Using Microsoft Project as a Dynamic Tool

Now that Microsoft Project seems less terrifying and more approachable, in concept at least, there’s another stumbling block.

When I consider the word “project,” the first thing that springs to mind is a middle-school science project, all spiffy for the science fair. The project is the finished product. And to an extent, taken in the context of business, it’s the same kind of thing: a successful project is your desired end-point.

So then you have this tool named Project. And I tend to tie my associations with “end product, final results” to that tool. My first impulse is to reduce Project, in my mind, to a presentation tool.

Microsoft Project can do that. It has reporting and visualization capabilities that let project team members check in, in a nice, visual way, on the status of their project. But the reporting and graphing functionalities inherent in Project also let PMs share proof of project (and process) success to executives. As I understand it, this capacity enables PMs to justify their processes, their project management techniques, and perhaps the projects themselves to high-level stakeholders, the people who decide if a process or project continues or is funded in the future. So Microsoft Project can be an effective vehicle for showcasing a satisfactory finished product.

But I have to rearrange my thinking so that I don’t regard Project as merely a platform for demonstrating my project’s success. Project should not be considered a shiny but ultimately underused resource. Project is a tool. Tools get dirty. You might like the way all your wrenches and hammers and widgets look hanging up on their pegs on the workshop wall, these impressive resources that have the potential to help you create something awesome, but unless you take them down and actually use them, you’re not going to produce much of anything.

Microsoft Project isn’t just for show. You don’t load it onto your computers simply to have an impressive but unused showpiece in your PM arsenal. You have to really put it to work to make a project successful. Only when you have used these nifty resources like SharePoint and Microsoft Project will you have a good-looking finished product to proudly display.

We think nothing of scribbling down notes on napkins when inspiration strikes during a lunch meeting. We get back to the office and fire off a quick email to our colleagues with this kernel of an idea. We throw together a quick spreadsheet to help us organize our thoughts about the idea. We don’t agonize over ensuring that the wording in these working documents is exactly right, that the format is lovely, that everything is simply perfect before we get the ideas down on paper. Or virtual paper. We recognize when we’re sending emails back and forth, when we’re making a draft document, when we’re jotting things down on Post-Its, that these are dynamic, working documents meant to facilitate the forward movement of whatever inspiration has struck us.

Microsoft Project is meant to be a dynamic tool, too. You don’t have to wait until a spreadsheet is perfect to link it to Project. You don’t have to perfect the input before you use Project to forecast the output. Project is just another working tool in your project management workshop to help you reach your objective.

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