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Microsoft Project: Plan Better with Microsoft Project

When planning and executing IT project plans, defaulting to using Excel could impede your progress. It could be worth learning Microsoft Project.

Eric Uyttewaal

IT projects come at you fast and furious. You might be expected to create schedules in Microsoft Project with little or no training. As you start to explore Microsoft Project, you’ll soon discover this application requires you to learn new project management terms—and a new application interface that assumes you know these terms. Is it really worth your time to do this?

After a while, you’ll also realize that you’re expected to adopt the disciplined thinking of project management. This discipline expects you to reveal the true status of your project. It even expects you to forecast when your project will be completed. Do you really want to do this? What benefits will you get from conquering this new world of project management? It’s true that learning project management and Microsoft Project will pay off, even when using Microsoft Excel as an alternative.

7 Steps to Project Proficiency

Here are seven main tasks you’ll need to learn to reap the real benefits from Microsoft Project as a project-scheduling tool.

1. Differentiate the original schedule from the forecast schedule. There are actually two “schedules” you’ll keep in Microsoft Project: the original schedule and the forecast schedule. You can capture the original schedule in Microsoft Project as a set of static deadline dates (and perhaps later as the “baseline schedule”).

The second schedule—the forecast schedule—is a dynamic model of the project. The dates are continually recalculated and reforecast when you enter progress information or make other changes. The forecast schedule helps you identify slippages relative to the original schedule. Because this is a dynamic model, it also helps you find ways to quickly reduce slippage.

2. Estimate task durations. Estimating is difficult. Sometimes it helps to make assumptions, such as, “We’ll get resources on this project of senior skill level.” Microsoft Project expects you to estimate the duration for each task.

3. Identify the relationships between tasks (“dependencies”).Most tasks depend on another being completed. The Print Report task is dependent on the completion of the task Write Report, for example.  

Microsoft Project expects you to identify all the relationships between tasks to create the forecast model. You need to enter these dependencies into the scheduling tool. When Microsoft Project knows the relationships between the tasks and their durations, it can calculate and continue recalculating the dependent task dates, which results in the forecast schedule.

4. Trust Microsoft Project to calculate and forecast the dates in the forecast model. Many users are intimidated by letting a tool calculate dates when they’re supposed to meet hard deadlines. Don’t worry: if you differentiate the original schedule from the forecast schedule, it won’t change the promised dates of the original schedule. You would’ve already saved those dates as a set of deadline dates (or baseline dates) that are well protected from the date (re)calculations. If you properly established the relationships, you can trust Microsoft Project to recalculate dates.

5. Monitor the most important tasks (“Critical Tasks”) that determine the project duration. You don’t need to closely monitor all the tasks in your schedule to bring your project in on time. You only need to monitor certain tasks that affect the project finish date. These are called the “Critical Tasks” in technical project management terms. Microsoft Project will highlight these Critical Tasks for you and hand them to you on a platter, which makes your project work easier.

6. Regularly update your forecast schedule. The original schedule needs to remain static. It doesn’t need updates unless you re-negotiate the agreed-upon deadlines. You do need to maintain the forecast schedule, otherwise it will stop forecasting. If you fail to update your schedule, you lose the dynamic project model.

This dynamic model is what helps you calculate slippage and lets you try what-if scenarios to compensate for those slippages. With the forecast schedule, you can show stakeholders how the project will unfold in reality. You need to keep this up-to-date.

7.  Take corrective actions when slippage occurs. If you want more of your projects to come in on time, commit to using the forecast schedule in Microsoft Project. This will help you identify and address slippage as early as possible. The forecast schedule only makes problems visible. It’s up to you to take action and change the course of your project.

Why Become Project Proficient?

You can expect a great many benefits from Microsoft Project over and above what something such as Excel can do for you. Here’s a handful of them:

You can prove you’re overloaded with work. If you’ve had too many tasks or projects dumped on you, you can use your forecast schedule to prove this to decision makers. Once your business-unit leaders acknowledge there’s a workload problem, you can use Microsoft Project 2010 as a tool to make your workload reasonable again. The dynamic model helps you quickly develop what-if scenarios.

You can prove your project is understaffed. It’s easy to prove to decision makers that something needs to happen—get more staff, get more time or deliver less quality.

You can prove your project is underfunded. When you build your forecast schedule from the ground up, you get a manpower and cost estimate for each task from your team. If the forecast for that project shows you exceeding the budget right off the bat, you’ll know you need more resources. The extra detail provides ideas for how you can make the project healthy.

You’ll be able to forecast your project better and prevent last-minute surprises. When forecast models don’t meet required deadlines, you can take corrective actions to resolve critical project tasks from a time-required, expense and staffing perspective.

You’ll save time as the project manager. Microsoft Project is more efficient than Excel for keeping your schedule up-to-date. In Excel, you have to constantly and manually adjust dates to reflect the latest status of your project. You have to change even more dates when you need to accurately forecast your project. In fact, in a three-month project, you could save as much as 56 hours of scheduling effort if you schedule your project in Microsoft Project.

If you want to keep your forecast schedule up-to-date in Excel, you need to revise the start and finish date of 50 tasks, on average, for each revision of the schedule. This will take you two hours each time—two hours of effort during which you could easily make errors. As a result, people who schedule in Excel typically let their schedule slip out-of-date, and then they lose their reporting tool as well as their forecast model.

You’ll be a more effective project manager. If you’ve accurately established all relationships between tasks, you’ll find many parallel paths of relationships in your schedule. Only one of those parallel paths determines the duration of your project, the “Critical Path.” Using concepts like Critical Path will make you a more effective project manager. You’ll know at any time which tasks can cause slippage and which can’t.

You’ll also get better at estimating. Because you can easily keep your schedule up-to-date in Microsoft Project, you’ll be able to compare which estimates were too low and which ones were too high. You’ll become better at the difficult job of estimating and get a firmer grip on your future.

In short, you’ll spend less time with Microsoft Project than you will with Excel. You’ll also increase your chance for project success.

Brad McGehee

Eric Uyttewaal is a PMP, MVP in Microsoft Project. He’s the president of ProjectPro Corp., a company specializing in Microsoft Project and Project Server, and the author of “Forecast Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2010” (ProjectPro Corp., 2010). If you want to read more about forecasting projects with Microsoft Project, please visit projectprocorp.com/products.php.

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