Free Webinar:  ”Project Scheduling Best Practices”

When creating project schedules Microsoft Project/Project Online, there are a few things that work well, and some things we’ve learned to avoid. Here are a few of my favorites:

Tasks should be a reasonable duration based on the size of the project overall – Typically between 8-40 hours works for most. Anything smaller is too granular and larger is too big to manage. If you find yourself with a 5 month task, try to think about how to break it up. Use the large task as a Summary Task, with the more detailed tasks underneath it.

Assign tasks to named resources when possible – Assigning a task to “Paul Brown” provides a lot more visibility and accountability than assigning it to “Accountant” or “Sales Team.” Especially when using Project Online and/or Project Server and task status reporting is used.

True task dependencies – A lot of times we create a project schedule by entering the tasks in sequential order, and then linking them all together in finish to start relationships without much thought given. Rather than just arbitrarily linking tasks for cosmetic purposes, really think about which tasks are dependent on other tasks. Are they dependent on other tasks to start or finish before they can start or finish? If you don’t know, these are great questions to ask your resources or subject matter experts as you are creating the schedule.

Good realistic estimates – Inaccurate estimates can be the quickest way to project delays. Plan on about 6-6.5 hours of work on a task per day. Chances are, your resources are attending meetings, answering phone calls, sending emails, any number of things. You need to plan for that. Also, if you don’t know how long something will take to complete, ask the resources doing the work. Explain work and duration to them and be sure you understand how they are answering you. There are some great estimating techniques out there, but a simple best case/worse case provides you with a starting point.

Use constraints sparingly – When there’s a change in the project schedule, Microsoft Project (and most other tools) will automatically update the schedule for you. For example, if a task is scheduled to finish on April 25, but (in a shocking turn of events) it finished early on April 1, theoretically any task dependent on the completion of that task could start earlier as well. By using constraints to force a task to be scheduled on a certain date(s) reduces the fluidity of the schedule. Project wants to schedule your tasks to start as soon as possible (that’s the default) and entering constraints to force the contrary often leads in reduced functionality and frustration.

Don’t enter Start and/or Finish Dates – Create task dependencies as mentioned previously and let the software determine the start dates based on the durations and links of the earlier tasks. When a Start or Finish date is entered manually, MS Project creates a constraint (see constraint concerns above).

Don’t repeat nested task names – Maybe this is more of a pet peeve than a best practice, but repeated task names drives me bonkers. Let’s say you have a project of writing a book. If you have a Summary task named “Chapter 4” There’s no need to name the subtasks “Write Chapter 4 Text, Create Chapter 4 Graphics, Chapter 4 Proofreading” etc. If you must repeat, consider an abbreviated form, or put the repeated words at the end of the task. “Create Graphics – Chapter 4” or “Write text for Chapter 4.” These task names are displayed in various reports and views, and often times get cutoff if they are too long.

Good use of Milestone tasks makes for great reporting and status tracking. Milestones typically indicate when a large portion of the project is complete, and they are great reminders that it’s time to do a pulse check. Using the previous example, you may consider creating Milestones such as “Chapters 1-3 complete” or “Proofreading complete.” They are great way to show completion of a phase or group of tasks.

Keep it updates – an outdated project schedule is pretty useless. Pick a regular updating schedule and try to stick with it. It will depend on your project, but weekly seems to be a good starting point. If that seems too often then try every other week. Just make it priority to keep updated so you can do some forecasting as identify issues before they become problems.

Let your schedule determine your completion dates – too many time we come up with deadlines (or deadlines are demanded of us) without a full understanding of the work involved. Until the work is fully analyzed, it’s difficult to determine how long it will take. Throwing an arbitrary date out too early in the planning often leads to trouble meeting that deadline down the road. Take time to figure out what needs to be done and break it up in to manageable pieces. “Chunk it out” is a fun phrase that’s often used J Smaller pieces of the project will be easier to estimate (and more accurate) as well as easier to track and manage as the project progresses.

Use these best practices as a starting point, and add to it as you run across what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Be sure to join us on March 19th for the monthly Project Management webinar, where we will take a deeper dive into these best practices with additional discussions and demonstrations.

When:  Thursday, March 19th, 2-2:30pm (Eastern)

Where:  Online

Click here to RSVP:  (it’s Free!)