Part 2: If projects are like gasoline – Project Management Tools for Small Projects

Last week I talked about gasoline octane ratings as a metaphor for the relative performance and capability required of project management tools. According to Wikipedia, the octane rating is a standard measure of the performance of motor or aviation fuel. The higher the octane number –the higher the performance. Or, in the case of PM tools, large complex projects need high-octane, specialized tools, while small projects get by just fine exploiting the capabilities of the tools you commonly have around the work site.

Small projects (or Unleaded projects!) usually have characteristics of short time frames and minimal staff.  They occur within a short time frame — often less than six months and do not require nor have a full-time project manager. Several people may work on the project, but few if any, are assigned full-time. However, even small projects need to document their charter and scope, organize a task list and schedule and report on their status or accomplishments/issues.

In my experience, Microsoft Office applications, including Excel, PowerPoint, Word and Outlook, provide enough of the octane that a small project needs. Here are some examples of project management using Microsoft Office applications:

Task detail and scheduling
The workhorse tool for managing small projects is Microsoft Excel – in surveys that my company has conducted, MS Excel was the number 1 project management tool used by organizations. In fact many medium or large projects use Excel for some of their PM duties. I like the ability of Excel to quickly generate a task list, which can include a brief description, start and stop times and assignments. The tasks and time frame can then help build a simple Gantt chart. All of the charts produced in Excel, as well as the task detail, can be copied into Microsoft PowerPoint for presentations or Microsoft Word for reports.  The team can use email to distribute the excel sheet for updates.

Here is an example of an Excel project tool:
Status Reports

Here is another example of using Excel as a status report:

Cost Analysis

Spreadsheets, like Excel, had their roots as an accounting or number management tool (for some of us we remember using a program called VisiCalc!). So, it is no surprise that it provides a great deal of capability to manipulate cost figures, such as creating planned versus actual cost comparison.

And here are some ideas for a One Page

Summary Report using MS PowerPoint:

Project managers are not limited to simple things either, they can create a complete project workbook in Excel using the tab feature for various project documents, such as the charter, budget, risks and issues, action items, WBS and decision logs.

Also email, such as Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server, serves as the primary formal communication tool for setting up meetings and sharing information both inside and outside the team. Within the team, Outlook can also be used to share information. However, the team will also benefit from communication using sticky notes, task boards and face-to-face discussions using other tools like GotoMeeting, WebEX or Live Meeting.

OK- so let’s look at the pros and cons of using Office tools for managing projects:

Pros of Using Microsoft Office for Project Management

  1. Most users already know how to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint – not much training needed
  2. Low initial cost – in fact most organizations already have these tools
  3. Tools and work products can be easily modified – the work products can be branded and modified to fit the project
  4. Many project management templates are available – if you look online, you will find hundreds of templates for these office tools

Cons of Microsoft Office for Project Management

  1. Staff/users have varying levels of skill and proficiency – even though everyone may have these tools, many people have never had to use them for advanced functions like making a project schedule or status report
  2. Data is not real time – have to send the file around and wait for distribution
  3. Version control is problematic – I hate the game of multiple people editing a file at the same time and then figuring out which one is the most recent
  4. Updates are more labor intensive – if you try to control changes to the project with one person (eliminating the version control issue) then you create a bottleneck

So, in summary, if you are on a team tradition project or agile, you can utilize standard office tools to help the teams manage the project without having to invest in expensive tools and technology.

If you have comments or thoughts about using Microsoft Office or other tools for small projects, please share.

Part 3 of our series will cover the “Standard” or regular projects and tools.

8 Responses to “Part 2: If projects are like gasoline – Project Management Tools for Small Projects”

  1. Jim Finch Says:

    Your highlight of tools-to-match-the-project (and team) is an important point. If the tool gets in the way of the content, then something needs to change.
    Personally, I like MS Project for even the most basic project. It provides great flexibility and can be faster than Excel for building a plan.
    I do, however, routinely find myself translating portions of my plans into Excel for presentation and discussion with various teams.Extra work? Yes…but the responsibility for complete communication resides with the PM, not the teams or stakeholders.
    As you note, for “unleaded” projects, spreadsheets can work just fine … admitting my DOS-bias, however, I’ve always preferred SuperCalc over VisiCalc. (My first major implementation was managed using a SuperCalc3 workplan.)
    Thank you for this series. Too many PMs are lost without their higher-end tools. Simple tools can be just as effective, but the PM does have to understand the primary definitions and formulas.

  2. Edgar Cossio Says:

    I think it’s important to have the ability to use MS Excel to manage a project however there are other specialized tools in project management, for example Gantter and OpenProj, free to use two tools: the first works in the cloud and the services offered are basically the management of material resources, human and financial, also works with google docs making it more powerful. The second tool must be installed on the computer that will be used and basically works just like MS Project, managed and makes use of the reporting tool, you can import projects from MS Project and is also a free to use tool.
    I think that using MS Excel may miss the richness of this area of ​​project management but recognize the importance of MS Excel and basic use for administration.

    Thank you.

  3. Ernesto Lee y Adalberto de la Toba Says:

    Comparison between Microsoft Project OpenProj vs.
    These two tools accounts with common characteristics are:
     Gantt Chart, a graphical tool used in these two tools whose purpose is to show the time spent on different tasks or activities planned throughout the total time given for the project.
     PERT Chart, this is a graphical representation of relationships or the tasks specified in the Gantt chart described above.
     Plan PEP structure, a breakdown of the subtasks of the tasks specified primary or initially in the diagrams, is intended to facilitate understanding of the development process as it is broken down or are grouped in a hierarchical specification.
     Resource tasks, there is a section to specify the resources required by each of the tasks specified in the diagrams.
     Risk Breakdown Structure RBS, are identified in a systematic manner they reached the risks impacting the achievement of project objectives.
     Network Project: Displays the “before” “after” and “intermediate” in the work graphically. It is also called PERT chart.
     Graphic Resources: Details of available resources listed here. Once on the list, resources can be allocated in the Gantt chart.
     WBS: Work Breakdown Structure or WBS systematic sample breakdown of tasks into subtasks.
     RBS: Resource Breakdown Structure or RBS is the categorization of the resources available according to different functions.
     Generate Output: Microsoft Project and OpenProj both provide tracking of several methods, such as consolidated reporting and the use of tasks and resources.

    Ernesto Lee y Adalberto de la Toba

  4. John Paul Says:

    When I heard small I was thinking something more along the lines of a tool like To me it seems like Excel is overkill for most of these scenarios.

  5. Matt Stone Says:

    Nice article, thanks! For small projects i just want to recommend comindware task management software, as a great tool for PM. Feature of this solution is the original vision of tracking business process & its simple control system.

  6. Andy Says:

    Totally agree. There are so many small projects/unleaded projects that need to be managed and communicated, but don’t require the muscle or effort of MS Project. As far as the suggestion to use Office tool set to create project reviews, Office Timeline is a timeline maker that adds project functionality right into PowerPoint. It adds a ribbon natively to PowerPoint and is pretty good for communicating small projects.

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