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Project Expert: From List Maker to Project Manager

CIOs should go beyond list making and note taking and use the project management tools at their disposal.

Project planning, scheduling and controlling: Does a project manager need to perform these processes with a project management tool like MS Project, or is it OK to just keep track of a project in Excel or Word? Is it possible for project managers to deliver projects on time and on budget without using a project management tool?

In our work, we often encounter these questions from clients. But ultimately they skirt the issue: When project managers don't use dedicated tools to track and manage projects, it indicates that they don't have the education or training they should.

Managing Without a Toolbox

Using Word or Excel in project management certainly has implications for the entire business, including a lack of visibility into resource availability, project status and overall portfolio health. From a project perspective, the main consequence of not using a project management tool is that you don't have a true schedule, so you're just managing tasks. This is risky business if your project is large or has constrained resources, hard deadlines, or many dependencies.

Why wouldn't project managers use a tool if they have access to one? When project managers are untrained in project management, they often fail to use tools because they don't understand the value of following best practices. They say things like, "I don't have time to plan" or "I don't like the scheduling tool because it alters my dates." We believe that these managers don't have the skills or desire to improve their approach; they just want to get the work done. Most of these project managers end up building a task list in Word or Excel or even writing it by hand. We think of these folks as "note takers and list makers," not true project managers.

Well-trained and seasoned project managers preside over projects using planning and scheduling best practices, tasks that are best handled with dedicated project management tools. One of our project management consultants, for example, chose to decline an assignment because he believed our client would not allow him to plan correctly.

Whether the project takes 200 hours or 20,000 hours, the steps to creating a best practices schedule are the same. Devising smaller project schedules just doesn't take as long. Whether the project is low risk and small or high risk and large, we always follow these steps:

  1. Create a work breakdown structure that captures all the work to be done.
  2. Define tasks, milestones and deliverables.
  3. Define and assign project dependencies.
  4. Allocate human resources for tasks based on skills and availability.
  5. Schedule the project using a scheduling tool to determine the completion date.

If your project managers rely on Word or Excel as their only tools, chances are you need to transform them from list makers into real project leaders. That will happen when your project managers follow these best practices for all projects, and it will put them on their way to becoming seasoned project managers who demand time to plan projects rather than claiming they don't have time to plan.

Michael Vinje and Michelle Burke are principals at Trissential, a management consulting firm based in Minneapolis. Write to them at

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