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Brendon Farrell - Senior Facilitator, TP3

Have you ever felt frustrated with Microsoft Project?  Are you able to get the tool to do what you want?

In my experience as a trainer, I’ve found very few people can answer ‘yes’ to this question. But with the proper training, knowledge and understanding of a few rules and options that control the tool’s behaviour, your frustrations can be reduced.

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of Microsoft Project:

1. This is not Microsoft Excel

This may seem obvious, but when you look at the layout of the Gantt Table, don’t presume that because it looks like an Excel worksheet that it also acts like one. Even though there are many similarities, Project is not Excel.

You’ll quickly discover that Project performs some scheduling functions when making changes to the table. By not understanding how or why things change, you may become overwhelmed and abandon the tool.

Please remember that Project is a scheduling tool and as such it will change dates and durations.

2. Understand the “Scheduling Formula” Duration = Work ÷ Units

Project uses one of three task types to calculate the duration of tasks and subsequently their finish dates. At its most basic, the Collin definitions of these are:

Duration: The overall amount of time given to accomplish a task – usually measured in days.

Units: How much of their total available time a resource gives to a task – usually measured in percentages

Work: The amount of time that it takes to do actually do the task – usually measured in hours.

In a... If you revise units... If you revise duration... If you revise work...
Fixed-units task... Duration is recalculated. Work is recalculated. Duration is recalculated.
Fixed-work task... Duration is recalculated. Units are recalculated. Duration is recalculated.
Fixed-duration task... Work is recalculated. Work is recalculated. Units are recalculated.
Understanding this formula is key to understanding how scheduling tasks works.

If you make a change to any of these three parts of a task without understanding this formula, the changes that Project makes can sometimes seem unexpected or bizarre. Not knowing this formula is the one of the biggest reasons for frustration while using Project.

3.  Understand Task Dependencies

If tasks in Project are related to each other, they use what is known as dependencies - the relationships between the tasks drive the schedule in Project. Project offers four kinds of task dependencies: Finish-to-Start, Start-to-Start, Finish-to-Finish, and Start-to-Finish.

Finish-to-Start (FS) dependencies. This is the most common type of dependency and is the default. In a Finish-to-Start dependency, the second task in the relationship cannot begin until the first task finishes.

For example, if you have two tasks "Dig foundation" and "Pour concrete", the "Pour concrete" task cannot begin until the "Dig foundation" task is complete.

Microsoft Project

Start-to-Start (SS) dependencies. These are used when the second task in the relationship cannot begin until the first task in the relationship begins. Start-to-Start dependencies don’t need both tasks to start at the same time, they simply require the first task to have begun in order for the second task to begin.

For example, if you have two tasks "Pour concrete" and "Level concrete", the "Level concrete" task cannot begin until the "Pour concrete" task begins.

Microsoft Project

Finish-to-Finish dependencies. These don't need both tasks to be completed simultaneously. They simply require the first task to be finished in order for the second task to finish. The second task can finish any time after the first task finishes.

For example, suppose you are developing copy for print advertising. You know that the copy will require several rounds of writing and editing. Rather than show several tasks, Write→Edit→Write→Edit→Write→Edit, you can show two tasks, Write and Edit, in a finish-to-finish relationship in which editing finishes at the same time as, or after, writing is done.

Microsoft Project

Start-to-Finish (SF) dependency. These relationships are a little complex. The predecessor task can only finish after the successor task has started - if the successor is delayed, the predecessor task can’t finish.

For example, suppose you are implementing a new computer system that’s replacing an older system. The predecessor task of "turn-off old system" cannot be completed before the successor task of "start-up new system" has started.


Using these dependencies proficiently can mean the difference between a project that finishes on time and in budget and one that’s still continuing long after the deadline.


4. Microsoft Project expertise will not make you a good project manager

Project is a great scheduling tool but that’s all it is. Knowing Microsoft Project inside out does not make you a good project manager nor does being a good project manager make you an expert in Microsoft Project.

It is said that “a Project Manager’s tool makes a good manager better faster and a bad manager worse faster.” Microsoft Project will facilitate some of our more routine scheduling tasks, so that we can devote the bulk of our time to managing our projects.


Help build your MS Project or Project Management skills with these extra resources from TP3:

Workshop: Microsoft Project

Workshop: Project Management Fundamentals

Article: 7 key traits of a successful Project Manager

Article: Do you have what it takes to be a Project Manager?



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