Avoid Project Crashes: File a Flight Plan First!

Avoid Project Crashes:

File a Flight Plan First!

By Jigs Gaton, PM / Pilot

First, let's step back 30,000 feet

We all know the drill as we start projects: pick or subserve to some PM methodology, gather your resources, erect lines of communication, etc. Agile, Waterfall, Bootcamp, Basecamp, whatever, we always begin there. But what if we are starting our projects on a wayward waypoint in the first place?

So, let's step back and look at this hypothesis; perhaps some of our projects might be crashing because our planning always starts in the wrong place. Think of this through a pilot's eyes, who instinctively knows you don't start a mission in the middle of the air... no, you always begin working far earlier than that, on the ground, even with a pre-plan for any take-off.

Continuing this analogy, in a pilot's pre-plan for the mission (think of every project as a mission), the pilot has a checklist shared between the pilot and co-pilot, and then portions are shared with the entire crew.

This project planning metaphor should be familiar if you are a PM with any experience; you are starting a new project, collecting a team, and strategizing what to do in the days (or flights) ahead.

(If not, see this article that compares pilots to project managers.)

So, let's dive into the idea of Flight Planning and compare that with what we all do when planning projects.

Where does Mission Project begin?

Sure, you might think a project begins with setting objectives, defining scopes, and clarifying goals. But in reality, these are just words to help us off the literal project runway, and truth be told, any Mission Project starts well ahead of all these fine activities.

Think of the pilot and crew the afternoon before a long-haul flight, none may have met, but all come together with one thing in mind: mission success.

Note: if a pilot or the crew feels compromised to endanger the mission's safe success, there is no penalty for declining the job (mandated by law in many countries).

In addition to this mental analogy of [pilots & crews] with [PM planners & teams], we should look at the physical tools the aviation industry deploys, but most PMs do not. The first one that comes to mind is a flight plan.

The flight plan.

All commercial aviation missions begin with a flight plan; consider starting your project with one. In this way, you are taking off from a cleared runway and not starting your project from mid-air, destined for trouble.

To a layperson, a flight plan may look like a form required by the FAA or other local authorities, but it's much more in a pilot's eyes. A flight plan for any pilot is a philosophy and a set of tools. The philosophy of the flight plan is to follow a set of actions that includes preflight, inflight, and landing checklists, as well as checklists for any emergency that modern aviation can envision.

The toolset behind a flight plan is extensive. Based on the aircraft flown (think project types), requirements, resources, and tailored checklists must be completed before any engine is switched on. These tools are modeled and taken from real-life experiences, simulators, manufacturers' specifications, and various other sources like the weather, weight on board, and fuel capacity.

The pilot and co-pilot complete and double-check the flight plan together, sometimes entering separate plans into a flight computer that double-checks the two human inputs and reports any conflicts. All of these calculations and checks lead to one question: Can mission success be safely achieved or not based on the destination? And remember, this is well before a single engine is fired up.

To complete the picture, here is a rough comparison between a flight plan and PM practices today:

Flight Plan vs. PM Plan

All variables are modeled and checked for compliance against specifications before starting.

Variables are considered ongoing risks and handled loosely.

Any change in plan is modeled in real-time (by a flight computer), and potential problems are immediately flagged with alerts sent to the pilot and co-pilot.

Changes may not be tested/modeled nor communicated to the PM or co-PM (or even with a flight control tower, or in PM terms, the PMO).

The flight continues along established waypoints, and cannot proceed unless all safety parameters are met.

Projects try to achieve arbitrary milestones and often proceed recklessly without meeting any.

Historical data is factored into the plan from the get-go.

Historical data on like projects is often unknown or not factored.

This type of plan is double-checked by a copilot with equal say in making changes and is also always communicated with flight controllers.

Plans often come down from "on high" and are developed without an independent double-check.

Inflight services...

Once in flight, or once Mission Project is safely off the ground, PMs have activities lumped into phases, sprints, and closings instead of a pilot's routine take-off, inflight, and landing procedures, yet these divisions serve the same purpose; to chunk the workload into manageable parts.

Yet more critical during these mission stages (even more than the lights displayed on the flight deck) is something called CRM, or Crew Resource Management, which often changes crew parameters and practices inflight, besides dictating normal behavior and communications. Every pilot or crew member has an HR department – inside their head!

One example of a CRM practice is the required sterile cockpit during takeoff and landings. This is when the pilot, co-pilot, and crew follow a strict protocol of keeping all chatter to a bare minimum, thus reducing the stress level during these critical moments and helping the crew execute the flight plan flawlessly. This is a feature developers of chat-based PM tools should take note of if they can.

Another example (also audible) is called a call-out within the Aviation industry. Ever wonder why pilots over radios repeat each change in the flight plan when communicating with air traffic controllers and even themselves? Because these call-outs have proven to save lives and planes from disaster! For example, you may have heard something like this in the movies when a tower is communicating with a jumbo jet: "Climb and maintain one two thousand" (climb up to and level off at 12,000 feet) with the pilot of the plane responding to the tower with the exact phrasing, "Roger that, climbing to one two thousand and maintaining."

This keeps planes from colliding on take-offs; in other words, there is confirmation and agreement between all parties on the line at the moment of decision. It is important to note that in the case of aviation call-outs, they are public so that other planes around the tower and ascending aircraft can also listen to the communication; but are respectful and keep it one way unless they have something urgent to contribute. Imagine your PMO is the control tower, you are the pilot, and your project is your mission - now you get the picture! Also, here's a shout-out to include call-outs in all PM software.

And while on the topic of tools and services, here is where the Aviation Industry flies far above what we have at our disposal as land-based PMs. They have a flight computer. And the flight computers on modern aircraft are remarkable, as they use the flight plan and constantly check progress against the plan, alerting pilots before anything goes off track. And as with any device, you can plug in new numbers and get updated results in milliseconds.

Yet here is where this metaphor becomes stretched. The variables involved in programming an Airbus or Boeing flight computer are finite compared to the number of variables in today's most complex projects. Yet, with that wide range of projects planned and executed over time, we could derive them, and predictive analysis is possible (with some margin of error). If only we had more of that, maybe our projects would not spin out of control as often as they do.

Note: Ever wonder why the airline industry has such an excellent record of success (as compared to our projects)? Then see this series of PM vs. Aviation articles.

Landing, not crashing

But even if you disagree that flying an Airbus is like landing a project on time, within budget, and with all goals achieved, you have to admit that the Airline industry has a much better record than ours, and with much less disastrous results in lost resources, wasted time and actual damage inflicted.

So perhaps even the thought of using a flight plan before project takeoff can’t hurt and possibly will prevent projects from becoming lost over some ocean, never to be heard from again. For those willing to try, here is a summary of thoughts for your next project flight plan:

  • Always make sure you start your project from the ground, and not mid-air, by stepping back 30,000 feet and examining exactly where you are – first!
  • Develop checklists based on past project performance and histories, and categorize and implement them by type of project.
  • Try to model a project’s results based on inputting historical/industrial-standard values for as many variables as possible – before taking off!
  • Use your plan to fly from one waypoint to another, ensuring all safety concerns are met before proceeding to the next.
  • Employ the latest model “flight computer” possible, to check your plan’s operating parameters in-flight and to alert you before problems arise.
  • Before taking off, always double-check your plan with a co-planner (call it a sanity check) and also share that planning with your PMO.
  • Even before assembling your team, consider the mental state of all involved. And during the mission, also be aware of cognitive problems such as bias, workload stress and other human-factor problems that arise within all hard-working teams.

Final (destination) thought…

So, in light of the above list of recommendations and other considerations within our theoretical Mission Project, here's wishing you the best in keeping the shiny side up whenever piloting a project to success.

For more info on the latest PM “flight computer” available, see the Project Plan 365 product page to learn how advanced planning software can improve your chances of safely landing your next project!

Is It Worth the Effort?

Is It Worth the Effort?

In Daniel Defoe’s novel of Robinson Crusoe and his adventures at sea, a notable quote stands out:

“[N]ow I [see], though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost, and before we judge rightly of our own strength to go through with it.”

Judging from the quote, there appears to be a point of no return in everything we do- our project endeavors included. As the S-Curve of “Cost” as it relates to “Time” ramps up the steep incline during project execution, we must ask ourselves: will it be worth the Effort?

Take an analogous jungle survival story:

Should a 300lbs lion burn 500 calories chasing a small rabbit that will give him only 100 calories in return? Of course, the answer is no. This reward is clearly not worth the Effort. Why is it then that you will never turn on Animal Planet and see such a lion act in this way, but you often hear of small businesses (90%) that fail in the first year and projects (80%) failing overall?

Common in the field of project management are the phases of project initiation and project planning which involve a Go/No Go decision template. It is one thing to make decisions before things begin to pick up, but what happens after we decide to Go and realize along the way it is not worth the Effort? Well, this when jungle-like survival skills must kick in.

Before anything else, you as a project manager must recognize and admit things are not going as planned. Then, you must act fast before is too late. If you find yourself in this position, begin by returning to your baseline assumption cost. What was it? You can easily name this “Day One Initial Estimate” and, you can usually assign a number (for example, $1 million).

Next, let’s consider your initial consideration of Total Estimated Effort for the work. What did you think the project would look like when finished based on the Effort? Here, my friends, is the tricky part... you didn’t consider this and that is why you are facing a problem. Had you known the Total Estimated Effort, you wouldn’t be reading this article and would be doing more enjoyable things with your time right now.

What I suggest at this point is you deal with Hope. Hope is your best friend and worst enemy. That is to say, you know there is a problem, but you Hope everything will be okay, right? Here, an additional lesson can be applied from Robinson Crusoe’s adventures- A lesson that I find to be magic put into practice:

 “Today we love what tomorrow we hate.”

 We tend to Hope for more happy days in our planning and wish that tomorrow too there will be a good day, but it doesn't always happen. Therefore, Hope should be a set for an exact period of time where you expect to see some specific positive results. 

 For example, if I take a pill for 5 days I Hope to see my fever decrease from 102 to 98 in about 5 days. Hope may prove positive or… maybe I die. Who knows? 

Unlike a pill, we sometimes know there is barely any Hope, but we still try for that 1% chance. This is part of our innate decision making process that we cannot help but do (at least until AI takes over).

So, let’s define our Hope Period and Hope Target to try and determine if Hope assumptions will come true or prove to be false. You’ve got your project started, you are excited, everybody is on fire, budgets are approved, there are successful kick off meetings… now is exactly the time to be worried. Pay attention to the first 20% Effort period- it is the most critical part of your project. Add an extra 5% for the Hope Period where you can determine how much Hope you can hold onto; only then will you be in a good position to make some thorough Go/No Go decisions. And if you’re already deep into your project and all you have left is Hope, determine when Hope should be lost for the sake of your budget and team.

Don’t believe me about the importance of Hope? Google these big project failures that extended the Hope period just a little too far: The Canfranc Titanic of the Mountains project and The New South China Mall, Pearl River Delta.

Remember this: most of the project Effort understandings happen in the initial execution period, so pay close attention and the next time you begin to build your Microsoft Project, Primavera, Smartsheets, Project Plan 365 or any other project plan, add a Robinson Crusoe Milestones along the way and be prepared to answer his question:

Is it worth the Effort?

Happy Planning!

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

What is a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)?

A work breakdown structure or WBS is a common term in project management. The concept is used each time a new project is designed — and is best thought out before entering any data into a .MPP file. Yet even though the WBS is an important construct to project managers, creating and using a WBS in the project design phase does not occur with the regularity that you might expect.

Some of this lack of use of the WBS stems from the complicated definition; a 243-page specification published by the United States Department of Defense (MIL-STD-881C) was initially developed back in the 1960s to help NASA and the U.S. military better manage mega-projects, like building rocket systems or getting to the moon. Yet for those outside of the US government, no one wants to adopt a practice that takes 243 pages to describe.

It doesn’t have to be that difficult.

A WBS is really just a visual breakdown of a project into smaller components — think hierarchy – which makes planning for (and creating) the required deliverables easier to accomplish for any project team.

The benefits of designing a project that incorporates a WBS are multifold:

  • The WBS helps define key deliverables and sub-components of deliverables before work is scheduled and started, resulting in a smoother rollout during the project. The scope of your project is captured in the WBS, helping to prevent mission- or scope-creep later.
  • The WBS provides a much-needed collaborative tool that can be reviewed early on with project teams, management and other stakeholders before a plan is locked in.
  • The WBS gives everyone a clear, visual representation of a project, without having to wade through the minutia and tedium of other types of project metrics or documentation.
  • Through use of a numbering schema, the WBS identifies parts of a plan numerically (often called WBS codes), which can be used in many ways during the execution of your project. For example, a repetitive deliverable that is identified by number can be easily resourced, costed or scheduled programmatically from within Project Plan 365 (or many other scheduling tools).

To develop a WBS for your next project, just follow these three golden rules:

First, the 100% Exhaustive & Mutually Exclusive Rule provides that within every level of your WBS, everything you need to deliver is represented within that level. For Level 1 of your hierarchy, for instance, you should find everything that you need to deliver for your project in totality. Within level 2 of that hierarchy, everything you need to deliver for that subcomponent of your project is included (and nothing else). There should be no overlap in scope between the various levels of your WBS. Just the act of creating the WBS exposes deliverables or events that may detrimentally overlap in your plan — and therein lies the beauty of employing a WBS. This figure shows a sample WBS structure set up in a “mind map” format.

Figure 1. First "branch" of a WBS showing a breakdown as levels within a plan.

Second, the Make a Logical Structure Rule provides that you make a visible representation of your WBS in a hierarchy that makes sense, and is easy to read. In olden times, this was often done in PERT charts. In today’s world of simplification, a much more recognized and modern visualization tool is the ubiquitous mind map, as shown in the figure above.

Note: the numbering schema that goes along with this hierarchy can be automatically generated within Project Plan 365 (see Figure 2 for an example), and WBS codes should be generated this way instead of typing them within the Task Name.

Figure 2. An automatically-numbered schema can be created within the .MPP - just add the WBS column to any view and BOOM - you're done!

Third, Grammar Rules should be followed, but don’t worry, this grammar is easier than you think! Here’s how you do it:

  1. Use descriptive nouns to describe all your deliverables and sub-deliverables
  2. At the lowest levels, use action verbs to describe what’s needed to make each sub-deliverable “happen.” Figure 3 shows WBS grammar rules in action.
  3. Use row #1 to name the project and set the title of the plan.
Figure 3. Syntax of a best-practice WBS.

In summary...

By following these three golden rules, your WBS will become an invaluable tool throughout your project planning experience: from the initial design collaboration – to the actual scheduling in Project Plan 365 — you will surely come to depend on having a WBS prepared for every project that you manage.

To give Work Breakdown Structures a try, simply subscribe to Project Plan 365 today!

Cloud Basics for PMs

Cloud Basics for Project Managers

Over the past decade or so, the concept of ‘cloud’ has become synonymous with a place where we store all things work-related (such as documents and data). In many cases, a ‘cloud’ represents the place where we work (i.e. within a digital workspace like SharePoint or Project Plan 365).

For project managers, we often speak in fluffy terms that reflect this new atmospheric characteristic of the modern workplace: “…just put that in cloud” is common geek-speak for putting any bit of communication or data in a place where everyone else can get to it.

However, how many of us really understand this amorphous reference to a metaphor taken straight out of metrology?

While developing a new file-storage option rolled out in Project Plan 365 (a popular look-alike to Microsoft Project), we gained insight into the common understanding (and misunderstanding) of what the ‘cloud’ means to everyday project managers. Sorin Fiscu (CEO of Housatonic Software) explains: "While my team was analyzing user trends for tens of thousands of project managers, only a tiny fraction of the user-base was implementing a cloud storage system."

He wondered why, so this article explores why individual PMs and organizational PMOs have not embraced the cloud as wholeheartedly as other professionals, such as programmers, engineers, marketers, etc. who are all working in legitimate cloud-computing environments.

Demystifying the Cloud Concept

Before discussing why or why not the cloud should be used during your daily work regimen, let’s explore what the ‘cloud’ really is…

Eric Griffith (Feature Editor @ PC Magazine), extolls that the ‘cloud’ is nothing more than a buzzword and is not really new – especially if you were born after the invention of the internet. Eric explains that the ‘cloud’ is the internet, for all intent and purposes. He also points out that the cloud is not an upgrade to your hard drive, and is not about attaching a NAS (network-storage device) to your company LAN (local area network) and calling it a cloudy day.

Instead, Eric enthusiastically explains that the cloud is really a paradigm shift in computing (call that cloud computing), and that this shift fundamentally changes the way we approached all of our work within a computing environment. Well, obviously he was right, as 2016 was the year that Microsoft introduced Planner and made OneDrive for Business a key component within the Office 365 suite. In essence, these and other additions to Office 365 (like Project Online) signify a shift away from terrestrial computing as we know it – away from using Microsoft-Project standalones like Project Server and SharePoint to something seemingly more ethereal and out of our control…something somewhere up in the clouds.

But, ethereal the real ‘cloud’ is not...

As the Office 365 concept portrays, we are not just saving bits of information or knowledge to the collective. We are actually using software that does not exist on earth as we know it, such as on our computing devices in the form of apps and programs. Instead, we are now in the realm of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which means you no longer “own” computer programs, but rent them instead. In many cases, you never install anything on your computing device, but just log into the service using whatever web browser you have at hand.

SaaS leads us further upwards in a trajectory to the cloud, where even our computing infrastructure is now found there. That’s called PaaS, or Platform as a Service, where your entire IT department is soon to be extinct, with applications and infrastructure (all those black boxes with blinking lights) being moved out of your company basement and into someone else’s worry basket. In the case of a PaaS, internet service vendors (ISVs) perform the duties your old IT gal or guy did back in the day (when you had hardware and software in-house). Figure 1 explains:

Figure 1. PaaS explained

Organizations that currently deploy Microsoft Servers in-house (SQL, SharePoint, and the Project Web part), are considering (or being pushed) into moving all of that out of the organization’s IT basement and into the cloud using the Microsoft Azure offering (which is essentially the setup shown in Figure 1 above). This takes your entire company’s IT setup and moves it offsite and upwards into a stratosphere owned solely by Microsoft, but rented to you and your company on a per-seat basis.

Why PMs should use the Cloud (and why we don’t)

Getting back down to earth for a moment, you may be wondering why in the world you or your organization would depart on such an adventure, considering the other million things that your organization has on its plate. The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” comes to mind. Outside of the fact that most projects fail (or partially fail) in the world today, here are a few reasons why SaaS and PaaS should be considered as a computing environment for project management (and PMO) work. SaaS plus PaaS equals:

  • Better and easier collaboration between planners, partners, and stakeholders
  • Faster “time to market” for new projects planned collectively in the cloud
  • No up-front investments for hardware or software
  • Minimized operational costs, especially if you are now paying big bucks for an IT department
  • Enhanced productivity, as planners and partners work together at the speed of electrons
  • Access to project data anywhere, anytime using whatever device or platform at hand
  • Secure and customized access to data by project workers, partners, management, and even the public
  • Centralized project management activities, with no more disparate project managers working in isolation

So, what’s not to like, a good planner will ask. The major inhibitor (in our opinion), is that this is a huge change in the way that we have used computers in the past to plan out our projects. And as some planners rightly equate, change means re-work, more expense, and in general, more headache.

But, change is what we are good at, no?

Another inhibitor for smaller PMOs and organizations with just a handful of planners is that all of the above may seem overkill when trying to meet the bottom line and come out with more green than red at the end of the year. Many dozens of dollars per person per year may seem like a lot when all is said and done. Training people on new software, and setting up access for all to experience the wonders of cloud computing, may also be prohibitive in the middle of a busy schedule.

Another concern heard most is security and privacy. PM may ask, if my data is in the cloud, can’t it be hacked easier than if on my company’s local network? Well, one has to just look at the Equifax breach, the Sony breach, or any other security or privacy breach over the last few years. Do you really feel safer with your project data on the ground, rather than, say in a Microsoft-controlled cloud?

With some of your concerns heard, let’s harken back to the fact that most all projects endeavored either fail or partially fail in the world today. Perhaps there is one big reason to switch to a total cloud computing environment – to succeed!

Project Plan 365's secure cloud: Drive 365

To help subscribers of the Project Plan 365 Business (PMO) or Enterprise (EPM) plans succeed, we have included access to a secure, private cloud for all of your project data, and that's called Drive 365. This is a much simpler way to implement cloud computing (as show in Figure 1 above).  With Drive 365, the entire concept is condensed; part of our service to you is to store your critical project plans (those that relate to your project portfolio) safely and securely. 

In this way, not only are portfolio statistics generated automatically, but you don't have to worry about where any of your critical files are, or if they are safe from prying eyes or not. And you don't need to understand anything else.

In summary...

During this blurb on cloud computing, we have discovered that “let’s put it in the cloud” means much more than just storing your MS project file on OneDrive or Dropbox. We also see now that there are a few different tiers within modern cloud-computing: there is one tier where you or your organization use SaaS offerings to collaborate on project planning, and then there is the more extreme tier where most of your IT department is displaced by PaaS. In this case, all those servers and mysterious doo hickeys once housed in your IT basement are now gone, leaving you with more party space when it comes time to celebrate your project success. And if you need an instant cloud environment, all that's needed is a subscription plan to Project Plan 365.

To give PM cloud computing a try, simply try us out free for 30 days! 

Tracking Costs & Budgeting Projects

Tracking Costs & Budgeting Projects using Project Plan 365

During the formulation and implementation of your team’s project schedule, your team has most likely discussed the budget, and might have asked the following: how much money are we going to spend? How is the money to be spent? What happens when new costs arise…how are those added in? How much have we spent to date? More or less, how much are we off from our initial budget projections?

These questions and more are all questions that Project Plan 365 (or Microsoft Project, for that matter) will answer for you, provided that costs are entered into the application. This simple exercise of entering costs into your project plan will help you ensure the fiscal health of your projects. After all, no one wants a project to come in overbudget, or worst, cancelled midstream due to a lack of funding.

First, let’s understand costs from a budgeting (and software) perspective…

Many schedulers don’t have the ability to track costs (for example, with Wrike and many other popular PM services), or have a separate app or spreadsheet for that, or don’t see the need or simply don’t know how. In PM parlance, that’s a big boo boo; but one that can be easily corrected by following this golden PM rule: always connect the cost of the resource used for any bit of work, with the task itself. Even if your organization has an entire department that handles the finances (and perhaps has their own software to do just that), you should still enter in the costs of resources within Project Plan 365, and also refine these costs over time as they change. This ensures that your project plan is a one-stop shop for both scheduling and financial data – you get the complete project picture!  

Before applying that golden PM rule however, we need to understand how costs are handled within the software. First, think of people as having an associated cost (salaries, consultant fees, vendor charges, etc.). Also, think of materials as having costs associated with each, for example, the price of a palette of bricks, a stack of windows, computers, a desk or a chair. In addition, think of services that can incur costs over the life of a project, such as utility bills or travel expenses.

In Project Plan 365, costs are categorized into three types:

Work: people, equipment or facilities costs, in terms of rates per hour or cost per use. Select this resource type for people / equipment / facilities that are assigned to a task, but are not consumed during the task.

Material: material costs, in terms of a standard rate or a cost per use. Select this resource type to track consumable resources, such as bricks or food stuffs – for things that are used up during the project.

Cost: everything else, in terms of a single one-time charge. Select this resource type to track budgetary items such as travel costs or phone bills that are not dependent on the amount of work done, or on the duration of a task.

Within any schedule of work, Project Plan 365 automatically calculates the total cost of your project based on your input of resource costs, and the software also flags any variances from your initial budget, as your project progresses over time. In other words, the software calculates how much you planned to spend, are spending now, and how much you’ve overspent or underspent at any given time, or on any task.

It's up to you (as project manager), to determine what costs to track within your project plan, and how. For example, is employee travel tracked or not, or do you want utility bills to be added to the cost of the project? In other words, the granularity of cost tracking is determined by you, the PM; with the level of granularity determining how accurate your cost projections can be (down to the penny, or in much larger round numbers).

Note: If you just want to use the fixed cost column to track costs (i.e. you don’t plan on renting equipment or buying materials by piece,  then you don’t need to add the material resources in the resource sheet as described in the following tutorial. For more on this method, see "Using the Fixed Cost Field..." immediately following the tutorial.

Tutorial: Entering each type of cost (Work, Material & Cost) into the Resource Sheet

If you want to follow along using Project Plan 365, go to the Backstage and select New / New PMO to open up a copy of the template used in this tutorial.

Now that we understand costs from a software perspective, let’s add a few of each type to a project plan, either your own or one of ours. 

All resources should be entered into the Project Plan 365 (or Microsoft Project) Resource Sheet. This resource-related spreadsheet has default columns displayed for entering in the Resource Name, Type, Material Label, Initials, Group, Max Units, Standard and Overtime rates, Cost per use rate, Accrual rate, Base Calendar, and a column for a Code of some sort.

Fortunately, you don’t need to fill each column with data, just the ones needed to calculate costs (for example, for this tutorial we have hidden those we don’t need). You can also add additional columns (such as Email), but let’s leave column manipulation for another tutorial…

In this tutorial, we will cost some resources and begin to budget a project plan, understanding that the financial picture only becomes clear after we apply costed resources to specific tasks within the plan.

Entering costs for resource type WORK


Navigate to the Resource Sheet view and type a name for a resource into a cell under the Resource Name column. After you hit enter, you will see that some of the columns self-populate to a default value, and that the next column has the default Type of Work:


Now you have to determine if you want the resource to be costed by the hour (with or without overtime, based on the calendar), or on a cost-per-use-basis (for example, you are employing someone with a one-time charge per task performed):

Entering costs for resource type MATERIAL


After entering the Resource Name, change the Type to Material and enter the Cost / Use for the material.


Now to complete the Resource Sheet, you would enter in all the Work and Material type resources as required by the task list (see Gantt View, and tasks that require resources).

Entering costs for resource type COSTS


For costs associated with budgetary items such as utility bills or travel expenses (items that do not depend on the work or duration of tasks), you need to enter the name of those costs here; but you won’t be able to enter in the actual cost, just a descriptive name. (See step 6).


To enter in Cost/Use values, you need to flip over to a task list view (such as the Gantt View), to assign this type of cost to the work being done. For example, select the task where the cost incurs, and then use the Task Information popup to enter in the cost of the resource(s) selected. 

In the example below, the cost of a “Conference Space rental” is being applied to a day when the training is planned to take place:


Now, to enter the actual cost of this resource, navigate to Task Information / Resources tab and enter the cost there: 

Do this for all planned expenses not dependent on work or task durations (Cost) – AND - also assign all other resource types (Work and Material) to tasks in the plan, where appropriate.

Using the Fixed Cost Field...

An alternative way of calculating costs is by using the Fixed Cost field (in conjunction with the Cost, Baseline Cost, and Actual Cost fields). To enter fixed costs while looking at your Gantt chart, just flip over to the Project ribbon and select Table / Cost:

Now simply enter any fixed cost amounts into the plan at the appropriate place. Note: never enter costs - or anything else - into a Summary Task field, as those fields are automatically calculated: 

It is a best-practice to use the Notes tab (Task Info pane) to annotate what the fixed cost is about. Once entered, these fixed costs are added to your mix of resource and other costs as represented in the Resource Sheet.

Putting it all together and using your new cost plan


Setting a Baseline and Tracking Costs...

Now that you have entered in all the costs that you want to track in your plan, a “baseline” or record of your initial thinking must be captured. Doing so allows you to later look back, and see what you had planned to spend, vs. what you actually spent. (Someone will always ask.) To set a baseline, navigate to Set Baseline on the Project ribbon, and select For Entire Project. Once a baseline is set, you can begin tracking costs as they occur, in terms of baseline costs, actual costs, and remaining costs. In addition, as your project progresses, you can produce budget reports in a variety of formats and for a variety of purposes… no need to use Excel!

Costing at Project Start
Costing at Project End

Sample Budget Report

To get reports on your cost plan, navigate to the Report ribbon and select any of the reporting options found there, for example Costs / Budget Report:

Additional reports can be generated from the Report ribbon that are sure to help you with any financial analysis of your project. For more information on costing and reporting, see our online help, training and videos:

See our complete library of training materials for beginning-to-end lessons on doing all that matters to a PM.

Summing up...

To sum up, we’ve entered in all three types of costs: Work, Material & Cost for every resource in a project plan, and then assigned those costed resources to appropriate tasks in the plan. We also explored using the Fixed Cost field for costing items outside of the Resource Sheet. You can apply this fiscal strategy to new plans being created (for example, to calculate cost projections) or while plans are in progress, i.e. to add additional costs not planned. This wealth of cost data also comes in handy after projects are completed, as you can see from the data how much you overspent (or underspent), and where! 

This strategy of always costing your plans within Project Plan 365 (or Microsoft Project, for that matter), gives managers and project teams real-time cost data that can be used when making financial decisions during project rollout.

For more information on making your project plans viable, see our website. To try out Project Plan 365 for free, download the 30-day trial; and if you are interested in better software for your Project Management Office (PMO), don’t forget to check out our Business (PMO) subscription plan.

Getting to Microsoft Project – on a Mac!

Getting to Microsoft Project - on a Mac!

If you are a project manager using Apple devices, then you know that a PC-bias still exists in the software industry, especially when it comes to anything Microsoft Project. But in 2019, we have options. 

While most all software manufactures provide versions of their apps and services that work on both Macs and PCs, Microsoft does not have a macOS version of Project, making your team project work awkward, indeed. To restore harmony in this fractured computer-verse (Mac vs. PC, Apple vs. Google, iOS vs. Android, Siri vs. Alexa, etc.), there are a number of ways for you and your project team to get to Microsoft Project plans:

  1. The long road, where you use an app to create a “virtual” second computer onboard the hard drive of your MacBook, iMac or MacPro (called a virtual machine), and then you install Microsoft Project within a virtual Windows.
  2. The winding road, where you meander from Safari to the Project Online website (through an Office 365 subscription), or you are directed to some other project website running SharePoint with a Project Server, and that’s where you do all of your project work - from within a web browser.
  3. The short cut 

This article discusses the long and winding road (and reveals the shortcut) in terms of pros and cons, as well as providing estimated “travel” costs for your journey…

1) The Long Road: Virtualizing your Mac to run Microsoft Windows + MS Project

What may sound like a quick jog (just run windows on your Mac) this is actually the road less traveled, and for good reason. This slog involves subscribing to one of many providers of a virtualization layer (Parallels Desktop, VMware, etc.) used before you install any flavor of Microsoft Windows that you may have on hand - and finally, once that’s all up and running, then can you install Microsoft Project and get to your work on an Apple device.

1) The Long Road: Virtualizing your Mac to run Microsoft Windows + MS Project


  • In addition to running Microsoft Project, you can install and run any Windows app that you want.
  • If something goes wrong with Windows or Project (as things sometimes do), you can just “blow away” that virtual machine and use your automatically created backup copy.


  • Requires one more subscription to a software service (for example, Parallels or VMWare).
  • Adds another layer to your Mac that needs a bit of worrying about (in addition to everything else that worries you).
  • Creates files so large (after all, there’s an entire computer stuffed inside) you may have to upgrade your Mac’s internal hard drive to something gigabytes bigger.

2) The Winding Road: Using Project Online and all the rest to get there....

There are many reasons that you might want to take the meandering path of using your Mac’s web browser to access Microsoft Project data, but simplicity would not be one of them. If all you want to do is to open, edit or create new Microsoft Project files, then don’t install SharePoint Server or any other servers just to do that – that would be silly and overly complex in this age of cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS). Just jump to #3 for a much shorter path.

winding road


  • This setup may be essential to your large enterprise (in other words, you have no choice but to follow this path).


  • If you work anywhere that the internet doesn’t, you are out of luck.
  • If you are a small-to-mid sized business, the expense of it all may bust your bottom line.
  • If you are the Project Manager for your team without dedicated IT support, this could be trouble.

    (It’s easier to raise children then to manage all of these systems.)

3) The Shortest Distance Between Two Points: Project Plan 365

If all you want to do is to collaborate with other folks sharing or creating Microsoft project data, then just download the free 30-day trial of either Project Plan 365 for Mac or Project Plan 365 for iOS. This gives you the flexibility to work on any Microsoft Project-created data file, regardless of your hardware or internet connection. Both apps allow you to do exactly the same thing: open, edit or create any Microsoft Project file (.MPP) with no conversions or imports from other odd formats, like .XML or .XLSX - or any other type of file where things can go wrong and mess with your precious project data. This is by far the “shortest distance between two points” for any Project Manager wanting to work on a Mac.

Current users of Microsoft Project will instinctively know how to use Project Plan 365, as the interface is virtually the same – no learning curve here to slow you down.

In addition, by subscribing to the Business (PMO) plan, project managers (especially those working in small-to-medium sized businesses) can augment their Microsoft Project experience as well, by using such Project Plan 365 features as real-time collaboration, portfolio and resource management and more. In short, a Project Management Office (PMO) can be set up on the cheap and within a few hours after your team subscribes to this plan.


  • The simplest solution for the stated problem.
  • The cheapest solution for the stated problem.
  • Adds even more to the experience of being a Microsoft Project user, and gives your team more capabilities as you roll out your projects.


  • None to speak of 🙂 

The Bottom Line...

The bottom line depends on how far you are willing to go, just to get to a Microsoft Project file, or to collaborate with your team who are all using the same set of Microsoft Project data. Must your team use Project Online / SharePoint / Project Server because your management team has made that edict? Well, we feel for you… perhaps a new Microsoft laptop is in your future, leaving your shiny new Mac in the dust. But if not, taking the shortcut (#3 above) is going to save you time and money: 

Road Taken...

1. The long road:

2. The winding road:

3. The shortcut:

Cost per user, per year (in USD)

Approximately $1000

Mega-bucks in Enterprise dollars!


Which solves the problem? #1 yes, #2 not really and #3, sure thing! 

In addition to user cost savings per year, other intangibles are gained, such as the convenience of working on your project plans (or having someone else updating your plan) no matter where in the world you or anyone on your team is working (say on the plains of the Sudan, the beaches of Fiji or atop Mt. Everest) – you will always have a way to edit your Microsoft Project plans on your favorite Apple device.

Project Plan 365 also allows you to take Microsoft Project files and go well beyond what you can do within the Microsoft app; for example, with Project Plan 365 you can build a PMO on the cheap, manage and report on your entire portfolio of projects, and store your files in a private and secure cloud - without having to purchase expensive software servers or buy any more new hardware. 

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! 

Turbo-charging Your PM Tools for Construction

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.

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
“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
“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

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.