The Gantt Chart – The Electric Guitar of Project Portfolio Management

Do you know what a Gantt chart is? No? You’re sure? We think that you probably do. Try a thought experiment (or just scroll down and see our solution):

Imagine you have 5 tasks to perform. For each task you need some time to complete it:

  • Task 1: 0.5 hours
  • Task 2: 1.5 hours
  • Task 3: 1 hour
  • Task 4: 2 hours
  • Task 5: 1 hour

You cannot complete task 5 until you have completed task 4. You can complete tasks 1 and 2 at the same time. Now consider how you can plan your day graphically – don’t think about it too hard, just start. Draw something on a piece of paper. See our examples below.

On the second picture you can see a Gantt chart – tasks on the X axis, time on the Y axis. The bars show when each task is completed and the duration. Even if you have followed a different approach in the thought experiment, we are pretty sure that you have seen something like this before. Perhaps the arrow from task 4 to task 5 is new to you, but it shows the dependency between the two tasks.

What you may not yet know is what a powerful tool Gantt charts have become for project portfolio management. It was invented in 1890 by Karol Adamiecki whose work was published in Polish and Russian (a similar approach was developed by Henry Gantt, published in English and hence the name that we know). This was useful from the beginning, but there were also considerable disadvantages: Gantt diagrams are relatively easy and fast to create, but, every change, no matter how small, forced you to redraw the whole diagram.

Today, on a computer screen, that doesn’t matter anymore. Point & Click, Drag & Draw, Copy & Paste … the computer is the perfect tool to rock with Gantt charts. This is especially true for project portfolio management. Project management without Gantt charts is like a heavy metal concert without electric guitars – you can do still do the show, but it’s definitely not as good! To explain why, let’s take a look at the four major advantages of Gantt charts for project portfolio management:

Gantt diagrams show time sequences intuitively and understandably, at a glance

Clarity is one of the most important advantages of the Gantt chart. You don’t need training to understand what is happening when, and which project is scheduled for which deadline. The most important information is intuitive and accessible at a glance. You can also see immediately when tasks overlap, when a lot is happening and when not. This often gives initial ideas for problem solving – but more about this to follow. Above all, however, this clarity and simplicity avoids mistakes! More complicated tools and presentation methods can often produce exactly that – error. Especially when it gets stressful and they are complex to use.

Modern, computer-generated Gantt diagrams often show more information on screen (and in print), than “just” what is done when. However, this is only useful when the original representation remains clear. This suggests a good rule of thumb – if the Gantt isn’t immediately clear, it’s likely that someone has done something wrong…

Rule of thumb:

Gantt diagrams must remain clear. If this is not the case, somebody has done something wrong!.

 

Gantt diagrams show dependencies between projects

Take a look at our scribbled Gantt chart. The arrow from task 4 to task 5 shows that task 5 can only be tackled when task 4 is completed. Here, too, we see how easy it is to interpret Gantt diagrams. One look and you see what’s going on. The fact that such dependencies are part of Gantt charts is a blessing for project portfolio management, as it is the information you absolutely need to plan your portfolio. If there are a lot of dependencies, the arrows on paper can get confusing (and violate our rule of thumb). Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a problem on-screen, as violated dependencies should be highlighted clearly. This should prevent you from accidentally planning to boil an egg that has yet to be laid…

Some products, including Meisterplan, can limit the display of dependencies to only those that are relevant to a selected project. This can cut through a cluttered set of dependencies very effectively.

Gantt charts show the key properties of projects

At the risk of repeating ourselves: Gantt diagrams are (and always should be) tidy and clear. This makes it possible to visualise a lot of other critical information and make them intuitively accessible.

For example, in Meisterplan users arrange the projects according to priority – the more important the project, the higher it is in the list. That sounds unspectacular at first, but it’s incredibly important. If project management without a Gantt chart is like a metal concert without an electric guitar, then project portfolio management without project prioritisation is like a metal concert without a band – you can go there, but it won’t be every enjoyable and you’d be better off staying at home.

In addition, you can colour the projects differently depending on which data you are particularly interested in. Here are a few examples of project properties that you can highlight in Meisterplan:

  • Consistency with strategic objectives
  • Business objective (run the business – change the business – grow the business)
  • Risk level
  • Status (e.g. critical – needs attention – steady)
  • Stage Gate (e.g. Initiation – Planning – Execution – Closure)
  • Number of resources on project
  • Role/resource allocation
  • And many other attributes that you can create!

Gantt charts are great for efficient problem solving

If something does not fit anywhere in a Meisterplan schedule, you can see it immediately and at a glance (red warning lines). Additionally, you can also see quite easily where not much is going on. So, the solution is often simply found by taking a project and moving it to a quieter period. Or adjust the project duration of another project. Or rethink the priorities of your projects. All this with a simple mouse-click by moving, expanding, shortening or splitting projects. And, in order not to ruin your existing plan whilst experimenting, you simply create a new scenario for experimental scheduling, until you have found the optimal solution.

In summary – Gantt charts are incredibly useful for project portfolio management and resource planning. Also, Mr Gantt (and/or Mr Adamiecki) seems to have foreseen the invention of the computer screen and the mouse.