Webinar Recap: How to Link Tasks Using a Master Project Schedule

Please find below a transcription of the audio portion of Mike Agnello’s How to Link Tasks Using a Master Project Schedule webinar being provided by MPUG for the convenience of our members. You may wish to use this transcript for the purposes of self-paced learning, searching for specific information, and/or performing a quick review of webinar content. There may be exclusions, such as those steps included in product demonstrations. Watch the live recording of this webinar at your convenience.

Mike Agnello:                    Well, good day everyone. My name’s Mike Agnello, and I’m going to talk a little bit about using Microsoft, the master project schedule to link tasks between projects. All right, there we go. I’m going to go through about three different areas, here’s the objectives for this activity. First thing I would do is I want to take a kind of position on the sequencing of tasks within the realm of project schedule creation. Then I want to go into a little bit, from there I’ll go into how that translates into more of a master project or multiple project scenario. And then finally we’ll go through a demo to show you how to do this linking of tasks using a master project.

I guess the first thing as I get started is how the sequencing of activities does, it kind of lives in the … I’d be remiss in not mentioning that it does live within PMI. Since we’re having [inaudible 00:01:29] it helps to do that. The sequencing of activities is actually within the project schedule management body, management area in the [MBOT 00:01:39]. There we go, okay.

Why is it important to sequence your activities within the project schedule? As a goal you typically want to sequence, have every task within having at least one predecessor and one successor so that it all threads together. When you’re looking at your project schedule to see where your critical path is, all of the activities are accounted for. You really don’t want to find out that it’s absolutely too late or pretty darn close to it that you missed something that had a hanging logic. That’s really the rationale behind that.

It’s considered best practice within the JAO assessment guide and the DCMA 14 point schedule or schedule assessment tools where they actually do check to see that you have full logic from the start of your project to the end of your project. Those two activities being the ones that would not necessarily have a predecessor and/or a successor.

The process of building a schedule is we start off with we define our activities, we break them down into smaller pieces and we build our work breakdown structure. From there we translate that into a set of activities and milestones, we do some estimating, link all of our tasks together and we have a schedule. Pretty easy…

But what are these dependencies and what do they look like? Most schedule tools, and project being one of them is the precedence diagramming method, which basically is any task can have a … the start of any task is depending upon either the finish or start of another task, which gives us really about four combinations of predecessor relationships that we can choose from.

Typically and probably the one that’s used the most is the finish to start. And when you’re developing schedules for the first time, that’s probably the one you want to stick to. Some of the others like start to start and the finish to finish and so on and so forth are helpful and a number of times you can get into … yeah, if two tasks have to start at the same time. But quite honestly if you use that, you have to be very careful when you’re doing predecessors to those tasks.

For an example, if in this diagram, if I take a task that’s predecessor and I make that a predecessor task then logically tie that to B, B is going to float up, but A is going to stay back. They’re no longer going to start at the same time. It’s usually better to branch two finish to start relations. Particularly again when you’re starting to develop the schedule for the first time. And that’s a lot of the reason, part of the rationale why the tools such as the 14 point assessment and the best practice guide kind of focus primarily on these finish to start relationships.

We’re going to use pretty much the finish to start relationship throughout this particular demo. Some of the other ones are definitely usable, you use those when you’re getting into those moments where you’re crashing or fast tracking on your project schedule.

Let’s see … Once you’ve taken all of these tasks and you’ve sequenced them and know what they look like, now you have to enter that data into Microsoft project. Dependencies in Microsoft project can be entered in probably one of three ways. I’m sure some of you might be able to think of another way, but these are the ones that we know of for sure.

You can type those directly into the predecessor column or the successor column depending on which relationship you’re working with. It’s not always the easiest way, I’ve probably done all three of these at some point in time. But as long as you know that the ID of the task that you’re relating a task to, you can type in that number into the predecessor column.

A little more intuitive is using the dialogs, either the information dialog predecessor tab or you can use the details tab at the bottom of the screen, the predecessor successor. Within project 19 I know they did a real good job at kind of instead of having a alphabetically listed set of tasks, they’ve actually sorted them by ID and actually give you the hierarchy of the tasks so it’s a little easier to find the particular task you’re looking for if you wanted to use that particular method.

The method I use and I like the most is actually selecting a task, a predecessor task, then its successor task then clicking the link button up in the task ribbon. You actually can select multiple tasks and link a number of them at the same time. Using the control key you can actually establish the order in which they are going to be linked. Now you’ll get a finish to start relationship when you do this. Of course those relationships can be changed.

Mike Agnello:                    Are there any questions to this point? That pretty much is nutshell of how the task logic kind of fits into the realm of project management and project schedule development.

Kyle:                                      No questions yet, Mike.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay. All right. Now moving onto the more … What about multiple projects? There’s a lot of cases where you either have a program that has different parts to it or kind of in my background I used to be a systems engineering lead in software development area. I was responsible for requirements. But we were in a matrix organization, so there was another lead that did the software development and had another lead that did the test development. We each had our own schedules. This is probably a simple example of being able to tie those three schedules into a project schedule that kind of overarched the entire development activity. And usually you would use the links between schedules to take care of hand-offs, going back to the requirements. I need to have a set of baseline requirements so software can begin developing their efforts.

Now from a program manager’s perspective, it’s these hand-offs which I really care about, because if one of my requirements are late, that’s going to impact the software team. And we need to dialogue that out and find a good solution as to what we can do with this. I have to probably try to bring it in a little bit or yeah that’s okay for the software team, they have things waiting on the shelf. It all depends, but those are the areas that require that program level communication.

Continuing on with that same scenario, let’s say the software development, a preliminary design of the software can occur once I have a draft set of requirements. Well now they’re talking about dependencies within the activities in my schedule. I may have a point at which I’ll have a draft set of requirements, then that could tie into a preliminary design, then of course later on the final baseline requirements then can drive the final design of the software.

Of course downstream is the test group which is hoping we all don’t take too long and leave them with say a week to do five months’ worth of work.

Excuse me … In pretty much all fields I’m sure there’s a lot of other … you can probably come up with examples within your own areas that these hand-offs may occur between multiple projects.

Just like dependencies within a project, dependencies between projects can be entered in much the same way. It’s not quite as intuitive or easy to do. Yes you can use the task information dialogue and click and go in and actually type out. You probably want to spend the time in that case to go copy the full directory and path of your project file, then go find which IDs you’re talking about.

Bear in mind that when you enter one, the IDs may change, because of project inserting what would be considered more of a hidden task to represent that dependency between projects.

I don’t strongly recommend this, but it can be done. The same thing in the dialogue. I think this is where using the selected task, and that’s why many times even within a project server they kind of talk about going to, building a temporary master, bringing your sub-projects in, expanding the projects then making the links in the task. That’s a perfectly valid way. Or I’m going to kind of go down the trail of actually building a master then keeping that master as a means of managing my program.

Okay … Talking a little bit about what a master project and how the sub-projects … the sub-projects kind of going back to my systems engineering or SDLC example, each sub-project would have the details of that particular piece of the work. Then it would have points at which I would have to bridge over a hand-over to another project. The master project in this case just provides a framework. You can have as much detail in the master project as is necessary, but at a minimum you really want to have a lot of the major milestones or the program level activities. And keep all of the actual work details down in the sub-projects. Again, it depends on how you’re managing your programs. Maybe there’s a piece of work that can go in the master project, but for the most part sub-projects are probably the way to structure this.

What we typically recommend as a structure to handle the links between projects is there’s a lot of milestones here, I agree. However this extra diligence pays itself, or there’s two key benefits to taking this approach. Whether you have activities to begin or not at the program level where everything in the white is the program level. It doesn’t matter. You definitely would have probably some kind of a start milestone and a finish milestone and I got two sub-projects here.

Now within the projects themselves, I have milestones that are branching out in the activity. It’s not really clear in here that with three tasks following a [inaudible 00:15:52] milestone that I would need a milestone. But consider for a moment if I had multiple paths, so two or three paths that are leading up to that final milestone. In that particular case, I would have to link out from each of those to another project. And that would result probably in more external links than you really need. That’s why I would bring things to a concluding milestone within the individual project.

Then I would link out to a task in the master project then that then would link to the next project. Now what does this allow me to do? For one, it allows me to have that visibility at the master project level, those key hand-offs between different projects without having to go into each of those individual sub-projects to ferret them out. You can link between sub-project one and sub-project two directly. But I wouldn’t know that was the case.

The other piece this does is when sub-project one is updating their schedule and they move out the milestone by about a week, if sub-project two opens up they’re immediately seeing that wait a minute, my tasks have all moved. Why is that? Oh because sub-project one moved out their delivery by about a week. By doing it in this master schedule, it’s kind of a gate keeping mechanism that I can have that conversation with the program team at a program review and say, “Sub-project requirements, you’re going to be another week late.” “Yeah, this reason, that reason, things got a little …” whatever the reason may be, okay, software are you okay with that? Yes we’re okay or no, we’re delayed as is, Armageddon, who knows, whatever. Okay. Requirements are going to have to pull that in a little bit somehow.

I have that ability to manage that. And again, it comes down to management style, but this is probably for me at a program level how I would like to manage it.

Of course tasks is going to want to know because they’re going to see the end game of this when everything kind of floats and compresses their schedule. So that is a lot of the reason.

Now within project server you have one additional level of it, because I can publish this project. You will not see the links in the sub-projects until you publish the updates. So if we get a situation where sub-project one is actually moving out the date, I can have them go back and update their schedule before I publish that for sub-project two to continue, to make accommodations for that. Plus they’ve already heard about it, so it’s not going to be a big shock to them.

Again with the milestones, yes project will allow you to link tasks to tasks as well. Again, a lot of milestones yes, but it helps in terms of management touch point. And again it’s dependent on management style if you want to have this level of visibility and that kind of gate keeping control versus allow it to happen at the lower level.

In that particular case, what is the content of the master program? It’s all the major meetings and milestones for the program or series of projects. The contractual and non-contractual deliverables. I definitely want to know if I’m on time, especially with contractual but certainly also with non-contractual deliverables. And seeing these hand-offs.

As far as program LOE, that’s a whole other topic, and not the topic for today. But if I’m considering myself as a program manager, I can see a resource within my project knowing that I’ve got a certain amount of touch time to my program management responsibilities in the leveling of detail tasks I may be working on. That’s when having a program management task, you definitely don’t want it at the program level because then you’ll also have one at the individual project level of project management within those projects.

And down in the individual sub-projects, we would have the major milestones owned by the sub-project, then those deliverables that they’re responsible for. And obviously the technical detail, the task detail, then of course a project management LOE.

Mike Agnello:                    Are there any questions to this point? …

Kyle:                                      Mike, we do have a few questions. They may be more general though, I’m not sure if you want to take those now or if we should hold off a bit ’till the end.

Mike Agnello:                    No, it looks like I’m kind of going a little bit faster than I thought I was going to. So I can take some of those now.

Kyle:                                      Okay great. First question came from Michael. He’s asking when changing time frames I have to go through each task to redo the link, the predecessor links so the days will be properly updated. Is there a way to make project do this automatically versus having to do it manually?

Mike Agnello:                    Could you repeat the question again? I missed some of that.

Kyle:                                      Sure. When changing time frames, I have to go through each task to redo the link, the predecessor links so the days will be properly updated. He’s curious if there’s a way to do this with project rather than manually.

Mike Agnello:                    The dates being updates … are we talking about links between projects?

Kyle:                                      He says linked predecessor links. Michael if you’re able to clarify, please send over another message here. We can go onto the next one and see if Michael can clarify a little bit further.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay.

Kyle:                                      [Andrea 00:23:07] asking, “My organization is in the position of needing to share projects and we’d like to use master and sub-projects to do that. Is the only way to effectively do this to use MS project 365? They’ve tried using other things like Google Drive, but the location of the sub-project is problematic because it’s on someone’s machine.

Mike Agnello:                    Yeah. That’s a good question. I do know that at one time project server didn’t allow master projects but they do now, and of course that’s true within the cloud. It really comes down to where you have the project … usually if I were to do this primarily on the desktop, I would put all of my projects and my master project and sub-project and even if I was doing a resource pool, all in the same directory. It keeps things clean, then if I need to make a replication of that at least the links stay with that. I think that’s usually what’s run into when you use other avenues to store projects, the master project and the sub-project.

Kyle:                                      Great, thanks Mike. Next question came in from Paul asking, “Is it possible to link a sub-project milestone to more than one other sub-project task?”

Mike Agnello:                    Yes, you can.

Kyle:                                      Okay great.

Mike Agnello:                    In other words link in his diagram sub-project one to sub-project two, yes you can do that.

Kyle:                                      Okay. He followed up with asking how it’s done. I’m not sure if we have time to jump into that.

Mike Agnello:                    Yeah. We’ll have the demo. The steps I’m going to go through in the demo where I’m going to go from a sub to a master would be pretty much the same and it’ll be a little bit clearer. And you can do it from sub to sub.

Kyle:                                      Okay great. Question from Gerald. In the case where sub one updates and moves their schedule to the right affecting sub two’s milestone, does sub two have to approve the changes that were made prior to them taking affect with sub two?

Mike Agnello:                    Are we talking about in a project server environment or are we talking about at a desktop? I think the answer would be the same.

Kyle:                                      I’m sorry, what was that?

Mike Agnello:                    Pretty much is going to be roughly about the same. But I do know that-

Kyle:                                      [crosstalk 00:25:54] server.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay. Yeah, in that, because these task updates is really a link update, it’s not necessarily a task update, you open up a project and you’ll get a list of external dependencies and you’ll see some of the changes that are about to occur. Or you’ll see once you say okay and all of a sudden everything moves to the left.

Kyle:                                      Okay. Okay, thanks. Quickly have one more question here than we can probably continue on. This one is from Julie asking, “I previously read warnings and blogs about using master projects with project server and project sites in PWA. Any issues with that that you know of?” And she’s also asking, “What does a project site structure look like when a master project and sub-projects are published?”

Mike Agnello:                    I’m aware, I think it’s not a perfect area. I don’t know anything specifically at this point, the specifics as to how the master sub-projects sites would look. I do know that it does treat them a little bit different, at least the schedule. In fact you have the option of either hiding or exposing your master projects from a list of projects. But as far as differences between how the sites look and/or how they behave, yeah I think a lot of those warnings especially in the early days of project server when there was, “No, don’t do master projects because things duplicate.” I think a lot of that was cleared up in more recent revelations of Microsoft project and project server.

Kyle:                                      Okay great. All right, thanks Mike. I think that’s it for questions for now, I’ll hand it back to you.

Okay. Now what I’m going to do is I’m going to go through a demo showing you the steps of creating a quick master and inserting sub-projects then creating a set of milestones then doing the linking. Then we can kind of take that in a few different directions.

The next slides of this presentation actually are the detailed steps that I’m going to show you right now. This presentation will be available for reference as part of this webinar. You’re welcome to use it to kind of keep as a handy guide.

I’m going to go off and I’m going to get into Microsoft project … Here we go. I’ve got a blank project and I’m going to go ahead and I’m going to build a master schedule. I’m going to go get a handful of sub-projects that I’m going to include in this particular project. What I’m going to do is I’ll go over here to the project tab and there’s this button over here, sub-project. That’s going to open up a dialogue which I set to where I’m going to have my sub-projects. And I’m going to pick up about three projects, this widget project here, I’ll insert that. And then I’ll get user maintenance guide. Building this widget I want to make a user and maintenance guide to go along with it. And then finally I’m going to go to a company and integrate this widget to their environment, let me move that guy down so order-wise they’re…

When I do that, of course you can see that these individual projects are part of this master project. Now what I’m going to do is I’ve got five key points, five key touch points that I’m going to monitor at my program level. I’m going to insert … let me redo that because I want to go over here and I want to insert milestones. Then I’m going to go down here and also let me set my project start date to 8/6/2018 …Now you can see that the sub-projects are there.

I’m going to go ahead and get my list of tasks or milestones. Saves on typing … Now I’ve got a list of milestones. The first one and the one I’m going to use for this demo is this program management plan completed. The program management plan for whatever case lives down here in this widget schedule. I’ve got my program management, delivered program management plan milestone down here.

I’m going to simply select that task, and then scroll up here to task one master schedule, select that task, then come over here to the task ribbon and under schedule there’s this little link button. When I click that i now link those two tasks. To kind of give you an idea of what that link looks like … okay … It’s a nice directory structure, and there’s the name of the project and it’s got ID 21.

Now let me go ahead, now I’m going to go link that task down to the start of my user maintenance guide, and there I’ve got a guide started milestone. Let me make sure I’ve just got the task and not the summary or the inserted project summary. And I’ve now established a link between the project plan in my widget delivery and the maintenance guide. And I’ll do that again here for the start of ABC integration. Expand those tasks … And you’re going to see that I’m linked to project two, project one/two. Now you’re saying, “Two, wasn’t that one at one point in time?” And you’ll see that up here at the top that ID becomes two and that’s those inserted hidden tasks behind the scenes.

Usually if you open up these schedules without opening this master, you’ll see those hidden tasks included in your project file. In fact here it inserted one between one and three.

I think there was a question, I’m going to go ahead just to kind of cover that. What if I wanted to link from one project to another? Really the process is just the same. Let’s say I wanted to arbitrarily link my widget delivery task, could be a milestone but a task, down to this received widget. Select the task up here in the delivery of building the widget project, then go down here to the received widget and you click the link and now you’ve established a link from project to project.

Now again, I now don’t have the visibility or I would have taken it up here to this widget delivered milestone so I can see that yes the widget was delivered and integration has begun.

Mike Agnello:                    Are there any questions? …

Kyle:                                      No, I think we’re still in the clear here.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay. Looks like we still have a little bit of time left.

Kyle:                                      I do have some questions from earlier. I didn’t have any come in from that segment there.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay.

Kyle:                                      Should we go ahead and take those now you think?

Mike Agnello:                    Yeah, sure.

Kyle:                                      Sure, okay. This one is from Regina. Asking it looks like you have a unique path for each element in the master project. How do you illustrate the critical path with all these unique paths?

Mike Agnello:                    The unique or the critical path when you’re in a master sub environment, it’s going to be more of the program critical path. I do know that we do a training where we kind of illustrate this, and what happens is students will have what is essentially a sub-project at that point in time open and nothing will be critical anymore. That’s because the path now takes on … the critical path is now through the master project. And that particular sub-project may show float.

Mike Agnello:                    In this particular case, and I’m going to go ahead and use a tracking [inaudible 00:37:34] to see what my critical path looks like at this moment … Yeah, here let me zoom on that a little bit. It looks like my critical path, it start off here in my widget development then goes down here into my user guide. So you’re seeing the critical path when you have this master schedule through the entire, through all of the projects that you have. There’s the program critical path. Have I answered that?

Kyle:                                      Yeah I believe so. Regina, yep, Regina said yes. Thank you for taking that question. Michael, the first question we started with followed up just kind of clarifying things. He said when he changes the duration of a task, the dates for the task affected by the change don’t automatically update to show the new dates. And he has to go in and redo the links so that the dates are updated. He said he’s using Project Pro 2019 for desktop. But he’s wondering if there’s a way for project to automatically update those dates or…

Mike Agnello:                    Kind of going back to what I was talking about the master and having a master and the sub, and particularly in that arrangement, if I updates sub one and saved that file, and that’s the key, you have to save those changes. Then opened up sub two with the links in there, I’m going to get a dialog which should say accept these … I’m going to have to find out exactly, I can’t remember the dialogue exactly. But it does come up with an external predecessors and external successor’s dialogue. I can’t recall off-hand if it says do you want to accept or reject them, but once you’ve accepted those, those dates or when you click okay, now the dates from that other sub-project should get into your new project. And I’m gathering that that’s not the case? …

Kyle:                                      Yeah, not completely sure on that one…

Mike Agnello:                    As far as an automation of that-

Kyle:                                      That is the case.

Mike Agnello:                    I’m sorry, that is the case?

Kyle:                                      He says that is the case, yes.

Mike Agnello:                    Hm … that’s interesting. I guess what I could do here to see if I can replicate this is I can save file, I’m going to save … All right, maybe I’ll go ahead and not save. No … That may not work. I may have lost all of that … Yeah plus I don’t have project 19, I don’t know if that is unique to 19 or if that’s a general for Microsoft project. That is interesting.

Kyle:                                      No worries, maybe that’s something we could address not right here on live. The next question we’ll go to from Joan. She was curious if you have any recommendations for building master and sub-project templates in project server specifically.

Mike Agnello:                    Oh specifically in project server … I guess any template depending upon how much detail you want to put into it, you could set up … whether you have tasking in your template or starting tasks usually or you have the specific set, or just have the templates themselves.

Mike Agnello:                    One thing that especially project server helps you a lot with making sure you have a common set of fields across all the projects, whereas if you’re doing it in the desktop you want to make sure that your fields, you have a common set of fields through all of your individual sub-projects. In other words if you’re using task one in one project, you don’t want to be using task two in the other project to represent the same thing. But project server helps a lot with keeping that in line.

Mike Agnello:                    Let me think what else off-hand in project server … Nothing, yeah I guess I know that probably doesn’t answer the question necessarily.

Kyle:                                      Thanks Mike. Do have a couple more questions here. This one is from Julie. Once the master project is built, do project managers for the sub-projects then manage those, I’m sorry manage from those separate project files? Program manager is the only one in the master project itself?

Mike Agnello:                    Yes typically. Again, depending upon the organization you may have one person that does the scheduling or you may have multiple people managing these individual schedules. The sub-project arrangement like that does allow you to have a project manager managing each of the individual sub-projects then a separate person managing the program master. Or the master program schedule.

Kyle:                                      Okay great. Then we have one actually building off of that, similar to that question, hope I pronounce your name correctly, [Satranda 00:45:09] asking how do you track changes by sub-project owners while managing the master project?

Mike Agnello:                    I don’t know that there’s necessarily a tracking of projects. One thing I would probably do, particularly at the program level using that particular model would be to have maybe an indicator field or something that shows that this task moves either to the left or to the right. Or even an RGB indicator that kind of shows it’s moved too far or moved a little bit. And what I would do typically is before the status period I’m going to take a snapshot of my schedule. Then after the status period I’m going to see what changed. That might be the best thing, but as far as who made the change you almost have to … I’m not sure if that’s easier in project server or not off-hand. But yeah, that’s a tough one. But at least you know what you can have a mechanism for tracking what changes do occur.

Kyle:                                      Right. Okay, thanks Mike. Looks like that takes care of the questions we have here in the queue. I’ll pass it back to you from here.

Mike Agnello:                    Okay. That pretty much concludes what I have as presentation. I kind of went over just task logic in general and how it fits into the scheme of project management, then went into specifically how that translates into master projects. It could be programs, it could be portfolio schedules where task information is related. Then finally hope the demo was helpful. Again, the same steps that I did there from a sub-project to a master project can be used from project to project. Whether you keep the master or you discard the master, once you’ve made that link, that link is going to exist in the two sub-projects. I do know that within a project server back in the day is you build a temporary master then throw that master away once you’ve saved the two sub-projects. And that keeps your links.


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Written by Mike Agnello

Mike Agnello is a senior project manager at Edwards Performance Solutions, with expertise in Microsoft Project and Project Server. In his career, Mike has developed Project training courses, custom schedule management and reporting systems and Project Server implementations for commercial and federal clients in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

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