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.

13 comments
amakar
amakar

Good article overview. I definitely agree your Watch Outs are good recommendations...although are they really drawbacks? Failing to update the plan is a frequent problem as PMs are often over loaded with issue resolution, risk management and of course communication. Updating the plan is an administrative task and the one approach I've taken is to incorporate schedule metrics from the project schedule into my weekly status reporting. At least this approach provides objective metrics that require the PM to update their schedule accordingly. Resource leveling is always a hot topic as people don't understand how to resource level within existing slack or outside existing slack. The leveling heuristic in MS-Project is useful, but it can't replace a step by step analysis of the resources assigned to each task. Andy andy@tacticalprojectmanagement.com http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com MS Project Tutorial: Schedule Development Learn how to EFFECTIVELY develop a project schedule

daniel.jakes
daniel.jakes

Does MS Project work well as a collaboration tool for you? It didn't ward for us. Despite all the great estimation features the software turned out to be useless. Besides, it takes sooo much time to update all the details of a plan, it's such a big time-waster. I mean, now there are better solutions for that, that allow team members to update plans themselves. I really enjoy this! At least I get some time to think the project over and to choose the right direction for my team.

donstrayer
donstrayer

I'd like to add some "cardinal sins" to Bill Stronge's "Watchouts". I've used MS-Project almost from the first release. I've taught it. I've built interfaces with it. And I've reviewed and critiqued literally thousands of project plans in various positions with a major global corporation and as an independent consultant. Cardinal Sin #1: Entering start and/or end dates for tasks or milestones. Set the begin date for the project and let MS-Project calculate the rest. Otherwise you create date constraints, cripple MS-Project's ability to help you schedule, and make many features disfunctional. Use dependencies, work effort estimates (not duration), and resource levelling to let the software tell you when tasks can be started/completed. Even if you have mandated dates for milestones, entering those dates is an exercise in frustation. I was in a meeting years ago when an old-school bean counter presented a spreadsheet and someone commented that the totals didn't cross-foot. He vollunteered to check the formulas. The bean-counter said, "Formulas?" Don't laugh. If you aren't letting MS-Project do the calculations for you, you're making the same sort of mistake. Cardinal Sin #2: Tasks in isolation. Every task should have some sort of dependency on another task. Use the various dependency types to link all tasks into a framework. This is related to Cardinal Sin #1 since unlinked tasks drop out of the calculations. If there are no dependencies, why are you doing the task at all? Cardinal Sin #3: Micro-managing. Generally tasks should be 40 to 80 hours of work (not duration). Assign each task to a task leader who is responsible for the details. Otherwise you'll find yourself wasting a great deal of time planning and tracking the nitty-gritty and either make yourself a pain to your team or end up filing away the MS-Project schedule and managing by the seat of your pants.

rich_soby
rich_soby

Well Proj is a heavy lifter - but you really have to know the nuances to keep from going nuts with it - for example - duration and work are different - yet most try to make duration the amount of work - then go nuts as dates change on them - or they do not understand the different types of tasks (effort,time,duration driven) I use 2 other tools - Mindjet and Milestones - Both import from and export to project - Mindjet allows me to do what th eone guy mentioned - capture requirements, ideas, notals while taking with the client/manager/team and punch out an initial plan from that - Milestone is the executive level Proj we all want - make each task line a different color (try to do that in project) show only very simple tasks for the executive who does not need the detail I built in proj but that I need when I issue tasks to the developers/workers - Both great tools to aid in Project management and tell the story - which is what PM's spend a lot of time doing - telling the same story - many different ways

vindog
vindog

Um, this looks more like an advertisement rather than a balanced article; after all the title is "Benefits and Drawbacks.." and you do not list any drawbacks. Perhaps you should call it "Tips for Project 2007" instead.

casey
casey

Bill - You must be working with a group of sophisticated managers,"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". In over 25 years of PM work I've only seen one business manager actually attempt to model a project with dependencies. And in that case, no resources were assigned.

chris.platt
chris.platt

Ref: Watch Out #1: Not updating the project plan I found that Project Server can be an effective way to reduce the time spent maintaining the plan. It provides a web front end for resources to view, update and even create tasks. These updates then can be reviewed and applied to the Project plan and further levelling / reallocation can occur. For me, the use of Project Server makes Project an effective tool.

stephen.gibbs
stephen.gibbs

This is just a comfort thing but it would be really nice to have data import and export functionailty similar to Ms Access where import/expert processes can be automated and stored for 1 click use later. The current process steps are cumbersome and not at all re-use friendly.

bcarpent1228
bcarpent1228

i started in software development (my love); rose quickly to management (my hate) and finally (in my twilight years) back to development. The (very large) company i ended with employed project managers for all projects and i was surprised how the continual updating, meetings, etc. of the project plan made development proceed very smoothly. What i initially thought a ""waste of time"" actually ""saved time"" On MS Project (to paraphrase politics) MS Project is the worst project manager - except for all the rest.

ars010
ars010

Dear Sir, I am working as a Planning Er. From past 5 yrs i am using Primavera for Planning now i am shifting to Dubai where firm uses Microsoft project..I have learned MSP but found serious difficulties while TRACKING project in MSP..It works not as per logic..I REQUEST YOU TO SEND ALL POSSIBLE DETAIL DRAWBACKS OF MSP SO THAT I CAN CONVIENCE MANAGMENT TO SHIFT TO PRIMAVERA .Will be highly Obliged if needfull is done waiting for your reply..my mail id---(ars010@rediffmail.com)

donstrayer
donstrayer

In my experience, since nearly the first commercial release, there are three significant drawbacks to MS-Project. 1. It is not suitable for financial project management. For instance, before Project Server there was no time fencing except via 3rd party software and/or custom interfacing. That is, MS-Project could record the amount of work that was done or other resources expended on a task but not "when" it was done unless the task duration was limited to a specific accounting period, which might be as short as daily. Although MicroSoft has gradually addressed this shortcoming, MS-Project still falls short of financial project management software. If you need financial project management, consider alternatives. 2. It demands sophistication and in-depth training. MicroSoft has gone to great pains to work with the Project Management Institute and others to be consistent with best practices. They've done a very good job. But the result is a complex and feature-rich product that can be difficult and even frustrating. Many project managers would do better with simpler tools. There are many alternatives. 3. Cost. MS-Project was never cheap. Then they bumped the prices for the desktop edition in order to encourage enterprises to go with Project Server. Current prices listed at the MS website are $599.95 for the standard edition and $999.95 for professional. Project Server licenses are much higher and generally you cannot manage Project Server without a highly trained full-time administrator. You can find very effective project management software for much less.

casey
casey

Stephen - MS-Project's underlying data structures and functions can be accessed in the same way any of the MS-Office products can. The issue is whether you (or someone else) have the necessary programming skills and time to accomplish what you're looking for. Years ago (pre-Project Server) I created a time entry interface so that resources could update the labor they spent on a task. It was a tedious and time consuming process - but worth the effort given the size and duration of the project.

jck
jck

MS Project is a decent tool. I just think that project management sometimes tries to get too definitive and scaled in its attempt to predict timelines. There's only one thing that's certain to happen in any good sized software's schedule: slippage.

Editor's Picks