The Efficient Mac User

Project Management when Working with Others

- 2006.04.13 - Tip Jar

Earlier this week I talked about my project management tool set for my own projects. When it comes to working with others instead of alone, there are new issues: sharing files, managing collective tasks, writing together, and just keeping each other informed on progress. "Collaboration" becomes the key word in this endeavor.

Inevitably there are times when I (and everyone else) must work on projects with other people. There are three levels of this type of project:

  1. Basic collaboration. This is when the essence of the project can be summed up in a few emails and a phone call or appointment. Sometimes this can even be a series of appointments, emails, or whatever - but the point is, you don't need any tools beyond the ones already available and discussed in my previous article.
  2. Mid-level collaboration. When you need more than just email and, say, a word processor to collaborate, but the parties involved don't have the regular need for high-level project management tools.
  3. Upper-level collaboration. These are the folks that live in MS Project or its Mac equivalent. I may address these in a future column, but for now they are not my focus.

For the mid-level collaboration, there are any number of helpful tools to get you through the job. I'll discuss those that I've found useful and invite readers to let me know about which ones you like and/or use regularly.

Writing with Others

There are times when you need more than just a document attached to email to get the job done. While there is more power in this than many realize - checking out Microsoft Word's "Track Changes" or Pages 2.x's "Comments" can pay big dividends for collaborative writing - there are times when other tools are more helpful because they offer options and real-time changes. (And if you don't own or use one Word or Pages, your only option is to look elsewhere.)


One tool that has gotten some press recently is Google's Writely program. It has received a lot of attention as a full-featured online word processor, and it functions adequately: It can read and write .doc documents as well as a few other formats, and it has all of the standard formatting tools and features.

In many ways, Writely feels like any other word processor - except that it is inside your browser rather than a stand-alone application. I agree with many of the press, however, that Writely is not going to replace Word anytime soon - not until universal WiFi is a reality at the very least. can all edit it at the same time and see each other's changes.

Where Writely truly shines is as a collaboration tool; in fact, this was what it was designed to be. Keep your main documents installed at Writely, and whenever anyone edits it, you can see the changes. Writely allows real-time, multi-user collaboration. What this means is that once you and your collaborators log into Writely and open the same document, you can all edit it at the same time and see each other's changes.

Add to this an audio or video chat via iChat or a teleconference through VoIP, and you can write collaboratively in the comfort of your own chair - even if your collaborators are across town or across the country.

Writely tracks multiple generations of edits so you can go back and compare one generation to another. And when it's time for publication, Writely makes it easy to get the final draft out and into a format suitable for circulation.

Writely's interface is a little stifled, and it doesn't feel very Mac-like, but it gets the job done. Be sure to load up Firefox or Camino if you want to work in Writely, because there is no love for Safari.


If your document isn't too long - maybe two pages or less - you can use a Writeboard, which functions in a manner very similar to Writely. A service of 37Signals, Writeboards are also shareable web-based text documents. The editing window is considerably simpler, and the features are not as rich, but the basic functions are there.

Further, I find Writeboards offer a cleaner way to compare editing generations. You can export the contents of a Writeboard to a plain text file or email it to any address. There are no limits on the length of Writeboards, but I find that I prefer to work with longer documents in Writely.

Over and Above Collaborative Writing

If you need more collaboration than just text and writing, you might find that 37Signals provides what you need. They have a range of services, all shareable, online tools, that enable different levels of collaborative interaction. Try Ta-da Lists for shared task lists or Campfire for group chats (think: a hybrid of a chat room and Instant Messaging).

Or jump up to Backpack, which combines task lists, Writeboards, notes/memos, images, links, and file-sharing all into one package. Plus, with Backpack you can have personalized reminders sent to your email or mobile phone. There is also a Backpack widget that gives you direct interaction with reminders, task lists, and notes from your Tiger Dashboard.

All of the 37Signals services are either free across the board or have a free option. With Backpack, you can pay for additional projects and file space.


Next up the scale on 37Signals's menu is Basecamp, which is geared toward a professional context for project management. In addition to messages, file-sharing, and Writeboards, you can set task lists and milestones personalized for each member of the project team or for the whole team. Basecamp also has a calendar function that is iCal compatible: You can subscribe to it just like any shared calendar.

While Basecamp has a free option, some of the pay levels include some great features: secure data encryption, time management, and the ability to personalize the template so that clients can interact with your progress in an environment that matches your website.

All of 37Signals's pay services are fairly priced and offer various scales of pay rates. Even better, you can pay on a month-by-month basis and upgrade or downgrade without penalty; thus, if you have a project or client that needs a little more service, upgrade for the duration of that project, then drop back to a lower pay rate - or a free account - until you need the paid services again. And those you collaborate with can log into your paid service pages with a free-level account as long as you send them an invitation. Good stuff.

I like 37Signals's services a lot. They share a lot in common with a Mac: They are well-designed, the interface is friendly and inviting, and they "just work". For the most part, Backpack services my needs completely, though I've played around with using Basecamp with the consulting group I work with.

There are hints that 37Signals is planning to implement a calendar feature, which would be trés handy. (Folks who need shared online calendars now might try Airset (which is iCal-compatible) or simply publish their iCal calendar through the Calendar menu's "Publish" command.)

However, if you are already a .mac user, you may find that the relatively new .mac Groups feature can meet your collaborative needs. With these you can share calendars, photos, files, messages, and announcements. You get all of this with the usual .mac goodness, which means it will be a clean and pretty interface. Members will need a .mac account, but it's okay to sign of for a trial membership only - you can still use your .mac username and password to access groups after the trial membership expires.

More Tools for the Project Toolbox

When I'm working with others, I find it helpful to use a Gantt chart to set up goals, milestones, and contingencies in a visual manner. If you're not familiar with Gantt charts, they are good tools to represent the comprehensive picture of what needs to be accomplished and let you see realistically how the progress must proceed. They can also be helpful to double-check how realistic your deadlines are and how your resources are allocated.

Depending on my project, I use one of two applications. GanttProject is an open-source, Java-based application that does a good job at laying out the basics of a project in a graphical way. The interface is pretty bare-bones, and you won't find OS X elegance in this program, but it does the job pretty well, and it can import Microsoft Project files if you need such functionality. Being open-source, the price is right. I use GanttProject when I'm working with someone who uses MS Project.

When I don't need MS Project compatibility, I use another application that has more of the Mac's native feel and intuitiveness. ChartConstructor does everything that GanttProject does, plus it can create PERT charts as well. ChartConstructor uses an Inspector to help you set up your project tasks and allows a lot of drag-and-drop friendly functions. I find it a lot easier to set up a Gantt chart in ChartConstructor, so I prefer this environment when I can use it.

That rounds out my project management needs. My guess is that, in most cases, it will cover your needs, too. One day, some day, I'll look at the heavy-hitter applications that tackle big-level projects.

Next time: Finding a good replacement keyboard. LEM

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