Thursday, April 29, 2010

LiquidPlanner vs. Clarizen, a comparison of two Project Management Tools

Since I've been serving proudly as the LiquidPlanner Social Media Evangelist for almost a year now, I wanted to take some more time to evaluate other online project management tools and get a better understanding of what the competition is like in the space. This post will not be another comparison of Basecamp, I think I've made it pretty clear that Basecamp shouldn't even really be called a project management tool, but merely a decent collaboration system, lacking in critical project management features & functionality.

Clarizen was next on my list, so I spent some time checking it out. The interface is fairly clean and loading time is decent, but my first real impression was how much it looked like a web based version of MS Project. Personally, that scares me, but it might be a draw for others.

Both tools have task & resource management, time tracking, collaboration, gantt view, reporting, and a way to include clients in project collaboration. Clarizen also has a fairly full suite of Budget Management tools which LiquidPlanner does not yet have.

What I spent the most time evaluating was task scheduling and management, since I think these are the most powerful features of LiquidPlanner and I'm always curious to see how other systems handle them.

To setup a task in Clarizen, you need to have a start and end (due) date, duration and work. The first thing I noticed is a default task in the system that is 40 hrs of work, assigned to one person, and set to last 5 working days. I changed the work to 60 hrs and the other values didn't change, and there was also no flag that the task was at risk of not being met. In LiquidPlanner, to setup a similar task I would give it a "delay until" date, promise date, high/low work estimate and put it in the proper priority order. From here, LiquidPlanner will calculate expected finish date, based on the hours per week that the resource works, any other tasks in the workload, and of course the amount of hours the task is expected to take. If I take a 40 hour task and make it into a 60 hour task on LiquidPlanner, the expected finish date would automatically get pushed back to the following week. Tasks can be due on a certain date, but I can't force them to finish on that date without moving up the 'delay until' date and/or re-prioritizing tasks. And, I really like that feature of LiquidPlanner, because it communicates the reality of the schedule, that you can't always force something to be done by a certain date (unless you want to sacrifice quality, quantity, other work, your team member's sanity, I could go on...).

Next, I wanted to reprioritize the tasks assigned to one of my team members. I found on Clarizen that it took a lot of clicks to get to the list of tasks for one specific user, then once I was there I was not able to easily shift (drag & drop) tasks around like I am able to do with LiquidPlanner. Now, this feature is very important to me because where I work there are constantly shifting priorities so I need to be able to easily move the tasks around to ensure that the critical items get finished on time. Clarizen does allow tasks to be reordered on a team member's list, but it takes a couple more steps than the drag & drop.

In Clarizen the tasks can be given the designation 'at risk' but it looks like this must be done completely manually and not automatically if the resource assigned to that task is overloaded with work. With LiquidPlanner, tasks are automatically marked 'at risk' by the system if the promise date is after the expected finish date. The task can also manually be marked at risk or assigned any other relevant alert.

Something interesting about Clarizen was the ability to assign multiple properties to a task, such
as Project Phase, Pending (Customer approval, feedback, testing, etc) and Type (Define, Design, General, Integration, etc.). What I didn't see was a way to customize the items in these drop-down lists, so the user is tied to these specific properties.

I've heard many seasoned project managers say (and even some programmers guiltily admit) that a task is always going to be reported as 90% complete, until it's finally finished. There are many who adhere to the idea that tasks are either 0% or 100% complete, and never anything in the middle. Percent complete is just an inaccurate way to report progress on a task. Rather, report hours worked and estimate (high/low is ideal, of course) of hours to complete. So, I admit, I had to chuckle when I saw that Clarizen was using a percent complete field with each task, and allowed me to arbitrarily update the value without recording any time worked or time remaining. LiquidPlanner stays away from the percent complete model, the only percentages you will see attached to a task is the calculated probability of a task being completed by a specific date. So, you can report to your execs that task A has a 10% chance of being finished by next Friday, a 50% chance of being finished by the following Wednesday, etc. In my opinion (and many other project managers) much more useful information than having the task owner report something like their task is "65% complete."

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that both tools have reporting features. If you look at the reports page on the Clarizen system and compare to the reports in LiquidPlanner, you might be blown away at the sheer number of reports available on Clarizen. What will become obvious after taking a closer look at LiquidPlanner is that many of these same reports are available, with even more customization, by using the drop-down lists in the "Plan" view to filter to the exact view that you're looking for. These custom views can be saved and easily accessed later. The prepackaged reports that LiquidPlanner does have are pretty slick, and Clarizen doesn't have the proper data to generate reports like that. To Clarizen's credit though, there are financial reports available in that system that are not yet in LiquidPlanner, but once LiquidPlanner launches additional financial tools this will not be an issue.

The bottom line here is that it's all about what your needs are as a project manager and what type of organization you're working in. If you're looking for a tool that closely resembles a web based version of MS Project with added collaboration tools, then Clarizen might be a good fit. If you'd prefer something that removes a lot of the rigid structure of MS Project and includes only the most useful features (plus a robust scheduling engine, collaboration, etc), than LiquidPlanner would be an ideal solution for you.


Naftali said...

Hi Dina,

Nicely written piece. As a Clarizen user and fan, I definitely can see the benefit of automatically identifying tasks that are at risk because of resource overload. That would be cool and I have suggested it to the Clarizen dev team.

A few quibbles...

1. While the project plan screen structure may reflect Microsoft Project, the Clarizen user experience is far different. Clarizen employs a very specific use of "milestones" that has changed how we approach project planning and management. LP's ranged estimation may be a clear distinction with MS Project, but Clarizen has its own paradigm shifting innovations as well.

2. Regarding the %complete tracking method, Clarizen has the ability to choose by project which method (% or hours) is used to track progress. Tracking by hours has its own danger in that a resource can use up a ton of hours on an early problem but the system thinks the activity should be almost done. Our team toggles the %complete with the hours spent to get an accurate picture of task completion and work effort needed for a given task.

Overall, I can see why different PM's are drawn to each system, and I see LP as a really slick alternative. I hope one day to work with it and see it better from the inside.

Clarizen said...

I think it would be appropriate Dina if you would share with the readers of your blog your relationship with LiquidPlanner. Even though you try to come across unbiased, it is clear you are leading readers to one very specific direction.

With Clarizen you have a setting that allows you to report by Effort as opposed to % Completion. If you spent more time learning more about Clarizen, you would have noticed this.
Also, why didn't you bother to mention the following about LiquidPlanner, all of which were reported directly from users who evaluated it and sent us their feedback?
1. "Liquid Planner does not allow you to update your tasks' completion over email".
2. "Users could be assigned to work on multiple tasks… however, the scheduling/conflict management mechanism presumed one task was worked on to completion before another was started. We didn’t find that a realistic expectation. LP Support offered a ‘work-around’ which broke tasks into multiple parts but that solution did not scale well when the number of tasks per user and number of users began to reach typical numbers one should expect in moderate sized projects. They appeared to realize it was a limitation… at least it was to our adoption of LP as our solution."

3. "Based on our evaluation, Liquid Planner is a task management tool, not a project management tool. It lacks standardized project management capabilities, like being able to set a due date, or say, a meeting date and schedule multiple resources to attend the meeting. Oddly, you can't lock down the date, as it sets all dates based on its internal algorithm for prioritizing a user's work. So, some of the participants might make the meeting, but it could automatically set the meet to a different date for other participants. When I asked the people at LP about this, they said, well, they use Outlook to handle date specific events. That's as far as we got with evaluating LP - we nixed it right there."

4."LP does not support an import of MS Project" where many users come from and have large projects already built out.

If you want to come across neutral, please try harder.

Lisa said...

Fabulous post, Dina. Thank you for taking the time to do these head-to-head reviews. And of course, if the prior commenter had read your first paragraph, he would have seen that you disclose your affiliation with LP (such as it is) right up front.

Dina said...

Actually, I thought I was pretty clear in the opening of the post about my relationship with LiquidPlanner, that I have been serving proudly as their Social Media Evangelist for a year now and am taking the time to see what the competition is like in the space. I thought I also gave credit where it was due, mentioning some of the features that Clarizen has that LiquidPlanner does not yet have. As far as your list of feedback from users, I chose one specific list of features to look into and so of course was not able to report every single detail, especially feedback that was reported directly to your staff. To LiquidPlanner's defense, tasks can always be given a due date, they are labeled "Promise Date" and anyone who views the task will see this date clearly and be flagged if it is at risk of not being met. LiquidPlanner also does have an import from MS project, and when I moved over from MS project a couple years ago, I had no problem moving my projects over and overseeing the Jr PM's in my agency do the same.

As I was clear at the end of my post, either option can work well, depending on your needs. I have found that I've been able to use LiquidPlanner tasks lists in ways even the staff at LP might not have envisioned to help me manage my resources more effectively, and I'm sure this is possible with Clarizen too. There is not one solution that works for everyone all of the time so of course people will always find something to complain about. Because of my relationship with LiquidPlanner, I had no intention to be 100% unbiased, but atleast start up a friendly debate. I hope we can keep it that way.

Liorsion said...

Hi Dina,

We haven't had the chance to meet.. my name's Lior Sion, I'm the new CTO of Clarizen. I enjoyed reading your post, and like you say, did see you mentioning you work with LP, and taking that into account, thought that in general your review and comparison of the products was a good read.. which is a lot to say in your favor.

I think we see eye to eye in regards to what is the best way to manage projects - not sure we'll ever have a holy grail, but we both try to score the exact cord that rings well with most people.. not an easy task, as I'm not sure "most people" even think the same.

Now getting back to the discussion itself :)

Clarizen allows a few method of assigning tasks - fixed duration, fixed unit, and fixed work - and also enables you to decide what's fixed - begin date or end date. So depending on how you set the fixed type, the other values change..

With every customization option you get some confusion.. that's the game we play, no?

About your thoughts on %'s of work as a marker of progress. While Clarizen supports all type of "views" in this regard, personally I can say it's an interesting discussion. Agile and Extreme type development methodologies sometimes remark about the 80-20% rule (the last 20% of work will actually take 80% of the time, etc) but I think the main fault here is.. well.. with us human. Even if we calculate work by hours alone, we'll fall for the same trap.. we'll say that a certain task will takes 6 hours, and on the 5th remember that we forgot to include QA and stability in those 6 hours, etc.

Happy to join the conversation.. and happy to read your post.. and on a personal note: good luck with the triathlons! :)

Dina said...

Thanks for the comment Lior. Yes, you make a good point about remembering at the 5th hour that there were additional tasks that will make for more than 6 hrs total. This is one way the estimating can be off, and also just that the further we get into a task the more we understand about it and the better we know about what is left to be done. I guess percentages always seemed arbitrary to me, and I've read alot of others who feel the same. But, reporting hours left can also become arbitrary at a certain point because there could always be "just 2 hours left" for the last 20 hours of the project.

This is one of my favorite things about LiquidPlanner, because the tool encourages the task owner to think of a high/low estimate for the task. When you force someone to make a best and worst case scenario estimate, you're one step closer to getting a more accurate estimate. So, in my opinion, this is a little better because when the task owner estimates remaining work s/he can still provide a range for what the amount of work would be.

Thank you for explaining the flexibility of setting fixed or variable work/duration/dates. This was some of the frustration I had with MS Project, that too many elements were fixed and not enough was flexible. It looks like Clarizen is trying to improve on that also.

Robyn said...

Oh man oh man, I would love to be able to either at my job. Here is it common for people to track projects in excel and it drives me abso-frickin-lutely crazy! I have a series of simple HTML webpages that I keep for my projects. A part of me likes the freedom and flexibility, but I do so miss the days of really having exact schedules.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. This is a great article and the comment help see things from both standpoints.

I personally was looking for a wrike vs basecamp article when I stumbled here.

Charlotte said...

Hi All!
Nice written comparison. Thanks for sharing. Moreover, take into consideration these criteria: Project Duration and complexity, Collaborative elements of Software, Issue Tracking, Task and milestones scheduling, Resource and Document Management and of course, License option which WorkforceTrack has. It`s worth to check out. Good luck!

Dave said...

I found the comments in this post most amusing. I am currently evaluating both Liquid Planner and Clarizen as finalists for a MS Project replacement at my company.

"Clarizen's" idiotic post has not done much for their cause.

Anonymous said...

This is an old post but I have to say it's funny how so often a company shoots themselves in the foot. Dina states explicitly in her FIRST SENTENCE what her associated is, yet the first responded from Clarizen behaves like a jerk and does more to damage them than Dina ever could.

Luckily the second guy shows up and behaves more professionaly.