Project Management

Some benefits and drawbacks of Microsoft Project

Project Manager Bill Stronge looks at some of the features of Microsoft Project that can make your life as a project manager easily and more productive.

According to the Microsoft's website "Microsoft Office Project Standard 2007 gives you robust project management tools with the right blend of usability, power, and flexibility, so you can manage projects more efficiently and effectively." While I don't disagree with their statement, I have worked with many project managers who never have spent the time to understand the tool well enough to feel that it really helps them do their job better.

If you've been using Microsoft Project for any period of time, you probably know all the basics by now. Instead of writing another tutorial about how to use Project, I thought I would share some of the ideas for using Project to make your lives easier and more productive.

Using templates

Not every project is the same. In fact, most of them are very different. But they all have the common components of Inception, Elaboration, Construction, and Transition (depending on the methodology used by your company, the names vary but the purposes are the same).

By spending some of your time creating a few basic templates, you can decrease the time needed to set up the fundamentals over and over. This lets you focus on outlining what you need to get done. Microsoft even has some templates, available for download, to get you started. Click here to see some of the templates.

Quickly Estimating project timelines

We've all been in those meetings when a business partner requests a timeline on a project they came up with only a few minutes beforehand.

I know one manager who sits in meetings with his laptop open while Project is running trying to do a high-level estimate of what the user is asking for. By focusing on the creation of tasks with either a low, medium, or high level of effort, he can quickly provide his estimate based on what he feels is the work required for the particular project.

What If scenarios

Microsoft Project also helps in those situations where you tell your boss that a project will take X weeks, only to hear him tell you that's too long. Project allows you to easily go back and modify your criteria to see if you can come up with something more appealing.

You can do this rather quickly by modifying the number of potential resources or evaluating the parallel-pathing of some of your tasks. The list of things you can try goes on and on but the benefit to you is that you can quickly try different scenarios and see how it affects the outcome.

Watchouts

I've told you some ways that Project can make your life easier. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for as well.

Watch Out #1: Not updating the project plan

Many project managers spend hours doing a project plan and then handing it over to the other shareholders. Unfortunately, many PMs then store that project plan on their hard drive and never look at it again. In the heat of running a project, one of the biggest mistakes you make is to abandon all that hard work. Make sure you spend at least some time each day reviewing your tasks and milestones as well as updating you plan. You spent all that time working on it - don't you want get the benefits as well?

Watch Out #2: Over committing resources

This is one that I see far too often when I look at a project plan. Managers take the time to fill in all the detail, determining task durations, and assign predecessors and successors all in an effort to come up with a timeline. They then merrily go down the task list assigning the appropriate resources to each task with complete disregard to how much of each resource time is allocated.

When you have filled out your project plan, make sure that you check out the Resource Graph (View -> Resource Graph) on your project and look for the areas that are shaded in Red. This is Project showing you where somebody has been allocated more than their available time, which in turn puts some unnecessary risk into your timeline.

There are many other ways to make Microsoft Project a productive tool for you and your organization. By breaking down your tasks into subtasks and keeping realistic timelines in mind, you can see issues early on before they become major issues. And with its ability to track, change, and report on just about every key metric, you'll always have the information you need at your fingertips to keep your end users up to date.

Even if you choose not to use Microsoft Project as your project management tool, it's important that you find something to help you manage all of the pieces of your project. Once you get used to using it you'll wonder how you ever managed without one.

Bill Stronge is a PMP certified Project Manager with a Global CPG organization currently focusing on eBusiness projects. During his 14+ years he has worked on enterprise wide applications in both a developer and architect role as well as a project manager leading teams of various sizes. He can be reached for questions at wstronge@hotmail.com.

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