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Are you a Project Management Gantt Chart Slave?

~ By Phil Marks

Gantt chart and fountain pen

Gantt charts are a fundamental tool in a project manager's toolkit. However, an unseasoned project manager can find they take over the project and result in reduced control. How so? In this article I will look at the potential pitfalls and provide some tips and strategies for ensuring successful project management. Gantt charts are, after all, just one of many ways to present the project plan, and actual data that has been input.

Firstly, let me be clear that we are not going to talk about repetitive implementation rollout projects where a template project plan has been refined over a series of projects and becomes a standard checklist for project management (for example, commercial off-the-shelf software). This article is about those one-off (or initial template try-out) projects. These projects may be within organisations large or small.

Large organisations, which have mature and well run IT departments may well have formal project offices with established project planning standards, dedicated project office staff and probably automated plan-quality checking systems. For example, seeking orphan tasks, missing dependencies and measuring other metrics to provide an overall 'plan quality' assessment. Smaller organisations, such as solutions houses, may lack this level of sophistication, but will almost certainly need detailed project plans.

So what is good about Gantt charts?

Gantt charts are an excellent format for presenting dependency and progress data, but as with most things in life, the returns will be dependent on the investment. The more care that goes into the project plan data setup, the better the feedback will be. However, there is a danger the level of detail that can be built into the typical project plan can itself need a disproportionate amount of project management maintenance. We will not go into great detail here, but dependency and critical path management are of major importance. So, 'sweating the detail' in the plan is critical at the outset.

The actual project management overhead can get out of kilter with the budget. What suffers then? An overloaded project management team, under-maintained plan and actual data or even both together. The result is Gantt chart slavery.

How do we avoid this problem (apart from unlimited budgets)?

The approach I recommend is based on an initial comprehensive Risk Assessment of the project. The areas to be considered will include:

  • Organisational readiness and politics
  • Organisational technology literacy
  • Organisational staff skills level
  • Technology proposal
  • Business risk (for example, market issues, competitive pressure and degree of process change required)
  • Timescale, rate of business change
  • Resource including $ availability
  • Sponsorship weight

This will result in classifying the proposed project as low, moderate or high complexity. Note that a moderate complexity project may have a high complexity phase.

These levels of complexity will need differing amounts of project management effort set in the resource budget. As a rule of thumb, these would be:

  • Low Complexity: project management effort 7-11% of overall resource budget
  • Moderate Complexity: project management effort 12-17% of overall resource budget
  • High Complexity: project management effort 18-22% or more, of overall resource budget

These figures may seem excessively high to some people, but more than 30% of projects are deemed failures, and failure is always the result of inadequate project management (which includes risk assessment and management). So, the 'buck stops' at the quality or quantity of project management.

What has all this got to do with Gantt charts? Simply:

  • The plan structure should reflect the prioritised risk analysis with simple milestones and gateways
  • The degree of detail built into project plan should be proportional to the project complexity
  • The management reporting requirement should be proportional to the project complexity, thus only requiring proportionate maintenance

The maintenance requirement is focused on what really matters. The Gantt charts reflect this, with the degree of detail proportional to the phase risk.

This means that a project manager comes to the office every day thinking, 'How do I move the project forward today towards that milestone?' and not, 'Another 4 hours collecting data and 2 hours inputting it before I can get any real work done.'

The project manager's role is mainly one of pro-action and not one of administration.


Phil Marks has more than 20 years of successfully delivering and rescuing projects in banking, commerce, government, manufacturing and distribution. Find out more at projectPDQ

© Phil Marks 2010


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