Why Tasks Should be Banned from Project Scheduling Tools

"Why Tasks Should be Banned from Project Scheduling Tools" by Dan Patterson

My best friend and I meet up once every year and we invariably end up chatting about our mutual passion for project planning. His view is a little extreme but one with enough merit to warrant discussion: “Ban activities and tasks from scheduling tools…” he says. For those of you who use scheduling tools such as MS Project or similar, you will know this is verging on project planning blasphemy.

The whole underpinning of a project schedule relies on activities or tasks tied together with what are known as logic links so as to establish some sort of underlying time sequence. “Oh ditch those too while we are at it…” he adds. Is he crazy? Well yes a little, but his reasoning is interesting. Project execution is ultimately about delivering or creating something (value). The way we do that is to conduct work. Progress on work is modeled using the core building blocks in a scheduling tool including activities and logic links. This is where it all starts to fall apart. Project schedules are heavily geared towards the work needed to create a deliverable rather than the deliverables themselves. As the investor in a project or indeed the buyer of any product, I care less about the work put into the deliverable but more instead about the quality of the deliverable I am paying for.

Wouldn¹t it be better if planning tools focused on deliverables rather than the work needed to deliver them?

Isn’t work (activities) simply a vehicle for delivering? If the deliverable is on time, budget and to quality then why care so much about the work we did to get there? This is especially true in projects that don¹t carry a high degree of logic dependency e.g. software development projects. Give me enough resources and I could embark on every work front on day 1 rather than executing in sequence. In my experience the (mis)use of activity logic to artificially represent resource constraints is unfortunately all too common. Perhaps my friend’s view about banning logic links isn’t so ridiculous!

Giving more focus and emphasis to deliverables in our planning tools would also bring more meaning to the project stakeholders too. I¹d rather know the status of my homebuilding project in context of how far built is the house rather than how busy the builder was when building the house!

Coming back down to earth, there¹s of course a very valid reason why activities and logic continue to be the building blocks in CPM scheduling tools today but perhaps as an industry we should take a step back and consider what it is we really are trying to achieve when planning a project ­ we are trying to forecast delivery of deliverables! That in itself should be enough reason to consider perhaps changing the focus of planning tools from being work-centric to being deliverable-centric. At the end of day, people remember the deliverables long after the work of the project is finished.

When choosing a scheduling tool to manage your project, look for a solution that offers a true distinction between work and scope (i.e. activities and WBS or work breakdown structure elements). While perhaps not as prevalent as some, tools such as Deltek’s Open Plan were built from the ground up not just acknowledging this distinction but actually promoting it. Gain never comes for free and following this more structured approach to scheduling does require you to be more disciplined when defining what is work versus what is a deliverable. Get this distinction right and you will for sure reap the benefits during both planning and execution. When planning and defining work, make sure you always tie back to scope elements so as to ensure true coverage. When tracking progress during execution, don’t just focus on work completed, but instead, examine how much value you have achieved against your defined scope. These two steps will take you a long way towards successfully building a realistic and achievable project plan.

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