Excel is a commonly used tool for all sorts of things: making to-do lists, analyzing data, managing projects, planning events, budget calculations, you name it. It’s often the first go-to tool for managing projects, given its handy grid format and its ability to formulate and filter data to make sense of it.
But Excel can be challenging for certain aspects of project management. That’s why we’ve created this guide to help you get the most out of the tool.
Free Project Management Excel Templates
Below is a list of free downloadable Excel Templates we created so you can get started managing your projects right away. Read on to learn about each one and download the sample template to get started!
- Status Report Template
- Project & Task Tracking Template
- Risks Tracking Template
- Issue Tracking Template
- Project Budget Template
- Timesheet Template
- Project Management Dashboard
Let’s look at starting a project in Excel.
How to Start a Project in Excel
Whether you’re starting a large, formal project or a small one, you generally lead with a list. It can be helpful to open up Excel as a tool to sketch out the rough beginnings of your to-do lists and key dates and people needed to accomplish the project. The grid in Excel offers a natural logic, helping to define what tasks need to follow others, culminating in a final finished project.
Excel’s formulas are also obvious benefits when you’re defining column data like project budgets, and its more advanced features like pivot tables are great ways to visualize data in a spreadsheet.
Excel is useful for starting projects and developing a breakdown of tasks (sometimes called a Work Breakdown Structure). Here’s what you need to do to get started:
- First, you should have defined your project’s goals and deliverables in your project charter or Statement of Work. Once you have that, you can create a document in Excel to begin planning the project.
- Start with a Task Tracking or Project Tracking template (see our list of starter templates).
- Add tasks and prioritize individually as well as add target start and end dates.
- Create distinctions between larger task activities and subtasks by rolling up some rows underneath a larger task.
- Define the planned duration of each task (how long is it supposed to take?)
- Assign the task to an individual responsible for completing that task.
- Save and share! You now have the beginnings of a project plan that you can share with your team. It’s important to invite others to contribute so they can see their role in the overall effort and share in the sense of accomplishment when tasks are marked off as completed.
Once you’ve started with the Task Tracking list, you can explore the other project management templates we have created for you. These can help with different phases and aspects of your project to help you ensure its successful delivery all the way through.
How to Manage a Project in Excel
If you’ve started a project in Excel, you may opt to go all the way and manage the entire project in Excel. Depending on your project’s complexity, you’ll decide how best to manage your project. But we’ve gathered some project management best practices here that you can use to help keep your project on track.
First, let’s explore what project management is to understand the different ways people can manage projects to help you discover the right way to manage yours.
What is Project Management?
Project management can mean different things to different people, depending on their needs. For some, project management is a formal discipline, a structured process for managing projects across all industries and led by a certified project management professional. In formal projects, there are defined project phases that make up the entire lifecycle of the project, as well as clear documentation and reports that are to be produced at each stage. For others, projects are simply “things that need to get done,” such as launching a new app, planning an event, publishing a book or coordinating a new process at work.
So why is this important to understand? Well, different types of projects require different processes and tools, and when you are setting out to start a project, you want to use the best tools for you and your project.
Excel Use Cases
Individuals, companies and organizations across all industries use Excel for a whole range of activities such as:
- Manufacturing products
- Business Strategy
- Data Analysis
- Event Planning
- Publishing and Production Scheduling
- Product & Project Management
- Shipping & Receiving
- Inventory Management
- Budget Tracking
- And so much more…
Because it is used in operational work throughout so many industries, and because the tool is so flexible, it is highly used by people and teams managing both formal and informal projects. Yet as we will discuss next, there are great uses for Excel and not-so-great uses for Excel.
Pros and Cons of Excel
As anyone who has used Excel knows all too well, there are many frustrating aspects of Excel. It is a very complex tool, and there are definitely some Excel experts out there who know the ins-and-outs of Excel’s formulas to make the most out of all its features and make amazing charts and graphs.
For the vast majority of Excel users, however, Excel is overly complex. Therefore, most people use the basic features of the tool to create spreadsheets, and even those can lead to many hair-pulling moments.
Some key complaints of Excel for the majority of users are:
- Too complicated (requires Excel expert to create pivot tables and use most features
- Hard to read (have to scroll or squint)
- Time-consuming (have to spend hours cleaning up data)
- Buggy (crashes a lot)
- Version control problems
- Not online (can’t collaborate)
Sometimes, even staring at the blank Excel spreadsheet can be daunting, and when you’re starting a new project, it can be hard to know how to structure your project data correctly.
It might surprise you to know that it’s good project management practice to take advantage of the myriad of free Excel templates us and others like us have posted. It saves time and money to be able to jump right into adding the information to a pre-set excel template.
Before you jump into a template, however, it’s important to know where Excel truly helps you on your project and where it’s only liable to cause you frustration and time.
Project Activities Excel is Ideal for:
- To-Do Lists
- Task Tracking
- Budget Management
- Issues, Risks and Changes Tracking
- Pivot Table Reports
Project Activities Excel is Not Ideal for:
- Advanced Project Management
- Team Management
- Client or Stakeholder Management
- Gantt Charts (okay it has been done, but it’s not time well spent)
- Real-time reporting
In short, use Excel as a tool that can help you, not make things harder for you. Luckily there are other project tools that can help offset Excel’s limitations, and they generally work seamlessly with Excel so you can toggle between both programs as needed.
Excel Compatibility with Other Applications
The many problems with Excel are often tolerated because of its overall utility. But most people need to get their data in or out of Excel in order to process information from other programs. Since Excel is often used as a complex calculations and analytics tool for data exported from other programs, it’s important to know how Excel can work with other programs to get the most utility out of your data.
Excel is part of the Microsoft Office suite, along with Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Outlook and other business productivity tools. Microsoft also developed a project management software called Microsoft Project, which is designed for advanced project planning and management, usually for enterprise-level projects. Clearly, Microsoft has developed compatibilities across all of its applications for ease of import and export.
Because the Excel format is so widely used, however, it is widely compatible with a large swatch of other applications outside the Microsoft ecosystem. Most project management software applications offer Excel importing and exporting to facilitate data synchronization across programs. This is important to understand, because while Excel can be a project starting document and a great data analysis tool, it can be overly complicated for managing projects the whole way through.
Excel for Task Management
Once you or your team has begun working on the assigned tasks, you’ll want to track the progress along the way. Depending on the nature of your project, you’ll either have a simple column called “Done” or “Complete” to mark off when a task is completed, or you’ll need to track hours against each activity more precisely. For longer tasks, spanning many days or weeks, you may need to track “Planned Effort” against “Actual Effort” in separate columns.
With your planned effort, you will have gathered estimates on each task either from the assigned team member, or based on previous work experience on past projects. In order to track actual effort on longer tasks, you’ll need a column for “Percent Complete.” Each of these columns can be used to measure progress of individual tasks against each other, as well as overall project progress along the way.
Here’s a sample of an Excel Task Tracking Template:
As easy way to view task and project progress is through a Gantt chart. A Gantt chart is a visual way to view the duration of each task through bar graphs. Gantt charts also can be a visual way to view project milestones, points in the project marking significant accomplishments or phases, as well as ways to visualize who is responsible for completing the task through color coding. Gantt charts can be quite complex to create in Excel, but not impossible.
Today’s online project management software applications have solved this complexity rather ingeniously, however. Rather than manually create a visual timeline of your project, as you assign dates and people to tasks in your online spreadsheet, the Gantt automatically fills in as a visual representation of the project task list.
Take it further:
Learn more about Gantt Charts with our Ultimate Guide.
Managing Risks in Excel
In larger, more formal projects, risk management is an essential activity. When you’re building a bridge, for example, there are a lot of mitigating factors that might intercede along the course of the project to impact deadlines such as steel price fluctuations or typhoon season. Those types of risks are the type you can plan for. You might not have to deal with them, but having contingency plans in place will save a lot of time and money and delays.
Even smaller projects, however, can benefit from a more simplified risk management practice. Here’s an example of a risk register or risk tracker:
As you can see, there are columns that help you identify potential risks, as well as define a risk response to address potential impacts on your project. It’s a good practice at the start of a project or a project phase to bring the team together to brainstorm potential impacts to the project. This simple exercise can serve as a team-building exercise, as you solicit feedback from members of the team responsible for key aspects of project delivery. By having some modest contingency plans in place, even if it’s as simple as “Bob will take action if there’s a supplier delay,” a project can deflect common communication breakdowns and chain of command issues.
Managing Issues in Excel
Issues are any problem (or issue) that arises on your project that needs to be addressed. They’re different from tasks, in that tasks are clearly planned activities. And they’re not risks, as risks are defined as potential issues that could impact your project. Issues are those unexpected things that come up and need to be dealt with outside of the regular tasks associated with the project.
Here’s an example of an Issue Tracking Template in Excel:
As you can see, when you’re tracking issues, you’re defining the who, what, when and how of those items to ensure that someone addresses them in an appropriate, prioritized fashion. The priority column is really important, as you don’t want your team choosing which order to tackle certain issues, especially those issues that could be considered “showstoppers” or those that could make or break your project.
Make sure you invite your team to view this document regularly as part of your team meetings, as well as capture any new issues that may have come up since your last meeting.
Managing Project Budgets in Excel
When you’re managing a project, you need to track not only people, but stuff too. In project management terms, anything with a cost and time associated with is called a “resource,” so that resource could be a person, a room rental, a piece of equipment or a client. It’s important to be able to track, therefore, fixed cost items as well as those resources that might have an hourly rate, like the room rental or the contracted employee.
Here’s a sample Budget Tracking Template:
In our template, we’ve broken out tasks, as well as subtasks, so you can keep related costs together. And we’ve generated a color-coded balance column to demonstrate when you’re over or under budget.
Timesheet Tracking in Excel
As mentioned, it’s important to be able to track the hourly work of both regular and contracted employees on your project, but most people use Timesheets that the team member completes and then submits for approval.
Here’s a Sample Timesheet Template:
There are columns for both regular hours and overtime hours, so costs can be calculated differently. We have also included other columns to accommodate the employee’s time off and non-working days.
Creating Project Dashboards in Excel
A dashboard is a snapshot view of multiple reports on the overall project performance. Since Excel is an excellent report-generating tool if you know how to use it, it’s a great way to display visual reports relatively simply.
Here’s an example of a Dashboard in Excel:
Dashboards can be complicated to create, if you don’t have an Excel pro on your team, but we created a template that offers your snapshots of your most essential project status charts: Budget tracking, Task Status, and a simplified chart for visualizing the roadmap called a Gantt chart.
Excel for Team Management
Before you explore how to use Excel to manage your team, you need to understand what kind of management style you or your organization prefers. Are you a collaborative organization or a more hierarchical one? Do you prefer top-down management or a more inclusive style?
On your project, you can either designate a task manager to manage all task updates, or you can share some or all of your plan online to ask your team to update their tasks as they complete them. For the latter, more collaborative approach, you can share an Excel plan either through Office Online, by uploading the file to Google Sheets or by importing it to an online project management application. A collaborative approach helps your team manage their own tasks and take responsibility for their work from start to finish, and helps promote a more inclusive way of working on the project as a whole.
The former individual task manager approach requires the point person (probably you!) to communicate with each person on each task to confirm whether they are done. This might offer the benefit of exclusive control of the Excel spreadsheet, which might support version control. However, you’ll need to protect the project from what some call “a single point of failure,” where one owner either is out sick or leaves the company, and your project data goes with it.
Additionally, when you’re dealing with percentages of completion, for longer tasks spanning many days or weeks, you’ll need to find a method for communicating those percentage complete updates along the way. Some teams opt for daily stand-ups, meetings where task updates are discussed as a group, and the task manager takes notes. Or, others prefer to chase up their team members individually. Again, a word of caution with this approach, however! When one person is managing all the updates across the whole team, they can quickly become overwhelmed or meet resistance from the team.
Excel for Advanced Project Management
When you’re managing longer projects or projects with tasks that need to be completed in particular succession, you might need to link certain tasks together, so that one task is clearly dependent upon the other one being completed. This is called a “task dependency.”
This is where Excel becomes a bit more complicated. There are helpful resources online that can help you create dependency formulas for task worksheets in Excel. And to get more precise hour tracking, you’ll want to define a planned duration as well as a “Planned Effort” and “Percent Complete” columns and create custom formulas for those columns to auto-calculate complete percentages when effort and duration are updated.
But there is an easier way.
If you’re at the stage where your project has become more than a simple to-do list, it might be time to explore alternatives to Excel. There are a variety of easy, affordable and, importantly, online project management tools that can easily import your existing Excel plans and get up and running in minutes.
Why online? For some, online raises security concerns, and that is understandable. But if you’re currently using email to share your Excel plans, your plans are hardly safe. Anyone’s email is susceptible for hacking, and laptops can be stolen or lost. Online project management software can offer bank-level security for your plans while also enabling you to share your plan to help manage your tasks, team and your time better.
3 Reasons to Stop Using Excel to Manage Your Projects
Excel is a fantastic tool. It’s the first tool many people use to start planning projects, and it can almost be fun adding tasks and to-do items row-by-row.
But Excel can quickly become overwhelming as your project progresses.
Now, if your team’s Excel expert is a whiz with pivot tables, great! But should your whole project rest on the shoulders of one person? What if they leave or are out sick?
Or what if your team needs to be able to simply add notes to update a task? Having to scroll over to column ZZ to read those notes is frustrating for everyone.
And emailing the most up-to-date plan is a sure-fire way to lose important data. Someone has to be the point person to merge all the updates. And let’s face it: that’s no fun for anyone.
Luckily, there are better tools out there… and you don’t have to start over from scratch!
Let’s look at 3 features of online project management tools and why you would want those over Excel.
- 1. Gantt Chart
Gantt what? Don’t worry. This is more simple than it looks, and it’s a really helpful feature when you realize what it can do.
The Gantt is a combination of your spreadsheet and a visualization of time for each task. It shows you how long each task is, and even how to connect tasks together so they are linked, in case one deadline slips.
Imagine your spreadsheet, but with the ability to add time and people to it and have it automatically email those people when their tasks are due. I know, right?
- 2. Collaboration
The problem with Excel is that you have discuss the project in email or add notes in far away columns. What you really want is to add notes or files right to each task, so your project data is easy to access.
You also want the ability to share project and task updates with the whole team, but not lose that info to email graveyards. Collaboration helps your team with communication and data security overall.
- 3. Dashboards
This is a really cool feature. Rather than have Dave the Excel whiz spend hours creating pivot tables to make sense of the project data, a project Dashboard shows you instantly a whole bunch of reports.
You always know whether your project is on track, whether your team is overloaded and even see the project budget at-a-glance.
Look for a tool that has “real-time” dashboards. That means, your data is always up-to-date and instantly available, and you don’t need Dave to make it. (Sorry, Dave.)
Those 3 features alone will save you and your team countless hours managing your tasks and project.
Should You Move off Excel?
The idea of a new project process or tool (let alone online!) can cause some teams to panic. Many wonder if online is really safe. And many have never used a project management tool and wonder whether another tool can replace Excel. Let’s address all the concerns here in detail, to enable you to use the right tool for your projects and teams.
When Everything’s Already in Excel
You might think that since all your projects are already in Excel, you don’t have the time or resources to shift into a new tool. It surprises many people how easy it actually is to import your existing Excel files to a new tool. At ProjectManager.com, we actually support the onboarding of your team and the importing of files to help ease the transition, if extra support is needed. But importing is actually pretty easy. And when you import your data into the online tool, you’ll instantly see your project data in the dashboards and Gantt. It’s that easy.
Plus, when one or more people on your team are truly wedded to Excel, but you need to add more project management processes to your team, you can continue to use both tools, with the ease of data import and export. But the whole team shouldn’t need to be tied to Excel, because one or two people truly love it.
Online Security Concerns
What’s safer than having your project data floating around in email or on your employee’s desktops and laptops? Secure cloud-based project management systems. Many online tools offer bank-level encryption and security protocols that satisfy the most stringent regulations and compliance qualifications required by even government agencies. Ask the online project management software company for their security protocols to make sure they are compliant with your particular industry.
Additionally, many online project management programs offer collaboration features that keep project conversations securely within the project itself, including attaching files and images directly to the tasks themselves. And that’s definitely safer than having your project data floating around in email!
For some people, cost is a perceived barrier to implementing a new tool. And certainly, cost should be a factor in any business decision. Well, we all know that time equals money. But are you aware of how much time is currently being spent generating complex reports or pivot tables in Excel? Or chasing up team members to get updates on their tasks? When you’re looking at your projects, look across at your process. Think how much more efficient you and your team can be when the tool does the work of managing projects for you, when it streamlines communication, cuts meeting times and instantly produces reports! You’ll likely save money by implementing significant process improvements with the new tool.
Take it further: Learn how to make the switch from Excel in this video with Jennifer Bridges.
We’ve explored where Excel works best in the project context, as well as where additional tools are helpful to manage different functions. We’ve also created some free Excel templates to help you get plan, track and report project tasks, issues and budgets.