Managing Projects without Project Management

“Manage projects without using Project Management.” That was the charge when I started with Belly over a year ago. Before you conclude that that sounds completely absurd, let me explain: Belly has a very specific vision for the kind of tech company it is building. That vision includes keeping the tech team as flat as possible with all engineers actively involved in product decisions. It means not employing a layer of project managers that work with business teams, write up product specs and plug in the appropriate engineering ‘resource’ needed. It includes moving fast, remaining flexible and at all cost avoiding the perils of highly structured corporate behemoths that value adherence to process and procedure over doing what is best for the product. (You can read more about Belly’s approach to tech teams here). In practice, that meant avoiding formal structures and strict adherence to project methodologies that include the usual trappings of Project Management; detailed project spec sheets, work breakdown structures, gantt charts, hour-by-hour time tracking, etc.

Yet as the tech team grew from one engineer to ten in under a year, it became apparent that the team would need a bit more structure and organization in order to keep moving fast. However, the team was sure that they didn’t want to bring anyone in that didn’t know how to code. And that’s how I came to join Belly. I was a project manager who didn’t ascribe to any particular PM dogma and I’d had spent the last several months learning Ruby on Rails. It was a perfect fit. And the message was clear – find a way to keep the team moving forward, working hard and communicating well, while introducing as little formal process as possible (and contribute code whenever possible). Perhaps my title of Manager of Complexity makes a little more sense.

At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to ‘manage the complexity’, but I was ready to find the sweet spot of ‘just enough’ process, individual freedom and product progress. Now before you think I’m about to bestow the formula I found for perfect tech product management, let me burst your bubble. I, we, haven’t found the perfect balance yet, but we’ve gotten a lot closer and learned a ton in the process.

I won’t go into all the tools and techniques we’ve tried in this post, but I will tell you where we’ve landed. As engineers, we live in GitHub, so using GitHub issue management seemed a natural choice. We figured that was one less ‘tool’ to introduce. But after months of using GitHub as our primary project/task management tool, we decided we needed something else. Adding GitHub issues for non-code related tasks always felt a bit odd it didn’t provide a good non-engineer view into what we were working on. So we started using Asana. We picked it for it’s relative ease of use, open API and overall flexibility (it isn’t tied to a particular methodology like Agile or Kanban). We also appreciated that Asana has a free tier for small teams that allowed us to demo the tool without making a commitment. Although we chose to upgrade pretty early on.

Of course we still use GitHub for all our code management, so one concern from the team was the ease of linking an Asana task to a GitHub pull request. Fortunately, we have a brilliant team of engineers, and one of them ‘felt the pain’ enough to engineer a solution that fit our preferred workflow. Now we can add task ids to GitHub pull requests and have the Asana task automatically update with a GitHub link and ‘pull request’ tag. Having this integration made our transition to Asana much easier.

We’ve been using Asana for a little over a month and while there have been a few hiccups (no more than to be expected when rolling out a new tool) we have been very happy with how it has helped our communication and collaboration. Asana’s flexibility has been a big plus. There are countless ways to set up and organize teams, projects and tasks. But it also means there are choices to make. In a later post, I’ll get into the particulars of the decisions we made and how it’s working out.

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