Where Project Management tools fall short for agencies

Sergio Panagia · May 15, 2024

Where Project Management tools fall short for agencies

We ditched checklists for something way better: focusing on our team and our time. This is the story of how we did it—plus a free Google Sheets template to simplify your capacity planning.

Young, happy agencies are all alike, as Tolstoy would have written if he ever had to manage an agency: there’s a lot that needs to get done, and the faster, the better. There’s no time to focus on anything but action. Ceremonies, reviews, and workflows are for losers and big traditional agencies, which are slow-moving and bureaucratic.

When we started our studio in 2012, we were no exception. We were a group of people crafting amazing websites: the more, the better. Giovanni handled sales, Matteo painted pixels, and I aimed to keep everything running smoothly.

What was the best way to manage our work without losing agility?

2012: Living the checklist dream

Well, MS Project was too extreme, and Google Docs was nowhere near enough. Basecamp, at that time, seemed like the obvious go-to choice: a well-designed, future-ready software. It had projects, to-do lists, file uploads, and comments.

However, we learned the hard way that checking off to-dos is exciting and reassuring, but it might not help you deliver projects anyway.

Sounds familiar?

  • Overwork: People were involved in too many projects at once.
  • Infinite lists: We had tasks for each project, but the list kept growing.
  • Growing obligations: Meanwhile, we were adding more clients, which lengthened our backlog.
  • Poor workload view: We wanted to say “No”, but we were afraid without the tools to determine if we could handle more work.

Soon enough, we realized this wasn’t going to scale. We were thinking in silos. We had a very detailed view of each project but no overview.

Simple task management or issue tracking might work for companies that focus on a single product. In an agency, however, you’re handling many projects at once, each for a different client, and need to move quickly to address the projects you have queued up next.

Hiring new people wasn’t the solution. It would just mean throwing manpower at the problem without addressing its root cause.

2013: Drawing in tools

Checklists weren’t the issue, we told ourselves; rather, it was thinking only in terms of tasks without knowing how all this work fit into our team’s time.

So, we started experimenting with an additional app that allowed us to assign projects and tasks visually on a calendar. Circa 2013, that app was Teamweek†. But that wasn’t all: we also wanted to track how people were spending their time, so we added Harvest for time tracking.

Old screenshot of Teamweek

However, this created a situation where tasks were present on both Teamweek and Basecamp. Additionally, we were constantly reminding our team to track their time on Harvest.

“Ok, project added to Teamweek, Basecamp, and Harvest”.
—An email from our project manager at that time

I can’t believe I was so naive to think that an army of tools and filling up people’s calendars would save our productivity.

2014: Checklists are for losers - the Trello years

Come 2014, we were frustrated with the daily struggle against to-dos when a project manager from another company told me they were using a new tool with a better way to visualize work in progress.

This marked the beginning of our love story with Trello (which, by the way, started as an agency side project). This excellent web software, inspired by Kanban, had unparalleled flexibility that led to well-deserved success. We quickly started using it to manage new projects.

But once again, we ended up with a Trello board for each active project and a separate one for minor projects. Trying to find a way to merge all the work into a single board was impossible because the different processes didn’t align.

We were, once again, thinking in silos.

2015: “Man, you gotta do capacity planning”

It felt like we were back to square one. Disappointed, I started studying more about “capacity management”, or the art of planning team workloads. The goal was not just to focus on task management alone but also to have a higher-level planning overview.

So, we embarked on a lengthy period during which I used tools like 10000ft†, specifically designed for capacity planning.

They never felt right for us, mainly because they had too many features, were prohibitively expensive, or were ugly and difficult to use.

These tools often seemed tailored for large, complex organizations, while we needed a more user-friendly solution suitable for a smaller studio.

2018: The light at the end of the tunnel

For one reason or another, we ended up discarding many of those capacity tools. Around 2018, I settled on what I consider to be the best tool for starting up with capacity planning: Google Sheets.

The framework I used for years was a spreadsheet consisting of a list of people, and, in the columns, the weeks of the year.

The corresponding value per person-week represented the FTE allocation (1 FTE = one full day or week of work). So, typing the value 1 indicates that a person is working full time on a project for that week. Typing 0.8 corresponds to four days out of five. And so on.

Capacity planning with Google Sheets

Here’s a free Google Sheets template that’s ready to duplicate.

The week-view was the just-enough granularity we needed. In capacity planning, you aren’t managing tasks; you’re managing the expected time your team will spend in various task categories, most commonly a project.

Focusing on tasks instead of projects or larger units can create unnecessary overhead and lead to micromanagement. Instead, we don’t mess with our team’s calendars.

So the final setup was:

  • A Google spreadsheet to manage capacity planning
  • Trello to manage each project on a separate board
  • No time tracking except for a very small portion of our projects (this also allowed us to leave Harvest in favor of a simple Google Form to track time).

What agencies usually fail to consider is the broader perspective. They always start with the obvious: the project and the tasks.

But then, how do they answer questions like these:

  • Selling: Can I actually sell this project?
  • Hiring: Do I need to hire more people or outsource?
  • Delivery: Am I on track with ongoing obligations?
  • Workload: How is my team's workload? Do they have too much on their plates? Do they have downtime I can use wisely?

2023 - Present

Over time, our capacity planning spreadsheet grew too big and became laggy, error-prone, and difficult to maintain. That’s why we started building our own product, Hellotime.

But this is a story for my next post, where I’ll go into the details of why project management tools fail at workload planning and which tools you can use if Google Sheets no longer cuts it.


Schedule 🤩People and 📖project
in a 🙈simple and ⚡️easy way