Using “Free” Tools for Multi-Project Management \ PMO Hackathon

I went to the recent PMO Flashmob Hackathon. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the concept of a Hackathon, it’s an event where programmers get together to write (or “hack”) some computer code over an extended period (hence “-athon”, from the ending of “marathon”) to solve problems posed by the attendees.

PMO Flashmob decided to hold one of these, with a PMO focus. I was initially somewhat wary. I have done a bit of programming in my time (Fortran, Java and VBA if you’re interested) but most of that is quite a while ago now (I did say some of it was Fortran), and I was concerned at the little I would be able to “bring to the table” for a hackathon. A week or so before the event, a post came out from host John Mcintyre saying the PMO hackathon would have a less technical focus than typical for traditional hackathons, so I took the plunge and signed up.

But we had been asked to come up with a suggestion for something to work on. So what to suggest?

I have seen much discussion heated debate on the web on the merits of Project Portfolio Management (PPM) tools vs. Spreadsheets, including this comment from PMO Flashmobber Nicole Reilly “Part of my initial discussions with a potential client will be to assess their openness to using […] the ever-increasing number low-cost or even free tools now out there”. This prompted me to wonder:

What useful PPM functionality can be implemented using just free (or nearly free) tools?

I put this question to the Hackathon, and joined the team investigating the answers.

First, we brainstormed a list of the free tools that we knew of that we thought could be useful:

Tool Intended purpose Potential PPM use Advantages Disadvantages Comments
Pinterest® Upload, save, sort, and manage visual media through collections known as pinboards. Reporting? Hierarchical structure

“Follow user”

Not possible to manage access permissions Image-centric


Facebook® Social networking Reporting? Possible to manage access to posts

IM to controlled groups via messenger

Share images, media and links

Business version available (probably not free!)
Blogger® Multi-user blogs with time-stamped entries Reporting? Possible to manage access to posts (Administrator, Author and Reader roles)

Share images, media and links

Extensive templates

Private blogs limited to 100 members Owned by Google
Twitter® News and social networking service where users post and interact with messages £140 characters. Reporting? Short (£140  char) field;

Can “follow” people

Can restrict visibility of tweets to just followers

Short (£140 char) field;

Public forum


Instagram® Share visual media either publicly or privately Reporting? “Follow” users

Private messaging to <15 people

Limited support for text
SharePoint® team sites Store and collaborate on files; Create and manage lists of information, with integration to Microsoft Office Reporting? RAID Log management? Document Management? Comes as part of Office 365; can be largely administered by Users; can perform simple calculations Admin user needs considerable knowledge; some IT support is needed to set up and maintain (especially if hosted on site rather than via Office365) Not technically “free”, but available at little to no additional cost as most organisations already use Microsoft Office.
Google® Drive / Docs Free, web-based software office suite Reporting? RAID Log management? Document Management? Real time collaboration; docs available on- and off-line; comment and discuss; integrated video conferencing Not actually free for business use (but low-cost);
OneDrive® File-hosting service, store files in the cloud. Document management? Collaboration? Easy sharing; offline sync; 5GB free; 1TB if you have Office365; basic version control Doc mgmt only
DropBox® Store your stuff online; Access your stuff from anywhere; Easily share with others. Document management? Collaboration? 2GB free space; earn more by inviting new users; simple version control Doc mgmt only
Trello® Collaboration tool comprising checklists within cards, within lists, within boards Reporting? RAID Log management?



Lessons Learned?


Very flexible; extensions that add functionality; can assign users and due dates to cards. No ability to perform calculations (e.g. totals, impact ´ probability); no document management
DropTask® Visual task management application that uses intuitive diagrams rather than lists Reporting? Can assign users to tasks; Good view of priority / importance / progress; can group tasks together Tasks disappear once you have labelled them complete It’s pretty!
Yammer® Social networking service used for private communication within organization Collaboration? Reporting? Create private messaging groups? Not really free for business
WhatsApp® Instant messaging service, aimed at smartphones Collaboration? Reporting? Create private messaging groups? There is a PC app, but most IT security policies won’t let you install it
Zoom® Video and audio conferencing with collaboration features Meetings? Free for a basic account Need to pay if you want more than one meeting at once Conferencing only
Slack® Cloud-based set of team collaboration tools and services Discussion and collaboration Basic free system for small teams
FaceTime® Video and audio conferencing Collaboration Many people already have it Apple only

May have problems using on personal devices and corporate WiFi

Skype® Cross-platform instant messaging, video and audio conferencing Collaboration Included in Windows10
Asana® Web and mobile application designed to help teams track their work Collaboration?



Free for small teams (£15 people)


This is just a list of what we came up with in our team, based on the pooled knowledge of the team plus a few minutes web research on each tool. It is possibly inaccurate and almost definitely incomplete; if you spot any factual errors please let me know in the comments and I will update the table.

Having generated this table (not particularly neatly – most of the pros and cons were established verbally), we decided to focus on Trello, as its flexibility appeared to have the most potential for producing something workable in the four-hour window of the hackathon, and it seemed to have applicability across several PPM uses.

I gave the rest of the team a quick demo and an introduction to what it is (a free web-based system that enables you collaborate on tasks represented as cards, which can be grouped into lists, arranged in boards), and what it can do (assign users to cards, set due dates, send notifications when cards are added / edited, attach labels, etc.). We then set about investigating the features of the various Trello entities and what we could use them for in a PPM context.

My original question was prompted by the following scenario (which as a Programme PMO contractor I experience fairly often):

  • You are a PMO contractor operating at programme or portfolio level who has just “landed” in an organisation
  • You want to create an overview of the programme or portfolio by collating status, risks and issues of the constituent projects, with a view to identifying themes and trends
  • Your host organisation has neither the expertise, the appetite nor the budget to implement a full-blown PPM solution
  • You need to set up something quick, simple and FREE, that users will be able to get the hang of quickly, with minimal support from IT (who are not especially interested in helping you)

So, how could we use Trello to help with that scenario?

We generated a list of Trello’s features, and considered how they could be used and what they could represent in a programme / portfolio context. That produced this table:

Board(s) Programme / Portfolio Project Project Lessons Learned
List(s) Milestones; Risks; Issues; Changes; Actions; Status Updates; Documents; Lessons Documents Status Report Categories of lesson (Do more, Do less, Change environment, etc.)
Card(s) One record:

One milestone; one risk; one Issue, etc.

One document One update One lesson
·      Card.Title Item Title Item Title Exec summary Item Title
·      Card.Description Item Description Item Description Fuller commentary Item Description
·      Card.Member(s)
Can filter on:o  Unassigned;o  Assigned to [Member]
The person to who, the item is assigned for Action Document owner Update Author (or recipient) Author and/or assignee
·      Card.DueDate
Can filter on:o  Overdueo  Due tomorrow

o  Due in next wk

o  Due in next mth

o  No due date

The date by which the item is expected to have been completed (milestones, actions), or by which it will have naturally expired (time-bound risks). Date of issue Date of update Date recorded?

Due date for consequential action?

·      Card.Done
Can filter on:o  Doneo  Not Done
Closed Issued Issued Lesson translated into improving action of some sort
·      Card.Label(s)
Can filter on:o  No labelo  [Named label]
As you can have many of these, could use them for:

·      ProjectName

·      Escalate

·      RAG status

·      Include in Exec Summary

·      Etc.

Type of document, e.g.:

·      Design

·      Schedule

·      Plan

·      Report

·      Analysis

·      Etc.

·      ProjectName

·      Escalate

·      RAG status

·      Include in Exec Summary

·      Etc.

·      Originating ProjectName

·      Type of Lesson (do more, do less)

·      Include in Exec Summary

·      Etc.

·      Card.Checklist(s) Sub-items of card, completed sequentially to resolve card item Review and approval status? Contribution gathering status?

Review and approval status?

Sequence of agreed actions to be taken in response to the Lesson
·      Card.Comment(s) (historical list, with member and date/time) Commentary on status; progress/notes Comments on latest version of the document Commentary on status; progress/notes; commentary on who used the lesson and how it was useful
·      Card.Attachment(s) Associated document(s) The document file itself (as it is possible to have multiple attachments, would need to name document versions or store only current version) Any associated documents Any associated documents
·      Card.Sticker(s) Visual labels according to an agreed scheme, to draw attention to items.

We created an example board for the Programme / Portfolio scenario, and set about generating content as a team. Some of us used the website (accessed via a laptop), and some used the free Trello smartphone / tablet apps (not all of the web site features seem to be available via these apps).

A few things became apparent very quickly:

  • Although I had done some initial thought experiments and “sketching” on Trello before the hackathon (with a board representing the entire portfolio, one card representing one project, and lists representing approval stages in the organisation’s project lifecycle – you can take a look at that here), through working together the team came up with a far more powerful approach based on putting everything into a Big Bucket of data, in which projects are represented just as labels attached to much more granular items (risks, issues, actions, )
  • As items were added to the board, each of us received notifications. This could be very useful for the PMO looking “down” on the board (good visibility of the items on the board and hence any emerging trends), but could prove annoying for other types of users (e.g. PMs) – this can be controlled to a certain extent by “subscribing” to items of interest to receive notification of updates.The format is quite visual and could be used in various ways (e.g. as a Live, flexible meeting agenda, moving items about to prioritise them and mark when they have been discussed)
  • Individual members can filter the entire board so that they only see items of interest to them (e.g. by label [perhaps their project] or member [perhaps themselves]). That way they get to hear about changes in other areas (via notifications) but their view remains relatively uncluttered.
  • Members can subscribe to items raised by other members, comment on them, and hear about updates. This could be useful for a PM who has a dependency on a milestone being delivered by another PM – they can subscribe to the card representing that milestone, and hear about any changes to the due date, RAG status,
  • “Power-ups” are available from Trello to add extra functionality or integrations. You can have one free power-up per board; after that you have to pay for them.
  • If you are OK with Google Chrome as your browser, and you can add browser extensions, there are many free extensions available that are specifically designed to add some very useful functionality to Trello (often reproducing power-up capability – e.g. additional custom fields, export to Excel, calendar view, list card totaliser, ) – combinations of these could make the “solution” more useful – but only for use within Google Chrome, they will have no effect in the Trello apps.

In conclusion:

  • I was glad that I went. As with all PMO FlashMob events, I caught up with people I’ve known for years, met some interesting new people, and enjoyed working with them to create something new.
  • I was surprised at just how much “thrown-together” teams were able to produce in a relatively short time. Our team (comprising Brian Cairns of Project Services Associates, Stuart Dixon of EHC Consulting, Natalie Groves of Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, and me Ken Burrell of Pragmatic PMO, none of us programmers) came up with a working prototype of something potentially useful, that I will definitely be investing some more time in. As and when I do this I will post about it on my web site.

Here are the prototypes we came up with:

I don’t think anyone would say they will be replacing a “proper” PPM tool any time soon, but it does show a little of what is possible using free tools, whilst you are in the process of working out what you want / need before signing up to a “proper” PPM system. Feel free to take a look at our prototypes and adapt them as you see fit to suit your own purposes.

Well done PMO Flashmob and John McIntyre for pulling off an innovative and successful event!


  • Pinterest® is a registered trademark of Pinterest Inc.
  • Facebook® is a registered trademark of Facebook Inc
  • Blogger®, Google® are registered trademark of Google Inc
  • Twitter® is a registered trademark of Twitter Inc
  • Instagram® is a registered trademark of Instagram LLC
  • SharePoint®, OneDrive and Skype are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation
  • DropBox® is a registered trademark of DropBox Inc
  • Trello® is a registered trademark of Trello Inc
  • DropTask® is a registered trademark of Think Productivity Ltd
  • Yammer ® is a registered trademark of Yammer Inc
  • WhatsApp® is a registered trademark of WhatsApp Inc
  • Zoom® is a registered trademark of Zoom Video Communications Inc
  • Slack® is a registered trademark of Slack Technologies Inc
  • FaceTime® is a registered trademark of Apple Inc
  • Asana® is a registered trademark of Asana Inc

About Ken Burrell

Ken Burrell is a contract Project, Programme and Portfolio Office (PMO) Professional, who helps organisations to improve the way they change through engagements of his company Pragmatic PMO: sometimes by supporting the controlled delivery of change programmes, and sometimes by ensuring CxOs get the information they need to make strategic decisions about those change programmes.


  1. Great article, thank you Ken! The power of Trello is definitely how easy and intuitive it is to use. I’ve recently used it for the first time.

    I had a quick look at Microsoft Planner (part of O365) and although it has basic capabilities, unfortunately it doesn’t have a search functionality. It would have neatly kept information in one place within the corporate information architecture, accessible to staff with Single Sign on. At the hackathon one group talked about using surveys to collect status reports (might have been yours?). We’ve looked into this and the survey capability in O365 is neat and very mobile friendly. The results can then be pasted into a central list for others to access as needed and to serve as a single repository. Another #hackathonwin

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Anke. I like the idea of using surveys for status reporting (no it wasn’t my team); I will take a look at Microsoft Planner and O365 surveys. I love the flexibility and collaboration features of Trello – I use it at work and at home (ask my wife!)

    • Hi Ian, thanks for reading and commenting. I have seen and referred to your Trello board, and it was partly your blog post on how you use Trello for PM that gave me the idea that it might be possible to use it for many projects at once. I am amazed at the wealth of (free!) Google Chrome browser extensions specifically targeted at enhancing the functionality of Trello. It seems that there is a vibrant community of developers out there who see value in it and are prepared to develop free tools for it.

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