Shoestring Project Management

By: Andrew Syme
Developing software is expensive! Not only can it be expensive, but since the software development industry generates immense revenues the software companies that support the industry feel justified in charging massive licensing fees. All of this contributes to start ups and small teams often being priced out of tools that are considered ‘industry standard’. 
So how do I, a project manager with limited resources, start my project without incurring massive costs before I even start development? You’re in luck. There are low / no cost tools that you can utilize to take your project from ideation to development with no pain to your pocket book. Let me walk you through the process I’ve used with some of these tools. The tools I suggest specifically facilitate and encourage collaboration and communication, as all good agile tools should.
Mind mapping: Early on, dragging features and needs out of stakeholders can be grueling. I’ve found that an effective method is to get all the stakeholders together for a brainstorming session. The problem is that the ideas come in bursts and it can be difficult to capture everything. One of the best methods I’ve found for capturing these ideas is creating a mind map. This can be an excellent tool for eliciting features from stakeholders and recording and building on them without slowing the flow of ideas. There are many free mind mapping tools.
I’ve used and can recommend Coggle and Miro, but there are a lot of other options, with similar functionalities. I like to use these tools to break down needs and features by users personas and then use cases for that user, and since these tools are multi-user everyone can help to capture the feature set. One of the benefits of this method is that the results are easy to translate into a set of user stories. (i.e. As a <user type> I want <feature function> so that <expected result>.) Once these feature level stories are written it’s time to multi-vote with your stakeholders for prioritization.
Multivoting: I hate the amount of time wasted in the back and forth required to prioritize features for an MVP. I love using the multi-user support in Google Sheets to bring the stakeholders together and get consensus as to what is truly required. I like to put up a list of the feature set that was collated from the previous mind mapping session.
I set up the sheet so that users have 3 tiered weighted voting. Stake holders are allowed less votes than there are features, so we’re certain to have the most valuable and vital items, agreed on by the team, rise to the top. Since the most important things become obvious, the decision as to the cut line for the MVP is a lot easier to arrive at, with a minimum of argument for the features that should be included. Once the MVP is established and prioritized it’s time to start development.
Requirement writing and backlog: There are a lot of free tools that can be used to track tasks, but the one I’ve found that works best, out of the box, for small development teams is Wrike. It allows for Agile workflows and makes communication and collaboration simple. You can even write stories as a team working on the same story at the same time. I like to take the prioritized list of User Stories from the multi-voting session, and enter them in order in the backlog.
Top priority stories can then be elaborated, story points agreed upon, tasks assigned and acceptance criteria set. Once you have enough stories for your team to work on for a few weeks you’re ready to go. Start your sprint, develop, and conquer my friend.