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How to track time against projects effectively

05 Mar 2015

As a digital company using an agile project management approach, we have tried a number of ways to effectively track our time against projects, tasks and issues, and we think we’ve come up with a pretty good system using a number of free and low cost software packages:

freeagent logo Freeagent – the software package we manage all our finances in

 

1024px-Toggl_(service)_LogoToggl – a simple timer to track your time throughout the day

YouTrack_logo_press_materialsYoutrack – an open source agile project management tool to log and track issues against projects

 

Our own bespoke Dashboard to bring it all together…outlandish logo

When figuring out how to track our time and costs to the business accurately we wanted to achieve these things:

  • Ease of managing for team members (MOST important to ensure it was actually done)
  • Fully integrated in to our daily working lives to ensure all are using it
  • Supports the way we want to work rather than adding time to it
  • Enough granularity to analyse projects
  • Up to date information so current project progress can be monitored

Re-using systems we already had

We already used FreeAgent to manage all our finances, freelancer bills and payroll. We also used it to submit timeslips against projects, but this relied on manual input which was time consuming and ended up inaccurate.

For project management task tracking, we had recently begun using Youtrack. A powerful and opensource agile project management package that allowed us to have backlogs, agile boards and reports for individual projects.

Around half the team already used Toggl, a simple time-keeping web app that you manually turn on and off as and when you changed tasks, while others used manic time – an app that monitors your computer usage so you can then create timeslips based on your computer activity.

All these systems were completely separate and all had their idiosyncracies that didn’t quite work on their own. We needed something to pull them all together and save us time. The biggest sticking point, as ever – timeshits, oh, sorry, timesheets.

Bring it all together

So one of our developers (Matt) set about using the Toggl chrome extension as a base to create our own toggl plug-in for Youtrack, that would allow each person (employee, partner or freelancer) to start and stop the timer from within Youtrack, export the report from toggl whenever required, and upload that straight up to Youtrack. Getting rid of an entire process of manually creating timeslips for each task worked on. It also encouraged us to track time against exactly the right task, allowing our estimating to be reviewed and improved without any extra overhead, and in fact saving us masses of time. Winner.

On top of this we have built our very own dashboard (the not so cheap bit unfortunately), pulling in all the key information from Freeagent, and from Youtrack to combine two powerful project and business management tools in to one.

So all in all we are really proud of how we manage our time as a team, it has one of the more simpler interfaces for people to use on a day to day basis (after some initial set up of course) and gives really up to the minute and granular reports on activity, both on a project by project basis, but also by user, and overview of the entire business. There is nothing we hide to anyone who joins the Outlandish team.

The disadvantages?

In enabling a  system that allows you to track effectively time against individual tasks, it tends to encourage a culture of focus on the granular level of a project rather than an understanding of the effectiveness of the entire project – this is left to the project manager or project sponsor to oversee, when really it should be the collective responsibility of the team. The answer? Our plan is to add scoring to the dashboard, based on quality and effectiveness achieved across the whole project to highlight the importance of delivering the cohesive product we all strive for. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to find out more about, we’d be happy to talk to you further about how you might be able to use the same tools to achieve your business goals, or even take a look at our dashboard and see if it is something you’d be interested in using. Just drop us a mail.