98% of desktop planning software use worldwide is Microsoft Project. It is the defaqto standard project scheduling tool yet so many people receive limited or no training.  It has a familiar Microsoft Office look and feel, although it is not formally part of the Office suite.

The majority of users make limited inroads into the true functionality of Microsoft Project and I would strongly encourage anyone to go on a formal course to really understand how powerful the tool can be.

In my experience the biggest weakness for so many project professionals is the ability to build and use a useful, practical and helpful project schedule.

Most people use Microsoft Project to build a schedule of tasks, some attempt to assign resources and a very limited number of users take the final step to track costs.

I can’t summarise a full Microsoft Project training course in this short guide, but here are my practical top tips:

Plan Structure

Build a high-level plan using post-it notes with team members, then translate this into a Microsoft Project schedule.

Use a hierarchical structure with phases and stages broken down into tasks.

Add milestones for the start and end of each phase or stage. Keep it simple!

Plan Detail

Do you need to track what Bob is doing next Tuesday afternoon at 3pm?

If your project is a one-week shutdown then probably yes, otherwise no. Don’t try and mirror every individual task team members will perform.

For example; a six-month project should be made up of tasks lasting 1 to 10 work days, not a few hours or a few weeks.

Elapsed Time

Agree how long a task will take in elapsed time (duration). The hours worked on that task is a different thing to consider. Agree deadlines with team members.

For example ‘We will finish this task by the 10th of June and complete it over a 2 week period.’

The elapsed time of the task should mirror this. How many hours are exerted on this task is a different thing.

It could be Bob doing on average 1 hour a day or a team of 8 working full-time.

The point is that the Project Manager and the task owner have agreed the elapsed period of time over which the task will take place and can therefore work together towards achieving the finish date.

Auto Scheduling

The majority of users should stick with auto scheduling.

Manual scheduling is more useful if tasks are not yet finalised, agreed or still being scoped out and you want to have some sort of placeholder.

For a real project with approved scope, stick with auto scheduling.

Link Tasks and Milestones

Where possible do not use constraints.

Link tasks and milestones together and avoid linking between items that are different levels of hierarchy, for example, do not link a summary task to a detailed task.

Links should happen at the lowest level of your task hierarchy (or WBS).

Deadline Feature

This is a nice little feature. Double click on a task name to open the ‘Task Information‘ window. Click on the ‘Advanced’ tab.

Here there is the option to enter a ‘Deadline’.

This date then appears as a small green arrow on the Gantt chart (there is nothing significant about it being coloured green) hopefully at a date after your task is scheduled to complete.

If tasks get pushed out beyond the agreed deadline then a red warning appears in the first ‘Indicators’ column to highlight this problem.

This helps you to track any dates you may have committed to, as well as the actual dates you are working towards.

Assigning Resources

Resources (people) can be assigned using three methods.

It’s confusing.

Fixed duration, fixed work or fixed units.

Then there is the option for the effort driven check box so in total there are five different ways to setup how Microsoft Project deals with your resource assignments.

Why does this matter? As some of you will have experienced, if you edit the duration it impacts work hours, if you add more people it can shorten the duration and then we get confused and you end up with tasks having a duration of 3.18 days and you can’t understand why.

OK – my suggestion. Once you have assigned people and edited their work hours you often find the elapsed time of a task may vary but the total work hours don’t.

For example, Sue needs 10 hours to complete a task but she might finish it sooner or later.

It’s this finish date that’s the most important – people work towards deadlines. Maybe you need to update the plan with this revised date, but you don’t want this to automatically mess with the total work hours Sue undertakes.

If this sounds sensible then in the ‘Advanced’ tab of the ‘Task Information’ window select ‘Fixed Work’.

The approach you should take does depend on your project but in many cases I would suggest people want to edit elapsed time (duration) without editing total work hours for that task once they have been setup.

It’s the same amount of work, but we are taking longer to do it.  If this sounds like your situation then go with FIXED WORK.

You are then free to edit the task duration without impacting hours.

Just be aware though, if you change the total hours or number of people then the task duration with change.


At the end of the planning phase, you will have a plan.

This plan will not be perfect but it’s a benchmark to compare actual progress against. You need to save this benchmark – this is the Baseline feature. Save the baseline.

In our recent The State of Project Management annual survey, over 1/3rd of all project schedules are not baselined. This is poor project schedule management.

Progress the Plan

Enter task progress in the schedule.

You can do this simply as 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% complete, but this should be part of a weekly or maybe fortnightly review of progress.

The schedule should drive the agenda for the next progress cycle, not be an afterthought for the PM to update every now and again to try and keep up with the project.

The schedule should drive the progress meeting discussions.