BasecampI do lots of things, but what I spend the most time doing is Project Management. I use MS Project when I have a project that is large or complex enough that the dates and dependencies are too complicated to update by hand, otherwise I use a spreadsheet: MS Excel, or Google Docs when it’s something I’ll want to share with a team.

Getting into Basecamp

I recently started working with a team that uses Basecamp. I compared Basecamp with a few other tools back in 2012 when I was looking for a collaboration tool, and came to the conclusion that Google Docs would be a better way to go. But since this new team is already on Basecamp and they are used to using it — away I go into Basecamp!

After using it pretty heavily for a few weeks, I hold to my earlier conclusion that it’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. That said: If all you need is a tool to organize to-do lists, then this might be the perfect tool for you to use. Below is a high-level overview of how I’ve been using the tool, and here is a PDF of a presentation that has this same information.

What is Basecamp good for?

Basecamp is mainly for organizing To-do Lists. It is great for organizing information about projects, and keeping a record of the to-dos, discussions, and docs for each project. It’s also good for maintaining an overall team calendar, but I’ll talk about that later. The key advantage of Basecamp is that the whole team has access.  If Joe Blow sets up a bunch of calendar items then runs off to join the circus, it’s easy for someone else to go in and take that over.

What is Basecamp NOT good for?

Basecamp is such a basic tool. Beyond the team calendar and the to-do lists, there’s quite a lot that you should NOT do with it. Basecamp is NOT:

  • A replacement for email. Use Basecamp for communications specific to a “To Do” or Document in a project as this gives you a nice “package” of everything having to do with the project. But otherwise, use email or IM.
  • An everyday calendar. The calendar in Basecamp is a tad clunky… but I think it has potential as a good team calendar. There are some issues with setting reminders, but hopefully that’s something that the Basecamp tech support team can help me resolve.
  • A document repository. Basecamp is NOT a good place to store documents! Only upload things that are specific to a project or To-do list, but otherwise consider using another tool (such as Dropbox).

Projects

Everything in Basecamp is organized into Projects. While your team might have many projects, you will only see those projects that you have been invited to.

When you click on Projects from the menu at the top of the screen, you are taken to a Projects landing page. You can choose to see the projects listed as tiles or an alphabetic list.  When you click on a project, you are taken to its summary page where you will see:

  • Latest project update
  • Discussion
  • To-do lists
  • Files
  • Text documents

To-do Lists

To-do lists are the best feature of Basecamp, to the extent that if you are not interested in using To-do Lists, then you are wasting your and your team’s time using this tool.

Within a Project, you create a To-do List for a group of tasks (which Basecamp calls To-dos), each of which can be assigned to a person and given a due date.

  • Click the To-do List title if you want to see a summary of everything that has taken place for this To-do List (including discussions and uploaded files).
  • Each To-do list has multiple To-dos. Each To-do has an empty checkbox at the beginning, its name, and then the name of the person it was assigned to at the end along with the due date.
  • Comments and files can be attached to each To-do, which makes it a nice way to have a “package” of everything having to do with this to-do.

Here are some tips for effectively using To-do Lists in Basecamp:

  • Organizing. Group related To-dos into To-do Lists. Avoid dumping unrelated To-dos into “Miscellaneous” buckets, as To-dos that are not in a logical place will get lost.
  • To-do name. Name your To-dos in a way that is descriptive about what should be done. For example “Web graphics” is a terrible name for a To-do. Instead, name it “Make new button graphics for Website.”
  • Assign someone. Make sure you assign every To-do to someone — otherwise it will never get done
  • Due date. Assign a due date for every To-do. If you don’t know one or there really isn’t one, then give it a date on which you should reassess what the date should be! If there’s no date, it probably will never get done.
  • Complete info. Add a comment to a To-do if it needs any explanation. Your goal: Make it so that the person to whom this To-do is assigned has 100% of the information needed to complete it. If he has to ask you for more information, then you have just wasted time.
  • “Check” completed To-dos. A project killer is when you have to skim through a sea of old To-dos to find what needs to be done. Vigilantly nag people about checking off a To-do when it has been completed.

Files and Text Docs (Notes)

It is easy to upload documents and other files from your computer or from Google Docs to Basecamp, but as I said earlier in this post: you should not think of Basecamp as a document repository. My suggestion is that you only attach files that are needed for a specific To-do.

For example, if the To-do is “Upload the new XYZ icon to mosquitowing.com,” then it makes excellent sense to upload that icon file and attach it to the To-do. That way, when your webmaster is ready to do the work, the file will be right there in front of him.

In addition to uploading files, Basecamp has a native Text Document format that is a convenient way to give detailed information without making people have to download and open documents. Just click on the “Create a Text Document” button to create it, but be sure to Save it! When you create a Text Document, be sure to add a comment or go into the To-do Item and refer people to the Text Doc that you created.

Calendars

The Basecamp Calendar feature is a great way to have a central calendar for your entire team, especially for those teams working in a “virtual company” where there is no central calendar system. However, the Basecamp Calendar feature is a little clunky, so your team members should continue to use their regular Outlook or other calendars for their day-to-day use.

I suggest using the Basecamp Calendar to post team vacations or other planned time off, industry events, and tradeshows. This is the central repository of all the things you know about that could impact schedules. Do you have team members or clients all over the world? Load national holidays from around the world into your calendar so you won’t be caught by surprise.

We are experimenting with also loading recurring regular meetings into the Basecamp Calendar — but the jury is still out on whether this will prove to be an effective tool.

Items on the calendar can be color-coded, and you can choose to see only those categorized items. To-dos for your projects will also show on the calendar. The calendar supports multiday events, repeating events, and reminders — although I have yet to get the reminder feature to work.

One drawback o the Basecamp Calendar is that you cannot set a reminder for an event that is later the same day. Put another way: If I set up an event that takes place later today, the entire Reminder feature is grayed-out.

Summaries

The summaries in Basecamp give you quick access to catch up on what is going on. The summaries are accessed using the Everything, Progress, Everyone, and Me links at the top of the screen. “Me” is the most useful – so we’ll start there.

Me. This summary shows you a hyperlinked list of everything you have done in Basecamp:

  • All the outstanding To-dos assigned to you
  • Your completed To-dos
  • Quick links to docs you have uploaded

Everything. This shows you everything in Basecamp (at least those thing to which you have access), sorted by type of activity. This isn’t terribly useful in my opinion.

Progress. This summary shows you a timeline with links to everything in Basecamp that you are directly involved with, sorted by date, starting with TODAY at the top. This is starting to get a little more useful, especially if you are in  the position of trying to find something in the system and all you remember is the date it happened on… but the Me summary would be a better place to start.

Everyone. This shows you the icons and names of everyone in the system. Click on the person to see more information, depending on your access rights.

The moral of the story

I’m convinced that a better tool is still out there, but since managing To-do Lists is the main thing I need to do with this team, I think Basecamp is providing good value for the cost. One thing I have found is that the biggest battle using any tool  is getting your full team to use it. Even though I don’t love Basecamp, my team likes it, so that’s what has made it my tool of choice (for the work I do with this particular team).

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