As project managers are becoming more reliant on software and third-party application integrations to streamline processes, reduce simple errors, and take away the mundane tasks that can take away from more meaningful responsibilities, the top project management software providers have incorporated a wide variety of automation tools into their offerings, allowing users and their teams to incorporate them into their workflows with ease. While the availability of automation tools has made it easier than ever for project managers to complete their work more efficiently, it is still important to understand when to use them, as well as when to avoid them.
Today’s Augmented Future
Almost all of the most effective project management tools come with a degree of automation, which promises to assist teams in expanding their capacity, enhancing predictability, fostering communication, and eliminating the need for tedious administrative tasks.
Project management software automation is often used to improve business efficiency, but these technologies are not powered by artificial intelligence or machine learning. Instead, these automation tools are built using rules-based conditional templates, which are limited to the functionality of the programs. Although similar to Robotic Process Automation (RPA) systems, they are not able to replicate or manipulate data, and any extra development or scripting must be done externally. Unlike RPA, which is used to transfer data from one system to another and execute functions, project management software automation is used to streamline processes, such as updating the status of a task or assigning an issue to a specific team member.
LiquidPlanner is an example of a scheduling software that uses a sophisticated engine to calculate the completion times of tasks according to project priority, the effort involved and the resources available. This engine enables the team to adjust deadlines during the project, taking into account any changes in the workload or scope.
Furthermore, Wrike boasts an automation engine that notifies users of upcoming deadlines and automatically moves finished tasks to the next stage. Kuleen Mehta, Lead Product Manager of AI/ML for Wrike, has noted that it also offers an extensive selection of customizable templates which enable users with any level of knowledge to create automation rules without needing any coding experience.
At Atlassian, Jira is the most popular project management platform available. This platform offers a variety of pre-built rules that users can utilise as templates for their projects. For those who prefer to customise their own rules, Jira offers an easy-to-use, no-code form to get started.
We conducted interviews with a number of project managers to gain an understanding of their experience with Jira and the tasks they typically automate. In our conversations, we asked about the potential for further automation in project management and what tasks should remain the responsibility of human workers.
Jira Automation: A Closer Look
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased demand for straightforward remote collaboration tools, and created new possibilities for project management software businesses to grow their user base. Atlassian had already been attempting to break down Jira’s image as an intricate, user-unfriendly tool with a complicated learning curve for the average user, and automation has become a key part of this mission.
In October 2019, Atlassian acquired Code Barrel, a leading provider of solutions for Jira, and integrated its highly popular Automation for Jira into its cloud service in March 2020. With the launch of Jira Work Management 2021, Atlassian is striving to transform Jira, traditionally renowned for its software development and IT service management capabilities, into an end-to-end platform that caters to the needs of teams and departments across the organisation, including marketing, human resources, finance, and design.
Jira’s automation building blocks are quite straightforward to use. Automation rules are constructed using triggers, conditions, and actions. When creating an automation rule, it is necessary to first choose a trigger, which is the event that initiates the rule. Next, a condition must be selected; this is a criterion that must be satisfied in order for the rule to proceed. Finally, an action must be chosen; this is what enforces the rule by executing a predefined task.
Jira Automation offers users the ability to create simple automation rules to streamline time-consuming tasks. An example of this is the automatic closure of a parent issue, once all its subtasks have been completed. Without the aid of automation, this process would involve manually searching for each outstanding ticket, verifying the status of each task and its subtasks, as well as following up with each individual involved, before being able to mark off and close the parent issue. This is a time-consuming process, the automation of which can improve the efficiency of the workflow.
Instead of manually completing and closing parent items, users can utilise Atlassian’s library of automated rules to configure Jira to send an email notification when the parent item is completed. This will occur as long as team members mark any associated subtasks as complete.
The implementation of an automated rule could greatly enhance the workflow of project managers, while simultaneously providing greater transparency throughout the development process. Furthermore, it would serve to motivate team members to stay informed of the status of their work, as issues would be able to update and close automatically when all of their associated subtasks have been marked off.
Patrick, a Works project manager based in Cordoba, Argentina, notes that one of the biggest challenges he faces on a daily basis is ensuring that developers keep their tasks up to date during standups. To alleviate this, he has implemented a system wherein developers must keep the parent card up to date by ensuring that all tasks are moved at a more granular level.
Despite the rule that was in place, it proved to be ineffective for Nikki, the Works project manager in Belgrade, Serbia, and her team. According to Nikki, the sum of all subtasks was not a sufficient amount to constitute a complete task, leaving something else to be done, which resulted in her having to reopen closed tasks in order to double-check them before manually closing them once more.
The field experiences that appear to be in opposition to one another demonstrate a significant lesson: Before introducing automation protocols, it is essential that the team and project manager have a comprehensive understanding of their product and the processes that are in place. Failing to do so may result in features being implemented that were intended to save time and frustration, yet instead have the opposite effect.
Where Automation Is Most Beneficial
Ruth Tillard, an expert in automation, maintains that the most effective automation solutions are those that allow tasks to progress smoothly and communication to remain “transparent, seamless, and current.” According to Tillard, it is not necessary to completely alter a process in order to automate it; rather, the elimination of minor, laborious tasks can provide a marked improvement in the productivity of the team.
Mike, a Works project manager based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, supports the notion that automation can be utilised to streamline processes related to tracking the progress of work completed by developers. As Mike puts it, “I want the developer to be able to focus on software development rather than also having to report that they have completed a given task.
In order to streamline the process for his development team, Patrick has implemented automated reminders. These reminders come in the form of a checklist that asks if the appropriate documentation has been published, if the pull request has been submitted, and if the merger has been completed. By utilising this system, Patrick has made the development process more efficient.
Automation can be leveraged to simplify the process of producing more comprehensive documentation of problems and solutions, thereby reducing the burden of having to record daily tasks. According to Tillard, when developers are no longer required to complete documentation tasks, they will be appreciative.
As a result of automation, knowledge transfer and sharing can be greatly facilitated. According to Patrick, if good documentation is coupled with well-written user stories, it will allow another team to take over and continue the work, as “much of the communication” related to the project has already been settled. Although some questions might remain, the general overview of the project will already be in place.
Automation can be a powerful tool to facilitate communication and collaboration among different work groups and teams. According to Patrick, automating processes such as status updates, checklists, and documentation can help to bridge the gap between teams that may not be in the same physical location. For example, when a team moves a card to code review, the status can be automatically updated in the service desk ticket, allowing service desk agents to stay informed and up-to-date. In this way, automation can enhance communication and coordination across teams.
Despite the growing concerns that automation and artificial intelligence may lead to job losses, Jira’s automation capabilities demonstrate that this type of technology can be used to enhance and improve the way project management jobs are performed. According to McKinsey & Company, while only 5% of positions can be fully automated, nearly one-third of the specific tasks in most occupations can be automated. While there are many project management tasks that may be suited for automation, it is important to note that Jira and other similar programs have their limitations. To set up automated rules that are beneficial, someone needs to have an in-depth understanding of the project, the team, and the product.
Savvy project managers appreciate the importance of utilising their interpersonal skills. In recent times, there has been a rise in the use of bots to manage tasks involving human interactions, such as daily standups. However, upon interviewing a few project managers, it was revealed that they would advise against this approach. Reda commented that “when automation is used to substitute for human interactions, something is inevitably lost”.
It is essential that automation should not only improve processes but also leave room for creative problem-solving, relationship-building, and innovative thinking. As Wrike’s Mehta puts it, “Our aim is to free up more time so that project managers can focus more on the rewarding, creative, and interpersonal aspects of their work.” With automation, we can save time on tedious or repetitive tasks and create space for managers to engage in activities that require more human skills.