Which should I use?

Once upon a time, a customer phoned me and said “Paul, I’ve seen this amazing project plan done in Microsoft Excel.  All you do is change the numbers and everything updates.  Can you show me how to set one up.”

I have to admit I was sceptical.  I had seen Excel Workbooks which emulate a Gantt Chart.  Some used a Bar Chart to do that, others used the Formatting features.  However to make the thing “sing and dance”, surely you need proper Project Management software.

Nevertheless, it set me thinking.  When would you use Microsoft Excel to plan projects?  In what circumstances is Microsoft Project the right way to go?

Using Microsoft Excel

This method has one clear advantage – just about everyone has a copy of Excel on their computer.  There will be no need for any financial investment in software.  Also, most people have at least a rudimentary working knowledge of Excel so there will be no steep learning curve.

By using a Stacked Bar Chart, you can create the look and feel of a traditional Gantt Chart:


There are a few hoops to jump through to make this work.  This excellent video by Doug H shows you how.
[ You can find more from Doug at www.exceltraining101.com ]

Even simpler is to format the background colour of cells to block out when tasks are taking place:


The information that is shown here is very basic.

If you need to go further, there are several free Excel templates on the Internet that offer Project Management.  There are even more if you are prepared to pay.  Provided that you want to track the same things that the author provides, you could be up and running quite quickly.  Should you need some other information, you are told that Excel’s wide range of formulas and analysis features would allow you to create almost anything.

That was a sticking point for me.  I’ve been using Excel since the early nineties.  It took me a good deal of digging to find out how the templates actually worked.  Modifying one would be quite tricky.  To create one from scratch is a Herculean task.

However, outweighing all of this is the fact that Excel gives no way of linking tasks.  So a delay in one task is not automatically carried through to those that follow.

If your project is very straightforward Excel will certainly do a job for you in the initial planning stage.  It can help you organise your ideas and give a visual overview of when things are going to happen.  If you want to track a project through to completion, deal with over-runs and the million and one things that can go wrong – you must be prepared to make lots of manual adjustments.

Using Microsoft Project

Here we are in a different world.  Project was designed for just this purpose.  OK, you are going to have to buy it separately, but if you are into serious project management the cost will repay itself many times over.

So what does Project give you that Excel doesn’t?

Here is a similar plan to the first one shown above, but done in Project this time:


We have introduced a Work Breakdown Structure to divide the plan into Phases.  OK, you could do this using indents in Excel, but you would have had to create formulas to calculate the total duration of each Phase.  Project just does this automatically.

Each Phase has a Milestone at the end of it (the black diamond shapes in the Gantt Chart) with a date attached so that you can see easily when each Phase is due to end.

Crucially, Dependencies have been added to link related tasks together.  This means that any alteration to a Task’s duration is automatically reflected in the dates of the Tasks that follow it.  There is a nice feature called Display Change Highlighting which put a blue background behind these changed dates.

Oh, and I almost forgot to say – I didn’t need to draw the Gantt Chart.  I just typed in the Tasks and Project did it for me
[ in fact, in this case, I already had the Tasks typed into Excel from the first example –  it was a simple matter to import them ! ]

For many people, those features will be enough.  If not, Project has bucket loads of other tricks.  You can assign Resources to a Task, and by giving each Resource a Cost, work out how much the whole project is worth.  With the assignments in place, you can work out if anyone is Overallocated (i.e. planned to do two things at once) and sort out the problem.

Once your team begin to execute the plan, Project’s Tracking abilities kick in.  You can establish Baselines to show where current performance is deviating from the original plan. Hard core Project Managers may want to look at the Earned Value Analysis.

Did I mention the many built-in Views and Reports that come with Project?

Which is best

Not really for me to say – (although you can probably guess which camp I’m in)

If Project Management is not your primary role and doesn’t take up much of your time, then you may feel that Excel is good enough.  There are certainly plenty of resources out there to get you going. For anything more “heavy duty” Project would be a good bet.

What about my original customer?

I asked if the plan was really done in Excel – “I’m not sure, Graham did it“.  So we got in touch with Graham.  It came as no surprise that he had actually created it in Project.

The upshot was that the customer bought the software and we ran a very successful Introduction to Microsoft Project course for them.
Click here for the dates of upcoming Microsoft Project courses from Base2