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.

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