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

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

The Importance of Resource Calendaring

The Importance of Resource Calendaring

With so many projects of late either failing, partially failing or coming in way over budget, those of us in the business of managing projects are concerned, and rightly so.

The reason for project failures and cost bloats are many fold, and this article only covers one problem that falls under the category of resource management - future posts here will cover other reasons, such as problems in task, cost and collaboration management.

While proper calendaring is just one important aspect of resource management, it is often forgotten about amid the furry of rapid project design and implementation.

In our rush to meet project-design deadlines, our up front estimates for human or material resources are often more vague than accurate, and this lack of precision often proves detrimental later on down the project road.

So let's take a look at just how that dynamic works (imprecise calendaring), or in this case, doesn't work to the benefit of project outcomes.

Proper calendaring (or in other words, knowing when your workforce is available for work) is important during all phases of project management, from the initial proposal & budget work-up, to the final analysis conducted once the project is complete.

While your organization may have a standard working calendar (start/end times, company days off, corporate holidays, etc.), it’s important to realize that individuals - and even materials - can have unique calendars that will deviate from the standard one used by your organization, and if not taken into consideration, can skew any plan calculations significantly.

So let's first look at the relationship between a human resource, and their related calendar data points. Figure 1 shows the many related data points for any given human resource.

In addition to these human resource calendar deviations, even materials can be considered to have their own calendar data points - see Figure 2.

 Although with specific materials, you usually have them or not, but machines that use material resources can certainly be thought of as having a calendar with data points.

These points of concern (shift-work times, special leaves and holidays, etc.) are all factors that affect the bottom line, in terms of workforce availability, project costs and length of task durations.

One must look at all of these points combined to get a more complete picture of your project's scope.

Implications during the Initial Phase

So when preparing a proposal for any project, instead of picking a number out of a hat (for resource costs) or relying on an enterprises standard 8-hour / 5-day work week, you can use the above data points to get an much better estimate all of these data points are factored in.

One common example of an error during this phase, is when a globalized company uses a standard US calendar for work being performed in Asia, where workers may be using a 10-hour / 6-day workweek - see Figure 3.

But regardless of location, if these often forgotten factors are not considered, you might be proposing a planned budget and schedule that can never be met.

Implications during the Middle Phase

When scheduling the work, unless precise calendaring is used that takes into account all possible calendaring points, planned schedules will most likely be shorter than the actual outcome, and cause your project to have needless cost overruns and delays.

Implications during the Final Phase

When evaluating project performance during the post-mortem, the results will be skewed by the initial errors in calendaring, and that will not be helpful when repurposing previous project data in order to project costs and schedules for the next like-project coming down the road.

In Conclusion…

So, in this post we have 1) explored the importance of calendaring across all phases of project planning, 2) shown how a single resource has many calendar data points, and 3) been given a simple procedure for getting a handle on your project's workforce availability (and how that affects project scope).

The benefit of proper calendaring should become evident in your next project that takes this knowledge into consideration, so give that a try – since as they say - the proof is in the pudding!

Watch this space for future posts that will help ensure that your project is successful, and never placed into the category of "failed" or "partially failed."

Project Success Rates
Machine Resource Calendar
Figure 2. While materials are not thought to have calendar data points, the machines or processes that use them certainly can! (click to enlarge)
Human Resource Calendar
Figure 1. Human resource calendar data points that may deviate from a standard calendar. (click to enlarge)
Granular calendaring tool
Figure 3. Use a scheduling tool (such as Project Plan 365, Microsoft Project, etc.) that is granular enough to capture important calendaring data points, on a per resource basis. (click to enlarge)