Project Management

Microsoft Project power tips

Take control of dates in Microsoft Project with these five valuable methods, courtesy of TechMails.


The trends of fast growth and faster technology have made project management one of business’s most valuable planning tools. Whether you’re tracking deadlines, planning a budget, or juggling schedules, project management can make the job more efficient and effective. And nothing is more important in project management than timing—keep the work on schedule and get it in on time. Here are five Microsoft Project tips, courtesy of our TechMails newsletter service, that will help you gain better control over dates, schedules, estimates, and the progress of your projects.

Avoid date constraints on your tasks
A good rule of thumb is to avoid setting date constraints on your tasks whenever possible. We've all been in the situation of leveling our project only to find that a task can't be moved due to a date constraint. This can be frustrating and time-consuming, to say the least.

Constraints impede Project from moving tasks in accordance with their links. They can also make it impossible to level the assignments to that task. By default, Project has the Tasks Will Always Honor Their Constraint Dates option (Tools | Options | Schedule) set to True. For almost everyone, this is a good setting to keep—it just makes it necessary to be careful when creating or moving tasks.

Any time you move a task by either dragging its Gantt bar or manually entering a new start or finish date, Project will place a constraint on that task. Sometimes this is what you want, as in moving a task into next week when it's been delayed. However, it's always best to let the logic of your plan (the links between your tasks) and the work/duration of your tasks drive their start and finish dates.

Using the Update Project tools
Suppose you have a partially completed project that was shelved for a time but is now ready to get rolling again, several weeks or months later. The plan is all there, half-complete tasks and all, but they're all scheduled for a month ago! How do you get the plan in shape for it to resume tomorrow?

This is one of the uses for the set of tools called Update Project, accessible through Tools | Tracking. One of Update Project's key features is its ability to reschedule the work remaining on tasks according to a revised date. This means that you could put in tomorrow's date and have Project move all the remaining work for your incomplete or not yet started tasks to tomorrow. It moves the tasks over while keeping the links you've established and saves you the trouble of manually splitting all your tasks to the new start date.
Our TechMails e-mail newsletter service brings great Project tips directly to your inbox. Every business day, we'll send you a great technique, pointers to other project management content, and the day's hot headlines on TechRepublic.com. Sign up for our Project TechMail, or check out the rest of our great e-mail newsletters at our TechMails sign-up page.
Keeping templates current with the Adjust Dates macro
If you have users who shun previously created templates because they think they'll have to manually change all the dates, be sure they know about Project's built-in Adjust Dates macro. It's a great little macro that lets the user specify a new start date. The macro then figures out the difference in days between the original start date and the new one, and then adds that number to the start dates of every task. Now the plan is "shifted" to the new dates without changing the relationship between tasks.

Using Interim Plans to monitor progress
Baselines are a full picture of the state of your project at a point in time. Project 98's Interim Plans could be thought of as mini-baselines. They store only the task's start and finish dates. Interim Plans are great for tracking how your tasks evolve over time because they let you see your tasks' start and finish dates for up to 10 different occasions. This can help you pinpoint when a task or set of tasks started to slide.

It's important to record the date when you save each Interim Plan. Knowing those dates will help you better analyze your project's progress.

Building a work estimate database
Your project management efforts can benefit greatly if you maintain a database of the tasks your organization has performed in the past. It's of utmost importance that you make accurate work estimates for your project. You can buy a pre-built commercially available set of estimates compiled by industry experts or just build a simple spreadsheet.

In the top level of your spreadsheet, identify the Task; beneath it, name the resources who may perform the work. Include the data points Short, Long, Average, and Number Of Times.

Short records the least number of hours it's taken this resource to perform this task. Long is the longest time it took. Average is, of course, the average of the Short and Long times. Number Of Times is the number of times the resource has actually completed the task. This can act as a confidence factor for the figures. These figures are then rolled up to the task level.

You can update the spreadsheet in fairly short order when a project is completed. The short time it takes to perform the update will be repaid quickly in the form of vastly more accurate plans in the future. If maintained, the numbers pulled from such a spreadsheet will always be more accurate than a simple guess. It also provides a way of deciding which resource should be used for a task.

The trends of fast growth and faster technology have made project management one of business’s most valuable planning tools. Whether you’re tracking deadlines, planning a budget, or juggling schedules, project management can make the job more efficient and effective. And nothing is more important in project management than timing—keep the work on schedule and get it in on time. Here are five Microsoft Project tips, courtesy of our TechMails newsletter service, that will help you gain better control over dates, schedules, estimates, and the progress of your projects.

Avoid date constraints on your tasks
A good rule of thumb is to avoid setting date constraints on your tasks whenever possible. We've all been in the situation of leveling our project only to find that a task can't be moved due to a date constraint. This can be frustrating and time-consuming, to say the least.

Constraints impede Project from moving tasks in accordance with their links. They can also make it impossible to level the assignments to that task. By default, Project has the Tasks Will Always Honor Their Constraint Dates option (Tools | Options | Schedule) set to True. For almost everyone, this is a good setting to keep—it just makes it necessary to be careful when creating or moving tasks.

Any time you move a task by either dragging its Gantt bar or manually entering a new start or finish date, Project will place a constraint on that task. Sometimes this is what you want, as in moving a task into next week when it's been delayed. However, it's always best to let the logic of your plan (the links between your tasks) and the work/duration of your tasks drive their start and finish dates.

Using the Update Project tools
Suppose you have a partially completed project that was shelved for a time but is now ready to get rolling again, several weeks or months later. The plan is all there, half-complete tasks and all, but they're all scheduled for a month ago! How do you get the plan in shape for it to resume tomorrow?

This is one of the uses for the set of tools called Update Project, accessible through Tools | Tracking. One of Update Project's key features is its ability to reschedule the work remaining on tasks according to a revised date. This means that you could put in tomorrow's date and have Project move all the remaining work for your incomplete or not yet started tasks to tomorrow. It moves the tasks over while keeping the links you've established and saves you the trouble of manually splitting all your tasks to the new start date.
Our TechMails e-mail newsletter service brings great Project tips directly to your inbox. Every business day, we'll send you a great technique, pointers to other project management content, and the day's hot headlines on TechRepublic.com. Sign up for our Project TechMail, or check out the rest of our great e-mail newsletters at our TechMails sign-up page.
Keeping templates current with the Adjust Dates macro
If you have users who shun previously created templates because they think they'll have to manually change all the dates, be sure they know about Project's built-in Adjust Dates macro. It's a great little macro that lets the user specify a new start date. The macro then figures out the difference in days between the original start date and the new one, and then adds that number to the start dates of every task. Now the plan is "shifted" to the new dates without changing the relationship between tasks.

Using Interim Plans to monitor progress
Baselines are a full picture of the state of your project at a point in time. Project 98's Interim Plans could be thought of as mini-baselines. They store only the task's start and finish dates. Interim Plans are great for tracking how your tasks evolve over time because they let you see your tasks' start and finish dates for up to 10 different occasions. This can help you pinpoint when a task or set of tasks started to slide.

It's important to record the date when you save each Interim Plan. Knowing those dates will help you better analyze your project's progress.

Building a work estimate database
Your project management efforts can benefit greatly if you maintain a database of the tasks your organization has performed in the past. It's of utmost importance that you make accurate work estimates for your project. You can buy a pre-built commercially available set of estimates compiled by industry experts or just build a simple spreadsheet.

In the top level of your spreadsheet, identify the Task; beneath it, name the resources who may perform the work. Include the data points Short, Long, Average, and Number Of Times.

Short records the least number of hours it's taken this resource to perform this task. Long is the longest time it took. Average is, of course, the average of the Short and Long times. Number Of Times is the number of times the resource has actually completed the task. This can act as a confidence factor for the figures. These figures are then rolled up to the task level.

You can update the spreadsheet in fairly short order when a project is completed. The short time it takes to perform the update will be repaid quickly in the form of vastly more accurate plans in the future. If maintained, the numbers pulled from such a spreadsheet will always be more accurate than a simple guess. It also provides a way of deciding which resource should be used for a task.

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