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I'm running a project that lasts about 2 years in total, made up of many tasks, some of which are handled by other teams who report back to me. Some tasks can only run when the preceding tasks have been completed but some run concurrently.

The best solution I've found to track my project is a Gantt chart but due to the timespan of the project, it is somewhat unwieldy (i.e. my spreadsheet is extremely wide and doesn't translate well if printed out).

Things that are important:

  • Easy to understand
  • Easy to see exactly where in the project cycle we are
  • Can be replicated in an Excel spreadsheet
  • Lists tasks and sub-tasks
  • Shows roughly when a task occurs and how long it takes (accuracy of a week is fine, say Week 36 for 2 weeks)
  • Shows who is working/worked on the task
  • Can scroll down through 100's of tasks/sub-tasks
  • Can easily hide large chunks of time where nothing is being worked on
  • Bonus: Can somehow display Completed, In Progress, Upcoming etc

Things that aren't important:

  • Minute/hour/day time tracking
  • Tracks every single detail
  • Alerts/reminders

I guess it's a cross between a calendar and a to-do list and a Gantt chart is nearly perfect but I'm hoping there may be alternatives that offer something different that I can explore. If not, I'll stick to my trusty Gantt! Thank you.

  • If chart size is your issue, use a plotter or wide-format printer to print your ginormous Gantt chart in sections and paste them together on your wall. – Todd A. Jacobs Aug 11 '13 at 18:16
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Oh boy....

There isn't anything easy about managing a complex project with a lot of tasks and a lot of time to monitor your costs and schedule. The Gantt chart is not a tool for management. It is a visual of your schedule used for reporting. It will not help you, even if you think it is, to manage your schedule. You will have no idea where you are...you may think you do, but dollars to donuts you don't.

You must invest into and learn how to use a sophisticated scheduling tool, such as Primavera or MSProject. MSProject is not that expensive and is a decent tool; however, it has its quirks when doing things like earned value, but it can be used for complex projects.

If your project is complex with many packages and a ton of time and a ton of money, saving money in your investment of a scheduling tool is the most expensive decision you'll make!

  • Thanks David, unfortunately for various different reasons (archaic security policies) I can't use anything other than Excel for this. I've obviously misunderstood how a Gantt chart should be used but it was my understanding it was useful to set out the schedule of tasks so others could see where we were up to. I'd then link the tasks out to other documents for further management/reports etc – Abby Jun 15 '12 at 8:48
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    You can certainly use excel; you can use the back of a paper napkin. But there is a lot of functionality you are losing and will likely increase your project control costs by ten fold in order to stay on top of it with a reasonable likelihood of success. Good luck. Work on changing the policies. – David Espina Jun 15 '12 at 10:04
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I'll second David's response here. Your situation is the reason project management software was created.

Tracking a project of this size on an Excel gantt chart can be done, but by one person it's going to be difficult. If you have to run this project using Excel, then you're going to spend all of your time updating and managing the schedule, and not the project.

In your comment to David you said you thought a Gantt was so that you could lay out the schedule and others could see where you were in the process - yes and no. Yes, it's a visual representation of the schedule, but starting at Day 2, unless you're constantly updating for 'actuals' (real world progress/status), that chart will be worthless. That's why the project mgmt suites/software are so valuable. They allow for quick updating and tracking of progress, and allow you to focus on other things.

Best of luck

  • Thanks Trevor. I wish I could use project management software for it but it's not an option. It seems I'll just have to try and make do with a large to-do list and various spreadsheets and documents to try and keep a handle on things. – Abby Jun 15 '12 at 21:27
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There are some project management tools out there, but the one is use is called Paymo (http://www.paymo.biz ). In short it does time tracking, project management and invoicing. It also has milestones, so you know how good or bad you're doing on your project and it even has a tool that records everything you do on the computer (that's a big plus for me).

As a nice bonus, they also have a mobile app, so you can track time even on the go. Hope this helps, good luck with your project.

  • Thanks Mike, I really wish I could use some software for this but I just can't. I was hoping there was some magical solution but it seems project management software exists for a reason. – Abby Jun 19 '12 at 19:45
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TL;DR

If your question is a tool-shopping question, then it's off-topic. However, I'm reading it as more of a methodology question, and so the salient question becomes "What are you trying to communicate with your project artifacts?"

Gantt Charts

According to Wikipedia:

A Gantt chart...illustrates a project schedule. Gantt charts illustrate the start and finish dates of the terminal elements and summary elements of a project. Terminal elements and summary elements comprise the work breakdown structure of the project. Some Gantt charts also show the dependency (i.e. precedence network) relationships between activities. Gantt charts can be used to show current schedule status using percent-complete shadings and a vertical "TODAY" line[.]

So, while I don't think Gantt charts are the best way to radiate information about project status, they certainly can be used that way. If it's the right artifact for your project, but your chart is really big, you always have the option of using a plotter or large-format printer. Even if the whole chart won't fit on a single continuous page, I've worked on a number of large government projects where the Gantt charts were printed on the largest available paper size and pasted together on one or more walls in an office. Maybe that will work for you, too.

Revisit Your Status-Communication Needs

Depending on your organization and your project, the goal of the status report or management dashboard may vary in its specifics. This isn't really a tool-specific issue; it's more a question of what information management needs or wants in order to facilitate strategic decision-making.

For example, in Scrum the most common artifact is the Sprint or project burn-down chart, scaling the chart based on the Sprint Backlog or Product Backlog as needed. Other methodologies like Critical Path use network or activity-on-node diagrams, and you could certainly use a couple of colored push-pins to identify "You Are Here" in your diagrams if you want to do so.

The bottom line is that you should start by re-examining:

  1. What it is that you are actually expected to communicate about your project's status.
  2. What you are comparing, contrasting, or tracking with your visualization techniques.
  3. What methodologies and tools work best for your specific project within whatever organizational limitations you have.

In other words, don't start from the assumption that you must use a specific artifact or tool. Instead, start from your known communications requirements, then work backwards to identify the optimal processes and procedures to deliver that communication effectively.

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