Project Management

Create and validate deadlines in Microsoft Project 2007

PMs who need to determine whether their team can meet a project's end date should follow these steps for creating and validating the deadline in Microsoft Project 2007.

IT project teams rarely have the luxury of deciding a project's end date. The team is usually handed a high-level scope with an expectation to deliver by the end date, while keeping project costs within a fixed budget. The end date is often based on management commitments, government mandates, political pressure, or unrealistic or unmanaged expectations.

A common reaction from project managers is to conduct a high-level analysis, provide a high-level estimate, and push back on the mandated deadline. Pushing back on a management deadline without supporting data is futile and will make you appear inexperienced. Fortunately, there is a better way to validate whether the deadline can be met. In this tutorial, I will show you how to create and then validate a deadline in Microsoft Project.

This Microsoft Project tutorial is also available as a TechRepublic gallery.

Step 1: Build a detailed project schedule

The key to validating a deadline is a realistic project schedule. Analogous and top-down estimation techniques are useful for high-level budget and duration forecasts; however, if you are going to determine whether a deadline is realistic, you'll need a detailed project schedule.

Management will often question if all the dependencies and resource constraints have been considered, so be sure to verify that the plan has well-defined dependencies, resources are accurately leveled, and the project calendars accurately reflect working times. At this stage in the project, you may not have all the specific resource names defined, but you should have a good idea of the number of resources and roles. Figure A is a sample project schedule. Figure A

Sample project schedule (Click the image to enlarge.)

Step 2: Insert the Deadline column

To insert the Deadline column, follow these steps:

1. Click the Predeces column or the column where you want the Deadline column to appear.

2. Select Insert | Column and choose the Deadline column from the Field Name drop-down menu (Figure B).

3. Click the OK button.

Figure B

Insert Column
Figure C depicts the Deadline column in the Gantt Chart view. Figure C

Deadline column (Click the image to enlarge.)

Step 3: Assign a deadline to the first level task

The first deadline you should assign is the highest level task in the project schedule. This is usually row 1 in the project schedule, though if you have the Show Project Summary task option checked, you'll see a row 0 in Microsoft Project. Since you can't assign a deadline to a Project Summary task (row 0), you'll need to turn it off by going to Tools | Options | View tab.

If the project schedule doesn't use the View Project Summary task option, you'll still want to ensure that all the tasks in the project are indented under row 1. By indenting all the tasks under row 1's task, Microsoft Project will roll up all the finish dates to row 1. You will be assigning a project deadline to row 1, as it represents the end date of the project.

To assign the deadline, follow these steps:

1. Click the Deadline cell on the desired task.

2. Use the drop-down calendar to assign a date or enter a date manually (Figure D). Figure D

Deadline date (Click the image to enlarge.)
Deadlines appear in the Gantt Chart view as an inverted green arrow. In this example, the deadline is 6/30/2011, and the current project schedule has a forecasted finish of 5/24/2011. Based on the underlying tasks, the deadline of 6/30/2011 will be met (Figure E). Figure E

Deadline in Gantt Chart (Click the image to enlarge.)
If the deadline can't be met, the Indicators column will flag the tasks with a red diamond and an exclamation icon (Figure F). Figure F

Missed deadlines (Click the image to enlarge.)

At this stage in project schedule development, you've built an initial schedule that has a deadline established for the end date. The next step is to refine the schedule and validate that the deadline can still be met.

Step 4: Refine the project schedule

Before you meet with the project sponsor requiring the deadline, you should review the schedule and refine it further to accommodate any additional risks, resource changes, duration changes, dependencies, etc. Once you have a valid project schedule that meets or exceeds the project deadline, you have enough information and proof to validate or reject the project deadline. By watching the Indicator column, you can quickly determine if a project deadline can be achieved.

Step 5: Integrate deadlines, milestones, and baselines

Deadlines can be applied to any task in the project schedule. Once you produce a valid project schedule, I recommend adding deadlines to specific milestones to represent drop-dead dates. By analyzing the critical path and key milestones, additional deadlines can be defined. A deadline date doesn't necessarily need to match a forecasted milestone or be the same as a task's baseline finish date; a project can still miss its baseline finish date and not miss its deadline. The Deadline column is just another tool to add a meaningful indicator into your project schedule. You still need to add the appropriate milestones and baselines to the project schedule.

Why not use the Must Finish By Constraint?

You may wonder why the project schedule should use a deadline instead of Microsoft Project's Must Finish By Constraint. You can assign a Must Finish By Constraint to various tasks across the project schedule, but the problem with this approach is that you lose the ability to develop a dynamic schedule. By establishing a constraint-based schedule, you'll experience constraint warning messages as you continue to refine the project schedule. You should build the project schedule to be fluid and dynamic. As the project executes, the schedule will change, and the deadline flags will provide the appropriate information without creating constraint problems during schedule development.

Conclusion

By incorporating these "requests" as deadlines in the schedule, you can competently develop a schedule that meets the deadline or provides a realistic project finish date. Once your team reviews a realistic schedule with the project sponsors, you can have meaningful scope or resource discussions that support or extend the desired deadline.

In my next TechRepublic article, I'll show how to use multiple deadlines to manage your project schedule.

About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

3 comments
donstrayer
donstrayer

Thank you for advising against using "must finish by" date constraints, but you should have advised in step 1 not to set ANY date constraints on any tasks. Use dependencies and resource leveling to let MS-Project tell you when tasks will likely be able to start and finsh. I can't tell you how many times I've had to fight to convince PM's that date constraints crippled the ability of the tool to help plan a schedule. In fact, I consider the ease with which MS-Project tempts PM's to set date constraints a flaw. Is there any circumstance where it makes sense to do so? Even when there is a contractual obligation to deliver an intermediate work product or when a task cannot start until an outsourcer delivers something, on a contracted date, setting a date constraint locks all dependent tasks and cripples the ability to monitor what's really happening vs. plan. In earlier versions of MS-Project which lacked the deadline feature I used to advise adding these as an unlinked milestone with the date constraint. That's a non-optimal solution but at least you could see whether or not your schedule was viable relative to the fixed milestones and you could easily see the effects of schedule slippage or early task completions.

amakar
amakar

Everyone say it with me - Dynamic schedule...Dynamic schedule :-) I've had a similar challenge consulting with PMs that are new to MS Project (and even a few experienced ones) People like to pick dates, assign resources and fixed the duration and then wonder why their utilization blows up to 300%. I really like the deadline feature because of the graphical alerts. It sure beats having to code them! Andy

Meadowsong
Meadowsong

Great tip, great comments! Too often MS Project is used to try to control the schedule (as dictated or originally envisioned) instead of trying to manage it by appropriate dependencies. The graphical nature of the deadline assignment gives appropriate warning when events need to be managed. Much better than watching your schedule 'violate" the various constraint settings.