How to Create A Project Plan In Microsoft Project

You know, Microsoft Project is one of THE best tools for project management. If you intend to be a project manager, you'd better get acquainted with Microsoft Project. In fact, it's considered the industry standard in terms of project management software.

When I started out in project management, one of the first things I had to learn was to create a project plan in Microsoft Project. Now, as with any software program, you can spend months or even years trying to navigate every nook and cranny inside.

I decided I wanted to learn the basics of Microsoft Project quickly and pick up just the skills I need to deliver a simple, functional project plan.

The truth is, you really don't need all the bells and whistles (e.g. resource optimization, complex reports and scripts) in order to make a project plan. It's just like Microsoft Word - do you need to know every single function in it to produce a good document? No.

So till this day, I can run large projects and create solid project plans knowing only about 40% of the functionality in Microsoft Project.

In this article, I want to show you the minimal steps you need to create a project plan in Microsoft Project.

1. What You Need

Let's start with what we need. You'll obviously need Microsoft Project which can be purchased as a Standard or Professional edition. The Professional edition of Microsoft Project has all the features of the Standard edition and some additional, complex features (e.g. scenario analysis).

For a simple project, Microsoft Project Standard is more than enough to meet your needs. I feel that things like scenario analysis or automated project timelines and tasks confuse you more than anything else.

2. Our Sample Project Plan

For the purpose of this exercise, I'm going to assume we are developing a simple program that reads new client accounts opened each day from a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database. It then displays the resulting client account data on the company's Intranet portal. A very small, simple project (which is in fact quite common in enterprises today).

Here are some key data points about the project.

  • Project Name: Client Account Reader Project
  • Project Preparation
  • Project Kick-Off
  • Functional Specifications
  • Development
  • Testing
  • Deployment

As you can see, there are six stages in the project (with underlying tasks which I've not shown) and each of these need to be keyed into Microsoft Project.

3. Start Microsoft Project

First thing you need to do is to fire up Microsoft Project as shown below.

start up microsoft project Start up Microsoft Project

4. Key In High-Level Project Phases

Next, enter the high-level project phases which I've listed out above - project preparation, project kick-off, functional specifications and so forth.

This is shown in the screen below.

key in high-level project phases in microsoft project Key in high-level project phases

5. Key In Detailed Tasks Per Phase

Once you have the high-level project phases keyed in, you need to enter the detailed tasks underneath each phase.

key in detailed tasks in microsoft project Key in detailed tasks

In the sample screenshot above, I've included steps under Project Preparation, Functional Specifications, Development, Testing and Deployment.

How do you come up with these steps? You simply think about your Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Can you further decompose a task into sub-tasks? If you can, break it down further - but don't go overboard.

Tip: Here's a good tip that you should follow when creating a project plan. For each phase of the project (e.g. functional specifications), you should ALWAYS build in a time for creating the work product, a time for reviewing it with stakeholders and a time for signing it off. This is pretty standard practice across all project phases.

6. Assign Durations

Next up, you should assign durations to each task you've entered. Think about how many days that task would take if one person did it (in project management parlance, these are termed "man-days") did it. Key that into the duration column in Microsoft Project.

Tip: If the Duration column cannot be seen, right click on the column headers and choose to include the Duration column.

assign durations in microsoft project Assign task durations

7. Assign Resources

We next have to assign resources for each of the tasks.

Key in the name of the resource (i.e. person) doing each task under the Resources column as shown below.

key in names of resources in microsoft project Key in names of resources

Usually, I'd key in the initials of the person e.g. "John Doe" would be keyed in as "JD". In large projects, you may have teams doing one task, so you may key in something like "Team A" under the Resource column.

Now, there's a whole lot to be said about task durations and resource allocation (e.g. a task lasting 10 man-days would last only 5 man-days if done by 2 persons instead of one). But that's the topic of another article. For now let's assume, we have only one person doing it.

8. Key In Task Dependencies

Next comes the tricky bit. Microsoft Project is excellent at creating task dependencies.

Definition: A task dependency is a connection between one task (Task A) and another task (Task B) such that if Task A's start and end dates change, Task B's start and end dates change as well.

Or at least that's the way I tend to think of task dependencies.

Let's look at an example. In the screen below, Task 9 "Conduct Functional Specification Workshop 3" starts on 2 Jul 2012 and ends on 4 Jul 2012. It's total duration is 3 man-days.

key in task dependencies in microsoft project Key in task dependencies

Now look at the next task (Task 11) "Develop Module 1". Notice the column Predecessors displays 9. What this means is that once "Conduct Functional Specification Workshop 3" completes, "Develop functional specifications" will start, i.e. on 5 Jul 2012.

Does that make sense? Now this is very powerful stuff. You can build this kind of dependency EVERYWHERE in your project, so that if one start date changes, EVERYTHING in your projects gets updated automatically.

Tip: There are also some very clever formulas and syntax around task dependencies. For example, keying in the task number (say Task 9) into the Predecessors column means the current task (say Task 11) starts right after Task 9 completes.

You can extend this idea by keying in "SF + 5d" to mean that the Task 100 starts only after Task 9 completes PLUS 5 working days. If Task 9 completes on 4 Jul 2012, then Task 100 starts only on 12 Jul (which is 12 Jul + 5 working days).

You can also use syntax like "SF + 5m" to mean a task starts only after its predecessor's end date PLUS 5 working MONTHS.

9. Review Project Milestone Dates

Once you have keyed in task dependencies across your project plan, its time to review your project milestone dates.

For example, one of the most important things you need to check is the overall project start date and the end date. Do these meet your intended timeline?

Also, check every single phase in the project to make sure the "mini-milestones" in the project all check out ok.

10. Review the Gantt Chart

The final thing I do in a project plan within Microsoft Project is to review the Gantt Chart. Go to View in the menu and select Tracking Gantt.

review the gantt chart in microsoft project Review the Gantt Chart

If you're on a Windows PC, press and hold "Ctrl" while moving your mouse scroll wheel up and down. This allows you to zoom in and out of the Gantt Chart easily.

What I usually do is to print out the Gantt Chart on a large piece of paper and stick it on my desk. And track that project plan to DEATH :)

Tip: Make sure you set your Project Start date correctly. Go into the menu and select Project Information. Key in the start date of your project there. This tells the program to display the Gantt Chart beginning from that start date. I've had colleagues who could never print out a nice looking project plan because the start date under Project Information was wrong.

Before I end off, I'd like to share a personal experience with you regarding project plans.

Case Study: I was running a core banking project for a bank in Malaysia. There was this Steering Committee meeting with C-level executives and you know what I did? I cut and paste my Gantt Chart from Microsoft Project into my presentation slides.

One of the C-level guys made a snide remark "Hey, an old man like me can't read the small fonts on your project plan".

That taught me a lesson. When placing your Gantt Chart on Powerpoint slides, always aggregate things up. DON'T show the lowest level of task details to your audience, especially if they are senior executives.

In fact, the best thing to do is to draw up a few bars in Powerpoint summarizing the high-level durations and milestones in your plan. That's all the senior executives really need.

Wrapping Up ...

Alrighty then! I hope the above has given you some great insight into creating a simple, functional project plan in Microsoft Project. I suggest you start with simple project plans and learn advanced functionalities later.

In fact, my opinion is that most of the time, all you need is a simple plan. If you rely too much on advanced functionalities, you're probably overcooking or over analyzing things.

So until next time, good luck with your project plan!

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