As a company that helps people build project reports no matter what the data source, our users often come to us with questions about which tools they should use to actually manage their projects to begin with. The most common flavor of this question is:
“Should I use Microsoft Project to manage projects, or just stick with Excel”?
A lot of project plans start out in Excel, and many will end up staying there, but there are quite a few advantages of Microsoft Project that make it worth upgrading. We’ll cover the biggest reasons here.
Summary Tasks and the WBS
One of the biggest things that Microsoft Project has going for it is the concept of a summary task. When you indent one task underneath another, the second task becomes a child of the first. In this home renovation example, we know that carpet and window treatments are a part of redoing the master bedroom:
You can indent cells in Excel, but it’s largely cosmetic. With Microsoft Project, each indentation creates a summary-detail relationship that actually has meaning. Your summarization can go down many levels and ultimately create what is called a work-breakdown structure (WBS), showing a hierarchy of which smaller tasks comprise larger tasks.
If I reschedule my carpet installation to take an extra week, Microsoft Project is smart enough to know that my entire master bedroom effort is going to take longer. Excel won’t tell you this unless you spend a lot of time writing fancy formulas.
Dependencies and Critical Path
Microsoft Project also has the ability to help you understand the order in which tasks have to take place, and what the consequences are if something misses the mark.
In our remodel example, we can tell Microsoft Project that we have to finish installing kitchen cabinets before we can lay counters on top of them. If the cabinets are delayed, Microsoft Project will alert us that we cannot start the countertop work until the cabinets are in place. There are ways to force Excel to do this, but Project is going to do it with a lot less effort.
As you set up more and more of these constraints, Microsoft Project will calculate a critical path, which will give you an understanding of how much wiggle room there is in your schedule, should something fall off the rails.
If you start working on multiple projects at once, Microsoft Project can link all of your projects together into a master plan so that you can see all of your work at once.
In this case, let’s say I’m working on two different remodeling projects. Microsoft Project lets me see both in one place:
If you try to do this in Excel, get ready to do a lot of copying and pasting!
The ability to track resources builds on most of what we’ve discussed already. A lot of Excel-based project plans take a stab at this, but it’s nothing more than a column saying who is doing what. Excel doesn’t alert you when you have one person on two tasks at the same time, or a second person sitting around with nothing to do:
Microsoft Project knows not only the “when” but also the “who,” and will help you sanity-check one or all of your project plans to ensure you are making the best of the resources you have.
These four features are the primary drivers for people to upgrade their plans from Excel to Microsoft Project — although, as projects become more involved, there are certainly a host of others as well.