Are you a Project Management Gantt Chart Slave?

Gantt charts – love them or loathe them?

They are a fundamental tool in a project manager’s toolkit. However, an unseasoned project manager can find that they can take over the project and result in reduced control. How so? In this article we will look at their potential pitfalls and provide some tips and strategies for ensuring successful project management. Gantt charts are, after all, just one of many ways of presenting the project planning and actual data that has been input.

Firstly, let us be clear that we are not going to talk about repetitive implementation/rollout projects where a template project plan has been refined over a series of projects and becomes a standard checklist for project management (for example for commercial off-the-shelf software). This paper is about those one off (or initial template try-out) projects. These projects may be within organisations large or small.

Large organisations which have mature and well run ‘IT’ departments may well have formal project offices with established project plan standards, dedicated project office staff and probably automated plan-quality checking systems (for example seeking orphan tasks/missing dependencies and measuring other metrics to provide an overall ‘plan quality’ assessment). Smaller organisations – for example, ‘solutions houses’ - may lack this level of sophistication but will almost certainly require detailed project plans.

So, what is good about Gantt charts?

Well, like most things in life, the returns will be dependent on the investment. So, the more care that goes into the project plan set up, then the better will be the feedback. The danger is that the level of detail that can be built into the typical project plan can itself require a disproportionate amount of project management maintenance. We will not go into great detail here, but dependency and critical path management are of major importance. So, 'sweating the detail' in the plan is critical at the outset.

Then, the actual project management overhead can get out of kilter with the budget. What suffers then? An overloaded project management team, under-maintained plan / actual data or both even together.

How do we avoid this paradox (aside from unlimited budgets)?

The approach I recommend is based on an initial comprehensive Risk Assessment of a project. We will not go into details here, but the areas to be considered will certainly include:

  • organisational readiness and politics
  • organisational technology literacy
  • organisational staff skills level
  • technology proposal
  • business risk (eg market issues/competitive pressure and degree of process change required)
  • timescale
  • rate of business change
  • resource including $ availability
  • sponsorship weight

This will result in categorising the proposed project as Low, Moderate or High Complexity. Note that a Moderate Complexity project may have a High Complexity phase (and this links back to Contingent Project Management – dynamic tuning of the project management processes).

These levels of Complexity would require differing levels of project management effort set in the resource budget. ‘Rule of Thumb’ would be:

Low Complexity – project management effort 7-11% of overall resource budget
Moderate Complexity - project management effort 12-17% of overall resource budget
High Complexity - project management effort 18-22% or more, of overall resource budget

Now these figures may seem to be inordinately high to some people, but more than 30% of projects are deemed failures – and failure is always the result of inadequate project management (which includes Risk Assessment and Management). So, the ‘buck stops’ at the quality and/or quantity of project management.

What has all this got to do with Gantt charts?


  • the plan structure should reflect the prioritised risk analysis with simple milestones / gateways
  • the degree of detail built into project plan database should be proportional to the project complexity
  • the management reporting requirement should be proportional to the project complexity, thus requiring proportional maintenance

Then, the maintenance requirement is focused on what really matters. The Gantt charts reflect that, with the degree of detail proportional to the phase risk.

This means that a project manager comes to the office every day thinking ‘How do I move the project forward today towards that milestone’ and not ‘another 4 hours collecting data and 2 hours inputting it before I can get any real work done’.

Then, the project manager’s role’ is mainly one of pro-action and not one of administration.

© 2010 Phil Marks