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How to Define Tasks for MS Project

Jan 21, 2008
Training is an important step in learning to use Microsoft Project. It is a complicated piece of software which is very powerful but can be frustrating to the new user. Instructor-led courses let users get proficient with the software much more quickly than self-study will.

However MS Project training courses teaches students how the use the software and not how to plan projects. Slapping in arbitrary and unrealistic schedules simple makes Project an effective way to track the company's downfall.

Let's start with the basics: proper task definition. All projects break down to individual tasks assigned to individual people and if the tasks are not well characterized the plan is doomed to fail.

Think In Hours Not In Weeks
One of the most common mistakes new project planners make is to define the tasks far too broadly. If the plan has a task such as "Write documentation - 2 months" then there is no way that task will be completed on time.

When a planner creates such a large task then no thought has been given to the individual steps the task comprises and that means that several steps are inevitably going to get left out. This leads to additional work as forgotten elements are retro-fitted into a finished or nearly finished product.

Large tasks are also difficult to track. When the documentation task inevitably runs late, the manager will likely have no idea what the problem is, what can be done to speed things up, or when the real finish date is going to be.

Instead, each task must be broken down into small steps measured in hours - no more than 16 hours or two business days each.

This forces the planner to think about what is really involved in something like writing documentation. Not only the writing but the research, formatting, creation of diagrams, indexing, proofreading, and a host of other features are now laid out allowing a more realistic estimate of how long the project will really take.

The Worker, Not The Manager, Estimates Task Completion
When managers impose arbitrary task deadlines on their staff, the project plan might as well be run through the shredder. Employees are the best judge of what they are capable of doing. A manager might think drawing up the widget design plans takes only 4 hours; the actual designer knows that 4 hours of drawing means another 2 of editing and changes and 1 of other ancillary activities so the project will really take 7 hours.

If a project is going to take 7 hours then scheduling 4 leads to missed deadlines, unhappy employees, and cranky project managers.

MS Project Training Is Only The First Step
It is a long journey to become truly proficient with MS Project. Training is a big help but no substitute for experience and appropriate project management techniques. When combined with common sense it becomes a powerful tool for any business.
About the Author
Author is a freelance copywriter. For more information on MS+Project+training, please visit http://www.microsofttraining.net
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