7 Habits of Highly Effective Microsoft Project Users

The great Stephen R. Covey inspired so many of us.  His teachings are integrated into every aspect of my personal and professional life.  I recently took some time to pause and reflect on how the ‘7 Habits’ have impacted my own career as a scheduler and project manager.  Specifically, here are some thoughts on how the 7 habits apply to Microsoft Project users:

Be Proactive

Perhaps the most critical aspect of being a project manager/scheduler is to take complete ownership of the schedule.  As project managers, we can’t accept ‘hard-coded’ dates given to us by the sponsor, team members or other stakeholders.  In organizations with limited resources, in particular, it’s critical that we change the conversation to the following:

  • Ask Team Members for a commitment to the ‘effort’ (work) estimate, not delivery dates or durations.  As project managers, we need to understand the true effort of the work to be performed.
    • Example: Your developer tells you that she can have the updated prototype ready in 5 weeks, but when asked to clarify the effort involved, we discover that it’s only 40 hours of effort.  The 5 weeks duration estimate was based on a week of vacation time (already accounted for in the project calendar), known commitments on other projects and various support activities.
  • Ask Resource Managers for a commitment to allocation of their resources on your project.  As project managers, we need to understand what resources are available to us and at what percentage.
    • Example: The developer had previously estimated the scope of work to be 40 hours of effort (work).  The resource manager now allocates this individual to your project at 50%.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Microsoft Project Users

As Project Managers, we should only ever commit to dates based on effort estimates received from team members and the commitment to allocation from resource managers.   So, armed with the effort estimate of 40 hours from the team member and 50% allocation from the resource manager, we can now calculate the true duration (2 weeks) of the task and see the resulting schedule impact based on the complete dependency network and the supporting calendars.  If the result is a missed deadline then we can have an intelligent conversation with our sponsor about either reducing scope or allocating more of the resource’s time to the project. While the above example was very simple, the complexity on projects is typically much greater and as such, Microsoft Project takes care of more advanced calculations and factors in non-working time, lead/lag and dependencies as well.

Going forward, any dates given to you by your sponsor or anyone else on the project should be entered as a ‘deadline’ only, never as a ‘start’ or ‘finish’ date as that would hardcode your schedule and take ownership away from you.

You are the ‘programmer’, ‘author’ and owner of your schedule, so don’t make excuses or live your schedule by someone else’s script.

Begin with the End in Mind

The most successful projects out there have deliverable-focused Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) to represent the true scope of the project.  Build your schedules with the end in mind by establishing the outcomes/deliverables that you aim to produce.  This helps you manage scope throughout execution and ensures that the entire team is on the same page as to what the work is.  Examples of deliverables could include “Design Document”, “Test Plan”, “Production Installation” and “Trained Staff”.  Notice how all of these are either a physical object (document) or an outcome.  What they have in common is that we can describe the end state when a deliverable is complete and explain to a team member what it means to produce that deliverable.  A good test to see if you have true deliverables in your schedule is to put “The” in front and see if it works – ‘The Design Document’ – ‘The Production Installation’, etc.

You can still have phases in your project schedule, but the most important portion of the WBS will always be the deliverables and their supporting work packages/activities/tasks.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Microsoft Project Users

The entire scope of your project should be represented within the deliverables in the WBS to be in compliance with industry standards, i.e. no detailed tasks should be present outside of the deliverable structure.  It’s likely that the quality of your project will improve as well when using this method since there will be less ambiguity about the scope of the work.

For more details on how to build an effective WBS, see The Project Management Institute’s (PMI)® Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structure – Second Edition.

Put First Things First

Now that we’ve built a solid Work Breakdown Structure, it’s time to ‘walk the talk’ and put first things first.  Building a complete and accurate dependency network is what makes the schedule truly proactive.  When building dependencies, try to think about natural relationships that exist for the scope of work and NOT on the order you would like to schedule things.  We typically talk about the cause and effect when adding predecessors and successors.  Can we install the operating system before the server has been procured and received?  It’s a silly question, of course, but these relationships exist all throughout your schedule.  So, “Install Operating System on Test server for accounting system” is dependent on the milestone “Accounting Test Server hardware received”, which in turn is dependent on “Place order for Accounting Test Server hardware”, which happens to have 3 weeks of lead time.  Modeled properly, these relationships will help you automatically update the project schedule each week as the team makes progress.

The rules of dependency planning are pretty straightforward:

  1. Every detailed task and milestone in the project schedule should be included in the dependency network, i.e. no ‘orphan’ detailed tasks or milestones.
    • That means a predecessor and successor on each, with the exception of starting points and the project completion milestone and potentially any Level Of Effort (LOE) tasks, such as ‘On-Going Project Management Support’.
  2. Lead and lag time can be used to account for softer dependencies between tasks, e.g. starting testing when we’re 75% done with coding.
  3. Summary tasks should NEVER have dependencies on them.

Putting first things first also means monitoring and focusing on the critical path of the project.  Showing the critical path in team meetings and status reports involves the team and clearly demonstrates the priorities that will allow us to ‘walk the talk’.  If we do experience a delay during project execution, we can easily search for effort-driven tasks on the critical path to take corrective action that can help bring us back on track.

Think Win-Win

While the project schedule is an important tool for many project managers, it is often misunderstood (or not understood at all) by project team members.  When building the Work Breakdown Structure for the project, you will get a much more accurate definition of scope by involving the team and letting them own the decomposition of the deliverables.  It is also important to stress to the team what benefits they get from having the scope fully defined and contributing to the on-going updates to the project schedule.  For organizations who have adopted the proactive scheduling approach, these are some of the common benefits to team members:

  • Reduced over-allocation
    • When schedules have complete dependency networks and incomplete work is rescheduled each week, the typical “pile-up” of work is avoided.
    • With resource manager commitments to allocations (see above), there are typically fewer conflicts across projects also.
  • Visibility into planned work and priorities
    • Whether in Project Professional on the desktop or in Project Web App, project team members can get a complete list of project tasks with dates and priorities.
  • Accurate forecasting of project time availability
    • Organizations that choose to capture all time quickly identify how much work is spent on projects vs. on-going support or Business As Usual activities.
  • Push prioritization decisions back on management
    • Frequent interruptions by senior executives with ‘urgent’ requests for support can be better managed when team members are able to show a list of scheduled work and priorities.
    • Stephen Covey’s famous dialogue with a team member: “I’m happy to help with your request, Stephen. Which of these existing project tasks would you like me to postpone?  Would you like me to notify the project manager or will you do that?”
  • Managers can now see how hard team members actually work If resources work 60+ hours each week to get all the work done, there’s usually a long-term impact and potentially high employee turnover.

The above will help answer the “What’s in it for me?” question and should get you more participation from team members when updating the status of the project schedule.  It’s a Win-Win if project managers get the input they need from the team to build the best possible schedule and team members get a more structured working environment with visibility and reduced over-allocation.

Another Win-Win is between project managers and the project sponsor and key stakeholders.  All too often, we neglect to ask what the success criteria are for the project and whether Time, Quality or Cost is more important.  Managing the triple constraints and reporting against Key Performance Indicators will enable senior management to make better decisions and provide guidance for corrective action.  This, in turns, gets the project manager buy-in on the project schedule and commitment to a formal project management approach.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

In just about any situation, it’s much more important to listen and understand than it is to be immediately understood.  Certainly, when faced with a problem on your project, it is important to act as a facilitator and get all the right people involved in the conversation.  The team members or Subject Matter Experts on the project will often have a very good understanding of the issues and will be in a good position to provide input on how to best resolve them.  By listening to their concerns, understanding of the situation and suggestions, you will be armed with all the right information to make key decisions to move forward.

When we fully understand the situation, we’re better able to ask the right questions to get to a resolution.  After having gathered the facts, try to provide options for the key stakeholders to review.  You can accomplish this by modeling each scenario in Microsoft Project and even use the ‘Inactive Task’ feature (in Microsoft Project 2010) to show what the schedule would look like with and without the proposed solution.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Microsoft Project Users

As project managers, we’re often the hub of communication and will experience much better results if our stakeholders feel understood before we report status or propose changes to the project.  In your next team meeting, try letting team members take the lead on reporting status to the group instead of repeating what they told you prior to the meeting.  You will find that they are much more open to being influenced if they feel understood first.


“What is synergy? Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself” (from “7 Habits of highly effective people: Habit 6 Synergize – Stephen R. Covey”).

Once all the pieces of the schedule have been put together properly and in line with industry standards, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  It will now truly represent the actual project and enable the project manager to be proactive and provide executives with critical information for decision-making.

If a project experiences delays or overruns, a proactive schedule will give early warning and help identify the best options for corrective actions, including the critical path, high cost tasks and quality issues on key deliverables.

Synergy on the project team will also allow team members to participate actively in any corrective action required.  Techniques, such as Crashing and Fast Tracking are much more successful with a synergistic project team and easier to apply in a proactive project schedule.

Sharpen the Saw

You, no doubt, know the story of the man in the forest who’s too busy sawing to stop and sharpen the saw?

Every day, we come across project managers who are too busy updating their schedules and running their projects to stop and learn new techniques and disciplines that would greatly increase their chances of success.

Consider these 5 simple changes you can make in your interaction with the schedule in Microsoft Project that would provide many-fold returns on your investment:

  1. Options
    • Carefully review and understand the detailed options as these have a direct impact on the calculations, dates and behavior of Microsoft Project.  For example, your default Task Type will determine how tasks are calculated when they are updated, such as whether the date/duration changes or the work effort goes up.
  2. Deadlines
    • Start using the ‘Deadline’ feature for dates you’ve committed to rather than entering a start or finish date or setting a constraint on your tasks.  This approach gives you the best of both worlds.  You can see what the commitment date is, but also recognize whether that date is being met or corrective action is needed.
  3. Remaining Work
    • In addition to tracking ‘Actual Work’ against tasks in the schedule, also ask your team member to validate the Estimate To Completion through ‘Remaining Work’.  Not only does this ensure better data quality, but it also helps team members buy into the estimates on a weekly basis and think about effort instead of duration.
  4. Status Date
    • Utilize the ‘Status Date’ feature to clearly communicate the date as of which the schedule is up-to-date.  There should be no incomplete work or milestones prior to the status date nor any actual work after the status date.  Use the ‘Update Project’ feature (below) to move work forward.
  5. Update Project
    • During project execution, it’s quite common for things to progress at a different pace or even in a different order than originally planned.  In order to ensure that the project schedule stays relevant, we must make sure that the schedule is updated each week to move any incomplete work forward of the status date.  The ‘Update Project’ feature does this very nicely and forces the project manager to work with resource managers and the team on how to adjust to the new reality.

Project Managers who take time to sharpen the saw and adopt scheduling best practices such as Sensei’s Proactive Scheduling™ typically go from spending 4-6 hours each week maintaining their project schedule to 30-60 minutes for each schedule.  Proactive Scheduling™ incorporates all the principles of the 7 Habits and also aligns with industry standards and best practices.  The up-front investment during the planning phase is greater, but the ROI is significant in both time savings and quality improvements.


Written by Kenneth Steiness
Kenneth Steiness, PMP, PMI-SP, MCP, MCT, is an industry expert on Microsoft Project and Project Online. Kenneth has worked in the project management and scheduling field for over 20 years. He has managed customer engagements in 13 countries and throughout the United States and presented at conferences world-wide for Microsoft, PMI and MPUG. Kenneth is the CEO of Sensei Project Solutions, a certified Microsoft partner specializing in project and portfolio management deployments. Sensei offers a complete set of services to help organizations succeed with their Microsoft PPM deployments. Services include full implementation and training as well as pre-configured solutions and report packs. Visit senseiprojectsolutions.com or contact info@senseiprojectsolutions.com for more information.
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