Author: Jim Park

Jim Park, PMP, provides training and consulting services focused on developing methodology, tools, and a PMP credentialed workforce. Companies benefiting from Jim's PMO support include Oracle, Hitachi, PG&E, Lockheed, Kaiser Permanente, ALZA Pharmaceuticals, Ingersoll-Rand, Symantec, and the U.S. Air Force. He's an instructor at UCSC Extension in Silicon Valley and has taught public courses in project management since 1998. Jim has over 15 years of experience in the software development, information technology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries primarily focused on managing projects and developing better project management organizations, processes, and tools. Contact him at

Best Practices for Microsoft Project, Part 2

In this continuation of my previous article, I offer five additional best practices that project managers should keep in mind when using their current version of Microsoft Project. Know the Limitations of Critical Path Methodology Critical Path Methodology (CPM) was developed by DuPont over 50 years ago as an effective method to identify activities with no tolerance for delay. You can use the Gantt Chart Wizard function to display the critical path in Microsoft Project. One significant limitation with the Critical Path Method is that it doesn’t account for resource constraints, only task dependencies. Project managers who are dealing with limited resources often find that not all projects can be managed to the critical path schedule. Incorporating the Resource Leveling feature can help a project manager identify resource bottlenecks in addition to the critical path. Using the Leveling Delay column and the critical path helps to pinpoint which resources and tasks are the ones to focus on first when optimizing the schedule. Learn to Compress Schedules Effectively Project managers are always trying to save time and often use many schedule compression techniques. It’s important to practice each technique in Microsoft Project in order to become as efficient as possible when optimizing the timeline. One of the best places to start optimizing is in resource reassignment. When working in a resource constrained environment, reassigning a leveled critical task to an available resource is a great way to save time. Other compression techniques include applying concurrency (negative lag in Microsoft Project) and shortening duration. Both of these methods should include documentation (I always recommend Task Notes) to identify the assumptions made in order to fast track or crash the activities. Achieve Consensus and Understand Baselines This is always an interesting topic. Saving a baseline in Microsoft Project is a simple mouse click — a five-minute feature review to go over the menu command and which fields are affected. But it represents a fundamentally important point — the consensus achieved between project sponsor and the team over what will be delivered, who will do the work, and what is the agreed upon schedule and budget. The project manager is responsible for reaching this agreement as a result of the project planning process. Setting a baseline essentially takes a snapshot of the planning data and saves it for future reference in the tracking and control phase of the project. The importance of this step within the process of using the tool can’t be overstated. Control Projects by Variance Analysis Here’s where Microsoft Project shines. Once an effective planning process is completed and a good baseline is set, the Tracking Gantt View and Tracking Table can be used to collect actual status and provide quality decision-making data for corrective actions. Fields like Actual Start, Actual Duration, and Remaining Duration are far more effective than % Complete. Team members are much more accountable to task updates when asked for remaining duration or work as opposed to % complete. Good project managers will go around and gather actual status from team members prior to any status meetings and then use the team meetings for more important activities such as problem solving, risk management, scope change control, and additional planning. Support Multiple Project Managers Whether it’s a large well established PMO or a single project manager who wants to improve the way projects are managed in the organization, there are many best practices in supporting a group of project managers. The easiest place to start is by standardizing many of the useful objects within Project and replicating them to other plans or templates with the Organizer feature. These objects usually include tables, filters, views, and calendars (for example, to establish working time for various countries). Organizing a regular company user group meeting can be an effective way to share lessons learned and keep everyone on the same page. Other useful techniques that support project management in the enterprise include Shared Resources, usage of master and subprojects, project-to-project dependencies, and portfolio resource management. This article first appeared the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Extension blog, The Art of Project Management.

Best Practices for Microsoft Project, Part 1

No matter what features Microsoft introduces into its latest release of Microsoft Project, it will forever fail to address some basic needs for project managers as they approach the tool. Here are six practical suggestions when using any version of Microsoft Project. Understand the Challenges to Using Microsoft Project There’s a reason that spreadsheets are the most commonly used software tools to manage projects. Spreadsheets are more intuitive and predictable than Microsoft Project. Project is relatively easy to use when starting to coordinate tasks, but it can quickly become cumbersome and unmanageable when attempting to optimize resources and control your schedule or budget. A streamlined approach to using the most appropriate features is highly recommended. I have generally found that a project manager can effectively plan and control their projects with far less than half of the tool’s functionality. One way to streamline your approach to the tool is to minimize data entry to certain key fields (e.g. Task Name, Predecessor, Duration, Actual Start, Actual Duration, and Remaining Duration, to name a few). Know the Planning Limitations Microsoft Project isn’t a project management tool. Let me repeat that last sentence: Microsoft Project is not a project management tool. It was developed as a schedule tracking application, but has become accepted over the years as a comprehensive project management tool. It is not the most effective tool when it comes to brainstorming activities like project planning. Many project managers get challenged when they drag their teams through a planning session with nothing but a Gantt chart. Gantt charts aren’t very conducive to team interaction during the planning process. Teams often respond better and produce higher quality planning information when using affinity diagramming tools like mind maps and work breakdown structures. That brings up another good suggestion… Integrate a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) For all the years that Microsoft Project has been in use, there has never been a built-in WBS feature. This has always amazed me. Previous versions have attempted to integrate with Microsoft Visio to create WBS diagrams, but this was never an effective feature. Project managers will often utilize summary tasks and subtasks (i.e. indenting tasks) in order to create a hierarchy of work within a Gantt chart. This is a good start, but I would go a step further and use an add-on tool such as WBS Chart Pro ( which integrates the Work Breakdown Structure into Microsoft Project for reporting as well as front-end planning functionality. Improve Estimation Techniques Often times the weakest link in the planning process is the quality of work and cost estimates for project activities. There are several things to keep in mind as you enter Duration, Work, or Cost estimates into Microsoft Project. First, it is your responsibility as the project manager to challenge and validate estimates you receive from various sources. If you have gone through enough projects, you know that you can’t assume every estimate will be accurate. Refer to historical data, break down components to smaller work packages, and push back on those Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) until you’re more confident in the quality of the estimates. In addition, you can use various techniques such as Delphi to gain consensus on estimates or Stochastic Modeling to leverage three-point estimates and improve the confidence in your overall schedule or budget. There are built-in PERT Analysis features, add-on tools (e.g. Risk+ from Deltek) and even macros for Monte Carlo simulation available to integrate three-point estimation and risk management into Project plans. Standardize, Share, and Optimize Your Resources Entering resources in Microsoft Project is quite easy. Defining them properly is not. What I mean is that coming up with a standard naming convention for resources can be challenging. This is especially true when there are many different stakeholders for project data resource managers, executives, portfolio/program management, and, of course, team members. Defining a common set of resources to meet all major reporting needs is often the job for a Project Management Office (PMO). The PMO may also be charged with setting up a Resource Pool that can be shared across multiple projects and maintained centrally. Ultimately, a key project management responsibility during the planning and control portions of a project is to optimize the usage of resources such that those resources can effectively achieve the work and thereby commit to the plan. A good understanding of the Resource Leveling feature in Microsoft Project allows a project manager to identify key resource bottlenecks and optimize assignments proactively to reduce schedule risk. Know Your Limitations in Sharing Information It’s much easier to share information with spreadsheets than with Microsoft Project since almost everyone has a spreadsheet application on their computer. Unfortunately, licensing costs make Project a limited deployment for most organizations. For the individual project manager there’s a rarely leveraged discount available through academic licensing. Taking a professional development course or having a child in school allows for up to 90 percent off of the list pricing. It’s well worth taking advantage of this discount. Check out online academic software resellers for more information on eligibility and pricing. This article first appeared in the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Extension blog, The Art of Project Management.