With the release of Microsoft Project 2010, project managers have the option of scheduling tasks manually or letting Microsoft Project schedule the task start and end dates using the scheduling engine. When I first heard about this feature, I was convinced it was dumbing down project schedule development. After some consideration, I realized that this feature could be useful for the segment of Microsoft Project users who fall into the occasional project manager role vs. the traditional project manager role. I will now examine the features of user-controlled scheduling and identify some practical uses of the mode.

What is user-controlled scheduling?

User-controlled scheduling enables you to develop project schedules with or without Microsoft Project’s scheduling engine. In the manual scheduling mode, tasks can be entered with or without durations, start dates, or end dates. Durations and dates are entered as free-form text, and summary tasks do not inherit dates and task data from sub-tasks (Figure A). If sub-tasks are linked, the start and finish dates are not calculated unless you choose to enforce the links using the Respect Links button.
Figure A

Here is an example of user-controlled scheduling in Microsoft Excel. (Click the image to enlarge.)

From a user experience, the manual scheduling is much like planning a project in Microsoft Excel. Manual mode provides the flexibility to enter text-based values and document timing assumptions in the Start and Finish columns.

You have the option to switch between manually scheduled and automatically scheduled tasks. In the automatically scheduled tasks mode, the project engine kicks in and appropriately schedules the tasks based on the dependencies, calendars, and resources assigned to the project. Fans of previous versions of Microsoft Project will recognize the automatic scheduling mode as the familiar way of scheduling tasks in a project schedule.

When to use manual scheduling

Manual scheduling is beneficial early in the project when high-level target dates are known, but the detailed tasks and timing are unknown. The idea of conducting top-down planning vs. traditional bottom-up planning provides greater flexibility in identifying summary ranges for a project timeline. Rolling wave planning would be applicable for future project phases that are not well-defined. In practice, this feature seems feasible, as portfolio planning for systems implementations is often conducted on a quarterly or annual basis.

If you fall into the occasional (rather than full-time) project manager category, the manual scheduling mode allows you to use Microsoft Project 2010 like a task list. Inexperienced Microsoft Project users often complain about Microsoft Project’s sudden date changes when changes are made to resource, duration, or project dates; manual scheduling eliminates these concerns, but the trade-off is the loss of benefits from the scheduling engine.

When you’re conducting high-level planning, the manual scheduling mode can be combined with the Timeline View in Microsoft Project to create a phase-level view of the project (Figure B). These dates are only treated as high-level dates because the supporting details that determine if these dates are reasonable are missing.
Figure B

This is a timeline View in Microsoft Project. (Click the image to enlarge.)

The same view can be constructed using the automatic scheduling mode, although you need to ensure that you enter durations and dependencies correctly. With manual scheduling, the intent is to conduct a rough order magnitude of planning and then switch to automatic scheduling when specific task details are known.

My plan and advice

I’ve been using Microsoft Project since 1994, and maybe I’m too indoctrinated in the way the tool is designed to work with the scheduling engine. I liked that my dates changed when I adjusted a duration, and the dependent tasks adjusted as well. I liked that Microsoft Project looked at the resource availability, corporate holiday schedule, and individual calendars to calculate realistic end dates. This is the way a scheduling engine is supposed to work. I plan to ensure the New Tasks Created scheduling option is set to Auto Schedule in Microsoft Project 2010’s Options setting.

However, in order to use the automatic mode, you need to understand the implications of adding resources and dependencies to develop a dynamic schedule. If your goal is to use Microsoft Project as a task list without any date forecasting features, then manual scheduling will be a welcome addition. If you are an occasional project manager who needs to track high-level dates and manage at the summary level, you’ll appreciate the new flexibility in scheduling. If you’re a new project manager learning Microsoft Project, the user scheduling feature may be confusing unless the appropriate amount of training is provided. Demonstrating how to develop a schedule in manual mode and transitioning to auto-scheduled tasks increases the learning curve.

For more information, read Microsoft’s tips and tricks on user-controlled scheduling and also check out the Project 2010 demo videos.