A boss once told me, "Any tool that forces you to change how you do your job just to accommodate the tool... is a tool you shouldn't use." He was right: Tools should enhance your ability to perform your job as efficiently and effectively as possible -- not force you to adopt new (worse) practices just so you can use the tool.

In a previous article we looked at some project management tools used by top startups. Now let's go a step farther and make sure you choose the right tool for your needs.

The following is from Ryan Robinson, a content marketing consultant to the world's top experts and growing startups. He teaches over 200,000 monthly readers how to start and grow a profitable side hustle on his blog and podcast.

Here's Ryan:

Project management as a practice has been developed for years. And all those tools are a natural progression of the time-tested techniques of past managers.

Talk to anyone who builds digital products and they'll tell you the same thing: Tools are just tools. It's what you do with them that matters.

That's why knowing what project management tools the top teams use is only a small part of the equation. To truly benefit from a project management system you need to not only know what to use, but how to use it.

As Dribbble's Director of Product Sarah Kuehnle, explains, "I care most about the impact of a tool on my team. I'm happy to use pretty much anything provided it keeps my team productive and happy."

So, let's take a look at the top project management tool features that all of these teams require, and how you can use them at your own company.   

1. Scalable task management that works whether you're building an app, website, or product.

Proper project management starts with knowing and being able to see what everyone's working on at once so you can fit the pieces together as your project progresses. To get that all-important bird's-eye view, you need a tool with task management that's organized, highly configurable, and can scale as your company and your projects expand.

Here's a few features you should look out for in any tool:

  • Flexibility in how you configure and assign tasks including setting deadlines, priority, and tagging teammates

  • Control over who can work on what tasks through role-based permissions

  • Clear workflows defined by roles and projects to make sure the right people know what to do and are able to do their work

2. Flexible planning for both Agile and Traditional project management.

Your tool also shouldn't limit the way you manage projects. Whether you're doing Agile project management with Scrum and Kanban, or sequential planning using a more traditional waterfall model, your software shouldn't dictate how you work.

Look for a tool that gives you a quick way to design and track sprints (or tasks that you'll be completing in sequence), as well as a visual way to see the progress of your project, like a Kanban-style board.  

3. Clear and transparent milestones to track progress.

When famous management consultant Peter Drucker said "What gets measured, gets improved", he might as well have been talking about the future of project management software. To make sure you're improving and growing, you need to have a clear view of the project milestones you've hit and the ability to track issues so you can correct course before you've gone too far.

Look for tools that allow you to build out a larger 'roadmap' of your project and track key milestones. This way you can keep track of tasks within the larger context of your project and ensure that what you're working on now is contributing to the greater good.  

4. Team chat and communication tools that keep the collaboration where the work is happening.

Communication is at the core of collaboration and running a smooth project. But context switching and hopping back and forth between different apps can slow things down, or confuse the situation. While not every project management tool offers good communication options, the ones that do give you an added bonus of keeping all relevant conversations in the right place.

And don't look simply for real-time chat. Setting up knowledge forums or posting 'blog posts' to your team's project is a great way to update everyone without disrupting their workflow.

5. Everything where it should be with easy access to docs and files.

"Where's the strategy doc again?"

"Can you send me the photo we're using on the landing page one more time?"

My desktop and Downloads folder is already a scary enough place as it is to have to go hunting for critical documents and files when I need them.

Instead, look for a tool that allows you to upload and store files where they're needed, whether that's attached to a task, project, issue, or blog post. And once they're up, make sure your tool syncs across all your teammates and devices to ensure you always have access to what you need, when you need it.  

6. Developer-friendly integrations.

You might have noticed in the above section that certain tools were more geared towards your technical team, while others are better for design, content, or product roadmaps.

While there's an argument to be made that these should be kept separate, when they are, it's easy for things to get missed or information to be misconstrued. To maintain transparency across all your teams, find a tool that caters to everyone, from developers to marketers, so everyone involved in the project can stay in the loop and know what's going on.

And to make your project management environment more developer friendly, look for tools with tight integrations with hosted Git and Subversion repositories, as well as role permissions to limit access to only those who know what they're working with.  

7. Tight progress feedback loops and forecasting with time tracking.

A big part of successful project management is reporting on what's been done. This means knowing what stage your project is at, how long tasks have taken, and whether you're on track to hit your milestones on time and on budget.

Look for tools that not only offer accurate time tracking, but let you make sense of that time by viewing it over specific periods and mapping it against your estimates. This is also an essential feature if you're going to be billing clients by the hour, or want to be able to show them how much work has been done.   

BONUS: Powerful search to stay organized when projects get out of hand.

With all these features and all your team working together in one place, things are bound to get lost or misplaced. That's why it's also absolutely essential that your project management tool offers some form of detailed search to track down those missing files or find that comment on the issue you're trying to fix.

The larger your projects get, the more advanced your search needs to be as well. Look for tools that give you options for limiting searches to projects, dates, location, etc...

The faster you can find what you need, the faster you can get back to building.

It's not just about which project management tool you use, but how you use it.

The tool that's right for you has the features that work with your workflow, integrates with the rest of your stack, and gives feedback on the progress of your project so you can steer the ship in the right direction.

While we can all learn from what the greats use, choosing a powerful project management tool eventually just comes down to the specific features that work for your company.

If you're considering a switch or looking for something new, have a look at the features listed above and make sure whatever tool you choose can tick all the boxes.