How to Use Colors to Create More Powerful Gantt Charts


Project managers often work hours on end to build accurate, thorough Gantt charts, only to notice that stakeholders have difficulties digesting this level of detail or that the team members are unclear about their roles and responsibilities. The problem in such situations may not necessarily be the message, but the way it is presented.

Gantt charts are useful tools for project planning, tracking and reporting, but they can often be overly complex, making them difficult for audiences to understand. This is why, when putting together Gantt chart presentations, paying attention to design and aesthetics is equally important as ensuring data accuracy. A simple, well-designed layout can help project managers successfully communicate essential information to teams, clients and execs.

Red and black colors

          1. Add meaning to project visuals using color semantics

Marketing and graphic design professionals rely massively on aesthetics to influence brand perception and consumer behavior. Similarly, project managers can use color semantics to add further meaning to Gantt chart data, inspire desired reactions, and transmit important messages instantly, without overcrowding the visual.

Although color perception largely depends on personal experience, there are certain hues that have a universal significance. For instance:

  • Red is an attention-grabbing color that usually indicates excitement, action, or danger and can be used to flag urgent, high-priority or problematic tasks.
  • Green inspires optimism and typically suggests the idea of “Safe”, “OK” or “Go ahead”. As an example, tasks that have been completed successfully or planned activities approved by upper management could be marked with this color.
  • Yellow stands for caution or warning and can be used to illustrate potential challenges.
  • Black suggests mystery and makes a good choice for tasks that require further clarification.
  • Blue is a calming color and can be used for tasks that are close to completion.

The following image illustrates just one of the ways the above color semantics can be used to make Gantt charts more meaningful:

Mix of colors

While this example is a good starting point, project managers can create their own systems of color meanings, as long as they are applied consistently throughout project visuals and are easily recognizable by all stakeholders.

          2. Use colors to depict hierarchies and correspondences

An effective Gantt chart should enable audiences to understand any data dependencies or correspondences at a glance. One of the best ways to achieve this is using colors to group objects. For instance, color-coding team members who have similar responsibilities will allow viewers to instantly see the connection between them.

Hierarchy and correspondence colors

Similarly, PMs can use colors to group together related tasks, for a faster comprehension of project processes and dependencies:

Color Dependencies

Aesthetics also play an important role in highlighting data priority. A color ranking that doesn’t represent the information hierarchy may steer the audience’s attention to less important project details. To avoid this, PMs can accentuate priority data - such as main project tasks - using bold hues, while secondary details, such as subtasks, can be marked with lighter, more subtle shades of the same color.

Color Ranking Aestethics

          3. Add contrast to enhance visibility

Of course, we are all trying to create elegant Gantt charts, but these efforts may prove pointless if data is not presented clearly, in an easy-to-understand way. Good color contrast will help audiences to discern important texts or visual elements. For instance, adding a standard black text over a dark blue task bar will most likely make the writing barely legible. Changing the text to white, on the other hand, will make the data easily stand out - as seen in the image below.

Low High Contrast

Last but not least, context and communication channels are also important aspects PMs should keep in mind when creating Gantt charts and other project visuals. For instance, while certain color combinations may seem just right on a certain computer screen, they may not look the same on others, on projectors or in print. Also, some viewers may suffer from vision impairments, and bad lighting and glare can make a chart’s details even more difficult to read. A high color contrast within project visuals will prevent these issues and ensure important data can be easily seen by the audience, regardless of circumstances.

Seemingly minor details can play a major role in ensuring effective project communication. Using colors to define semantics, highlight information hierarchy or dependencies, and improve visibility can help PMs build more powerful Gantt charts and present important data in a convincing, straightforward manner.


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How to Identify and Manage Project Dependencies


English poet John Donne said “no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" – these words capture the realities of project management. No project, task or activity exists in isolation. One way or another, every activity relies on the output of others and contributes to the outcome of a project. The relationships between individual tasks or processes are called “dependencies”.

Keeping a record of all these linked activities and managing them effectively is essential for project planning, scheduling, tracking and execution. In the following article, we will take a brief look at project dependencies to help new PMs identify and tackle them more easily.

The Main Types of Project Dependencies

Dependencies can be classified in a number of ways based on criteria such as the causes behind them, predecessor-successor relationships, and whether the dependency exists between activities within the project or outside of it.

          1. Logical, resource-driven and preferential dependencies
Logical resource-driven and preferential dependencies


Based on what is causing them, dependencies can fall in one of the following three groups:

  • Logical or causal dependencies are those driven by the nature of the project or of the tasks themselves. For instance, a construction team cannot possibly build the first floor of a building without finishing the foundation first. Identifying these dependencies is essential for creating accurate project plans and schedules.

  • Resource-based dependencies occur between tasks that would be accomplished faster or simultaneously if there were more resources available. Where resource constraints are present, there usually are no logical dependencies to dictate the order of activities within a project. As an example, with enough manpower, it is logically possible to paint multiple rooms in a building simultaneously. If there’s only one painter available, however, the rooms will need to be completed one at a time.

  • Preferential or discretionary dependencies refer to tasks that could be completed differently, but their implementation is decided by the team or PM based on convenience or guided by best practices. In our construction example, a room’s ceiling and walls can be painted in any order, but the painter prefers to finish the ceiling first because it's more difficult to work on and he wants to get it out of the way.

While discretionary decisions may not seem that significant, it will make sense to document them, so that the logic behind them is known in future reports and reviews. Otherwise, this logic might be forgotten over time or questioned by clients, executives or any other stakeholders who weren’t initially involved in the task-scheduling process.

          2. Predecessor-successor dependencies
 
Predecesor-successor dependencies

Based on the relationship between the initiation and completion of individual tasks, dependencies can be classified into four major types:

  • FS (Finish to Start) – The predecessor task must be completed before the successor can start.
  • FF (Finish to Finish) – The successor cannot finish before the predecessor task is completed.
  • SS (Start to Start) – The first task must start before the second task can be initiated.
  • SF (Start to Finish) – One task cannot be completed before another one has started.

The most common and logical predecessor-successor relationship is the Finish-to-Start dependency, while Start-to-Finish is the most rarely encountered and may be puzzling to envision. To get a better grasp of SF relationships, it may be useful to think of how shift work is sequenced. If, for instance, a construction site requires 24/7 security services and there are a few guards working in shifts, the current shift cannot end before the relief security officers arrive, as the site would be left unattended.

          3. Internal vs. external dependencies

Internal vs external dependencies

Dependencies can also be classified based on the tasks’ relationship to the project, as follows:

Internal dependencies describe the relationship between two tasks or activities within the same project. The PM and the project team usually have complete control over these activities, and there is no involvement of any external parties. To manage these tasks effectively, discussing them with the project team is essential in order for each member to know exactly how their activities may impact other people’s work. This way, they will be more likely to notify the PM about potential problems, so that the necessary measures can be taken to manage the consequences.

External dependencies define those tasks that are dependent on outside influences, such as vendors, regulatory agencies, or even other projects. PMs and project teams don’t usually have much control (if any) over these dependencies. For instance, before construction workers can start building, renovating or demolishing, it is first necessary to obtain approvals from local authorities. The construction company cannot influence how long it will take the authorities to grant said approvals.

Although external dependencies are outside of a PM’s control, it is important to keep a thorough record of them, as they present risk to the project schedule. Also, it would be a good idea to notify any relevant third parties that the project team depends on them to be able to complete their own work. Explaining to non-project people how any late deliveries on their end can impact the project and encouraging them to provide timely progress updates can help PMs prevent possible issues and make any necessary schedule adjustments.

Tips for More Effective Dependency Management

Managing task dependencies can seem overwhelming for a novice PM, especially considering that any slip may endanger the project. While it is impossible to prevent all potential issues, with good organization, planning and communication, even the most complex projects can be kept under control. Here are a few tips to help beginning project managers handle task dependencies more effectively:

          1. Proper identification

The first step for effective dependency management is brainstorming all possible project dependencies and classifying them accordingly based on the criteria presented earlier. This can be done through a workshop or scheduled team meeting, where all team members - and, if possible, any other relevant parties involved - are brought together to discuss how their activities relate to one another, as well as how they may be affected by outside influences.

A common mistake that should be avoided at this stage is creating dependencies even when there aren’t any. Questioning and challenging the sequence of every step can produce forced or artificial dependencies, which may lead to unnecessary complications and delays.

          2. Recording dependencies

Once all dependent tasks are identified, experienced project managers usually create a comprehensive dependency log for the project, which should include:

  • an ID for each dependency
  • description
  • date
  • the activities or people impacted by the dependency.

Also, it may be a good idea to calculate the probability of something going wrong with the linked tasks and to include an assessment of what would happen if the dependency is not delivered as planned. Alternatively, this data can be added to the risk log.

In addition, it is also worth nominating “owners” for each dependency by naming the person or people who will be responsible for how the linked tasks progress. When it comes to internal project activities, the task owner will usually be the natural dependency owner as well. In the case of external dependencies, such as a reliance on suppliers, someone within the project should be assigned to monitor the relationship with the supplier and ensure everything is on track.

Having a log of all the details mentioned above will prove to be helpful during the project planning and scheduling process, allowing PMs to effectively sequence tasks and develop strategies to minimize and mitigate risks.

          3. Continuous monitoring and control

While identifying and documenting dependencies is important, it is their constant monitoring and control that will ensure the successful delivery of a project. Having a single session at the start of the project to examine dependencies is usually not enough. Therefore, experienced PMs schedule regular meetings to discuss how the linked tasks are progressing, if there are any changes in schedules or requirements, and whether those changes impact the connection between project tasks.

          4. Efficient communication

There is no substitute for good communication when it comes to effective dependency management, and there are two key elements experienced PMs pay attention to:

  • The project team. Ensuring all team members understand their responsibilities and are aligned when it comes to dependencies will help prevent many issues throughout the course of the project. In addition, day-to-day interactions and unity between team members can help resolve dependencies more easily and enable the project to move forward without constant manager intervention.

  • Stakeholders. Engaging with clients and executives regularly and ensuring they understand how all dependencies can influence the project’s progress is important in order to set realistic expectations and avoid unfeasible requests. However, such stakeholders may not be familiar with PM jargon and may feel intimidated by complex Gantt charts or other intricate project management tools. This is why communicating the data using simple, familiar visuals such as PowerPoint slides and color-coding the related tasks can be a more effective way to present project dependencies to non-project audiences.

Project dependencies are inevitable, but managers shouldn’t feel threatened by them. With good communication and organizational skills, PMs can leverage them to their advantage and find effective ways to keep the project on track or even accelerate its execution.


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Showing Appreciation for Project Team Effort

showing appreciation

I just read an email from a highly regarded project management software vendor about showing Valentine's Day appreciation to project team members with Valentine's Day cards. You've got to be kidding. This is not the 2nd grade, where we all make our Valentine's Day mailboxes for our desks out of shoe boxes decorated in red, pink and white. I couldn't believe what I was reading. It probably came from the same person who dreamed up giving participation ribbons or trophies to everyone.

Rewards are good, however, I've been a manager or project manager leading teams for 23 years and prizing has never been my strong point - nor has it ever been a big deal to me. But I do feel strongly about letting the word get out about a job, deliverable or milestone well-done by an individual or team effort on one of my projects. If you do like to give out special prizes or gift cards or Valentine's Day cards to your team... more power to you. It's just not for me. This is why I'd like to discuss alternative types of recognition options as they seem to be lacking in the project management community.

I'm not big on making any reward too personal in nature. People today are too litigious. I'm not saying your team or anyone on it is going to sue you, but people can do unexpected odd things to remain completely above reproach. Therefore, it is more cautious to never get personal. Consider these four staff recognition ideas to show your appreciation for individual or team efforts:

Send out a company wide email

If your team put forth a great effort and met a critical deadline or milestone or just completed a very successful project, don't wait for or expect reward or notice to come from the top of the organization. Send out your own congratulatory email to the entire company or at least to key individuals and call out everyone by name. If possible, give a brief mention of everyone's role in the project and how they contributed to its success.

Take the team out to dinner

It never hurts to take the team out for pizza or a nice dinner once you hit that critical milestone or final project roll-out. You can all breathe a sigh of relief and get together when it isn't about another project meeting or some sort of crisis to deal with in a war room setting. Today's projects, with geographically dispersed teams, make something like this difficult or even impossible, so you likely won't get to use this option often. If you all gather at the client's site for a major deliverable handoff, lessons learned meeting, quarterly review meeting or project roll-out, use that time to get away one evening to do this. I've done that many times and it works great.

Gift cards for extraordinary individual efforts

When it was more of an individual effort, like powering through a project issue crisis or key deliverable, you can still do the company-wide email distribution. But this may also be a situation where a nice gift card would be in order.

Days off

Finally, you can always fall back on the option to give a couple of days off to a project team member for extraordinary effort – if you have the authority or you can work it out with the team member's direct manager... and if you can spare the time off in the project schedule for the individual. No one will mind a day or two off of work, so this option almost always will be well received.

Summary / call for input

I think most project team pros would appreciate recognition similar to what I've listed here more than a Valentine's Day card. At any rate, these have worked well for me on my teams and direct reports. But I do realize everyone is different. Readers – what is your take on my list? What have you tried that has worked well... or hasn't gone over so well? Please share and discuss.


Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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How to Prevent and Solve Project Communication Issues

project manager office meeting

Proper, effective and efficient communication may be the single most important ingredient to project success. I feel strongly that project communication is the most important part of a PM's daily responsibilities and overall good communication is the responsibility of every stakeholder. Drop the ball on communication, and you might be looking at rework, a missed deadline, expenses pushing the project over budget and customer concerns or misunderstandings that can drive a project into the ground – faster than you can ever imagine.

There is no magic wand to wave that will ensure a project won't suffer issues. Even a project that starts out with a formal communication plan in hand and a PM dedicated to staying on top of all communication channels at all times may still suffer from communication breakdowns.

Review status regularly as a team

Since a tightly knit, cohesive team is usually tantamount to success, it would make sense that a team that communicates well, accurately, and frequently is also more likely to experience success and be more productive. Therefore, scheduling team meetings, communication, and task and status reviews regularly is always going to be a good idea. Keep in mind, it doesn't always have to be a meeting. Daily updates via email can be enough to make your team feel like they know everything about the project at any given minute. One of my business analysts on a project – who was also working on three other projects with three other project managers – told me that he received more emails from me than the other Project Managers. He said he always felt like he knew my project status much better because of this, and he knew what tasks he should be working on at any given time.

Keep meetings regular

Regular meetings = a stable stakeholder environment = communications that are comfortable and open. If you are conducting – as you should be – regular project status reviews with the customer or weekly project team meetings to keep the crew focused and up to date, keep those meetings no matter what. Even if there isn't much to say at any given meeting, still conduct it... even if it ends up being a 5 minute talk about what everyone is doing this weekend. You never know when some piece of key project information may slip through the cracks when a meeting is canceled that should have otherwise been held. Plus, when you start to cancel meetings, people who would normally be in attendance may feel that your meetings aren't as critical as others they could be attending and your attendance and participation levels may drop. You've then lost key participants and decision makers, which can be disastrous for the project, and it's often very difficult to rein those individuals back in.

Follow up on key communications

Always, always, always follow up. Making sure everyone is on the same page after meetings, brainstorming synchs, troubleshooting sessions or after any customer communications is critical to moving forward in the right direction. Follow up with notes and ask for a 24-hour turnaround response with any feedback or changes from those involved in the discussions. If something has changed, redistribute your communication with updates and everyone will be back on the same page again.

Summary / call for input

Communication is Job One for the project manager, in my opinion. Keep communication in order, and you've taken huge steps to ensuring project success and top team performance for your customer. If you are experiencing any communication issues on your project, try to identify any communication gaps that may be clouding the team’s comprehension of scope and requirements or, where people aren't aligned after the meetings you're conducting, try the tips above as a way to get things back on track. A strong line of communication with the project client is also a very good way to keep customer satisfaction high and hopefully secure repeat business from your stakeholders.

Readers – what are your thoughts on project communication issues? What do you commonly see as communication problems on the projects and how do you best avoid or mitigate them?


brad egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. Visit Brad's site at www.bradegeland.com







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How to Communicate Project Status to Clients



Here’s something we don’t often think about when working with an external client. Our client probably has no idea of project-management methodology and they most likely don’t know Prince2 or PMBOK or any of the ambiguous vernacular we project managers use. Things like agile, burn down, critical path, earned value, epics, float, scrum, sprints, variance, and work breakdown may be intimidating terminology to non-practitioners. Yet, this is often the language we use when we communicate with them.


Occasionally, our client may be 100% assigned to working-on and managing our project. In cases like this, they may be comfortable with the project management process, however, it is more likely that this person has been assigned to the project because the project is somehow within the broader scope of their responsibilities. Additionally, overseeing the project may only be 5% of that person's overall duties. So, although the project may be strategic to him or her, it is probably not their primary daily function. That is why we shouldn’t expect them to be adept at understanding project management methodology or the terminology of our practice.


Clients like this want us to remember that they are not experts in project management, but that they are professionals with full time jobs in their particular field of business - manufacturing, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. They hired us to be the expert in project management. They want us to communicate and report to them in a way that they can understand; and in a way that is not intimidating and filled with technical project jargon. Our client will have to answer to somebody higher-up in their organization, and that person will also need to be briefed on where your project stands. Clients want us to remember that they have to roll our project reviews and status reports up to their executives in a way their executives can digest them.


In a previous post we wrote about how Project Managers should communicate with their own managers and executives when providing status reports. Many of the same principles apply when communicating with external clients. Here are the top 3 must-dos when communicating with clients:

1. A picture is worth 1K words

Most often our clients are busy people who do not have the time to read text heavy, detailed communications. Graphs, charts and other project visuals can give the client a lot of information. They are also easy for clients to share or distribute within their organization. Including visuals in your communications such as a schedule or small scoreboard will help them understand your report at a glance. Alternatively, if visuals are not possible, presenting your key data on a slide that consists of bullet points and percents will make it more viewable and shareable.

One of the best visual ways to present project status to clients is to use a Gantt chart that also contains percent complete for each task, just like the one below.


2. Less detail is better

We are quite competent at producing richly detailed reports and communications. We are, after all, in a detail management profession, so communicating everything from budget and schedules to sprints and resources, is natural to us. Also, delivering this much detail may seem like we are demonstrating control and accountability. A smarter approach is to just provide a summary of key data that gives the status or health of the project at that particular moment. Of course, you will have the rich detail in case your client wants to drill down, however, it is better to start with a high-level summary and then bring in the detail when asked.

3. Watch your language

When communicating with clients, do so as if you were talking to a non-technical person in your organization, perhaps a marketing person or an admin. When preparing reports or client communications, you should assume that it will go beyond your immediate client, to a wider audience, or that your client will need to digest your report and roll-it up to their management. For these reasons, it makes sense to clean out any heavy terminology that we use in our daily work, or that our project management tools and applications spit out. Instead, communicate in a clear, neutral way that is easy for non-project audiences to understand.

Much of this comes down to being respectful of our client’s time and priorities. They are busy people, working on other important things. They do not have the time to try and digest long communications, nor may they have the capacity or desire to understand the project management world and the cryptic language we speak. Adapting our communications styles to fit their needs will make us more valuable professionals and it will increase the visibility of our work at the customer.


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