If you’re a certified project manager, then you likely use Gantt chart software, which uses those loveable horizontal bars that visually represent the duration of tasks. They are a good tool to show the bigger picture on a project, and they work well for people who like things displayed graphically. There are few things that offer a better view of the big picture plan when you’re in the midst of a project. And that’s why we love them.
But not everyone loves them.
Gantt charts have their downsides. Let’s be honest – once you start adding milestones and dependencies, they get messy. Add in resource names, lag times, symbols… it can quickly become an eye chart that even a project manager struggles to understand, never mind project sponsors who don’t speak Gantt.
Fortunately, there are simpler ways to get your message across. Here are four alternatives to formal Gantt charts that you can use today.
1. “Idiot-Proof” Charts
Forget complicated scheduling packages. Draw up your own Gantt chart in a spreadsheet package. Many stakeholders feel happier when presented with something in software they can understand.
Spreadsheets lend themselves to creating Gantt charts, although don’t be fooled. Creating a Gantt chart like this is time consuming (unless you use a Gantt chart template), and you won’t have the options to display all the data. For example, it’s practically impossible to show dependencies, but your stakeholders probably won’t want to see that level of detail anyway. Worse, it won’t automatically update so every time something changes you will have to manually alter the lines.
It can be a massive overhead to keep your entire project plan in Microsoft Excel or something similar, so this option is really only suitable for creating high level plans that show the overall project, not for listing every single task.
Use the first column in the spreadsheet as the task list. Use the next columns to show the timescale. Choose whether you want one column to equal a month, half a month, a week or a day (although scheduling by day is really only suitable for the smallest projects). Then simply color in the cells in the spreadsheet – you could pick different colors to represent different resources carrying out activities, but remember to add a key so you remember what color represents which workstream or resource. Add borders to the cells so you can read across the lines more easily.
2. Dashboards and Reports
Why make things hard for yourself? All the options above require you to do some additional work to turn the project information into something that your project stakeholders can understand. You might find that most of the work is done for you if you use a project management software product that includes project reporting options.
In addition to our online Gantt at ProjectManager.com, we developed real-time dashboards so you can see multiple views of your project at-a-glance.
There could be project report templates that will save you some time, but you could also customize what comes out of your tool into a format that stakeholders can use. Status, progress and resource utilization reports could all be available at the click of a button, and if you have the option to tailor your project dashboards, you could give different stakeholders different views which will save you a lot of data handling time.
Once the reports are configured they are saved and available to be populated monthly, or more frequently according to your reporting schedule, so this alternative to a Gantt chart has the smallest regular overhead for the project manager.
3. Task Lists
Who doesn’t use task lists? Whether you have a fancy iPhone app to track your to-do list, or take an old-fashioned approach using a paper list in a notebook, most project managers will find themselves gravitating towards task lists at some point in a project.
Because so many people use them (and if not at work, you can bet all your project stakeholders have used them to plan a holiday, a picnic or a child’s soccer tournament), they are really easy to understand and don’t take any explaining.
You can use any software to prepare a task list, which gives you the flexibility to use something that your stakeholders already find easy to use. A spreadsheet works really well.
List out all the project tasks – use your Gantt chart, if you have one, as a guide to what needs to go on the list. Add a column for who is doing the task, expected completion date and a column to mark the task’s status. ‘Not started’, ‘In progress’ and ‘Complete’ are straightforward status updates to use, and you can also color code tasks using a Red/Amber/Green code if you want to include a visual representation of whether they are likely to complete on time, or the level of risk.
4. Network Diagrams
Network diagrams are like flow diagrams. They show the series of activities that make up a project, in the order that they happen. Each project task is shown in a separate box and, like a puzzle, lines join up the boxes in the order that they need to happen.
Lots of people have used flow diagrams before, so network diagrams can look more familiar than Gantt charts and they can be easier for the first-time project sponsor to understand.
Having said that, there is some extra information to fit in the task boxes that might need explaining. Typically a network diagram task box also includes dates for the start and end of the task as well as the duration, which is normally marked in days. You can add whatever data you want into the box, like a task identification number, the resource allocated to it, location, workstream and so on, but the more you include, the messier it will look and the harder it will be to read.
Network diagrams work well for simple projects where tasks flow from one to the other in order. The more parallel strands of activity you have, the harder it will be to display on one page. Network diagrams can also be difficult to maintain, especially if you are producing them in a graphics or diagramming software package.
If you need to change one task you could end up moving dozens of lines to get it all to display neatly again. Best stick to only drawing out network diagrams for straightforward projects and to only have task boxes for summary tasks instead of every individual day’s worth of development time.
While Gantt charts are very useful tools for project managers, they aren’t the only option available to you for managing your project. Experiment with alternatives to Gantt charts to find out what gets the best response from your stakeholders and project team members.
Of course, you may end up deciding that a Gantt chart is the tool you want after all. In that case, check out our article on how to make a Gantt chart in 5 steps.
Scheduling and being able to report on your project are crucial. To do that online with a powerful tool that allows you to see on a dashboard view the real-time picture of your project is like icing on the cake. Who’d eat cake without icing? If you’ve been forced to work on projects without an online management tool to give you management over your status, resource and progress reports, then you need to check out ProjectManager.com.