MS Project – 5 Common Mistakes when creating a Project Plan

A Project Plan is critical to any Project, but there are some common mistakes that people make.

When is comes to creating a Project Plan, Microsoft Project is one of the best tools to use, but I often see people making the same mistakes.  I taught myself how to use MS Project so I made quite a few mistakes along the way and in some cases I kept on repeating them as I knew no better, but years of Project Management and creating Project Plans means I have learnt the Do’s and more importantly the Don’ts! 

Here’s my top 5 most common mistakes that I see people making when creating Project Plans:

1 – Manually Scheduled Tasks

If you’re new to using MS Project, then you might not know that all new tasks are set to be manually scheduled.  This means that MS Project will not automatically update the task date or duration (and other things) when a predecessor changes.   In fact, what MS Project does is fixes the task date and creates a constraint, so it wont move if a preceding tasks date changes. 

If your tasks are manually scheduled then every time a change is made, you will have to go into all those tasks and analyse them! Who wants that?!?! 

Automatically Scheduled tasks will be scheduled based on the Project Start Date, Dependencies, Calendar and Resource settings. These tasks are going to move themselves if any one of these changes. 

At the beginning of any Project, make sure you change your settings to “Auto Schedule – Task dates are calculated by MS Project” using the selection at the bottom left of your screen.

2 – Date Constraints

Even if you have set all of your tasks to Automatically Scheduled, you can still create yourself a date constraint by accident by simply typing in a date to a task.  

A lot of people start off their project by adding tasks and then typing in dates to those tasks, the problem is as soon as you type in a date you place a constraint of “Must start on” on your task.  This task will now not move if any of its predecessors move as MS Project will honour the “Must start on” constraint date.  

Instead, get into the habit of following these steps:

1 – Set a Project Start Date

2 – List out your Tasks with durations (you can leave out durations here if you wish)

3 – Create your dependencies (links)

The only date that you need to manually type in is the Project Start Date, this way MS Project is automatically scheduling your tasks and you’re not accidently creating yourself constraints.  

3 – Adding Constraints to Summary Tasks

Don’t be tempted to add any form of constraints to your Summary Tasks.   They do what they say on the tin, they are summaries! 

The tasks that sit within your Summary Task will drive the Start Date, End Date, Work, Duration and Percent Complete of your Summary task.  If you feel the need to link your summary task, then stop and rather link the tasks that sit within it.  By linking your Summary task, you will make it difficult to follow the logic, you may also find that you will create yourself circular logic and find yourself in a pickle! 

4 – Missing Holidays

Don’t assume that MS Project knows you have a weeks shut-down at Christmas or that you’ll be shut on a bank holiday!!  Before you finalise your plan, you need to ensure you’ve included all holidays and shut downs into your Project Calendar.  It’s so frustrating when you’re working nicely to plan only to realise that you’ve planned to work over the easter bank holiday and all of a sudden, you’re 2 days off plan!! 

Make sure you update your Project Calendar as well as individual Resource Calendars prior to finalising your plan.  To do this, select “Project” Tab on the ribbon and then chose “Change Working Time”

5 – Setting a Baseline

If you don’t set a baseline then you don’t have a plan…simple.  A Baseline is there to give you an agreed starting point to refer back to, otherwise how can you say if you’re on plan or not?!?

Once your plan has been agreed with all the stakeholders, the first thing you should do is set a Baseline.   This allows you to track your plan easily and visually without having to refer back to an older version to see what the original dates were (if you even have one saved).  

To set your Baseline, select the “Project” Tab on the ribbon and then chose “Set Baseline”.   You can view your baseline on the Gantt Chart or insert the Baseline columns.

As my final Bonus Tip, make sure you get buy-in to your plan prior to launching your Project.  Yes, the stakeholders will have to buy-off your plan, but more importantly so do the resources that are doing the work!

Don’t find yourself in a position where your resources are telling you after launch that your timescales are unrealistic, create the plan with them, or at least with an expert in that field. As a Project Manager you are not expected to know everything, you need to use the knowledge from your experts!