A Better Microsoft Project

This article is the first in a series, in which I wish to make a case for adding certain features to Microsoft’s Project for Desktop and Project for the web software. You might wonder why I am publishing on MPUG vs. Microsoft’s feedback portal. Well, I needed more than a few paragraphs to share the features I have in mind.

At my company, ProjectPro, we have worked directly with Microsoft Project software for over 30 years, and, during this time, several new features to be added and ideas for other features to be improved have risen to the top. This series of articles is meant to describe in enough detail what we’ve envisioned for both Microsoft Project versions in-use today:

  • Project for Desktop (endearingly referred to as “The good old Project”)
  • Project for the web (which I’ll refer to as the “Up-and-coming Project”)

To present these recommendations in a structure that, I hope, will be useful, we will utilize our ProjectPro Forecasting Framework with the intention of laying out a high-level roadmap for Microsoft Project in the long-term. This framework originates from 30-years of work experience asking organizations what they need in terms of training. For almost 25 of those 30 years, I shared with my clients a master list of potential course topics and asked them to indicate what they would like their project managers to be trained on. Using this data, I eventually started to recognize three basic user profiles (“user segments” or “customer segments,” in marketing terms). The three are as follows:

  1. Time Modelers are clients that want to apply the simplest form of project scheduling techniques, while still being able to forecast the finish date of their projects and track progress towards that forecast. Time Modelers only want to make forecasts on when their projects will end and track progress of the project.
  2. Workload Modelers are clients who want to get a handle on the total workloads of their resources. These users are looking to find bottleneck resources, improve resource capacity planning (demand drives capacity), and/or advance their resource demand management (capacity drives demand, and demand is adjusted by rejecting, staggering, delaying, or pacing projects). Workload Modelers also want to forecast a finish date for their project (Time Modeling), but, in addition, they want to forecast total workload over time by role (or by person). Project managers use these total workloads to ensure that their project schedule is feasible in terms of supply versus demand of the resources on their project team. Resource managers can improve their resource management in a variety of ways: workload leveling, workload smoothing, maximizing labour productivity, and performing resource capacity planning. Portfolio managers can use total workload by role data for their project authorization, project prioritization, and resource demand management. Workload models include Time Modeling; you need all activities properly scheduled to get to time-phased effort amounts. Workload Models typically produce time forecasts, as well.
  3. Cost Modelers want to use cost management features to budget projects in Microsoft Project (rather than in Excel or accounting software) for comparison against actuals, to forecast expenses over time for their project (time-phased cost), to create cash-flow reports (for their Finance Department), and/or predict their profits over time (time-phased profits). Few people know that you can model profits with Project Desktop. In fact, you can enter negative Standard Rates (e.g. -30/h) for resources (to model costs) and positive standard rates (e.g. +40/h) for resources (to model revenues). Microsoft Project will calculate and create a time-phased view of profits in your resource-loaded schedule. It is then easy to make a Net Present Value (NPV) calculation to determine the Return on Investment (ROI), Break Even point, or Internal Rate of Return for the project. Anyone who wants to project costs, revenues, or profits—or wants to make (any type of) money projections visible over time are Cost Modelers. Cost Modelers basically want to use ALL the features in their project scheduling applications. Cost models typically include a Workload Model (you need to know all efforts to get to total cost) and a Time Model (you need to schedule all activities to get to time-phased costs).

Before we go further, I believe it is important to address two wide-spread misunderstandings pre-emptively:

  • Microsoft Project is not meant to supplant accounting software. Microsoft Project is primarily focused on the future (i.e. to produce time, workload, and cost forecasts), whereas accounting software is more focused on the past (i.e. to report on actuals) and on the current financial state of a company. In a project management information system, actual costs for a project typically come from accounting, whereas forecasts come from Microsoft Project.
  • Microsoft Project is not meant to supplant spreadsheet applications (like Excel) either, because project scheduling applications are relational database applications, unlike spreadsheet applications that typically manage only a single data entity well. Project schedules have at least five distinct data entities, projects, tasks, resources, assignments, and dependencies, that can best be organized using a relational database application. Microsoft Project was designed to manage the relationships for all of these data elements.

The complete ProjectPro Forecasting Framework is depicted in the following chart:

Some additional facts about our ProjectPro Forecasting Framework:

  • The Time Model starts with identifying the deliverables. Deliverables are ‘the things of value that a client is asking for and that the client is willing to pay for (i.e. for the creation of these deliverables).’ You can create a Time Model of a project by entering the 4D’s: the Deliverables, their Durations, Dependencies between the Deliverables, and the Deadlines (target dates) on each Deliverable.
  • The Workload Model can be created from a Time Model by adding the 5A’s: Activities, Availabilities of resources (project, resource, and task calendars, maximum units, availability profiles), Assignments of all tasks to resources, Assignment Effort (how much effort each assignment takes), and Assignments Units (how many resources or what percentage of a resource the assignment needs).
  • The Cost Model can be created from a Workload Model by adding the 6C’s: Capital Budgets, Charge Accounts to categorize the expenses, Cost and Material Resources to complement the labour resources of the Workload Model, Charge Rates (there can be multiple rates for one resource), Charge Rate Escalation (rates that vary over time), and Cost Accrual to specify when the cost occurs–at the start or end of the task or pro-rated over its duration.
  • This framework is hierarchical: A Time Model is needed to create a Workload Model. A workload Model is needed to create a Cost Model. In other words: If you create a Workload Model, you have a Time Model, as well. If you have a Cost Model, you also have a Workload Model and a Time Model of the project.
  • The framework is easy to remember:
    • 1 Time, 2 Workload, 3 Cost: 4D, 5A and 6C, respectively
    • Time (4D), Workload (5A), and Cost (6C)
    • 1 ,2 ,3, D, A, C (This rhymes!)

Ever since ProjectPro developed this framework, we only need to ask our clients a single question instead of digging through endless lists of training topics for Microsoft Project. We show them the framework and ask: What forecast do you want to attain when working with Microsoft Project—time forecast, workload forecast, or cost forecast?

As I introduce my recommendations for new features or improvements to MS Project, I’ll be doing it within the context of this framework (i.e. a new feature for both applications (Project for the web and Project for Desktop) or a modification of the current features in Project for Desktop).

My first recommendation (#1) to Microsoft is to adopt this framework as a high-level roadmap for the software, so I’d say they should firstly, create all the features for Time Modeling. Secondly, I’d suggest they add features to support Workload Modeling. Thirdly (and lastly), I recommend adding features for Cost Modeling. I’d also recommend that they add the Deadline feature to Project for the web (Recommendation #2A), so that it has the capability for simple Time Modeling. We’ll discuss that in my next article, where I’ll continue numbering my recommendations with a unique number, so you can easily refer to any of them when commenting below this article or future articles.

In 2019, I met with several leaders at Microsoft Project individually at the Microsoft’s Inspire conference, and I introduced each of them to this framework with the three archetypes of users. I requested they add only one feature to Project for the web; that of Deadlines to complete the capabilities for Time Modeling in Project for the web. Two out of three seemed interested, and I got one, “No.” You can’t say I didn’t try!

One leader showed a lot of respect for my work, which warmed my project management heart. Receiving respect from a Microsoft employee has rarely occurred in the past for me I think it is, at least in part, due to the fact that my contacts at Microsoft turn over about every three years; I have already survived at least six General Managers of Microsoft Project. The new shift typically does not know any of the long-serving community members, and does not often have enough time to get good at project management … but, I digress.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. And look forward to sharing my recommendations in upcoming articles in this series.

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Written by Eric Uyttewaal
Eric is a thought leader on project, program, and portfolio management. He spends most of his time using software from Microsoft. He has authored seven well-known textbooks including ‘Forecasting Programs,’ 'Forecast Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2010/2013/Online,’ and ‘Dynamic Scheduling with Microsoft Project 2000/2002/2003.’ He founded ProjectPro, which specializes in Microsoft Project, Project Server and Project Online. Eric developed several Add-ins with his team that enhance the capabilities of Microsoft Project in creating better schedules (Forecast Scheduling App), managing cross-project dependencies (CrossLinksPro), identifying and documenting the Critical Path (PathsPro) and creating S-curve reports (CurvesPro). He was president of PMI-Ottawa in 1997. Eric has received awards from PMI in 2009, from MPUG in 2012, and from Microsoft from 2010 until 2017 (MVP).
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  1. As always, thank you for the concise analysis and spot on recommendations. As Microsoft wrestles with simplicity and ease of use, having a cohesive and concrete framework helps both users and executives understand the intersection between time and people which is Project.

    Keep on keeping on Eric!

    • Mark, thank you. The framework is a culmination of 30 years of work that simplified my professional life greatly in the later part: It made is much easier to find out what customers wanted in terms of training. I hope it will help other people too.

  2. I’ve worked with several project tools such as ABT Workbench (a while back), Primavera, and MS Project. I’ve always defined these tools as follows.

    Primavera/Workbench: Awkward front end for entering project information, but rock solid backend. Meaning it’s not intuitive for data entry, but you could 100% count on the day-day, week-week scheduling, tracking and reporting to be exact. The first weeks of creating the schedule may be awkward, but the remaining year of managing the project was easy and predictable (in turns of tool functionality).

    MS Project: Great user front end, easy to enter data. Crappy bug riddled back end. So while it was easy to create the schedule in the first several weeks, there was a constant battle/debugging of the tool for the remainder of the project.

    I was at a company that switched from Primavera to MS Project. The environment was about 250 PMs and thousands of project resources spread across dozens of department. Our project needs dictated that we track schedule delivery dates, resource forecasts, capturing actual works hours, and back end reporting. So it was a large, complicated environment, in terms of tool usage and tools demands.

    After we implemented Project, we documented literally dozens and dozens of bugs in the back end processing. We sent this information to Microsoft and as a result, we also got to meet in person with several Microsoft – MS Project resources. In that meeting we reviewed the documentation for all the bugs as well as recommendations for making the tools back end much more reliable. Basically, what we got in response was a very polite “thank you” and comment about how hard it is to test this tool and how their developers keep adding in last minute enhancements/fixes that then are not fully tested.

    I used MS Project for the next five or so years in that environment and while we occasionally found old bugs fixed, we also found that every new release/version introduced it’s own set of new bugs. Because of all the bugs introduced by subsequent release updates, a policy was instituted where by no new MS Project version would be implemented without extensive testing on our part. And in many cases, the decision was made to bypass that new release as it would have too great of a negative impact in our companies projects. And these bugs ranged from reporting issues to complete loss of schedule data.

    So my recommendation for future enhancements is simple.
    Fix the myriad of bugs before adding in new enhancements. Make the existing tool a QUALITY tool.

    • Daryl, a bug-free software application is always a true pleasure. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  3. I think that this is on a right track, but Project, at its heart, still thinks in PMI/waterfall. What about Critical Chain and more dynamic/agile process models? For now, I will need to rely on an expanded toolset like a-dato’s Lynx (CCPM).

    • Mark, you make me want to check out the tool you suggest; it is rare that a tool can do all three well: Critical Path, Critical Chain and Agile. Doesn’t the name CCPM suggest, it is catering mostly to Critical Chain?

  4. Unicorn tool (Critical Path, Critical Chain, Agile). I’d intrigued. All I want is for a tool like that to finally blow my hair back! 🙂

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