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.

If Projects are like cars and gasoline – what octane level of tools do you need?

Recently I had the opportunity to present at a conference of business professionals about project management tools. Unlike professional project managers, who have a background that encompasses many of the tools available to facilitate project management, this audience included practitioners across a wide spectrum of business areas. So, for that presentation, I wanted to talk about project management tools from the 50,000 foot level. (If you know me I could have talked all day on different aspects of this topic!)

The metaphor I chose for the presentation was how to select the most appropriate project management tool octane in order to get the right balance of cost and power. There was a side benefit to the metaphor — some useful concept matching graphics; always a plus when your slides will be displayed on large projection screens. The take-away I was striving for was an appreciation that there is not the one best PM tool, but rather the PM needs to match tool capabilities to project size and complexity.

So, here is my “octane-based” categorization of projects:



    • Small project with 3 to 10 staff
    • Short duration — between one and four months
    • Part-time project manager — 6-10 hours per week
    • Needs PM tools to develop and track
  • Charter and scope
  • Tasks and schedule
  • Status reports


    • Dedicated staff of 10 to 30 people
    • Medium duration — usually less than one year
    • Half-time PM
    • Needs PM tools to develop and track
  • Charter and scope
  • Project plan
  • Schedule
  • Assignments
  • Risks and issues
  • Status reports


    • Large, strategic project
    • 30+ full-time staff
    • Long duration — 12 to 24 months
    • Full time PM
    • Needs PM tools to develop and track
  • Charter and budget
  • Project management plan
  • Detailed schedule
  • Assignments
  • Risks and issues
  • Quality plan
  • Cost controls
  • Status reports with metrics

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on talking about the type of PM tools that support the needs of each octane level of project. I will focus on commonly used PM tools. Some of my thoughts are based on the Resource Management survey conducted by Cognitive Technologies Inc., in 2012 (Tools for Resource Management – The Survey Results).

You can find the rest of the series here:

Part 2 –Tools for Small Projects  

Part 3 – Tools for Medium sized Projects 

Part 4 – Tools for Large Projects 

Part 5 – Hybrid tools 


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