There is an old adage which says, “Well begun is half done.” It means that once you start something well, the rest will become easier, and it’s especially true when learning Microsoft Project (MSP).
I started using MSP in the year 1997. I was a greenhorn at that time and did not have much experience, but I was given the responsibility of managing an offshore team, and my manager told me to use MSP for scheduling.
In those days, the Internet was still in its infancy, and there was not much reading material available on the subject. As a software engineer; however, I was able to easily understand MSP, and it did not take me long to create a schedule for my project. Even though I was able to use dive right into using MSP, I think I would have been more productive if someone had given me a bit of initial guidance on the topic.
Today, you will find plethora of articles and tutorials on the Internet for learning MSP, but I hope you will find that this article is different. I have written it from my experience and listed some of the best practices that I have learned over the last so many years.
You will find ten top MSP tips for new users in this article, which, I believe, will help such users to fully exploit many of MSP’s features. You can also read this previous article that gives some additional tips for beginners.
1. Define the Project Start Date
When you create a new project, MSP puts the current date as the start date by default. You should change it if your project is going to start on a different date.
If you wish to, you can define a project finish date instead of a start date. This is useful if your project has a stringent deadline; however, I would suggest you to stick to a project start date if you are a beginner. Refer to figures I and II below, which illustrate changing a project’s start date.
2. Change the Default Task Setting to Auto Scheduled
By default, a task in MSP is manually scheduled. MSP does not change the dates or duration of a manually scheduled task. However, dates should change automatically when predecessor(s) or resource(s) of a task are changed.
There are times when you may need a task to be manually scheduled, but for most beginners, I would suggest you keep the tasks set to auto scheduled. If you have already added a project start date, then MSP starts all new tasks on that date by default.
Similarly, a task is changed if its predecessor changes. We’ll get to this shortly. Refer to figure III below where you can changing the default task setting is illustrated.
3. Define Your Project Calendar
All tasks and resources in MSP follow a calendar. A MSP calendar can be used for specifying holidays, as well as working time.
By default, MSP includes three different base calendars. These are:
- Standard: Defines working time between 8 AM and 5 PM, with a one-hour break at 12 PM.
- 24 Hours: Defines working time between 12 AM of first day and 12 AM of next day, with no breaks.
- Night Shift: Defines working time between 11 PM and 8 AM, with a one-hour break at 3 AM.
You should define your own project calendars, although you can base them on one of the above provided calendars. Put your organization’s holidays and working time in your calendar(s) and assign them accordingly to project resources.
Refer to the figures IV and V below, which show how to define a project calendar.
4. Create a Complete List of Tasks
One of the first things you should do when setting up a new project in MSP is to create a list of project tasks. Try not to miss anything, as it is troublesome to insert a new task in the middle of a project. If you do not know all the tasks at the beginning of a project, list higher level tasks and decompose them later.
5. Do NOT Assign Task Dates or Duration at First
Try not to think about the dates, duration estimates, or any other task attributes in the beginning. This is best done after your task list has been created.
6. Create WBS using Indent and Outdent
This goes along with tip #4 above. While creating your task list, decompose the higher level tasks into sub-tasks. You can use Indent and Outdent feature of MSP for creating WBS and work packages.
7. Define Task Relationships
After creating a WBS and defining your lowest level tasks, you should then define dependencies and relationships between tasks. As you define the relationships, the dates of successor activities will be auto calculated.
Refer to my previous article on actual dates to understand the importance of defining relationships.
8. Take Note of Date Constraints
You may wish to have control over tasks dates for some or all of your tasks, and you can manually schedule tasks and make them independent of other tasks, as needed. MSP puts a constraint on manually scheduled tasks as soon as you define. Therefore, it is best to make a note of these tasks and their constraints. MSP will not change them automatically.
9. Avoid Putting Predecessors in Summary Tasks
The dates and duration of a summary task are automatically calculated by MSP. Add predecessors only to your lowest level tasks.
10. Save Your Baseline
After defining your schedule, you should baseline it. This way you will have an original set of dates to refer back to even if your project schedule changes. To understand the importance of this, read my previous article on project baselines.
The above tips have been written for beginners, but they are also useful for the experienced professional. Of course, I have just touched upon basic features in this article. If you want to dive into MSP best practices more fully, consider MPUG’s Do & Don’ts book and boot camp.
What type of difficulties have you faced while developing a MSP schedule? What tips would you like to share with the rest of us?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.