Launched in 1986, Microsoft Project was one of the first project management software to be made available to the common public. With an Excel-like interface and WYSIWYG Gantt charts, it quickly rose to prominence. Today, it has become the defacto standard with 66% of the market share and millions of users.
However, times have changed. There are a lot of better alternatives to Microsoft Project today. They do a whole lot more, are easy to use and inexpensive.
In this article, we shall look at a few of the significant problems with MS Project. Even if you have decided on using Microsoft Project because you already have it installed on your computer, you should read this to understand what you are missing.
1. A Desktop Solution – no anytime, anywhere access
Microsoft Project works only on Microsoft Windows.
It doesn’t work on mobile phones, tables, macOS or Mac OS X devices. Today, when Microsoft Windows is not ubiquitous anymore, this is severely limiting. It also means that the “anytime, anywhere access” idiom that we have taken for granted is not correct.
Yes, we have the Microsoft Project Server option, but it is expensive to set up and maintain. On-boarding takes months. Plus the licensing is extraordinarily complex and difficult to understand.
2. Complex, unintuitive and unforgiving
Scheduling in Microsoft Project is powerful but painfully complicated. There are too many concepts that are practically impossible to master. Even after rigorous training, users do not know how to use the flexibility correctly. They are still confused whether to add a constraint, or whether to add a dependency with lead time, or whether to make a task manually scheduled. Many concepts don’t resonate with the real-world observation and seem artificial.
Some managers try to wield its power but a week later find themselves getting confused as to why the task’s dates are so and so. They try to change one field, and something else gets broken. Frustrating.
Many users I know use the “manual scheduling” feature and use Microsoft Project to generate pretty Gantt charts. “Everybody is happy,” they say.
Also, there is also no help provided to the user in understanding why a task date starts or finishes on that date. Many are left scratching their heads or wasting time in Microsoft Project forums.
For users who have an analytical bent of mind and have been trained well, it may work, but the rest are focussed on getting their job done and not learning another tool.
3. No audit trail – less faith
Managers can change task dates without leaving a trace. This makes it difficult for stakeholders to believe the plan. Yes, they have baselines, but with the scope being so fluid nowadays, things are never that simple as to take a Baseline after each change. It would be great if a stakeholder could click a button on a task to see who changed the date and when.
4. Unintuitive “%” allocation
When multiple resources work on a task, the natural way to think about it is to give each resource individual work. For example, it is natural for a manager to allocate Joe to work 20 hours while assigning Mark 10 hours on the same task. You do not allocate resources in this way in Microsoft Project. In Microsoft Project, you have to enter the total effort and allocate resources in %. This % is not the proportion of the work, but the time they will work per day on the task. The ration of the allocations will determine the effort assigned to each resource. This is unintuitive.
5. Thinking in % complete is difficult
Resources find great difficulty in reporting the ‘% complete’ for a task. Let’s take an example – if you were allocated 30 hours of work, and you have spent 25 hours but still have 10 hours of work left, what is the % complete? Not easy, right?
Instead of asking the resource for the remaining hours and the system calculating the percent complete, it wants the user to figure the % complete. This is unintuitive. In a study we conducted, we found that most resources never fill the intermediate % done. They mark their task complete when done.
Unfortunately, many tools even today, including the one we build, have relied on the % complete way of reporting because it’s a lousy habit nobody is willing to let go.
6. No alerts or email reminders
Today, with so many things going on, it is crucial to be reminded of important events, e.g., tasks that have missed their deadlines, tasks that do not start because predecessors are still incomplete, tasks that are lagging, etc. Unfortunately, this is not possible with this desktop-based tool. Even Project Server has minimal notification options.
7. No visual health indicators
Other than visually separating out completed tasks, there is no way to identify tasks that are past their deadline or tasks that are slipping. It is impossible for managers to figure out the state of their project or milestones looking at the Gantt chart. The manager can run a report to find the tasks that have missed their deadline, but that’s too late. There is no easy way to view tasks that not progressing as per plan.
8. No collaboration or file sharing
There is no built-in collaboration. Even in the Project Server edition, collaboration is limited to using Microsoft tools. If you want to use something else, good luck!
The other main gripe is that resources can’t even enter their % complete. They have to email the manager; then the manager has to find the task and then update it. It is painfully slow, and the plan is mostly out of date.
Commenting on tasks or uploading files is just out of the question. That’s not how you expect things to work these days.
9. No tracking of issues, risks or change requests
Issues, risks and change requests are treated as second-class citizens, i.e., you have to create them as tasks. I know many who use different systems to track them. The most common has been to use MS Excel for risks and change management and some issue tracking system for tracking issues. But this fragmented approach is just problematic and not having the full picture is dangerous. You cannot go to a task and find out what’s holding it up or look at an issue and find out if its associated task is critical. You have 3 or more different systems with no tie-in.
10. No dashboard. Not easy to report.
When you open a project, what would you expect? I think a nice set of widgets that tell you the current state of the project, right? You would want to know tasks that have missed their deadline, tasks that are slipping, the status of critical tasks, the progress of milestones, essential issues, unmitigated risks, etc. Right? But in Microsoft Project, there is no easy way to do this. Reporting, even in the cloud offering is difficult and requires additional tools like Power BI.
11. Difficult to work with multiple projects
With so many problems for one project, the project compounds for numerous projects. Especially when there are inter-project dependencies or when resources are shared between various projects or when different people manage them.
12. No resource management
These days, resources are the key constraint, and they often work on multiple projects at the same time. Different people manage these projects. It is difficult to ensure that resources are indeed optimally allocated and thinking of changing project plans without causing conflicts is practically impossible. It is sad because the data is already there as each project has a detailed and granular level of every resource’s work. It’s just that this desktop-based model makes using this data difficult.
Also, when resources go on leave, all managers have to remember to update their project plan, else the dates will be wrong.
13. No client portal
These days, we like to know the real-time status of our $10 package when shipped. Do you think clients will be all right with not having a real-time status of their million dollar projects? But there is no way to do it. Yes, the project manager may email the client every Monday and Thursday but that’s just not with the times.
Nokia phones were the rage in early 2000 but are went extinct because we got something better. The situation with this desktop-based tool is the same. The time of Microsoft Project is over, and the age of cloud-based project management tools has begun.
A lot of them provide facilities that are much better than Microsoft Project at a very reasonable price. If you are looking for a PM tool, I’d suggest that instead of merely following the herd, give them a try. You can start with Celoxis, our project management tool, which supports the Microsoft Project scheduling paradigm yet solves almost all the problems described above.