I’ve written before about using MS Project in your life as a project manager, extolling the virtues of the application and how it helps project managers from a scheduling and resource management perspective. While MS Project can be a great tool for forecasting dates and rolling up values, I find that when doing tactical, day-to-day project management that it may not be the best (read: easiest, most configurable, cost effective) tool. When managing estimates, actuals, statuses and even assignments, I tend to utilize an Excel spreadsheet.
With Excel, you are getting a fully customizable tool that can be augmented to do exactly as you need. I tend to draw the line at reinventing the wheel (I wouldn’t recommend building a Gantt chart in Excel when MS Project can do it for you) however with the never ending need to collect and display project metrics in varying fashions (depending on the organization you work for) Excel provides a very attractive option. While MS Project does a great job in providing built-in formula calculations for PM-specific metrics (such as CPI, SPI, % complete, etc) there may be (and usually are) additional metrics that you as a project manager may want to define and report on. While this can technically be accomplished in MS Project with a deep understanding of user defined fields, Excel provides a fast and easy to use alternative.
With Excel there are a lot of “baked-in” pieces of functionality that you can leverage to build out a tactical project management sheet. Features such as data validation (effectively building a drop-down list), color-coding of cells (for example: highlighting problem areas in calculated fields) make Excel a very attractive option for preparing worksheets that can automate project dashboard reporting – a very handy tool when presenting to senior managers who don’t have time to digest all the nitty gritty details.
Specific Uses in Tactical Project Management
Some specific examples of how Excel can be used as an easy-to-use alternative to MS Project for the day to day management of projects include:
Budget Management – when providing updates on project budgets, actuals and variances there is no match for how fast Excel can allow you to build an output that can be used in management reports
Work Item Tracking – if you don’t have an enterprise solution for task management (such as TFS or JIRA), Excel can fill this void quite nicely and quickly. You can quickly build out a list of work items that cover the scope of your project and begin your tactical management of those items.
Every project manager likes to do things in a way that suits them best. Often times the nature of the project itself will dictate what tools will work the best. It’s important to know what efficiencies can be realized out of each tool as well as rely on past experiences to help guide the project manager to effectively track progress and provide the level of detail necessary. Remembering that a tool is only as good as the project manager using it is key – the best tools in the world are not meant to be a replacement from providing effective project leadership.