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Project Management Methods and Microsoft Project

By Jan De Messemaeker, Microsoft Project Most Valuable Professional


The author runs Prom+ade BVBA and is a consultant on project management and more particularly, the role of Microsoft Project in these methods. This article outlines some problems he has encountered with several customers, and proven solutions to these problems.

Project Management Methods

Something strange is going on re the usage of Project Management methods in organizations. For over 10 years it has been common knowledge that to ensure quality in projects, one better runs them following a fixed, proven method. Companies such as Project Management International (PMI) preach this gospel worldwide, and they publish standards about the content of these methods. Many organizations thus decide to use such a method and courageously start the implementation. But when a few years later you take a look at what really happened, the visible results are very, very thin. Generally, the only thing that remains is that project leaders have to periodically fill out some forms, send tehm to their management, who will or will not draw some conclusions from these data; filling out the forma will generally be labeled “administration” or even “occupational therapy” – a term coined by a manager at one of my customers’.

Organizations wanting to implement a project management method and who want to avoid this sad result, passing by the benefits and leaving only the frustration, better be aware of the problems ahead. You can only beat an enemy when you know him. Hence the question: “What is the origin of the resistance to project management methods”?

First and foremost, there is professional pride. Somebody who has become a project manager, has a proven record of success in organizing “things”, and he generally has developed himself some elementary method. Then when someone comes up and tells him to throw away his method (which has ensured him his promotion) and act differently, some psychological resistance is inevitable. This is stronger that normal “resistance to change” because he will also consider himself to be the inventor of his method.

Secondly, upper management will only look for their own needs in the method, and load it heavily on reporting, often only financial reporting that will not help the project manager lead his project at all. No wonder some (and rightly so) call that “pure administration”! There’s more, but when we can beat those two objections, chances for success grow dramatically.

How to deal with professional pride? I’ve seen only one way work, and that is defining an open-ended method. One defines only a bare minimum -some common root must be there, if not it isn’t a common method- but you look with the individual project leaders how they specifically manage projects, and what are the strong points in their methods. You then try to integrate these in your method, or at least to leave the method open-ended enough for the project leader not to have to give up his , And when you can integrate one of his good ideas into the final result you have turned an opponent into an advocate.

Reporting requirements are best kept minimal as well. Remember, the first and most important customer of a project management method is the project leader. Of course, management doesn’t stop on his level , it is higher management’s responsibility to control projects on a higher level, but each time you ask a project leader for yet another report or even a new piece of data, you should wonder if the extra cost incurred by making many people do some extra work is really offset by increased management performance!

Insofar the project leaders use Microsoft Project for planning and tracking, which is part of nearly all project management methods, we experienced excellent results by using as input to reporting, the data that exist in those Microsoft Project plans anyway: we shall dwell on how Microsoft Project is used in a method a bit more further in this article. On the other extreme, making project leaders using project management tools to model activities that aren’t projects at all (such as helpdesk activities or defect repairs), for the sake of a “unique” reporting will greatly undermine the credibility of a statement such as “the method is there to help the project leaders” and it even gives some thruth to the statement “this is all administration”.

So keep it simple- do not hesitate to call in a consultant who saw failure but also success! Obviously, a first step that can always be recommended is following a project management course.

Microsoft Project

The use of Microsoft Project by project managers is often even more controversial than the introduction of a method. Potential reasons are wrong customer expectations, the fact that to use Microsoft project efficiently one has to change planning methods - and resistance to change is universal - or sometimes wrong positioning of Microsoft project usage within the project management method.

Let’s quote a well-known list of wrong expectations:

The top 10 things Microsoft Project Can't Do for you:

  1. it will not make your team members plan;
  2. it will not improve the estimates you get from your people;
  3. it will not force people into meeting unreasonable deadlines;
  4. it will not provide you with additional resources;
  5. it will not remove the bugs from your product;
  6. it will not discover the scope you missed;
  7. it will not descope your project to meet budget;
  8. it will not negotiate with management for a new date;
  9. it will not always tell you good news and;
  10. I will not turn you into a project manager.

Then what does it do for you?

Project management, like all other quality driven management, is an application of the paradigm of quality management: “Plan, Act, Check, Correct” en Microsoft Project is a tool to:

  1. calculate the plan (and I mean calculate, see below),
  2. to help you decide where to act first,
  3. to register what has actually happened and
  4. to analyze how best to correct deviations.

So far for the expectations.

The origin of the most ferocious resistance against Microsoft Project is its major objective itself: its prime objective is to calculate plan data.. Scores of ex-users tell me I do not like that thing, it keeps changing my dates. Well, yes indeed, that is its purpose. This is the major misunderstanding: it is not a spreadsheet such as Excel, neither a drawing tool such as Visio, it will calculate plan data (specifically dates) from plan input supplied by the user. That implies that in order to use Microsoft Project, you have to adapt your planning methods, but also that you need to understand how project performs these calculations. One doesn’t easily find that out just by using it, so it is best to go on a Microsoft Project Course before starting to use it or definitely very early on using it. A two-day course is a bare minimum – trying to find out on your own will cost you a multiple of that time!

The final error to be avoided is forcing project leaders to use the tool for keeping track of activities that aren’t projects, instead that represent work without clear objectives or work that is redefined each day. Many organizations do that because they want a “homogeneous activity reporting” for project- and non-project-activities. That leaves the project leader with a situation where the complexity of project’s calculation is utterly useless and even annoying: it just keeps changing the dates, which doesn’t have a purpose in this situation A project is an undertaking with defined results, to be achieved within time and resource limits. A project is not (just) a financial account.

But once all project leaders use Project, it is relatively simple to consolidate all plan data and obtain very interesting information such as resource usage across all projects, without asking for any more information. So no “administration” to fill out, all necessary data are in his plan file: now you can show that using Microsoft Project is a time saver for everybody, and no additional charge nor some “occupational therapy”.