Thoughts on the state of PM tools

I am starting to think that the problems most of us identify with project/product management tools like JIRA, Asana, and a million others are misleading.

The problem isn’t so much that we need a productive tool to manage issues and tasks. If most of what we’re doing is creating issues, assigning them, and moving them between statuses, spreadsheets do just as well as any other software minus the added complexity and ceremony. Is there then really an entire multi-billion dollar industry of project tools that simply helps us put things in cards and move them between statuses?

The reason we go to work (as a means to paying bills aside) and do what we do as engineers, designers, or product people is to build something valuable, something that makes a difference to people’s lives. I’m sure none of us would like to believe that the stories, tasks, and chores we spend hundreds of hours on don’t quite add up to something bigger, valuable, and impactful. We don’t want to learn that we were merely 50% as effective as we could be.

If we agree that building something valuable is why we go to work, the hardest problem every product/software team is confronted with is what to build. What is the magical set of things we should really be working on?

Therein lies the problem with the tools we have. They are built to manage the process of building something, not to improve the process of building the right thing.

Nearly every project management tool tries to implement one or both of two systems / abstractions – spreadsheets and Agile development. You’re given a free reign to create an endless list of tasks. When tasks moves from ToDo to Done in the time we give them, we feel good about it, and call it a successful sprint. But that, in my opinion, misses the point.

The point is not to stare at a backlog that keeps growing and pull a few things into the next sprint, or fight with a backlog of 100+ items in backlog grooming sessions,  or create a story/file a ticket based on someone asking or noticing something, or to file a bug so we feel cozy that it’s tracked, or to be a cog in a never-ending series of sprints.

We need a stronger framework to evaluate what we work on. How do we know we’re working on the right thing? How do we know the thing we worked on actually has had any impact? You can say this is not a tool problem, but a people problem. These are conversations and debates that need to happen between people.

I do think that tools can facilitate this better. The right tool can help capture the context better. This is all the more important as teams are increasingly working in a distributed and asynchronous manner.

Does everyone on your team understand the why and the what better and in full before they figure out the how? How can you tell you’re working on the right stuff?

I can’t stop thinking about this problem and what a better solution/tool for this might look like.

My initial thinking around this is that an effective tool does the following:

i) provides a structure and framework to work backwards from results that we and our customers care about. Some organizations do this with OKRs, but I might question that even in the best teams, how well do they map to the stories in JIRA?

ii) has a more structured format to capture the context, the why, the data, and the intended impact of things we are committed to working on.

iii) allows us to identify the levers that matter to our product. Consumer software businesses care about things very different enterprise/b2b software businesses. The tool we use should let us define this better.

iv) lets us visualize the needles we are moving (or that we think we are). How are we effecting impact? How do we know we’re working on the right stuff?

v) prevents us from creating stories and bugs and throwing them into a giant pool to be prioritized at some point. If you are tracking stories that have no plan for when they’ll see light of day, is there even a point to polluting your backlog with them?

vi) abandons the backlog. Backlogs are an abomination. As a PM, I hated nothing more than staring at a backlog of 100 stories. It just felt like a long list of todos and chores, and mostly just led to heartburn.