Also, Dude, ‘Fixed Resources’ is Not the Preferred Nomenclature … ‘Fixed Units,’ Please

I was preparing to dive back into Microsoft Project and get back to budgeting my task resources for my next entry, when I got an IM from Tim Cermak, who is one of my spirit guides on this "reluctant PM" journey.

He noted that, in Microsoft Project, you don't have "fixed resources," as I wrote in my last entry. You have "fixed units." It's a good thing for all of us that Tim and Dux are looking over my shoulder, or I'd be leading you astray in these pages.

I asked Tim if the concept is the same – are "units" the same thing as resources? He said yes. He told me that "fixed units" is the default setting out-of-the-box (OOTB), so unless you tell Project otherwise, it's going to count your resources – units – people working on a task – as the fixed thing. Does that make sense?

Whenever I talk to Tim about this blog project, we talk for a minimum of an hour, largely about the conceptual stuff that I find endlessly fascinating. Normally a conversation with Tim yields four or five blog entries. It's awesome.

I told Tim that I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the equations allocating units, duration, and work. He said it can be really tough for "regular" people like me who haven't been schooled in PM principles. I guess it'll just take a lot of practice projects for me to begin to assess and allocate like a real PM, and for the mindset to feel more natural and automatic.

Tim said that the Duration Equation can be especially tricky for some folks. In my last entry, I defined Task Duration as "how long each task is going to take – the starting point, the end point, and the points in between." He said that was spot-on and, if I may toot my own horn for a moment, he said it was a great explanation that some folks with more PM experience wouldn't have been able to explain as well. I would love to take credit as some kind of PM savant, but really, it's just that the duration of a task seems pretty cut-and-dried for me. Tim said to tuck into my back pocket that a number of things can make duration considerably less cut-and-dried: resource calendars, task calendars, and other things affect the scheduling algorithm within Microsoft Project, and all those things combine to make up the Duration Equation.

Tim said one really good example of a fixed duration task is baking a cake: If the instructions say you should bake it at 325 degrees F for 50 minutes, you can't increase the heat to 425 degrees for 30 minutes and expect the same results.

An example of fixed units, on the other hand, is the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was the sole, fixed unit on the fresco task of the Sistine Chapel project. The duration was variable according to how much Michelangelo worked – he would have finished earlier had he sunk more work/effort into the task, and finished later if he'd slacked off and expended less work/effort. The work/effort and duration were fluid and dependent on each other, but the unit, Michelangelo, remained constant throughout the task of painting the ceiling of the church.

And of course, then you have fixed work, which is the effort, or man-hours that go into a task. I have recently acquired an intern to help me over the summer, and he has committed to putting in about 20 hours a week working on what I have for him. The tasks I give to him are things on which he will not work for more than 20 hours a week. Therefore, the work is the fixed variable.

I know I explained this all last week, but I got it (a little bit) wrong. And I figure that if I'm having trouble grasping the concept when you look at it in greater depth than just fixing one or another simple variable, it might behoove other people who aren't necessarily PMPs to have a review. We'll get back to working on our projects in Microsoft Project shortly, I promise. But let's make sure we have the concepts down pat so we actually know what to do with Project when we open it up and it's staring us in the face, yes?

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