way, to track this is using a calendar; a plain, ordinary desk calendar is a good start. You can do this with a pen to mark the start (the day you receive the assignment) and the end (the day your management dictated). So, the total cost of this is usually free (most offices already have a calendar).
Or you can get a little more sophisticated by downloading a free calendar either through your PC (one site is www.wincalendar.com), or through the APP Store on your mobile device (look for calendars in the search bar, there are many free apps). I must confess that I have not tried many of these yet, since most applications already on a computer already have a calendar, or I get a free desk calendar at work.
2. A Gantt Chart
So, you have a free calendar and are working the timing when you realize that you need something to track the tasks in the project.These tasks are listed by the project team, but you can guess what some of them may be just by looking at the project.
You will need something to track both the tasks and the time. In that case a good old fashioned Gantt chart will be perfect for tracking the tasks and the time. A Gantt chart is a one dimensional visual display of the timing of the project, but it can also contains how the tasks interact with the timing, and the duration of the tasks.
To give full disclosure, you can track the tasks on the desk calendar (i.e. “moving furniture – 3 days”) but the Gantt Chart gives the entire tasking on one screen (or sheet of paper). Speaking of sheet of paper, you can do a Gantt chart on a sheet of graph paper listing the tasks down the side and the time along the top. It works, but unfortunately sharing it will mean making copies and either scanning them for distribution. Since EVERYONE has a computer or mobile device, this may be a problem especially with immediate updates. Hence, having a Gantt chart application is probably a more direct approach.
One free Gantt chart software is Gantt Project (www.ganttproject.biz). I have personally used this software and it does everything you want it to do, including tracking tasks and timings.
See also –> Gantt Chart Examples & Tutorials
The last free tool that we will discuss is the timeline. The timeline can be a mixture of tracking time and tasks, but the visualization is the focus of this tool. You have probably seen timelines in the past, possibly through history classes. There are applications where you can formulate and configure a timeline to show a high level view of the project.
Below is an example of the freeware version of the timeline application – called DIA. You can get this free software from https://dia-installer.de/index.html.en. I have used this software and can tell you firsthand that this application is not as user friendly as something like VISIO™, but it points out the very nature of free software – it is not perfect. When you consider that this free software is developed from a group of individuals that receive no compensation other than the reward of seeing an application activate is something to appreciate.
See also –> Timeline Templates for PMs
“But,” you ponder, “what if I need to get a suite of products that include spreadsheets? Where do I get those?”
Ah, the simplest applications are still pretty expensive. You might need a spreadsheet program to list tasks or do calculations on cost, since some free Gantt Charts will not do that.
There is a set of free software applications that can mirror many of the functions of the spreadsheet, or word processing, or even database applications that can cost you hundreds of dollars. These are found through the www.openoffice.org web site.The download is free and actually pretty quick. I scanned the executable once I downloaded it just to be safe, and found no problems, so I went ahead and installed the applications. The result was pretty impressive. The applications run pretty well, and they perform almost all the functions of more expensive applications. Why am I covering this? Most project tools start with the basic ideas of documentation, which includes word processing to write minutes, lessons learned document, etcetera. If you want to go totally free, it may benefit you to use free tools that are relatively basic in order to better link to those tools that are more sophisticated.
We come to the real crux of this article. Getting free software is all fine and good, but why download it if it does not perform the function or produce the type of document that can be shared? If the free software does not export to PDF or at least to a JPEG, then what good is the software? Unless everyone in the company gets the free software and agrees to constantly update it one at a time, the free software will cost you. Not in a monetary sense, but in a convenience sense.
For the record, I used the word processing part of the openoffice suite and can tell you firsthand that the word processing application works fine. How do I know? This article was originally written in a purchased word processing application, then exported to the free word processing application, finished, and then exported back to the purchased word processing application. Bottom line: it works fine. Yes, it is not the same, but nothing free ever has the same intuitive nature as purchased. And that, in some instances, is fine.
Free software may not live up to the standard of the purchased software, but it helps to put the limit on the budgeted price for software, which according to the scenario was part of the assumption. It is essential that the neophyte project manager understand that in order to determine if a free tool will work it must do everything necessary to provide the project documentation.
We talked about time and task, two of the main elements of project tracking. Although this article just touched on the free software available, it covered some that are available along with the links and samples. As future project managers, you can do the rest. If you need help, please contact me through my web site at www.grectech.com. I have some classes that are available that go into more detail on finding and using free software for project management, as well as classes on how to retain your team members.
About the Author: Chris Greco has spent over a combined 35 years as a project manager and manager in the military, private industry, public service, and academia. His company, GRECTECH, develops and presents training that can help them save money on software and help their project managers develop better teams. You can contact him at www.grectech.com or by email at chris @ grectech.com.