MS Project: Creating Linked Project Plans

Some of you out there will be lucky enough to be working in an organization that has an effective implementation of MS Project Server. Those lucky few can skip this article, feeling cheerily smug that this is handled for them at an enterprise level…. For the rest of us, there is a lot of functionality within MS Project that typically doesn’t get used, including the ability to import external plans into a single, master plan.

It is extremely easy to do, simply open a new empty plan. Save it as "Master" or something similar. Then go to Insert > Project and find the projects you want to link. Import them all in the same manner. You are now able to control all the projects from a single plan and create dependencies and any other project linkage you require between the various tasks. You are still able to load and update the individual plans and this flow upwards and outwards to all linked plans.

There are a number of reasons that this is useful, but the top two are:

  • External Tasks :By pulling out all of the external tasks into a separate plan and then linking them using this method two useful things occur. Firstly you have a very clear list of your external dependencies (which admittedly can also be done by filtering your Gantt chart by resource) and secondly, because they are from an external plan, they are listed as external tasks on the Gantt chart and calendar views and they can be coloured separately and are easily distinguished. It is surprisingly useful.
  • Pseudo-Project Server: Very few project managers get the chance to work 100% on one project, most of us are juggling a few projects every day. Often these don't overlap in a meaningful way, and so the plans don't interfere, but sometimes there are core dependencies or resourcing overlaps which can't be ignored. In places with a proejct server this are all handled centrally, but where that is not in place, using this function can give you a light-weight equivalent.

This is not a replacement for Server, it is fiddly at times and has real issues with changing file names, so versioning can be something of a nightmare, but used in the right situations it can be a real life saver. I have often found that by keeping teh external milestones seperate I have a much easier time of justifing changes in Work Package dates becuase of an alteration of a 3rd party delivery date as it is seen to be a different plan and as such is separated out in peoples minds, it is not the project plan which is changing a delivery date, it is the 3rd party plan.

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