Using Microsoft Project is not Project Management

MS Project has become an industry standard for project planning and I think it has value for a project manager, but a project manager should not rely on MS Project or any other software do to do their job for them. Software doesn’t manage projects….people do.

Steve Shu has a good blog post over on his blog titled “Why I dislike Microsoft Project for Management Consulting“. His argument against using Microsoft Project as a tool for managing projects in the consulting field revolves around a central theme that using MS Project creates “barriers to communication” during the project. He’s absolutely right.

If I ask a project manager if they can describe their project, send me their project plan or provide a status and they send me a Microsoft Project plan (or worse, a Gannt chart) I know something is very wrong. Here’s why:

  • MS Project doesn’t communicate the goals of a project well. I can review a MS project plan and tell what the milestones are but it takes a lot of digging to get the ‘high-level’ objectives from a project plan.
  • MS Project is not the project plan. It is a representation of a project plan. A Gantt chart is not a project plan either.
  • MS Project does not provide an easy method to communicate status. There are reporting features that can be used to show status, but in my experience, project managers don’t use these reporting features well.

A good project manager should be able to communicate status, project goals and all other project details without showing me (or anyone else) their MS project plan and lord help you if you show me a Gantt chart when I ask for a project plan 🙂

If you want to be a project manager you should definitely learn to use the various software products on the market. If you want to be a great project manger, work on your leadership, communication and problem solving skills to allow you to lead the project team not just manage the project tasks.

Knowing how to use MS Project (or any other project planning tool) is a good skill, but it won’t save you or the project when the unexpected happens….and the unexpected will happen.

[tags] Project Management, Microsoft Project, MS Project [/tags]

15 responses to “Using Microsoft Project is not Project Management”

  1. Scot Herrick Avatar
    Scot Herrick

    What tool or format would you propose for communicating the goals of the project? Would something built in MindManager do the trick? Or, just write in Word and send it on?

    I agree MS Project isn’t the answer to these questions, but I’d be curious if you preferred one format over another.

  2. Eric Brown Avatar

    Hi Scot – thanks for the comment.

    I hadn’t thought about MindManager as a way to communicate a projects’ goals…great idea. MindManager (and other tools like it) provide an easy way to visualize data and ideas…I’m going to have to think about that.

    My preference for communication of project goals/status etc is whatever works for that project and is the simplest method. I am a big believer in the simpler is better method.

  3. /pd Avatar

    yes, just using Projects does not make one a PM. What matters most is the people.

    As for reporting in status etc and project matrix, there are many ways of doing it. keep it simple is the best way to go. less is more !!

  4. Eric Brown Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more /pd. Simple is usually better.

  5. /pd Avatar

    “small details/problems are usually building up and making a bottle neck. Once we realize this, it was to late. Can you share me some tips on where we should keep the details?”

    I call this the lack of due diligences. That’s in;

    1) Capturing the unplanned tasks and ensuring that at closure one can use this as part of the lessons learnt.
    2) I treat unplanned tasks as risk issues if there become “bottle necks”
    3)track them as “Risk issues” under PWA.
    4) Revisit them for lessons learnt
    5) VSTS connectors permit a PM/IT dept to extract these risk issues across the whole folio for quarterly reviews.
    6) I use that method to review “defect’s” in the planning , analyize or dev process. that becomes one of the variables for folio matrix build for project efficiency.

    Hope tis help !!

  6. Steve Shu Avatar


    Thanks for the comments and the additional post. You first and third items really hit close to home. On the first item I often find that when people present Microsoft Project (MP)plans to me it’s too easy to get buried in the weeds and forget stepping back to see the bigger picture.

    As for the reporting features of MP, I think that 90%+ of the people out there either have never used the features or have never used them. I can’t say that I know how to use them offhand.

    In defense of MP, however, the tool does provide a structure framework for analyzing projects (in terms of dependencies and loading). For some type of projects it may be critical (e.g., software development). That said, it’s so easy to go overboard with the project modeling and workbreakdown structure decomposition.

  7. Steve Shu Avatar

    Thanks also for asking about LA. Weather is nicer than I expected. Traffic and getting around is worse, however.


  8. Jim Stroup Avatar

    Hello Eric,

    Thought I’d put my two cents worth in, here. This is an important post, and I think you put your finger on it with your observation that software doesn’t manage projects, people do.

    We often mistake our tools for our judgement, and many people in fact actively seek to find tools that will help them do precisely that. But as you point out, however elegant or sophisticated the tool is, it’s still just a tool.

    Supervisors want to know about the status of the project, not your mastery of your tools, and they don’t want to be handed your notched-up tools so they can figure out what’s going on themselves.

    Steve’s comment about presenters getting caught up in the details (fascinating to them) of their analytical tools, and thus losing the overall perspective vital to those details coming together in a sensible fashion is also right on the money.

    If all you know, or all you can express, is the details, you may not even know what the plan is.

    Thanks for an excellent presentation.

  9. Eric Brown Avatar

    Jim – thanks for the comments…very insightful as always

  10. Eric Brown Avatar

    @System Review:

    There really isn’t a full-proof method for tracking issues and/or ensuring issues don’t pop up during a project. The key is to stay on top of things and really understand your project(s) and people.

    /pd has some great comments about how to potentially track items. I use a simple ‘Red/Yellow/Green/ matrix using Excel to track all project Risks and issues and update the matrix daily if needed. This won’t keep theses issues under control but it does keep the issues in front of the project team to ensure that they are considered.

  11. Project Management Templates Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this info article. Good work.

  12. Using Microsoft Project is not Project Management. Why communication is so key in project management. @EricDBrown