Without the right tools, managing a project is a time-consuming task that can easily become disorganized and unwieldy. What’s worse, if you’re in charge of designing a solution and running the team, but you’re not an official project manager, or if your company doesn’t see the value of such a position, you may not have the funds to get the tools you need.

In lieu of costly software that is recognized as industry standard, such as Microsoft Project, Visio, or Rational’s RUP (Rational Unified Process), you do have some options. Follow this guide to free (and nearly free) tools that are available online, and enjoy the benefits of a solidly managed project.

Free-ish software
In evaluating free Windows project management software for this article, I discovered that you get what you pay for. After reviewing my notes, I realized I couldn’t recommend the free tools I had found with a clear conscience—mostly because the products didn’t work well or didn’t work at all.

Instead, I opted for the nearly free products, of which there are quite a few. These products cover a range of utilities that are very helpful for keeping your project in order. All have evaluations available, and every one of them costs less than $40.

Task management
UTrack 1.0. This software has been around for a while, and as far as I could tell, Cosec doesn’t promote it anymore, but this version available from Tucows is a handy tool for managing to-do lists, time tracking, and project task status. I like its powerful organizational capabilities, although it’s really a nuts-and-bolts solution. In this free evaluation version, synchronize functions don’t work, but it’s good for getting a grip on what’s going on.

ItemAction 2.2. From Voss, $39 shareware for a complete, 30-user license pack. They also offer smaller packages for free. You can use ItemAction for viewing tasks, time tracking, setting up software requirements, and organizing other project data. This groupware application is definitely worth a try.

Resource management and billing
BillQuick Lite 3.1. BillQuick also sells other products, but this limited version of their BillQuick 2000 software is free. This is a very professional tool for handling everything related to billing, taxes, invoices, and more. It’s missing some of the nicer features of their other products, such as custom reports, but it’s a great tool for the price.

Flow charts and diagramming
Flow Charter 3.5. You can try this product free for 30 days, and it only costs $34.95. It uses an intuitive, clean interface for making flowcharts. The evaluation version has limited shapes, but you can import more. There aren’t a lot of bloated features. I list it because it has a couple of things the product below is missing, such as the ability to color text.

Antechinus Draw Magic 2.0. From C Point, this shareware costs $35 and focuses more on clip art and adding images and external files to your diagrams than on creating flow charts—although it does that just fine. Another really nice feature in this product is drawing layers, similar to the functionality you’re used to in Visio.

Project planning
PlanBee. Not the prettiest interface, but this product is great! You can create Gantt and PERT charts, complete with critical path highlighting. It prints a variety of formats, is very easy to use, and isn’t a resource hog. You can try it out with the 30-day free demo and then purchase the shareware from Guy Software for $30. If you’ve got heavy-duty time projections to do, it’s definitely worth it.

Useful forms
When I worked as a consultant, I remember thinking (more than once) that if I had to create another change order form from scratch, I was going to go insane and take everyone with me. Luckily, I never have to reinvent the wheel again, thanks to the following free forms. Simply download, customize, and deploy.

Builder.com’s PM Toolkit. This is a set of documents I developed over the years in the field during software development and integration projects. The kit includes a project plan template, change order form, bug report summary form, and record of revision summary.

Use case template by Derek Coleman (PDF document). There are a massive number of proposed standards for use case documents out there, but this one is truly a template. It’s easy to understand and provides a helpful example.

Project priorities. Use the project priorities outlined in this article (again, by yours truly) to make sure you and the project driver are on the same page.

Miscellaneous forms. From the University of Waterloo in Ontario, this list of forms covers almost every aspect of your IS/IT project. Some of them are pretty much phoned-in, but a lot of them cover aspects you wouldn’t think a template existed for.

PM community Web sites
Project management Web sites are another great source of free forms and information. I’ve listed a few of the more respected ones here.

Project Management Institute. At this Web site, you can find information on PMP (Project Management Professional) certification and PMI membership. You can also order books, articles, and research.

International Project Management Association. This site offers information on membership, certification, conferences, and learning.

4PM.com. A great resource with lots of project management information, including articles, more forms and templates, and free reference information.

AllPM.com. A community Web site with forums, free downloads, articles, and more.

With these tools, you’ll be able to tackle any solution with confidence. The software, forms, and templates listed here are a great arsenal, especially since they’re (practically) free. Now that you’re fully equipped, you don’t have to spend a lot of time reinventing time-proven processes. Instead, you’re ready to face the next great challenge—getting your project done.

Do you know of some great resources?

Let us know about the resources you rely on by sending us an e-mail or posting to the discussion below.