Top 10 Microsoft Project Best Practices for Project Managers

microsoft project best practices

By Rebecca Bennett

At some point in your project management career there will be a point where you throw your hands up, ditch MS Project and resort to good old Excel. Spreadsheets are more intuitive and predictable than Microsoft Project. Coordinating tasks is easy enough, but once you get into optimizing resources and controlling your schedule or budget, it can quickly feel out of control. If you are already having a bad day because of it, we’ve got you, just read “How To Set Yourself Up Against Those Bad Work Days,” after this article to cope with the damage.

In order to avoid running into this commonly experienced frustration in managing your projects in Microsoft Project, set up a streamlined approach in using its features. Just because it’s robust doesn’t mean you have to use all of its features. It can be an effective project management tool using less than half its features.  Select which features are essential in helping you to manage the project effectively. Think simple. Use these best practices to help you streamline your approach to the tool and make it work for you rather than against you.

  1. Leverage Existing Standard Project Data Across All your Projects.

When managing multiple projects where the resources, resource calendars, among other parameters are the same, you don’t have to enter these in from scratch every time on each new project. Minimize data entry to certain key fields using the Organizer tool to copy custom filters, tables, views, and reports to use between projects.

  1. Setup up your Resource Sheet from the Get-go.

Input your resources in the Resource Sheet before you start scheduling. Doing this will allow you to pick them from a drop-down menu on the Gantt Chart. Doing this will save you from having to manually enter them every time, avoiding the risk of duplicating or misspelling resource names. When dealing with vendor resources read how to incorporate these in Best Project Management Practices for Working with Vendors as the last thing you want to do is be managing resources and tasks from 2 different platforms.

  1. On Cross-departmental Projects, Indicate Department for Better Organization.

On the Resource Sheet, use the Group column to indicate which department or project vendor your resources belongs to. This will help with filtering and reporting to easily see what departments are responsible for.

  1. Switch to Auto Scheduling.

By default, all new tasks are set up to be manually scheduled. Don’t enter Start Dates or Finish Dates directly into the Gantt Chart. Instead, let Microsoft Project calculate them for you based on duration, intelligent scheduling options, linking, and resource availability. This will save your head from hurting and missing deadlines.

  1. Avoid Setting Deadlines on Undefined Tasks.

Exclusive of mandatory deadlines, setting deadlines, where WBS is not fully defined, just to have a deadline is not a best practice, nor has value. Depending on how you set up your tasks and deadlines, you could run into issues making it more complicated to manage down the road.

  1. Minimize Time Constraints. 

Minimize your use of specific date constraints on tasks. When a schedule change occurs, you will have to manually edit those tasks.  Instead, try using intelligent scheduling options such as, “As Soon As Possible” “No Earlier Than” and “No Later Than” constraints. These allow for dynamic schedule changes.

“Must…” constraints are best reserved for mandatory deadlines because they don’t provide the same dynamic flexibility so you would have to directly edit the individual task. This also preserves your mandatory deadlines.

  1. Use Only One Task Type.

Microsoft Project has three types of tasks you can use.

  • Fixed Units
  • Fixed Duration
  • Fixed Work

Using multiple tasks types can cause errors and make the schedule hard to follow.  Pick one task type to select as your default and stick to it.

  1. Visually Distinguish Your Critical Path.

One of the key challenges with large complex projects is keeping track of the critical path. Microsoft Project allows you to easily distinguish visually your critical path by highlighting or specially formatting your critical path tasks. To do this, you click on Format > Text Styles > Item to Change: Critical Tasks. You can also highlight critical tasks in the Gantt chart by clicking on Format and then clicking the Critical Tasks checkbox.

  1. Build Contingency into the Schedule from the Start.

There are many types of contingency you should build into your schedule: cost, time, hours, resources, etc.  Fortunately, there are a few ways to add it into your projects:

  • For cost contingency, create a formula adding a % to your cost.  For example, you could create a Cost (C) with Contingency column = C * .10.  Note that this does not impact hours or time.
  • For schedule contingency, create unassigned tasks to use artificial delays in the project plan. Note that these don’t increase your cost.
  • Another schedule contingency approach is to use a reduced-hour day, such as 7 hours, instead of 8 hours. This effectively provides an additional hour per day in schedule slippage.  Note this will only increase the time and not cost or hours.
  • If your contingency will effectively impact the schedule and cost, then add hours, either as a separate task or bake it into existing tasks.
  1. Listen to the Microsoft Project Planning Wizard. 

When those bothersome “Wizard” messages pop up, such as, “This action will cause a scheduling conflict…,” address them right then and there. If you ignore them then tracing back to their root cause will be more difficult.

By following these best practices using Microsoft Project, you will be able to more effectively manage your projects with less frustration and instead focus on “Maximizing Team Performance” instead. There is a chance however that MS Project is not going to be the best fit tool for your organization. In that case, here are some alternative systems you can consider and propose to your PMO instead.

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