Project Planning without Excel

Are you frustrated with spreadsheet-based project plans?

Do you struggle when creating, editing or updating spreadsheets used as project plans and schedules? Figuring out formulas got you down? Has sharing project data via spreadsheets become cumbersome or untenable during the life of your project? If you answered YES to any of the above, then this post is for you…

Software-wise, struggling with spreadsheets during the planning, execution and closing of projects is one of the most common complaints from planners that are both new to the job or have years of experience. This is not a failing of the manager, but of the tool used! Users of Excel, Smartsheet or other spreadsheet packages face unnecessary difficulties because of the tool itself; here are just three reasons why that software choice is problematic:

  1. Spreadsheet applications (such as Excel) are generic tools that need to be customized to be useful (for example, when formulas and/or macros are written to calculate project data). 
  2. Some spreadsheet applications (such as Excel), are difficult to share with the project team, and these critical project files face problems when emailed or networked with other users. 
  3. Online spreadsheet applications like Smartsheet or Google Sheets are easier to share than say Excel (because online apps are built with sharing in mind), they don’t include means or methods to calculate costs of any resources planned and later used. (And without that, what are you really managing?)

Specifically, let’s take Excel (out-of-the-box) as an example and look at some of the critical PM features that you are not getting from this app: 

  • Excel does not store baseline data on how your plan has changed over time. In fact, there is no log of changes whatsoever, unless you create one on your own.
  • Excel does not calculate critical paths, unless you program it to do so. 
  • Excel does not automatically create Gantt charts, and creating one from scratch is an exercise in futility as data changes over time.
  • Excel does not automatically track resources, thus keeping you in the dark over time.
  • Excel does not have canned reporting tools geared for project management; for example, for creating milestone, budget or resource reports.

This deficiency list goes on a bit longer, but you get the idea; Excel is just not up to the task of being a project management tool without a lot of needless work on your part. Much of the same can be said of another popular spreadsheet tool - Smartsheet - which is advertised specifically for project work, but is lacking the following critical features:

  • Smartsheet does not allow individual calendars for individual resources used within your plan, so precise time management is near impossible.
  • Smartsheet does not facilitate project budgeting, as there is no way to track what the cost of people or material resources are costing during the life of your project.
  • Smartsheet does not allow for offline editing of your plan, at least not without a lot of file manipulation and make-work.

Smartsheet (and other online PM tools) are walled-off gardens, inhibiting the quick growth of teams and making common cloud-file sharing that more difficult.

Looking to Project Plan 365 and/or Microsoft Project…

Both Project Plan 365 and the more expensive Microsoft Project are highly capable and proven PM tools that work for any type of project imaginable, and with little tailoring or setup time. Both of these PM apps provide the project manager with a feature set that covers any need during the life of a project – from custom reporting to advanced budgeting and calendaring – to the precise tracking of tasks, resources and costs. 

Either are excellent choices… but what if you didn’t have to choose at all?

In reality, you don’t. You can use either of these great apps interchangeably with your project files – files created in one or the other! That’s because both tools use a common file format (.MPP). The .MPP file format has been around for decades, and is probably the most popular container of project data in the world (outside of spreadsheets).

The MPP Triad
The .mpp triad - use Project Plan 365 to open files anywhere, on anything!

For example, say you start out with a small project team using Project Plan 365, and your team builds a portfolio of projects. Then say in the future, your small team hooks up with another team of planners using Microsoft Project, and would like to contribute to your established portfolio of plans. Not a problem; as both teams can share their files and exchange them back and forth with no effort at all. (Something that the more expensive Primavera cannot do). This compatibility allows small project teams (or smaller orgs) to grow into larger enterprise teams without any rework whatsoever. 

However, Project Plan 365 works well for small or large enterprises equally as well. That upward migration to the more expensive-per-seat Microsoft Project would only be needed if a feature or function is required that exists only in Microsoft Project; of which there are just a few exceptions (see this comparison chart for details on the differences). Also see this blog post by CEO Sorin Fiscu on leveraging your Microsoft Project investment for those thinking of a mixed environment that includes both Project Plan 365 and its big sister, MS Project.

Closing notes...

To start planning without using a common spreadsheet app, and to begin weaning off inefficient and ineffective project spreadsheets,  download a 30-day free trial of Project Plan 365 - you'll be planning better in no time!

Mind-Mapping Your Way to Better Project Plans

How to use mind maps to create a WBS...

Mind-mapping (or as it is also known, concept mapping) is a proven method and technology for organizing your thinking, no matter what you are thinking about. Students learn this technique in school these days, so that term papers and research reports are better thought out and organized for their professors. Writers use this technique to better prepare and organize articles for their editors and project managers also benefit from this easy-to-do technique when designing project plans and schedules. Here’s why: 

1. Creating a mind-mapped WBS is a great way to collaborate with others…

Mind maps are easier to jigger in real time than in a project schedule or Excel spreadsheet, and much easier to share within a group of collaborators who are watching on-screen as you jointly break down the work. So when first designing your project, you can present your mind-map in the form of a Work Breakdown Structure, and quickly adjust for changes suggested by your team. For a lengthy example on how this is done, see this YouTube tutorial.

2. Some mind-mapping tools have a one-click export, and some PM apps have a one-click import…

MindJet’s MindManager or Xmind Pro are two mind-mapping applications that are great for creating a project WBS, especially when first designing a new project and when breaking down the work. You can re-arrange an idea for a project by using drag and drop, and with a minimal of clicks, you can map out a WBS in no time flat. When done, it’s usually just a one-click export to your PM app, or a one-click import if using Project Plan 365. There are several other mind-mappers that export to the .mpp file format, and a review of the most common software packages can be found here.

3. You are new to your PM App, or you don't like to (or know how to) manipulate dozens or perhaps thousands of rows of tasks within your PM application, just to make your plan organized…

So you are not distracted by the mechanics of your PM app when designing the schedule, you should use a mind map instead, allowing you to focus on the organization of the project without the distraction of a thousand or more click options staring you in the face. And you can drag and drop much more easily within a mind-mapping app then any PM app. Once you have created the structure of a plan within a mind-mapping tool, you can focus on the actual mechanics of the PM app to do what you need to do.

4. You want to design a project plan using a visual design tool…

Even for old-timey project planners, using a visual tool to design projects can be a most welcome change from starting a project plan from scratch within a PM app - or from a canned template that needs lots of editing before you can even begin.

After all, science says this process is more effective. In other words, it is always better to combine your thinking with something visual, and keep that activity separate from say the analytical task of manipulating a PM application.

Ok, let's build one!

To begin building a plan using a mind mapping tool, you can start with this simple process:

Step 1. Name your project as the central topic of the mind map

All mind mapping tools work just about the same; you start with a central topic and develop a hierarchy of sub-topics. In the case of project work, the central topic is simply the name of the project, while the sub-topics are phases and tasks found in your typical plan. There are rules for the breakdown, so see this article for those.

Step 2. Breakdown your work into topic / subtopic branches in the map’s “tree”

During project work, mind-map topics are treated as tasks, with the largest set of tasks organized in the order they would be implemented. So for example, you might have a project defined by phases titled: “Planning,” “Delivery” and “Post-Delivery”:

Mind Mapping in PP365

These high-level project phases are no more than three topics attached to the mind map’s central topic. To break down the phases further, subtopics are added to each phase, with each representing another task or group of tasks:

Mind mapping in PP365

Mind-mapping tools all include selective disclosure “twisties” just like PM apps do, so you can selectively work on parts of your WBS without being distracted by all the rest. Using this method, you can break down your project work into as small or as large bits as you need to, and display what you need depending on the context.

Step 3. Hold a collaborative meet-up with partners, stakeholders, and worker-bees

Now the beauty of this approach becomes apparent, as instead of reviewing a printed Gantt chart or live project plan with your collaborating team, you can review a WBS in mind-map format, which is much easier to change on the fly. Folks not familiar with Gantt charts or your PM app’s interface will easily understand your mind map, making for a much more productive review meeting.

During this meet-up, you can confirm the overall design of the plan, and also begin to collect other needed bits of data, such as: estimated costs, proposed resources, approximate durations and all the rest – remembering that the better the design is up front, the more efficient the execution will be later on down the road (goodness in - goodness out).

Step 4. Prepare your reviewed WBS for export or import to your PM application

During the collaborative meeting, you don’t want to define dependencies and constraints between tasks and subtasks (Finish-Start, Start-Finish, Start-Start, Finish-Finish, and actual dates). But after the meeting you do, and it’s best to do all of that inside of your PM application itself. However, it is possible to define all of the above inside of MindJet’s MindManager for example, but that’s not recommended (see list of gotchas below). What is recommend is that you annotate your map before export to your PM app using the app’s “notes” feature. Preserve as much data as possible this way, and you won’t have to type it all over again later.

Other features that can be exported without fear of data corruption are priority designations, marking tasks as a milestone, and resource listings.

Step 5. Export your mind-map into your PM app, and then tailor to suit

Once exported or imported, your mind-map (now WBS) can be further developed within your app, using all the wonderful functions found there. For example, you should now add all the “linking” and task constraints that you need to make your project work in real life:

Tips, gotchas and bugaboos...

While we primarily use MindManager or Xmind as a design tools to front-end Project Plan 365, other mind-mapping tools may also have some difficulties during export or import to your PM app of choice; so here are a few implementation tips:

  • Let your PM app handle all dates and the scheduling. In other words, don’t input dates into a mind-mapped WBS, but instead, do all the scheduling from within your PM application, whether that be Project Plan 365, Microsoft Project or other application.
  • Task Dependency linking is possible within many mind-mapping tools, but it is much easier to do that task within your PM application. Let your PM app do all this heavy lifting, and only use the mind-mapper of choice to visually layout the plan.
  • Other features of your mind-mapping tool - such as adding images, icons and calculations – may not translate into any terms that your PM app can understand. So again, just use your mind-mapping tool to layout your plan and create the WBS during the beginning stages of your project planning.

If purchasing a mind-mapping tool like MindManager or Xmind for the purpose of creating a WBS, get the Windows version, as in most cases only the Windows version has the ability to export a .mpp file. However, if using Project Plan 365 as your PM app, you can import the native files for both MindManager and Xmind - regardless of platform - so no need to worry here.

Closing notes...

Well, as you can see, using a mind map to front-end your next project plan is a more efficient and effective way to prepare the initial work break-down for your next project – and giving it a try is easy enough to do. Just download a 30-day trial of a mind-mapper and follow the steps listed above to begin mind-mapping your way to better project plans and schedules. Then, if you are looking for a great PM app that imports maps in just one click, then download a trial of Project Plan 365 to see how it all works – together and better!

Turbo-charging Your PM Tools for Better Construction Productivity

Turbo-charging Your PM Tools for Better Construction Productivity

According to Mckinsey Research, the number one laggard in global productivity for the past several decades has been the Construction Industry, which even falls well below the total economic average for just about everything. This dismal state of affairs comes on the eve of what is expected to be an infrastructure boon spanning the next few decades. One has to wonder: isn’t this the perfect time to revolutionize and retool? Yet a recent Economist report as well as a McKinsey Research study shows an industrial-size reluctance to make the move.

This reluctance to digitize and revolutionize the industry by turbo-charging industry software tools and methodologies is clearly holding us back and limiting our growth. Study after study tells us this. However, a shift in spending is starting to occur; this from the same study:

Clearly, the industry is starting to move towards productivity tools fit for the modern age. Are you? But what exactly are we moving towards, in terms of tools? What software innovations actually improve productivity? These are all valid questions to ask...

How Does a Good PM Tool Improve Productivity?

Unlike general business tools, project management software deals specifically with what, say, a construction manager would be most concerned with: costs / scope / schedule and of course quality with a little risk management thrown in. Tools like Microsoft Excel and many new “project management” websites cannot help us much in this regard, at least not without a lot of effort and expense.

However, tools like Microsoft Project and Oracle Primavera do just that; they help you balance costs over schedule over scope with ease and precision, which is just what you want to do in order to improve your productivity. These two heavy hitters have been around for decades, but they come with a high price tag and constrictions for the average construction manager. For example, with these two “top-tier” products, the project manager is constricted to working behind a desk, instead of on the job site where they might want to be. In addition, tools such as these can run into the dark side of margins and might not be affordable for small-to-midsize businesses. So better project-management software would have these important attributes:

  • Be able to juggle project costs, scope and schedule with ease.

  • Have built-in or automated methods for the construction industry.

  • Be portable enough to work on the job-site, and sharable across team members

  • Be relatively inexpensive, as not to negatively influence the bottom line.

The_triad_constraints
Project Planning Construction Projects
"Our survey revealed that more than 44 percent of respondents have adopted some type of digital technology, and planned adoption within the next three years is expected to reach 70 percent.”
McKinsey Research, 2018
Study
“The trade as a whole is reluctant to spend money on the sorts of technologies, from project-management software to mass production, that have revolutionized so many other industries”
The Economist, 2017
Report
“The construction sector has much to do…infuse digital technology, new materials, and advanced automation. Construction lags significantly behind other sectors in its use of digital tools and is slow to adopt new materials, methods, and technology”
McKinsey Research, 2018
Study

Introducing Project Plan 365: A Turbo Tool Built for Construction

Project Plan 365 is a project management tool that helps the construction manager do what they need to do; all without the heavy price tag of say a Microsoft Project installation. Project Plan 365 allows you juggle project costs, scope and schedules like a pro, and even allows you to take your plan out to the field - so you can collaborate & coordinate with your on-site teams.

With a Project Plan 365 schedule, you can clearly see factors causing delays or balance resources in real-time while communicating any changes to others that need to know. Even if you are already working with Microsoft Project files, you can open those in Project Plan 365 with no data conversion needed – just pop open the file and go, even if all you have on hand is a simple smartphone or tablet.

Project Planning Construction Projects Screen Capture
Sample Construction Project within Project Plan 365 for Mac

How Project Plan 365 Benefits the Construction Manager…

  • Project Plan 365 connects the head office with teams working on-site; in essence allowing team collaboration no matter where managers or workers are located.

  • Allows everyone to view the schedule in whatever format suits them: Gantt charts, calendars, data sheets, etc.

  • Project Plan 365 is driven by real numbers, making updating in real-time possible; never work from an old plan again!

  • Project Plan 365 is the most cost-effective tool in the industry, yet is compatible with the most expensive (Microsoft Project 2016 and Primavera P6).

How to Start Your Next Construction Project Plan…

  1. Download and install the Project Plan 365 trial for whatever platform or device that you prefer.

  2. a) Start a new plan, or b) open an existing plan (in MPP format) or c) use the built-in starter template called Commercial Construction

  3. Edit your plan and save to any convenient cloud location like Dropbox, OneDrive SharePoint, etc.

  4. For more help, see the Project Plan 365 support library or check out this case study video for the Construction Industry. Also available is the popular Quick Start video.

templates

Leverage your Microsoft Project Investment

Leverage your Microsoft Project Investment

Increasingly, fellow Mac users come to me with this common challenge: how to open, edit, view or even print MPP files (the file format for Microsoft Project) when using standalone versions of Microsoft Project. After researching the problem, I found that Microsoft flat out does not provide a solution, as there is no Mac version of this popular PM planning tool. PMs using Apple computer users are simply left out in the cold.

Of course, one can run Parallels Desktop or some other brand of virtualization software on a Mac, but that seems like a lot of trouble and overhead to accomplish what should be a very simple task: to manipulate Microsoft Project plans using an Apple computer. Virtualization was a non-starter for me, as that would require a hardware upgrade to my simple MacBook.

Many of my clients and even team members here at Housatonic also needed this functionality, so we developed a commercial solution: Project Plan 365 for Mac. Using this solution, existing users of Microsoft Project can leverage their investment and extend their PM activities to any Apple computer, or even work on an Apple device such as an iPad. For teams considering expanding their PMO software suite to include options for Mac users, this solution is also appropriate.

How to…

To work on your Microsoft Project plans while using a Mac, all you need to do is try or buy Project Plan 365 for Mac. Once installed on your Mac, you simply open up any MPP file created in Microsoft Project and then you do what you normally would: manage the schedule, produce Gantt charts, balance resources, monitor costs, etc. etc.

Sample MPP started in MS Project and finished in Project Plan 365
Sample MPP started in MS Project and finished in Project Plan 365

 Project Plan 365 for Mac opens Microsoft Project plans directly and seamlessly (no conversions or importing/exporting needed), and the interface for Project Plan 365 is nearly identical to what you are accustomed to inside of Microsoft Project - no retraining required! And even if some aspect of Project Plan 365 for Mac is unfamiliar, we have a website full of training videos and help articles (in addition to a 24/7 support ticketing system).

Once you are working in Project Plan 365 for Mac, there is the added benefit of being able to edit and view your plans on an iPhone or an iPad – for example, in case you have left your Mac in the office and you are out on a job site with only your iPad in hand. (See this video case study that documents just this situation.)

Next Step…

To start leveraging your investment in Microsoft Project and to start working on your plans using a Mac, simply download and install Project Plan 365 – its free to try and inexpensive to buy.