Is Microsoft Project not doing what you want?
I often see comments like these:
“I’ve never in my life wasted so much time having to research something instead of doing my work.”
“I realize there is fixed duration, fixed work, or fixed units and all that mess. I’ve never managed a project by hours and I can’t wrap my head around it.”
“Any ideas for how to resolve this? Can’t figure out why this would be the case but I’m likely missing something.”
If you’ve never used Microsoft Project before you, quickly get stuck.
Let’s say you want to create a basic project plan.
You enter the tasks.
Link them in the right order.
Now you want to put in dates and assign team members.
You assign John to the task – CLICK
Wait! What was that?
Why does the duration suddenly change from 10 to 20 days?
You entered 10 days and that’s how long it should be.
“This program isn’t doing what I want!”
After a few more hours fumbling around with Project, clicking here and there, editing values you’re still not getting the project plan the way you want it to be.
That’s when it dawns on you that you might be missing something here.
Lots of questions going through your mind.
The question of questions:
“Which dates do I have to enter and what dates do I let calculate?”
Figuring this out on your own is almost impossible and might take you forever.
Microsoft Project is not like other programs you know.
It’s not Word or Excel.
Microsoft Project is a different category
- Lots of complexity under the hood: In Microsoft Project, all values are linked. If nobody tells you how the numbers are connected, you will always be confused about how Project handles your inputs.
- Project’s terminology can be confusing: Microsoft Project uses special names for its parameters. These names make sense in the context of MS Project. But for an outsider they can be confusing, because sometimes their meaning is different from what you would assume.
- You’ll likely build a schedule that’s not going to scale: What I see a lot of users do: Once they have given up on understanding how Project works, they just resort to manual scheduling of tasks. With that they’re building a ticking time bomb — a monster schedule that is inflexible as hell and requires huge effort to keep updated.
That’s one part of the story.
MS Project is hard to figure out if you have never used a scheduling tool and if you are guided by someone who has experience with the tool.
But there is also the other part of the story.
There is good news:
You can learn Microsoft Project FAST
if you follow the right strategy: here is how
Tip #1: Learn the steps you need right now
When you launch MS Project, you see dozens of views, columns and buttons.
Where should you click first?
And do you have to use all the features?
Nobody gives you an overview.
And nobody tells you what you really need to achieve a certain outcome, let’s say to set up a budget.
Certainly not the 1000-page books about MS Project, they just talk about all the features and “x ways to do a y”.
This can be really overwhelming.
My recommendation to you: Learn the features you need at the moment, and then learn the rest as you go on a per need basis.
Tip #2: Learn the underlying concepts
Project works on the basis of a few basic rules.
These are just a handful of rules.
If nobody taught you these rules, you feel like being put into a game whose rules you don’t understand.
Nothing makes sense.
But if you understand these basic rules or concepts, the sky will open and you will have an “aha” moment.
Here are some of the basic concepts I’m talking about.
- Concept 1: The scheduling formula: MS Project is a computer-based scheduling tool. Therefore all variables that influence the schedule are linked. Behind it is a simple formula: Work = Duration x Units. The formula explains why, for example, if you increase duration, Project will also increase work (effort) assuming you don’t change the other parameters.
- Concept 2: ‘Baselines’ help you do plan vs. actual analysis: Your MS Project schedule should always reflect the actual situation of your project. If some tasks are delayed you show it in the schedule. If the team puts in more hours than planned you put in the real effort. But how do you compare your true schedule and budget with the initial one? You take a so-called ‘baseline’ — a snapshot of your schedule and costs at a given point in time. The nice thing about baselines is you can always look at earlier schedule versions.
Concept 3: Task types: Fixed units, fixed duration, fixed work, effort-driven: you read a lot about these terms when you build professional schedules. But what’s this all about? The point you need to understand is that tasks are not all equal: In a construction project, adding more people to a task usually means it can be done faster. But now think of a consulting project. You assign more MBAs to a task. Will it be done earlier? No, because it’s a different kind of task. MS Project gives you so-called task types, which basically allow you to set the behavior of a task when you add or remove people, increase duration and so on. So that you can build schedules that actually reflect the nature of the type of work.
These are examples for the basic concepts that MS Project is based upon.
Once you have understood these concepts (there aren’t many), MS Project will make a lot more sense to you and you’ll start to understand how to use the application so that it produces the schedule you intend to create.
But how do you learn Microsoft Project in a way that these concepts become crystal clear?
I created an ebook for you.
Learn how to apply Microsoft Project in the typical lifecycle of a project - from start to finish
The ebook teaches you the steps for using Microsoft Project in real-world projects
What you'll find in the book
Scheduling of tasks: Launch MS Project and build a basic schedule within a few minutes. Arrange tasks in the right order and learn to structure your project with summary tasks.
Working with calendars: How do you enter bank holidays or periods of absence? How do you schedule certain tasks on weekends? How do you include people who are working part time? In this chapter you’ll learn how to use the calendar so that the calculated dates actually fit to reality.
Dependencies and constraints: How to link tasks that are dependent on each other. The four dependency types (Start-to-Start, Start-to-Finish, Finish-to-finish, Finish-to-Start). How to add certain restrictions, such as scheduling a task after a certain key date.
Working with resources: How to schedule your project on the basis of people’s availability. How to create resources for people, equipment, materials, travel and other cost items.
How to create budgets: Create an overall budget for your project or set up specific budgets for material, project-related travel or other cost types.
Effort, duration and work: The Scheduling Formula: How does Microsoft Project really schedule tasks on the basis of resources you assigned, estimated effort, resource units and task types?
Task types: How would you like your schedule to change if you add or remove resources from a task? In a nutshell, this is what you define with the help of so-called task types. Task types define how a task schedule should behave when you make changes to the resource assignments. Knowing which task type to pick is very important for producing a working schedule for the field or industry you’re working in.
Creating baselines: Learn how to take a “snapshot” (baseline) of your current schedule. You usually do this for the initial schedule so that you have a reference to compare your real project performance against (planned delivery dates, costs and effort versus actual delivery dates, costs and effort).
Tracking progress, effort and costs: How to track the progress of your project. Where to enter real costs and real working hours.
Dealing with common situations: A project schedule is always dynamic. You have to make changes along the way. But what is the right way to make these changes? For example, when a task is delayed or when you have to factor in scope changes (change orders)? We look at typical scenarios and how to adapt your schedule. Create simple reports: Get familiar with the different data fields — work, actual work, duration, actual duration, budget cost etc. and learn how to create simple reports with the data you want to show.
What is not covered:
The book covers the steps you need for most projects. Some more advanced topics are not covered:
- Earned Value Management (EVM/EVA) – I have created a separate guide for Earned Value Management with Microsoft Project
- Agile project management with Microsoft Project
What people are saying about the ebook
Who is the e-book for?
- You manage projects full-time or part-time.
- You’ve never used Microsoft Project before and want to start using it for your projects.
- You have occasionally used MS Project in the past but only for manual scheduling. And you’ve never really figured out how to use Project.
Don’t buy the book if you are already an advanced user of MS Project.
What version of Microsoft Project do you need?
You need at least Microsoft Project 2013 Professional or higher.
The ebook was created using Microsoft Project 2016 Professional.
Note: The screens may vary slightly depending on the version you use.
Hi, I’m Adrian Neumeyer, founder and CEO of Tactical Project Manager. I’ve been working as an IT project manager for the past ten years. Today my focus is to help the people who manage projects — people like you! — with practical tips and useful tools.