5 Elements of a Good Gantt Chart

The Gantt chart is a powerful project planning and management tool. It helps you visualize your task progress over time, and can also be used as a way to report the overall progress of your project.
But it also confuses the heck out of some people.
All those tiny horizontal bars cascading down off into the horizon look pretty, but they get in the way of the spreadsheet columns. And then there are words like “baseline” and “critical path” that are useless to anyone who just wants to simply manage their tasks and team.
You might think that Gantt charts are only for experts, right?
Wrong! When you know the basics of a Gantt chart, you can save a lot of time and money managing and planning your projects.
And they’re really quite easy to use, now that they’re online. In fact, with an online Gantt, you simply add your tasks, and the Gantt magically appears to represent the rows of tasks and the deadlines you set.
The result is a visual of each task’s duration, which is really handy for getting clear on how long your project will actually take. But not all Gantt’s are alike.
Here are the 5 elements of a good Gantt chart:
1. Drag & Drop
As you fill out your tasks in the spreadsheet, you’ll see your Gantt populating to represent how long that task will take to complete. But it’s really handy if you want to change the date of the task delivery right on the Gantt.

Gantt1

Find a tool where you can just drag & drop the task bar to extend or shorten its date, and then have that data populate magically on your spreadsheet. It saves time and sanity.
2. Milestones
When you’re planning your project, it’s helpful to think of several key milestones to define either key project phases or just key dates in the life of the project, like the start of quality testing, for example. In some Gantt chart tools, a milestone can be represented as a little diamond over a key task.
This little diamond is your friend. It can help you see at-a-glance when key parts of your project are coming up. You might even want to plan meetings around those milestones. Just a suggestion.
3. Color-Coding
You can use colors to represent any number of things: the person the task is assigned to, different project phases like planning or QA, client-focused tasks, or anything else you can think of.
Look for a tool that allows you to set the colors as you see fit. It can actually be… fun!
4. Task Dependencies
Some tasks are dependent on others and can’t be started until one is complete. When that first task is running behind schedule, however, it’s vital to be able to accommodate changes to the downstream and dependent tasks to make sure they don’t start ahead of time. You can link tasks together in some online Gantt charts to help manage tasks when they become complex. It’s really simple to do.
5. Collaborative
This is probably the most important element of a good Gantt chart. Rather than have the project spreadsheet or Gantt on someone’s desktop (where no one can see it) look for an online Gantt that the whole team can participate in.
And they don’t actually need to know how to use the Gantt chart!
Amazingly, your team can simply update tasks in their simple task list, by adding photos, videos, notes or documents, and those are automatically added to the Gantt as an attachment on the task itself! In this way, the whole team is connected to the Gantt and your project is updated by the whole team.
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Eight Steps to Use Projects to Close Organization Gaps

A project approval process is part of portfolio management. In many companies, the project approval process starts during a yearly business planning process. Projects are submitted, evaluated and approved for the following fiscal year. The following process represents a very simplified and high-level view of what is involved.

GAP

1. Complete Future State Analysis: Evaluate the future state of the organization and the marketplace. Questions include: What is the vision for the organization in three (to five) years? What will the marketplace be like? Where will the competitors be? What capabilities need to be in place?

2. Complete Current State Analysis: Evaluate where the organization is today. Questions include: What are the strengths and weaknesses? What is the primary mission and strategy? Are you winning or losing in the marketplace?

3. Create Gap Analysis: What has to happen to move the organization from where it is today to where it needs to be in the future? What skills need to be built? What capabilities need to be in place? What information systems need to be developed or purchased? What processes need to be implemented?

4. Propose projects to close the gap: What projects must be funded to get the organization from where it is to where it needs to be? This ends up being a wish list of work, including both IT and business initiatives.

5. Create a business case for each project: The business case provides enough preliminary information so that the projects can be prioritized later. This could include:

  • Assigning a sponsor.

  • High-level business requirements and major deliverables.

  • High-level estimated effort, cost, and duration.

  • High-level cost-benefit analysis. 

  • Describe how the project aligns to goals and strategies.

  • High-level risk analysis.

6. Prioritize the projects: Prioritize the projects based on business value and alignment to goals and strategies. This is not always an apples-to-apples comparison, since there are many reasons why a particular project might be of value. Even though all of the projects provide value to the business in some way, some projects may be rejected altogether while those remaining will end up on a prioritized list.

7. Determine which projects will be funded: The projects with the highest priority to the organization are put forward for funding. This could include the entire prioritized list, or some subset. For instance, the organization may have 20 prioritized projects, but may have funding for only 10. Projects that do not get funded go on a portfolio backlog.

8. Initiate the project: After the project is approved, at some point it will be ready for executing. The business sponsor should revalidate the business case to ensure the project is still viable. The organization must be prepared to commit the resources required to complete the project. If those items are all in place, and the organization is still in agreement to proceed, then you can start the project planning process.

Eight Less Obvious Ways to Find Project Success

There are many techniques and processes to help you be successful on a project. Some of them like better estimating and defining requirements are pretty standard and obvious. Here are some other ways to increase the likelihood of success on your project that are not so obvious.

big picture

Understand the big picture and the details

If the devil is in the details, there is nothing more devilish than the complex and intertwining dependencies of a project. You need to be aware of the details, even if you don’t react to each detail each time. At the same time, it’s just as important to see the big picture. Understanding the overall purpose and objectives of the project allows you to make decisions based on broader context. The big picture also allows you to see trends before problems emerge.

Make decisions quickly

Over analyzing and procrastination are a problem on many projects. Use the best information you have available to make decisions quickly. Even if it’s not the BEST decision, a GOOD decision suffices in nearly all cases.

Communication heavily

You can never have enough communication. If the worst thing is that somebody says they already know what you just told them, great. The discussion will be short. However, for every time you hear that, you will have five more instances where the person was not aware.

Manage risks proactively

This one might fall into the more obvious category. But it is surprising to me how many projects do not formally manage risks. Some projects identify risks but don’t put a plan in place to manage them. Risk management does not take so much time. All successful project managers do it.

Manage expectations

Many project managers communicate, but not effectively. The do not realize how to communicate what is happening now and the future looks like. If you have ever surprised a sponsor or customer, you probably were not managing expectations well.

Make sure you get major documents approved

Sometimes we are just too busy to get approvals for documents even if you know you need them. The result is often that there is a disagreement with the approver after the fact, causing rework and conflict.

Involve stakeholders throughout the project

We should all know it is important to understand project stakeholders. But often we focus on stakeholders at the beginning and the end of the projects. To be really successful you need to engage key stakeholders all the way through the project.

Cultivate excellent relationships with the Project Sponsor

Stakeholder management is important, but one stakeholder is more important then the rest – the sponsor. Go out of your way to develop a good relationship with the sponsor.

Use all the obvious techniques for project success, plus these eight that are a little less obvious. You will have a much better chance for success.

Four Techniques to Manage Your Schedule

You will never be a successful project manager if you do not know how to build and manage a schedule. The schedule may be the most fundamental tool for managing projects. Here are four techniques to help you take full advantage of the project schedule.  

schedule

  1. The remainder of the schedule is the most important

The schedule should represent your best-guess at any particular point in time on how to complete the remaining work. The more complex your project is, the more change is going to be required in your “best guess” over time. The project manager must evaluate the schedule on an ongoing basis and determine the current state of the project. Based on the current state of the project, and your current understanding of the work remaining, you need to re-plot a course that will allow the work to be completed within the original budget and deadline.

  1. Update the schedule weekly

For most projects, the schedule will need to be reviewed on a weekly basis. During this review, the project manager updates the schedule with the current state of work that is completed and in-progress. The remaining work should be evaluated to see if the project will be completed within the deadline. If it can, you are in good shape. If it cannot, the project manager must implement corrective action.

  1. Proactively manage schedule variances

The project manager may be in a position of having to constantly utilize his experience and creativity to get the project completed within expectations. One week your project many be on track. The next week, you may have work assignments that are late and issues that have surfaced. If you are good at it, managing the schedule can be one of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of project management. If you do not relish the detailed work that is required, you may find it much more difficult to be successful as a project manager.

  1. Validate who can update the schedule

On most projects the project manager is the only one that is allowed to update the schedule. However, there are other options, especially for larger projects. The project manager may ask each team member to update the schedule with actual hours worked, remaining hours and proposed end date. For very large projects, it is also common for one or more people to be assigned to update the schedule on behalf of the project manager. These people are sometimes called project administrators, project coordinators or project schedulers. They can get information from team members and update current status and actual hours worked. They bring this all to the project manager for final analysis and evaluation.

Five Strategies for the Responding to Risks

Identifying risks is only the start of the risk management process. If you identify a risk you are obligated to create a risk plan to respond to the risk. You should create a risk response for all “high” risks. There are a number of general options that the project manager should consider for responses.

Risk

1)      Leave it. In this approach, the project manager looks at a high risk and decides to do nothing. This can happen for one of two reasons.

a)      First, the project manager may feel that cost and effort of managing the risk is more than the impact of the risk event itself. In this case you would rather deal with the costs of the risk occurring that the cost of trying to manage the risk.

b)      Second, there may not be any reasonable and practical activities available to manage the risk. For instance, it is possible that there is a risk of your sponsor leaving and a new sponsor canceling the project. However, you may not be in a position to do much about it as long as the current sponsor is in place, and you may just need to leave it and see how events play out.

2)      Monitor the risk. In this case, the project manager does not proactively manage the risk, but monitors it to see whether it is more or less likely to occur as time goes on. If it looks more likely to occur later in the project, the team must formulate a different response at a later time. This is a good approach if you have identified a risk that should be managed, but the risk event is far off in the future.

3)      Avoid the risk. Avoiding the risk means that the condition that is causing the problem is eliminated. For example, if you find that a part of the project has high risk associated with it, that whole part of the project can be eliminated. The risks associated with a particular vendor, for instance, might be avoided if another vendor is used instead. This is a very effective way to eliminate risks but obviously can be used only in certain unique circumstances.

4)      Move the risk. In some instances, the responsibility for managing a risk can be removed from the project by assigning the risk to another entity or third party. For instance, you may identify a risk associated with a new technology. Outsourcing the function to a third party might eliminate that risk for the project team. The risk event is still there, but now some other entity is dealing with it.

5)      Mitigate the risk. In most cases, this is the approach to take. Mitigating the risk means that you put in place a set of proactive steps to minimize the likelihood that the risk will occur. If possible you could eliminate the risk by minimizing the likelihood down to zero percent. Another purpose of mitigation is to ensure that if the risk occurs, the negative impact of the risk is minimized. In many cases it may not be possible to totally eliminate a risk event, but given that you have time to prepare, you should be able to minimize the probability of the event occurring, or minimize the impact to the project if the risk event does occur.

These are typical risk responses for negative risks. You can first identify one or more risk strategies and then put the detailed activities in place to effectively manage the risk.

Six Options When Managing Projects With Unrealistic Deadlines

If you are a project manager dealing with what you perceive to be an unrealistic deadline, the first thing you will want to do is talk to your sponsor to see if there are any business factors that are driving the deadline. For example, there may be some event occurring that this project needs to support. On the other hand, sometimes managers set arbitrary end-dates just to provide what they consider to be stretch objectives. You may find that by better understanding the reason for the deadline, you may have an easier time getting the team motivated to achieve it.

deadlines

Once you understand the cause for the deadline date, there are project management techniques that can be utilized to increase the chances of success.

1)      Increase resources.

If you find that the deadline is not in alignment with your resources, talk to your manager about increasing the resources that are available for the project. Adding resources to the project may increase the cost, but may allow you to hit the deadline. If the deadline is most important this may be a viable option.

2)      Reduce scope.

Talk to your sponsor about reducing the project scope. See if there are features and functionality that he can live without for now so that you can deliver the project within the deadline specified.

3)      Identify and manage the deadline as a project risk.

Utilizing risk management will help better manage expectations early in the project and also be a way to gather input and ideas for ways that you might be able to hit the deadline.

4)      Manage scope with zero tolerance.

On many projects, you start with an aggressive delivery date, and then the situation gets worse because you do not effectively manage scope. It is absolutely critical that you manage scope effectively and do not increase scope without an appropriate increase in budget and timeline.

5)      Manage the schedule aggressively.

In many projects, you might get a little behind but have confidence that you can make up the time later. However, when you start a project with the deadline at risk, be sure to manage the schedule diligently. You have no margin for error. As you monitor the schedule, treat missed deadlines as problems and work hard to solve the reasons behind the slippage.

6)      Look for process improvement opportunities.

Lastly, take a hard look at your schedule and your approach for executing the project. Talk to your team, clients, and manager about any ideas they may have for making the project go faster. This will get everyone thinking about being part of a solution.

Although it appears that you are being held accountable for events and circumstances that are not within your control, you do have control over the processes you use to manage the project. Use them proactively and wisely.

 

Was Your Project Successful – Within Tolerances?

Estimating the time and cost is an important part of project planning. If you estimate a project to cost $230,000, is your project a failure if the actual cost is $230,500? You missed your budget, right? Yes, but this gets into the concept of tolerances. If you delivered within $500 on a $230,000 budget, you should be lifted on your manager’s shoulder and paraded around the company as a hero.
Your company needs to establish the tolerance level that they consider to be reasonable for projects. For example, the tolerance level may be -10% to +10%. That is, if you deliver the project 10% over budget, it is still considered a success. For the $230,000 project, that means you could have gone overbudget by $23,000 and still have been considered successful.
Normally there is some room for tolerances with your deadline as well. In most cases, you can deliver a little late and still be considered successful. Of course, not all projects have that flexibility. Some projects do have a fixed end date that cannot be moved. But many projects have some flexibility.

project success

Declaring Success From a Project Perspective

Once you understand your tolerances (if any), you can start to evaluate success from a project perspective. Generally, the project team members can declare success if:
1) The project is delivered within the estimated cost, plus or minus the tolerance.
2) The project was delivered within its deadline, plus or minus the tolerance.
3) All of the major deliverables were completed. (Some minor ones, or minor functionality, might not be delivered.)
4) The overall quality is acceptable. (It does not have to be perfect.)
Other factors may be important for specific projects. For instance in a construction project, safety might be a key success component.

Declaring Success from a Company Perspective

From a company perspective, success is also based on whether the company received the business value that was promised. There are many examples of projects that were completed successfully, yet are not delivering the value promised. It is possible that the return on investment calculations were faulty, or the marketplace was misjudged by the sponsor. We believe that success against the project business value, as defined in the Business Case, is ultimately the responsibility of the sponsor – not the project team.

Seven Steps to Manage Stakeholder Expectations

You performed an initial stakeholder analysis when you defined and chartered the project. The stakeholder analysis should also be updated periodically to ensure that the stakeholders are being engaged successfully. If the stakeholders are not being engaged as you wished, you should update or change your activities. It is possible that you will also discover new stakeholders as the project progresses, and they should be accounted for in this process as well.

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  1. Establish an agreement. This is probably the most overlooked yet most obvious piece. It is difficult or impossible to manage stakeholder expectations if you do not have some agreement to begin with. You need to agree on what the expectations are. 
  2. Manage change. Once an agreement has been reached, changes should be managed through the change management process. This ensures that the stakeholder approves all changes and helps keep expectations in line.
  3. Communicate proactively. When the agreement has been reached, continue to communicate proactively through the status reporting process or as part of a broader Communication Management Plan – especially if there are any problems meeting the expectations. This helps the stakeholder keep up-to-date on progress, issues, risks, etc. The main motivation is to avoid surprises.
  4. Periodically assess performance. The project manager should be assessing expectations on an ongoing basis. If it looks unlikely that you will meet expectations, immediate steps should be taken to get back on track.
  5. Deliver against the expectations. Again, this may seem obvious. However, once an agreement has been put into place, you need to make sure that you deliver as expected. One of the weaknesses on the part of many people is that they do not fulfill their agreed-upon expectations, and they do not communicate with the stakeholder to inform them of the status and acknowledge the missed expectation.
  6. Reset expectations if necessary. If you determine that the original agreement cannot be satisfied, the agreement should be re-negotiated. This process includes gathering the facts surrounding the inability to meet the original agreement. In addition, alternative courses of action should be formulated to determine how to perform as closely to the original agreement as possible in a way that will satisfy both parties. Once a modified agreement has been reached, reset the expectations and begin the work necessary to meet the requirements of the new agreement.
  7. Complete the agreement. Review the completed work with the stakeholder to ensure that the terms of the agreement have been fully met. If not, negotiate what will be required to fulfill the agreement.

The project manager should ensure that the stakeholders are involved in the project and that the expectations of the stakeholders and project manager are always aligned. Then manage the expectations and achieve the commitments.

Ten Components for Integrated Change Control

Scope changes have an impact on the project. The impact can be greater than just schedule and budget. In many cases, it may be hard to understand the nature of a change and the impact to the various aspects of the project. For example a change request can come into the project that results in a change to scope. The scope change request may lead to a request to increase schedule and budget. The request might impact the types of resources that are needed on the project ands it might effect a vendor contract. The change could introduce additional risk. The project manager needs to understand the nature of the change and how it might impact all other aspects of the project.

changes aheadIntegrated Change Control is a way to better understand the nature of scope changes. Integrated change control includes the following.

1. Making sure there are baselines in place (scope, budget, schedule, etc.) so that it is more obvious that a change has occurred.

2. Looking at the causes of change to see if the causes can be (or should be) eliminated. For instance, if you believe you are receiving too many scope change requests, it may reflect on a poor requirements gathering process.

3. Making sure no changes are implemented unless they have been approved.

4. Making sure there are processes in place to manage change. The level of formality of the approval process increases with the size of the project and the size of the potential change.

5. Making sure the entire project team, including the customer, understands the change management processes and follows them.

6. Making sure the appropriate documentation is created and saved for each change.

7. Understanding how changes impact all related aspects of the project.

8. Making sure that there is a person or body available to approve or reject all change requests.

9. Making sure all change requests are closed by either an acceptance of the change or rejection of the change.

10. Communicating changes and the impact on the project to the appropriate stakeholders.

Integrated change control provides a more holistic look at scope change across the entire project environment and can help projects be more successful – especially large projects.

Review Eight Aspects in a Feasibility Study

Most people are aware of a Business Case. The Business Case allows you to define a project at a high-level, yet with sufficient enough detail to know whether the organization wants to provide funding. However, sometimes the sponsor is not certain of the costs and benefits, or even if the project is feasible. This is a good time for a Feasibility Study.

A Feasibility Study is used to explore whether a project makes sense or not. The Feasibility Study looks at more than cost and benefit. It looks at whether the project is feasible in a number of areas.

feasibility

There are a number of areas of feasibility that should be analyzed.

1.Technical. Is the project technically feasible? If it is you should state any technical risks associates with the project.

2.Financial. Is the project financially feasible? This would be especially important if the cost of the project was material to your company. It is possible that a project could have a cost that is significant enough to put the entire company at risk. You may have the ability to budget for the project now, but you might also analyze what the impact would be of a significant cost overrun.

3.Operational. Can you operate the project solution? It is possible that the project itself is feasible, but you may have significant risk in being able to operate the solution after the project is over.

4.Geographic. Is the project feasible given the physical location of the project team or the customer?

5.Time. Is the project feasible given the amount of time it will require from the participants? This is a big worry on larger projects. You may have the budget to execute the project but you may realize you cannot free up the project team for enough time to execute the project.

6.Resource. Do you have the staff, equipment, supplies and other resources necessary to complete the project?

7.Legal. Are there any legal problems that will make this project unfeasible?

8.Political. Are there any internal (or external) political problems that will make this project unfeasible?

Recommendation. You may explore a number of alternatives for structuring the project before ultimately drawing your final conclusion and recommendation. The recommendation may be that the project is not feasible. The sponsor and management stakeholders may choose to accept the recommendation or move another direction.

If the project appears feasible, the sponsor would proceed to develop the Business Case based on the final recommendation. The Business Case should address the costs, benefits, risks, assumptions, and other information to finally determine if the project makes business sense.