Project management and workflow with Basecamp


This blog post will focus on how we use Basecamp, which has been one of our main tools for managing the ongoing work of individual projects. While we've since moved on to other project management tools ourselves, our tricks and observations about working with Basecamp still apply.

How can online collaboration tools like Basecamp support effective project management? That's one of the questions that came up at the values-based project management session I attended at Web of Change, led by Rob Purdie of Important Projects. I wanted to continue the conversation with Rob himself, and promised to blog our own project management workflow at Social Signal so that he could offer his comments and feedback on how to improve our approach.

Let me begin by saying this is very much a work in progress: we're still searching for the Holy Grail of optimized workflow, and feel like the tools we use now -- particularly Basecamp -- don't fully meet our needs. I'll address some of those limitations towards the end of this blog post, but let me begin with an overflow of what we use and how we use it.

Our main tools are:

This blog post will focus on how we use Basecamp, which is our main tool for managing the ongoing work of individual projects. The fact that we use so many other tools speaks to the issues we have with Basecamp -- which is one of the issues I'm particularly keen to hear Rob address. We're also fans of -- though not religious adherents to -- David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology, which has influenced our approach to task management.

Set up

We set up a Basecamp site at the beginning of each client engagement. Some of the best practices on Basecamp set up that we are trying to adopt as our standard include:

I add all our subcontractors to Basecamp as members of Social Signal, so that we can cover any technical issues without dragging the client into the Drupal abyss. We recognize that our clients don't always benefit from seeing how the sausages are made, and when it gets into some of the intricacies of module development or permissions configuration, we like to keep the excruciating details private so that clients aren't drawn too deeply into technical issues. Unfortunately, Basecamp only allows private communications among members of the same company, so we choose to treat all our subcontractors as members of Social Signal.

Structure and usage

We use messages for communications that require an action or response. This includes:

We use writeboards for communications that are FYI only (though we may use messages to notify each other of a new writeboard).

We use task lists for items that require a "next action" (in GTD terms).


Social Signal Project> All Messages

We have recently refined our use of messages to keep better track of all open loops. We respond to urgent messages as they come in, and at least once a week (and ideally every 2-3 days) we review all the messages in a given project space, and update status. We find that updating message status on a real-time basis is excessively time consuming and leads to duplication of effort.

Our message categories vary a bit by project but mostly reflect major categories of project activities (see screenshot -- some items deleted to protect client privacy).

When we review a message we briefly note our response, action required, or action taken, even if it's already completed, for future reference.

We then edit the title of the original message to note the status of that message:

Editing our message titles to reflect the status of each message gives us an at-a-glance view of which client issues have been addressed, and which need to be reviewed for action items.

Social Signal Project > Message Archive


We have recently shifted from using fewer, generic to-do lists (which we were trying to standardize across projects) to using a lot more to-do lists, each one corresponding to a set of related tasks. This reflects the GTD notion of grouping tasks by "contexts" or as "projects" consisting of multiple tasks.

Social Signal Project> To Do Lists

By grouping related tasks we ensure that:

When we had fewer categories we found that the very long lists of tasks under each made it hard to identify relationships or priorities; the shorter list of tasks makes this much easier.

We keep our to-do lists organized alphabetically; when we decide to prioritize a specific set of tasks as the next focus for our work, we move that to-do list to the top of the page and mark it "P1: to-do list name" (as in "priority 1").


Writeboards are our long-term storage area and collaboration space. We use writeboards for:


Our experience with Basecamp has been shaped equally by the technology itself, and our diligence in using it. Of course, these aren't unrelated issues; if Basecamp really met all our needs, so that we could keep all our tasks organized in one place, I suspect we'd be much more consistent in using it.

We find that Basecamp works well for:

We find that Basecamp works poorly for:

What we like about Basecamp:

What we need that we're not getting from Basecamp:

Nice-to-haves would include:

Basecamp alternatives

One of my favorite compulsive activities these days is looking into Basecamp alternatives. So far my conclusion has been -- to paraphrase Winston Churchill -- that Basecamp is the worst possible project management tool, except for all the others. Here are some of the "others" I have looked into, or mean to look into; I'll try to come back to this post and annotate the list with the reasons we haven't moved to any of these:



Unfuddle -- intriguing because it includes subversion and bug tracking

Clocking IT -- a free basecamp alternative, but as far as I can see no built-in messaging. Time tracking, though.

Michael Silberman of EchoDitto put me onto Central Desktop as a somewhat pricier Basecamp alternative that includes many of our concerns about Basecamp. We're trying it out, and it looks promising, although I'm a bit disappointed in the look and feel (it's not nearly as pretty as Basecamp) and daunted by the prospect of moving our projects over. However the prospect of being able to assign deadlines to tasks (imagine that!!) probably outweighs every other issue.

Brian Benzinger's roundup of project management tools for developers provides quick takes on some of the above, plus many more.

Other Resources

In the course of my obsessing over Basecamp and project management workflow I've found a number of useful blog posts on other people's use of Basecamp and Basecamp alternatives. For some reason many of the blog posts I've come across are by friends in the non-profit tech sector; I'm not sure if that's because of Google's freaky habit of customizing search results, or because non-profit techies are somehow more obsessed with workflow (comments, anyone?) Here are some of the posts I've found helpful.

Sonny Cloward mapped his workflow, which hinges on Basecamp, Backpack and Mozilla Calendar.

Jon Stahl provided an overview of collaboration practices at ONE/Northwest, which includes using Basecamp.

Ruby Sinreich blogged her thoughts on Basecamp plus GTD, which includes creating virtual "people" who represent different contexts, so she can assign her tasks to contexts.

LifeDev reports on using Basecamp with GTD, in this case using to-do LISTS as contexts.

Patrick Rhone blogs his GTD-with-Basecamp workflow.

Next steps

I'm going to take Central Desktop for a serious spin. I'm going to continue praying to the 37Signals gods for true Basecamp-Backpack integration, or to the Remember the Milk guys for Basecamp-RTM integration as an answer to their "how can we start charging for RTM?" quest. I'm going to try out Omni's forthcoming OmniFocus task manager.

And I'm going to resist the temptation to engineer an in-house Drupal solution to our project management wishlist. After all, our needs aren't THAT exotic, and there are an awful lot of people chasing the same vision. I'm trusting that one of them will get us much closer to a solution before long.

Meanwhile, I'm eager to hear from Rob Purdie and others about how we can improve our current Basecamp usage. In particular I'm curious to hear:

And if you've blogged your own project management approach or workflow, please let me know by sending an e-mail to alex [at] socialsignal [dot] com, or posting a comment here.

Update: We've been receiving an awful lot of comments aiming to promote particular project management apps (for some reason, every project management post we do gets the same thing). Three and a half years strikes us as plenty of time for this conversation, so we'll call it a day for comments on this one.