I am often asked by project management officers (PMO) to explain the difference between a project management (PM) tool and a PM solution. I love the question because it means that they are looking to get more out of their automated project management software investment in order to better manage their projects. And better management of projects leads to better business decisions.

Plain and simple, I tell them a PM tool is a piece of equipment, a device, if you will. It’s a singularly-focused software application that typically does one thing. A tool unto itself does not actually solve a problem, but enables a problem to be solved. A tool might capture all the information you need to solve a problem, but there is still a step or sometimes multiple steps that need to be completed in order to actually solve the problem.

A PM solution, however, can remove many problems and obstacles that slow down the organization from achieving its goal of executing effective and complete projects. A complete solution is frequently, although not always, comprised of a set of tools along with a set of procedures. When a full solution is put into place, problems are solved without additional steps.

To help clients and customers understand the delineation, I suggest that they try to answer two questions.

  1. Does the mechanism I’m working with enable me to perform a specific PPM activity?
  2. Are things happening that produce the specific results I’m looking for?

If you can answer the first one yes, but not the second one, then you probably have a tool but no solution. We’ll go through a couple of examples below to make this clearer. Most of the questions concern developments during project execution and how the tool might help with forecasting dates and then allocating resources, for example.

Let’s Look at Three Scenarios

In the first scenario, you have neither a tool nor a solution. In this case, you’re dealing with a certain amount of chaos. In this scenario, figuring out what’s going on requires a lot of manual effort and calculation and, unfortunately, you spend a lot of time trying to perform those calculations so you can see the data you need in order to make your decisions.

In the second scenario in which you have a PM tool but no solution, you can capture and extract good data from your project portfolio management solution but the data that’s captured and extracted isn’t necessarily tailored to enable you to make quick decisions. The tool may capture information efficiently and crunch the numbers to produce some form of outcome, however, you’ll still find yourself spending a lot of extra time manipulating the data in the system to produce the information that will allow you to make decisions or solve your problems. Doing these manual calculations can still waste a lot of and bog you down.

For example, envision having a tool that can capture and display for you what the project’s total budget is. If you don’t have the necessary procedures in place (which would be considered part of a complete solution), then you may not trust the project budgets that you see in your tool. But additionally, let’s say what you actually need isn’t the project’s total budget but only the capital budget. Well, you have a tool that tells you some information, but since it’s not part of a full solution it may not have been set up to capture the budget at the necessary level of detail. In line with this, project managers often ask me for my recommendations on tools they may see in the Apps & Windows Store. Often I remind them to ask if the tool addresses a particular problem they are struggling to solve in order to help management make an important business decision.

Best Case Scenarios is Having a Tool and a Solution

If you have a tool and a solution, you’re in much better shape. You have all the pieces you need and you can trust the data you’ve collected to make sound business decisions. Once you’ve made your decision, you can review it within the context of the information that’s been captured to ensure it made sense before you execute on it. This scenario gives you more confidence that you will be responding more effectively to project developments.

If you have no tool and no solution, you’re going to be very reactive. Fires are going to come up and you’re going to deal with them. If you’ve got a tool but no solution, you might be able to forecast activity, for example, but you won’t necessarily have a consistent PM process in place to make sound decisions. If you have a tool and a solution, then you will have a system in place that will set you up to make more sound business decisions. It would surface all the significant developments for you and bring those to your attention so you do not have to hunt for issues that might come up.

That’s not to say that if you have a solution you can be passive and wait for problems to arise. Good solutions will involve taking an active part in monitoring the tools, following the processes, and adhering to the standards that make up the solution. However, assuming that you do those things and assuming that you adhere to the dictates of the solution, you’ll be able to proactively see what issues are coming up and minimize their impact if they occur.

What tools are you using to better manage your projects? One that you might want to check out is hammerhead from PROJILITY.