There's software for everything-whether it's controlling a rocket-propelled spaceship or a coffee machine. There's software for getting in control, getting on top of things, organising things… but you know that. What we're saying is that even if there's something you need to get on top of-like a team project, a personal plan, a group activity-you can use, you guessed it, software!
Here, we're specifically talking about project management. People, resources, time, contingencies-there are parameters of various types at various levels to be in control of. Now, if you're the born leader, manager, and communicator all rolled into one, it's easy-just do it in your head, or use Notepad. But ordinary people need… yes... software!
At this point, we should mention that it's natural for some people to think of Microsoft Project. It's not quite de facto, but a large number of people-especially those in enterprises-use it. (We're going to encourage you not to bother, with a couple of exceptions-we'll get to the reasons soon enough.)
One tool that could be useful-if the project is small enough-is a mind-mapping solution; after all, your fundamental agenda only consists of (a) thinking, and (b) communicating. Then, you could use a spreadsheet-for example, Excel as a small-project management tool. This is quite elementary, and is described at http://tinyurl.com/yutoso.
Now our agenda here is to talk about a free project management tool called GanttProject, which is really not much more than a productivity booster. But you need it to save on aspirin and to maintain your sanity. You'll have the comfort of starting up a program and saying something like "OK, so here's where we're placed. Now so-and-so is on leave tomorrow, so let me draw this little line… ah, still looks good." Much, much better than straightaway getting tense because so-and-so is on leave tomorrow.
To sell you on the idea, think of this: a visual representation of what's going on is very desirable. When you need to reschedule, all you do is type in a couple of quick words and drag a line here and there. Dependencies are programmed in, so you can test ideas one after the other and immediately visualise the what-if. When plans and resources change-as in when someone joins the team or the deadline is pulled back-you quickly know what you should be assigning to whom. You get the idea. And if you're still not sold, consider that you don't lose anything by giving it a trial run using your last project details-which you stored in your head.
Gaining From Gantt
Think project management and you should think Gantt charts. Put simply, these represent tasks against time, but they're powerful enough to have been used in the planning of such projects as dam and highway construction. If you know what they are, skip this; if you don't, we'll just quote a bit from ganttchart.com. A Gantt chart:
- allows you to assess how long a project should take.
- lays out the order in which tasks need to be carried out.
- helps manage dependencies between tasks.
- allows you to see immediately what should have been achieved at a point in time.
- allows you to see how remedial action may bring the project back on course.
Now if you're thinking this is some old PIM-like productivity software, we can say from personal experience that all that's really there to project management is there in GanttProject. MS Project, incidentally, costs $599 (Rs 24,250), and the feature set is pretty much the same-with two exceptions: you can't interact with a Microsoft Exchange Server, and you can't share the project over a network.
Getting Your Hands Not So Dirty
"Intuitive" best describes GanttProject as a piece of software. All you'll need ready before you start using it is:
- Who's working on the project
- Details such as when they're off work
- A breakdown of the project into tasks
- An idea of how long each task should take to complete
- What task depends on which other(s)
- And so on. You'll realise more details as you get into the software.
Too complex a project wouldn't have been rendered well here, so here's just the basics-some people, some tasks, some dates. The left pane contains the details; the right pane displays the Gantt chart. Each task is in its own row, and arrows indicate dependencies. Dates are clearly marked, as are holidays (the grey vertical bar)
Fire it up and you'll see that the act of adding people, adding tasks, and setting deadlines for them is as easy as can be. We first named the thing "Software-Project", and like any good piece of software would, it came up with categories of people to choose from-project head, coder, tester, and so on. Do the elementary stuff and you'll end up with something that looks as above.
Like any well-behaved Gantt chart, this one shows tasks against time-you can see the dates they're scheduled for, and at a glance, how long each task will take. Now, following the everything-at-a-glance philosophy, we chose to display the task name above the bar that represents the task, the progress of the task below the bar, and the person(s) involved to the right. In regards this last, note that you can assign dependencies. So if you say the coder is "dependant" upon the project head, then whenever you assign a new task to the coder, the project head's name will appear as if he were involved in the task, too. Dependencies between tasks are indicated by arrows. You can also create dependencies using the mouse: click on one task in the Gantt chart, [Ctrl] Click on the other, and select "Link".
On the subject of dependencies, we should mention that they can be of four kinds: start to finish, finish to start, finish to finish, and start to start. "Finish to start" is the obvious one: the second starts when the first has finished. "Finish to finish" means they should end at the same time, and so on.
Now, we should warn you that the help file is skimpy. They aren't too articulate on the Web site, either-so you'll have to find some interesting stuff yourself: for example, the fact that you can change the public holiday schedule (from under the Resources menu).
Indenting and un-indenting tasks is easy, and what this does is this: if task B depends on task A, and you indent B making it a sub-task of A, the dates for task A will automatically change. This is natural, considering the definition of "sub-task Importantly, the chart will keep a proper track of progress only if you remember to feed in data on time. Someone completed something? Fill it in. Setback? Extend the task by dragging it using your mouse… And so on.
And that's pretty much it to get up and running with GanttProject, but here's something about the interesting features it brings with it.
A Features Run-Down
Space does not permit a step-by-step discussion of how to get things done, but then it's pretty easy, like we said.
"Milestone" can be set as an attribute for a task that needs to be watched. We won't go into the details, but suffice it to say that if a "milestone" task has been completed, the graph changes in an interesting way. Try it.
Colour coding seems silly in general: no-one needs pretty, colourful labels, but they're almost of the essence in the at-a-glance school of thought. So, with the default colours, things look pretty staid when everything's going fine; then, when something finishes early, you have a cheerful yellow bar indicating free time; and what's most useful is the red marks, which indicate events that deserve your immediate attention. This works with resources, too: when someone is overloaded, you get a red mark for the day, and also a figure about whether he has 150, 200, etc. per cent more work than assumed. This is indicated so that you buy him a pizza.
We've compared a current state with an earlier one. Coloured bars appear underneath tasks in date ranges. A red bar indicates a problem that's now holding up the task; green means "on schedule." All at a glance!
An interesting feature added to the 2.0 version of GanttProject-and a very useful one at that-is the ability to compare "states." At any point, you can save the current state of affairs using the Save state button, and you can always use Compare to previous to look back in time. Imagine you've pushed ahead some deadlines; if you'd saved the state before you did that, you could compare the current project state with the earlier one-and what you'll get are red, green, and yellow bars. A green bar is a pat on the back: this task is still on schedule. A red bar under a task means it's now going to take longer to complete, and a yellow bar means it'll now complete sooner than it would have. Which days the bars come under is dictated by the task's dependencies.
The Critical Path Method (CPM)
GanttProject has the Critical Path function, using which you can see when your project can be completed at the earliest, and what tasks along the path that is displayed need, well, critical attention. From The Free Encyclopedia That Anyone Can Edit, "CPM is an algorithm for scheduling a set of project activities. In project management, a critical path is the sequence of project network activities with the longest overall duration, determining the shortest time possible to complete the project. Any delay of an activity on the critical path directly impacts the planned project completion date."
If you construct a simple project and press Critical path, nothing much will show up-the last task to be completed will get highlighted, and that's about it. You'll see the value of the method when you have a sufficiently detailed project; you'll see bottlenecks you wouldn't have intuited.
The PERT Chart
Another way of looking at things, getting away from Mr Gantt's worldview, is the PERT chart, standing for Program Evaluation Review Technique. This, using GanttProject, looks as below. It has events as nodes, it shows dependencies, there are good-thing-and-bad-news colour indicators, and more.
Each task is a node here. The yellow nodes here have dependencies. Those with a red outline have problems (bottom left, for example). Arrows indicate dependencies; details are in the node boxes
Space does not permit a discussion, but suffice it to say that some project managers prefer the PERT chart over the Gantt chart-and many use both at the same time. Good for us, because GanttProject, untrue to its name, provides both. We'd advise you to get familiar with the PERT chart the do-it-yourself way: create a simple project and look at the PERT chart for it. (The PERT tab is activated from the View menu.)
So Download It!
It's not hard to get hooked to this nifty piece of software which, at first glance, seems simplistic. Even individuals could develop a fondness for it, it's so easy to use. But it has sufficient power to aid any business project.
For all we've seen and heard, you won't be getting much of your money's worth if you spend on MS Project-assuming, of course, that you're sold on project management software.
Which is a good thing to happen to you, we should add. It's better than mind maps, it's better than Excel (however familiar you might be with it), and it's better than caffeine overdose.