MS Project: Top ten Features you might not know about

There is a lot of functionality in Project that many PM’s just don’t use, but should. These are my top ten things every PM should be aware of that will make your lives easier and slightly more fun...

1. Linking External Plans

If you want to find out what this is so excellent, read my dedicated post about it here MS Project: Linking External Projects. Essentially it allows you to operate as a mini-Project server and have disparate by linked projects sharing tasks and milestones. This is very good for managing dependancies!

Insert > Project > Navigate to the Project and click "Insert"

2. Task Form Details View

Most people are aware that there is a detail view you can drag up in MS Project to give you more information on a particular task, what they are not aware of is that the default Task Form is a limited view and there is a much more useful Task Details view; which gives you access to constraints, baseline, current and actual start and ends dates and task type.

Bring up the bottom detail view if you haven't already and click it anywhere. Then click on More Views in the left hand icon bar. Select "Task Form Details".

3. Baselines

This is also the subject of its own article here: Project Baselines. But baselines allow you typo measure the impact of project changes, whether increased scope, missed tasks from the original plan or a delayed start date. By regularly recording your baselines you can watch the project delivery change and offer quick and accurate answers to what the impact of a particular change would be.

Tools > Tracking > Set Baseline....

4. Tracking Gantt

A close 4th behind baselines is the Tracking Gantt, the reason it is behind baselines is because without a baseline, well, this is useless. A tracking Gantt shows you both the original and the current start and end dates for each task. This gives you a very clear view of exactly how far things have been pushed out and allows you, with the variance view, to review how much remaining contingency there is in any given task.

It also gives a nice visible, bright red, outline to stakeholders detailing exactly the impact of a change in scope or delivery dates.

View > Tracking Gantt

5. Milestone Calendars

Decorate your wall with a colourful calendar! One of my personal quirks is I rather like having some charts up on the wall I can draw on. I tend to print out the project plan for a couple of my core projects and leave them up on the wall, and annotate them as I go. However, teh basic Gantt chart view doesn't work for day to day project tracking ona wall, what you need to do is print out the calendar. Having the calendar up on the wall works really well, as you can tick off the days and tasks as they are completed and you have a nice overview of what is coming on a given project.

More than that, you are able to create a custom calendar view, by copying the calendar view, but setting the filter to something (I use Completed tasks) you can use the calendar formatting to automatically colour those tasks green (for example) with the incomplete tasks red, the milestones blue and if you are using tip #1 then the external tasks are automatically silver. It gives a colourful, easy to understand and easy to review plan, right there next to you.

View > More Views > Copy.... and copy a calendar view.

6. Resource Rates

Enter in the hourly rate for every resource and their buinsess cost and get a nice clear idea of where you stand. Alot of places don't do this because there is a great deal of effort in setting up the template. However, once you've done it once, its reusable (see Point 9). Having an accurate cost as part of your planning is great for a few reasons, it gives you something to match your estimate against, by having costs and times, they both need to tally or you've made a mistake somewhere, maybe the hours are correct but you've used

View > Resource Sheet. Then enter in the rates for all resources

7. Work Complete

Using the % Complete function, its amazing how many people I’ve met who aren’t aware that MS Project can be used to track progress against a project as well as to plan it. Its not great at it, and I’ve had far more luck with something like Jira as a tracking tool, but its better than ticking a box off in a to-do list or keeping it all in your head. As tasks are worked on, record the work done. You can do this via actual work, or through percentage. personally, I tend to use percentage, trying to use MS Project to manage estimation accuracy is a little like hammering in a nail with a screwdriver, it can be done and if you have no other tools it might be the best option, but maybe going and finding a hammer is a better use of your time...

Views > Gantt Chart then go to View > Table... > Work

8. Grouping Resource Breakdown by assignment

If you are like me, you will not only want to know how long particular Work Packages will take, or how much a phase will cost, but you’ll want to know the total costs for particular resources across the life of the project, especially if your plan drives estimation. Interested in what exactly the various resources will be doing in the project, but summarized? Open up Resource Usage and go to the "Group" drop down and select Assignments Keeping Outline Structure. This will give you a very handy summary of every task for each resource, but allows you to collapse those tasks and just see what the resource totals are. I find it particularly helpful, as I plan in stages, to see if there are any unexpected commitments, is there a graphic designer working during the development phase?

Simply go to the Resource Usage view and select the group drop down. Change this to "Assignments Keeping Outline Structure" and it automatically sums up the times and costs for each resource. its a massive time-saver for creating estimates.

View > Resource Usage. then select "Assignments Keeping Outline Structure"

9. .MPT Files

This is more of a general issue than a Project on, so many people don't know about the template file format available on all MS Office applications. Word, Excel and even Project have a .xxT version of their file name, i.e. .dot, .xlt and .mpt. These marvellous file types allow you to, once you've created something you'd like to reuse, turn it into a template that won't get overwritten. A project template can keep all of your resource costs and basic structures without keeping all the effort logged and the detailed planning. it makes starting a new plan a much easier task.

File > Save as... > Select ".mpt" from the filetype dropdown.

10. Custom Columns

Adding custom columns to the Gannt display is a very useful way of ensuing particular tasks are managed. My personal favourite task to add is a "Resource Assigned" field (A generic text field I then rename), to allow me to keep track of which task have the appropriate resourcing booked in and scheduled and which are still pending.

On any view, Insert > Column and select the column you want to use.

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