Download Excel free tracking and planning templates along with presentation-ready versions. Learn how to use Excel for visual project management.
If you prefer Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to manage your projects, you’re not the only one. Even if Excel was not designed as a specialized PM tool, and despite the myriad of specialized project management tools out there, Excel still has what it takes to be the project planning go-to solution for many project managers.
What makes Microsoft Excel a popular project management tool? Not only is it familiar and accessible, but it’s a convenient way to get the job done when you work with simple projects – no headaches, no high costs.
On this page, you will find info on how to use Excel spreadsheets as project management tools for data tracking, reporting and visualization. You’ll learn how to make Gantt charts, timelines, project planners and trackers in Excel and use them to manage your projects, and you will get a head start with free presentation-ready templates.
What role does the visual component play in project management?
In project management, communication and collaboration can make the difference between project approval and disapproval or between the success and failure of a project. From the perspective of communication and collaboration, visual project management is one of the most efficient project management styles.
Why? Because it integrates data-related project management activities and tools, such as data analysis, reporting, and collaboration tools with visual thinking methods and data visualization tools.
Besides managing, analyzing, reporting and tracking large volumes of project-related data, project managers are expected to communicate their work to teams and stakeholders in an effective, concise, clear and quick way.
Visualization of large amounts of complex data and processes transforms them into simple, actionable items. Lengthy, text-based project communication reports are in the past.
The visual approach allows project managers to provide real-time concise views of the project’s status, project trackers, issue management, risk management and reporting tools. The goal is to provide the best possible informed environment for a successful decision-making process.
Office Timeline helps you quickly turn complex project data into clear PowerPoint graphics that are easy to follow, but hard to forget.
The main inbuilt tools in Excel for data visualization are charts. Depending on the data you work with and the aspects you need to highlight, there are a number of built-in chart types that you can use to visualize project data in Excel and that you can access directly by going to the Charts section under Insert on the Excel ribbon.
Column charts (vertical bars) – used to compare data across categories;
Bar charts – similar to column charts, but with horizontal bars;
Line charts – show data changes over time;
Pie charts – show proportions or percentages;
Area charts – show the magnitude of the data over time;
Scatter plots (sets of dots representing values) – show the relationship between two numerical variables;
Waterfall charts – show how an initial value is affected by a series of positive and negative values;
Stock charts – a stock chart is used to visualize the price movements of a stock or other financial instrument over time;
Combo charts – combination chart combines two or more chart types in a single chart to emphasize different kinds of information.
There are other, more complex charts that you can use in Excel to illustrate multiple aspects of project data sets at once. Some of these are:
Gantt charts – best for showing planned work versus actual status;
Timelines – for chronological tracking of tasks and milestones;
Strategic roadmaps – to show a concise project overview;
Swimlane diagrams – to show the flow of activities and who is responsible for each activity.
Being more complex than the basic built-in Excel charts, these visuals require some extra work to build, but are more versatile and work better for project planning and tracking.
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Gantt charts are an efficient method of visualizing and tracking project progress. They show activities and tasks and their corresponding timeframes in a simple and clear format. Gantt charts are especially useful for complex projects that involve multiple tasks or require a lot of coordination.
To make Gantt charts in Excel, you can use bar charts. But first, you’ll need to organize your data in a table, breaking down the project into tasks, and specifying start and end dates. Then you can just insert a stacked bar chart based on this table and format it to look more like a Gantt chart, as needed. Detailed steps of this process are described in our tutorial on how to make a Gantt chart in Excel.
However, this whole process takes a lot of time, energy and creative effort. To save your resources, check out our presentation-ready, free Gantt chart templates for project management. These are professional-looking templates, tailored for specific project management needs.
A timeline is a type of chart that illustrates a series of events in chronological order over a linear timescale. Using a timeline allows you to break down your project into manageable chunks, understand critical milestones, identify areas that need improvement and easily track the progress of your project.
There are several ways to make timelines in Excel, and you can find some step-by-step instructions in our tutorial on how to make a timeline in Excel.
For an easy start with timelines, you can use templates. In Excel, find timeline templates under File > New, by typing “timeline” in the Search for online templates box. Or find Excel and PowerPoint templates in our gallery of professional timeline templates for project management.
A roadmap is a concise, high-level graphic representation of the project goals with an overview of the deliverables within a timeframe. Roadmaps provide an overall view of the product or project planning strategy. Their main role is to align the involved parties (teams, executives, clients) on one vision, showing the product’s journey over time.
Building a roadmap in Excel implies organizing your data in a table and creating tasks and milestones. Use SmartArt or format shapes individually to customize them as needed and distribute them logically to illustrate your project progress and trajectory. Find out more on how to make a roadmap in Excel in our detailed tutorial.
To save time, project managers often resort to templates. Since the roadmap templates range is limited in Excel, we’ve put together several roadmap templates for project management in Excel and PowerPoint to help you successfully jumpstart your next project.
A swimlane diagram is a cross-functional flowchart divided into lanes by group, individual, or sub-process. Swimlane diagrams help visualize the tasks each person or group is responsible for in complex projects.
Why do you need swimlane diagrams in project tracking? When projects require the collaboration of multiple departments or teams, visuals usually get intricated and confusing, and project tracking becomes a nightmare. Swimlane diagrams show clearly who does what.
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Find here answers to the frequently asked questions on using Excel for project management.
Yes, you can use Excel to manage simple projects, especially if your team is small and you want to save money. Excel is not specifically designed to manage projects, but it can handle many project management tasks, such as planning and tracking resource usage, budgeting, and managing day-to-day tasks. Excel can create project specific visuals, such as timelines and Gantt charts, to help you map out project plans and track project phases.
No, Excel does not have a predesigned dedicated project management tool. However, Excel can be used as a tool for basic project management of small to midsize projects. You can efficiently organize, store, analyze and visualize data in Excel. It also offers a series of predesigned project trackers and planners. You just need to access File, then New, and go to the Search for online templates box, then select one of the suggested searches, such as Planners and trackers or Charts.
Find more ideas of tools in our gallery of free project management templates.
While Excel works well as a project management tool for small and medium sized projects, when you deal with vast amounts of data or multiple projects, you might find that Excel cannot keep up. For example:
Data processing is time-consuming. Finding, updating, and double-checking large quantities of project information might take too much time with Excel.
Calculation and data-entry accuracy issues. When complexity increases, it might exceed Excel’s capacity. When the data amount is large, calculations need automation. In Excel, a small data-entry or formula error can produce inaccurate results and compromise the entire project.
Excel has limitations with complex projects. Advanced projects need better time tracking, expense tracking, dashboards, reports, visuals that are not available in Excel, but are critical to effective project management.
Too much information, limited visualization capacity. Team members and stakeholders see the same spreadsheet but need different information. Creating tailored views is hard in Excel. It might be a good idea to use a specialized add-in, such as Office Timeline. It can transform complex data into professional-looking charts and timelines without requiring a lot of work or effort. Office Timeline automatically generates project management visuals, offers advanced, such as swimlanes, dependencies and critical path, and easy data handling, with copy-pasting option or importing/exporting to Excel. Try Office Timeline for free for 14 days.
Yes, Excel does have several project plan templates. To find them, access File, then New, and go to the Search for online templates box. You can find project plan templates if you access the Planners and Trackers predefined category but, for more targeted results, just type “project plan” in the search box. You’ll get several predesigned project plan templates that you can customize and use as needed.
You can find more visual project planning ideas and other project planning tools in our free, presentation-ready templates gallery.
There are several ways to keep track of tasks and projects in Excel, depending on the complexity of your needs and the amount of data. Here are a few suggestions:
Make project trackers from simple tables. You can organize your projects and tasks in a table, for example, you can make columns for categories such as task name, due date, status, or other relevant information. Use filters to sort the table and have a clear image of certain groups’ status. For more advanced functionalities, use a PivotTable to summarize and analyze your task data, for example, how many tasks are assigned to each team member, how many tasks are in progress, how many are completed, etc.
A Gantt chart is a good visual task tracker. You can use the Gantt chart templates in Excel or create your own Gantt chart in Excel as a stacked bar chart.
Use a timeline to track tasks and milestones, as well as their dependencies and see the progress of your project. You can use the timeline templates in Excel or create your own. Find out detailed info on how to make a timeline in Excel.
For efficient tracking, it’s important to keep your task lists up to date, so you can quickly see the project’s progress. For example, when tracking info about what was done, what needs to be done and by whom, what was planned vs. the actual status, any inaccurate info might have an impact on the project status overview.
To organize a project in Excel, you need to create a logical, ordered structure that makes it easy to find and analyze the information you need. The typical way to organize a project in Excel is to use separate worksheets within a workbook for different types of information, such as task lists, Gantt charts, resource allocation, budgeting, and risk management. You can then create a master worksheet that correlates all the data, acting as a dashboard to show the project overview.
Tips to make your work easier and more efficient:
Use templates. You can find templates in Excel and online that will make it easier and faster to get started and organize your data in a more professional way for specific project processes.
Use calculation, filtering and formatting tools in Excel. Formulas help automating the calculation and analysis processes. Filtering and sorting capabilities can be used to quickly find and analyze specific information. Conditional Formatting highlights important information and can help you quickly identify problem areas.
Create a clear and consistent layout. Use a consistent layout for your worksheets. This includes a consistent use of headings, subheadings, and formatting. Thus, any information will be easier to identify and share with others.
Use meaningful names. Give your worksheets and columns meaningful and descriptive names. This will make it easier to understand the purpose of the worksheet or column at a glance.
Keep your data updated and clean. To keep your analysis accurate, make updates when needed and keep your data free from errors, blank cells, etc.
The more you can structure your information in a logical and easy-to-use manner, the more effectively you'll be able to manage your project.
Managing multiple projects in Excel can be a little difficult, but with a bit of organization and planning, it can be done. You can create separate worksheets for each project and a master spreadsheet. For each project, create a separate worksheet that includes information such as the planned tasks, resource allocation, budget planning and tracking, risk management reports, etc.
Also create a master spreadsheet that contains a summary of all of your projects. You can include here concise info such as project name, project manager, start date, end date, and overall progress corresponding to each project. Thus, you’ll have a high-level view of all of your projects, and you’ll be able to quickly identify and act on any issues or delays. Including graphs and charts could be a good idea.
As the number of projects increases, it might become harder to manage all the data. In this case, consider using specialized project management software that comes with the built-in capacity to handle multiple projects, and includes extra features such as resource scheduling, calendars, and reporting.
Also, visualization of all the information might get complicated. If creating visuals for multiple projects gives you a hard time, you might want to consider using a specialized add-in, such as the Office Timeline tool. It can offer you the needed leverage to successfully handle communication with multiple stakeholders without headaches. Try Office Timeline for free.
Excel is a tool that can be used for project management for simple projects in multiple ways. It offers data computation, analysis and graphing tools. Since you’ll need to generate, calculate, analyze, track and report data that target various sides of a project, you can use different spreadsheets in the same workbook to help you create planners, trackers and reports. These are some of the items that you can cover:
Task lists. Create task lists that include the task name, assigned person, start date, end date, and status (for example, not started, in progress, completed). This will give you a clear overview of what needs to be done, who is responsible, and the progress of each task.
Resource allocation. Use Excel to track the allocation of resources (for example, people, equipment) to different tasks. You can create a spreadsheet that shows which resources are needed for each task and when.
Budgeting and cost tracking. You can create a spreadsheet that shows projected costs and actual costs and use formulas to calculate the difference.
It's worth mentioning that, for complex projects or if you handle multiple projects, there is also specific project management software which can simplify the process and could be more efficient than using Excel, although you’ll need a paid subscription.
A project template in Excel is a reusable, prebuilt worksheet that helps you quickly set up a new project without starting from scratch. It also helps you ensure that you include as much as possible of the information that’s needed in a project and that you don’t overlook important items.
Here are some steps to create a project template in Excel:
Gather the information. Before you begin creating your template, list the info you need to include for your projects - things like project name, project manager, start and end dates, task lists, resource allocation, budgeting, risk management reports, etc.
Create a separate worksheet for each type of information. For example, on a worksheet you could include a task list in a Gantt chart, on other separate worksheets, budget reports, project planners, project status reports, milestone trackers, project trackers and so on until you include all the planning and tracking tools that you estimate you might need for your projects.
Create a consistent layout for all of the worksheets. Think about including the same type of headings, subheadings, etc. A consistent look will make things clearer and the information easier to identify.
Include a master worksheet to use as a dashboard. This worksheet should be a project overview and should bring on the same page all the main pieces of information. Include graphs and charts to make it visually suggestive and link each item to the corresponding sheet in the workbook. Thus, every time you update the reports and trackers, the dashboard will be automatically updated.
Remember that a template is only a starting point, and it will need customization and updating in order to meet the specific needs of your project.
You can look for existing project management templates directly in Excel by accessing File, then New and typing in the Search templates online box. Or find more free, presentation-ready templates in our project management template gallery.