I’m a self-taught MS Project user and certainly no expert, but I do know that it’s a good idea to spend the least amount of time using the tool as possible; here are some simple things that help me do that:
1. A general MS Project planning tip is to have a good old pencil and paper with you, jot down the things you are trying to do and work through them sequentially whenever you update your plan:
- Allocate next phase dev tasks
- Add dependencies
- Include new Change Request
- Add Julian's training leave
- Update % Complete on regression test
Because it’s such a fancy tool, it’s easy to become distracted, go off on tangents and forget to do basic things, so a systematic approach (I find) helps. If something occurs to you while you are say, identifying tasks, e.g. you notice a dependency crop up, then write it down on your paper and come back to it, best to finish identifying all of your tasks first.
2. When ever I start a new plan I do the following things:
- Google for public holidays in my area and enter them as non working days
- Enter the resources on the Resource Sheet in alphabetical order. It may sound ridiculous but it makes it faster to allocate resources using a drop down filter when they appear alphabetically. If you work in a large department you could also consider entering them in groups, e.g I prefix all of my QA resources with ‘QA’ and then organise them alphabetically.
- Put in a start milestone for each resource under a task group I call ‘Resources Available’ , e.g. Put in a task of ‘Susan Starts’ on a fixed date and allocate Susan to it, her first task can be linked off this one. It just makes it easier to see at a glance when people start turning up, and if resources are delayed coming onto your project you can reflect the impact quickly in your plan without searching around to find their first tasks.
- Turn Autofilters on on my Gantt View: Go to menu: Project >Filtered For : All Tasks > Autofilter.
3. Just because it’s in MS Project doesn’t make it real. I, like many project managers, have fallen foul of cooking my project plans for hours and days, attempting to get it to reflect reality, it never will. Your project is going to have many nuances, and events, and issues and changes during it’s lifecycle, if you attempt to match reality with your plan you will never do anything but maintain the plan. It’s a waste of time.
4. Don’t spend too long creating your initial plan. For most projects I would advise a maximum of three days in initial scheduling at the start of the project, collaborating with experts to identify dependencies. This will differ, I suppose, depending on how well scope is known, but really, if it’s taking longer than this then consider asking for help from an experienced scheduler.
5. When the project is in execution try to limit yourself to two hours a week in plan updates. I would usually spend an hour a week tracking during status reporting, and another hour pieced together with quick daily checks. The exception to this is when business direction changes and a re-plan is required. (Feel free to make a big deal about that so your managers know you need a re-plan exercise.)
6. Do your tracking as a ritual, on the same day every week after gathering updates from your team. If you do it ritually at the same time every week it becomes less onerous and you will get faster at it. If you make it part of status reporting then your status report updates will be easier and you’ll never be too far from knowing progress against your plan.
MS Project is a great tool for scheduling complex activities with multiple dependencies, most software projects have these characteristics, but it’s vital to get your head out of the Project Plan and go and make it happen by communicating with your team. The best way to do this is find a simple way to plan, a systematic way to track routinely and not get hung up on reflecting every little thing in the plan.
Minimise your time in the tool and Maximise your time with the team.