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!

The Essential Toolkit for Project Management Students & Educators

Calling all Project Management Students & Educators!

If you are a student at university or enrolled in any other Project Management (PM) training, then this article is for you. For example, if you are a PMI student striving for PMP® certification or a graduate student studying for the Georgetown Master's in Project Management degree, then this read provides insight into getting through your academic program with the help of a leading edge PM tool.

This article also explains how to excel tool-wise during your PM studies, without having to rely on sub-par tools like Microsoft Office to get all your PM-related homework done.

What any PM Student Needs, Tool-wise…

Throughout our academic careers, we have usually carried a toolbox to class that is full of essentials; in primary school it may have been a backpack stuffed with a pencil box, notebooks and a pocket calculator. In high school, we might have upgraded our toolkit with an iPad or smartphone to help us through our studies - and in college, we might have a high-powered laptop loaded with Microsoft Office to help us through the day. However, for anyone studying the art and science of project management, much more is needed in regards to our generic daily kit.

For starters, any PM student needs a sharper pencil than Microsoft Office to get real work done. For example, if you are preparing a project network diagram, you could use Microsoft Visio to knock one out, but the data used will not be linked to a project schedule or project budget, at least not without a lot of additional make-work. Same goes for when you need a Gantt chart; you could use Microsoft Excel and a template to prepare one, but again, your original data is orphaned, making it harder to say, prepare a resource accounting for all the work planned.

In short, you need an all-in-one and dedicated PM tool complete your class assignments more efficiently.

Attributes of a Good All-In-One PM Tool

A good all-in-one PM tool will include the following:

  1. A visualizer for laying out projects (think mind maps) and for breaking down the work (think WBS) - or a way to easily import visualizations constructed in other products, into the PM tool itself.
  2. A database for all related project data - for linking the essentials - such as risk management plans, project charters and scope statements.
  3. A PM data engine that can perform PM-related calculations like critical paths, over allocations and cost tables without a fuss, and on simple devices such as smartphones.
  4. A scheduler, to build schedules automatically based on project data, such as task durations and resource availability.
  5. A report & dashboard generator, to communicate project progress and to highlight milestones achieved.

In addition to the above key attributes, a good all-in-one PM tool 1) works on whatever device you do, such as tablets and smartphones, 2) works on the PC, Mac or Linux platform and 3) can exchange data easily with enterprise tools such as Microsoft Project Server and others.

University Licensing Program

Project Plan 365: The PM Student Tool of Choice

PMI Project Schedule
Sample PMI project file opened in Project Plan 365

Project Plan 365 is a popular all-in-one PM tool that has been used worldwide for years by professional project managers during their day-to-day PM work. In addition, Project Plan 365 is used by thousands of students because of 1) its ability to work on Apple devices, 2) the low cost of entry and 3) the simplicity of design and compatibility with tools used by larger learning institutions. For example, many universities will use enterprise tools like Oracle Primavera or Microsoft Project Online / Server to facilitate large groups of students studying Project Management or related studies; and these tools are quite complex and expensive to run. In this scenario, once the PM student has graduated, they are left in the cold.

Enter Project Plan 365, which is compatible with enterprise PM tools, but costs just a hundred dollars or so vs. tens of thousands of dollars to own and operate. In addition, Project Plan 365 is easy to install and to learn, and anyone familiar with Microsoft Office can easily master this tool in a matter of days. Furthermore, with Housatonic’s unique licensing program for education (see below), students can use this tool for life - at no cost whatsoever!

For Educators & Administrators: the Project Plan 365 University Licensing Program

Housatonic Software offers all universities and colleges who graduate or certify future PM professionals a free licensing scheme that works like this:

  1. The university or certifying organization first sends us a request via email.
  2. On acceptance, Housatonic provides the organization with a block of licenses that students can use for one year, and which allows access to all Project Plan 365 apps (for PCs / Macs / Android & iOS smartphones and tablets, and the Web app).
  3. The institution then distributes the licenses to eligible students (any student currently enrolled in a PM-related program). This license allows students to use Project Plan 365 apps for one year, and this license can be renewed on request; students who complete their studies can request a lifetime renewal. If your institution does not currently offer this licensing, we encourage you to ask your school to email us today.

For more information on the licensing program, see this page on our site.

How any PM instructor or student can tryout Project Plan 365 - for free!

  1. Download and install the Project Plan 365 trial for whatever platform or device that you prefer (feel free to try one, or all).
  2. Either a) Start a new plan, or b) open an existing plan [any .MPP file] or c) use the built-in starter template named Project management institute process.
  3. Edit your plan and save to any convenient cloud location like Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.

For even more help, see the Project Plan 365 support library or check out this popular Quick Start video; and best of luck on your next exam!

New, existing or template dialog box