Collaboration in Research - Part 2: Planning Tools

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In Part 1, I described potential roles for members of a research team. In Part 2, we’ll finally take a look at a group of tools for planning that I find useful in helping to organize teams and keep everyone headed down the research pathway.

 

The “Right” Tool?

As I mentioned in Part 1, I have found it most efficacious to allow the members of the team responsible for a specific role to choose the tool; or at least have a voice in the tool of choice. That said, I think one of the poorest approaches to choosing tools is the belief that there is a “right” one. I was recently discussing with a colleague how much I appreciate the old-school “notecards” method of qualitative research. There are all kinds of tech-tools available for qual research (NVivo, Dedoose, etc.), but prolonged engagement that results from physically writing and manipulating notecards can be a major advantage.

I always shudder a little when colleagues ask me, “What task-manager should I use?” The little smart alec inside my head always wants to respond, “None of them; you don’t deserve any of them.” People tend to believe that it is the tool that organizes a person/team: that if I just had the right platform, I’d communicate effectively. It’s just not the case.

Also, I wish to note that I have no financial relationship with any of the companies described below - except that I’ve given them some of my money ;-)

 

Trello

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I love this platform so very much. It is highly adaptable for use, and affords a team the ability to configure it in just about any imaginable structure. Trello is built on the KanBan approach to project management; where there is a logical stream of items through a process. The other advantage of Trello is that there is a low barrier to entry: it’s free to use at a basic level, and one can immediately get going with very little introduction. That low barrier of entry, however, belies the depth and power that is available in the platform.

Advantages

  1. Low Barrier of Entry - Trello can be used for free, and one can immediately get into the system with very little introduction. This makes Trello especially useful for ad hoc research teams.
  2. Creatively Adaptable - Trello is highly adaptable, especially when one upgrades to using power-ups. My administrative assistant and I use Trello to manage several of our workflows: we run our disabilities accommodations requests and testing center entirely on the Trello platform.
  3. Wide Resources - Trello has a great Twitter presence, and offers a newsletter with lots of ideas. Moreover, you can spend a lifetime on youtube seeing how folks use Trello for different workflows.
  4. Excellent Integrations - The power-ups are integrations that work within the platform. Some are specialty apps, and others are integrations through APIs to other services. I’ll give a huge shout-out to the Zapier integrations, in which one can get very granular about what’s happening on the cards.
  5. Interactive - Trello is web-based, and all members of a team can contribute to the way that the Trello board develops, and make updates in the workflow.

Disadvantages

  1. Creatively Adaptable - Yep, I said that was an advantage; but it’s also a disadvantage. When you can do almost anything with a platform, it can be hard to get moving. Finding Trello templates can be helpful; and Trello has a nice Trello board for templates.
  2. Too Many Cooks - The highly interactive nature of Trello makes it difficult to control what happens on the boards. For example, if Larry gets drunk and decides to edit the entire board, that can prove frustrating for the rest of the team. Other tools allow for more control by a Project Manager: Trello does not.
  3. Dependencies - There are times where a process really requires a careful analysis of dependencies: we can’t do Y until X is complete. In my experience, task dependencies CAN be done in Trello, but it’s clunky and undependable; and for my money, there are some projects where clunky and undependable just won’t fly.

Suggestions

  1. Explore - If you’ve a free afternoon, why not try Trello? It’s free. See whether there are ways in which it addresses your team’s needs. Check out Trello on youtube, and see how others are using it.
  2. Collaborate - I find that Trello is most powerful when I use it in collaborative projects. If a project is more individual, it’s probably going to be in my OmniFocus.
  3. Visualize - That said, I use Trello sometimes for projects where I want to visualize my road to completion. For example, I had a Trello board for my Ph.D. degree plan. I had a column for the courses I needed, another for the courses I’ve registered for, another for the courses I was in, and a final column for the courses I had finished. It was sooo neat to see the cards flow from left to right - and to send the last three course cards into the “complete” column at the end.
  4. Similar Options - StrikeBase is very similar to Trello. It’s a freemium option.
 

OmniPlan (et al.)

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It’s no secret for readers of this site that I am a HUGE fan of the OmniGroup. I’d buy their waffle-iron if they sold one. And OmniPlan is, by far, the most professional project management tool I’ve used. OmniPlan is available on MacOS and iOS (though I’ve not tried the iOS version), but it is not available for other operating systems. I would recommend software like OmniPlan in situations where there a) a team is targeting a specific deliverable, and b) a professional-grade approach to project management is required. It is not, however, useful for ad hoc groups (at least by my experience).

Advantages

  1. Pro-level PM - Project management, as a discipline, is really about leveraging resources (people, capital, data), time, and scope toward a specific outcome. OmniPlan is designed to handle each aspect of the “PM Triangle” in ways that give a clear understanding of the critical path toward completion. Put another way, this is a pro-tool!
  2. Critical Paths - In projects where there are specific milestones and multiple dependency structures, software that can help the PM manage the critical path is, well, critical. In Robert’s case, where the research team needs to meet critical deadlines for FDA approval, my mind goes to a product like OmniPlan. This is especially powerful when one can compare the project baseline with the actual progress - something OmniPlan does very well.
  3. Resource Allocation - If equipment, material, money, or personnel are important considerations for a project, OmniPlan is a great tool to manage those resources. This can be really valuable for projects where it is necessary to track the resource cost of a project.
  4. Visualization - Users of OmniPlan can visualize the project in terms of an outline, Gantt charts, or a network view. The network view is especially useful in understanding the relationships between different tasks or groups of tasks in the project scope.
  5. Lynda.com - There is a phenomenal course available on Lynda.com for those who want to get help in a) using OP, and b) managing a project. I had used this product for a long time before stumbling upon the course at Lynda, and boy did I miss out.

Disadvantages

  1. High Barriers to Entry - OmniPlan is expensive; currently, the Standard version is $149.99 for MacOS, and $74.99 for iOS. The Pro version (which I do not own) is $299.99 for MacOS, and $149.99 for iOS. Additionally, it takes a good while to learn to use the software to its potential, and I discovered that there are a lot of PM principles I needed to learn to maximize the platform as well.
  2. Low Collaboration - Drunk Larry won’t mess with your carefully planned project (unless you allow him to). It is difficult to network this tool. Each member of the team would need to have the software. I am currently using this software with a small team, and the file is stored on a network so that we can share it; but collaboration is NOTHING as delightful as it is in Trello.
  3. Flexibility - I am sure you are allowed to use OmniPlan however you’d like, but the platform is specifically designed within the professional milieu of project management. It is really for projects where dependencies need to be managed.
  4. Low Integration - So if I were in charge of the universe, I’d have a seamless integration between OmniPlan and my beloved OmniFocus. I have it on good authority that this is something that OmniGroup has thought of; but so far, integrations with other software is clunky at best. One can export projects into OPML, so that’s nice - but really, that’s more a definition of exportability than of integration. My OmniPlans tend to live lonely lives of desolation.

Suggestions

  1. Lynda - If you’re not sure about the cost of the software, I highly recommend the Lynda course. Not only will you see how the software manages projects, but you’ll also get a clear understanding of the methodology of project management that the software is addressing.
  2. If you’re on a Windows platform, Microsoft Planner is very similar in terms of methodology. That said, it’s been a loooong time since I’ve been in MSPlanner.
  3. This platform is really useful when you’ve a planner on the team who is willing to manage the project and report to the group.

Note: I’ve not yet bitten the bullet to purchase OmniPlan Pro, which I understand offers some publishing options that may be especially valuable. To date, I’ve just not found a use-case where I work with a team that needs to see the outputs of my plan, so I’ve no real sense of its value.

 

Database Approach

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I actually have a project currently managed in FileMaker Pro. I’ve also used Podio and BaseCamp to manage projects as well. Shoot - I can imagine using Evernote or DevonThink as a kind of very simple database.

Advantages

  1. Bespoke Utility - Some projects need to be monitored in unique ways. I have a longitudinal study where I am collecting data over a long period of time. In that case, I decided that a database is the best option.
  2. Data in the Database - The biggest advantage to using a database approach is that the actual data for a research project can be incorporated into the project management system. Everything can live in one location; the data, the workflow, and even the communication.
  3. Infinite Flexibility - Trello is flexible. Your own artisanal database crafted just for your project can be whatever it needs to be. You get to decide what variables are included, what views need to be represented, and how progress is visualized and understood.
  4. Potentially Affordable - I used Podio and Basecamp for free. Even FileMaker Pro is relatively inexpensive (I purchased mine through a volume license agreement).
  5. Integrations - OK, for FMP, the integrations are terrible. But Basecamp and Podio have some very nice integrations and API hooks.

Disadvantages

  1. High Barrier to Entry - The high barrier in the case of database approaches is that the entire system needs to be built. The advantage of having something tailored to a specific research team’s needs may also be a disadvantage if someone has to build it.
  2. YMMV - These tools are only as useful as the architecture and construction allow. I think this is why so many of us resort to some kind of pre-built platform. If you need a feature in your database, you have to create the feature. If it stinks, or doesn’t work, the architect needs to make it right. So some databases can be very useful - others can stink. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Potential Training - If not all of the team members are involved in the database construction, training becomes a potential issue. I can’t point my colleagues to a youtube video of how to navigate the database I built - unless I actually create the video.

Suggestions

  1. Databases are especially useful if you’re connecting workflows and planning to the data used in your research.
  2. Some database options (like Basecamp and Podio) are better for collaborative work. FileMaker Pro is going to require more build time, more management of the platform, and some training to make it useful for a team.
  3. In instances where it is necessary to build a major database to manage the data of a research project, it may be worth the time and effort to build a few workflow variables (approvals, completions, assignments, etc.) and views to the system.
 

SpreadSheet Approach

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No project management tool list would be complete without a shout-out to the most common approach to managing projects: the spreadsheet. My guess is that more projects are managed in spreadsheets than anywhere else. And why not? They can be very useful for ad hoc projects, or places where we just need to see some basic bits of information.

Advantages

  1. Very Low Barriers to Entry - Most people know how to use spreadsheets, so there’s very little in the way of learning curve. Almost everyone has access to them, and they can be an almost no-cost option.
  2. Flexible - The reason we default to spreadsheets is that a nice table is easy to formulate. I actually recommend that students use spreadsheets as an assignment tracker, because we can usually create something meaningful in short order.
  3. Collaborative - In the case of a Google Sheet, folks can work on the plan at the same time, make edits to items, and even chat about elements on the plan in real time.

Disadvantages

  1. Lack of Design - Spreadsheets, even beautiful spreadsheets, are not pretty. They are clunky. You have to go to the spreadsheet to see it. They don’t look nice on an iPhone. With so many great, low-cost, and beautiful options available, it just seems that settling for generic cheese slices wrapped in cellophane is a real shame. And I bet this is the first time spreadsheets have been compared to generic cheese slices ;-)
  2. Low Integration - There are some web-hooks available for Google Sheets; but again, spending much time at all fashioning a complicated set of Zapier rules for a spreadsheet plan may not be efficient. That wheel is already invented.
  3. Simplicity - If a project has any complexity to it whatsoever, the spreadsheet can quickly become cumbersome. Database approaches at least allow for multiple views of the variables.

Suggestions

  1. I recommend using spreadsheets when the project is so small, or the involvement of members is so cursory, that training people to use your tool of choice doesn’t make sense.
  2. If you’re having to explain to other members how to navigate and understand your spreadsheet, it’s time to move to a different tool.

Next Time: We’ll review some tools that may aid in communication for research teams.

Title Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2FdRE1Q

Posted on February 14, 2018 and filed under General, Task Management.