7 Expert Tips for Creating a Project Plan with Excel: A Beginner’s Guide

Georges Lteif

Georges Lteif

Software Engineer

Last Updated on January 26, 2023.
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1. Is Excel the Right Tool for Planning Your Next Project

Project management may fall onto senior team members who are not full-time project managers or have the necessary (specialized) tools to complete their tasks. Leveraging the capabilities of powerful, generic tools like Excel are key to success.

Project management may sometimes fall onto senior team members who might not necessarily be full-time project managers or have the necessary (specialized) tools to complete their tasks. Leveraging the capabilities of powerful, generic tools like Excel are key to success.
Project management may sometimes fall onto senior team members who might not necessarily be full-time project managers or have the necessary (specialized) tools to complete their tasks. Leveraging the capabilities of powerful, generic tools like Excel are key to success.

Excel is a widely used tool for project planning because it has many features that make it well-suited for this purpose. However, it also has some limitations that should be considered. Here are some pros and cons of using Excel as a project planning tool:

Pros:

  1. Familiarity — Many people are already familiar with Excel and know how to use it. This makes it easy to use Excel for project planning without a steep learning curve.
  2. Customization — Excel is highly customizable, allowing users to create project plans tailored to their specific needs.
  3. Data Analysis — Excel has many tools, such as data analysis, filters, pivot tables, and charts, that can be used to analyze and manage project data.
  4. Collaboration — Excel files can be easily shared and edited by multiple users, making it a good tool for collaboration.

Cons:

  1. Limited Project management features — Excel is not a specialized project management software; it lacks many features that specialized software has, like resource allocation, critical path, risk management, etc.
  2. Data Entry and Formatting — Excel requires a lot of data entry and formatting to create a project plan. This can be time-consuming and error-prone.
  3. Limited Reporting — Excel does not have built-in reporting features like some specialized project management software.
  4. Limited Scalability — Excel’s capabilities are limited when managing large or complex projects.
  5. Risk of errors — Excel files can be prone to errors, such as formula errors or data entry mistakes, which can lead to inaccurate project information.

Excel can be a useful tool for project planning, but it may not be the best choice for all projects or organizations. It’s important to consider the needs of the project and the organization before deciding whether to use Excel for project planning.

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2. First Tip — Creating Project Tasks

2.1 Key Attributes Project Tasks Must Have

When creating project management tasks, it’s essential to consider the following attributes:

  1. Specific — The task scope, objective, and contribution to the project should be clearly defined and specific regarding what needs to be accomplished.
  2. Measurable — The task should have a clear outcome that can be measured so stakeholders can determine if more effort must be invested in that area to achieve the stated goals. If the task is sizeable, making progress measurement challenging, it must be broken down into smaller pieces.
  3. Assignable — Project managers must be able to assign tasks to a specific person or team with the appropriate skills and resources.
  4. Realistic — The task should be achievable within the constraints of the project, such as budget and timelines.
  5. Time-bound — The task should have a clear deadline for completion.
  6. Relevant — The task should align with the overall goals and objectives of the project.
  7. Prioritizable — Tasks should be prioritized based on their importance and dependencies on other tasks.
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a hierarchical decomposition of a project into smaller, more manageable components to ensure that all necessary tasks are identified and included in the project plan.
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a hierarchical decomposition of a project into smaller, more manageable components to ensure that all necessary tasks are identified and included in the project plan.

There are several ways to ensure that the attributes of specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-bound, relevant, and prioritized are present when creating project plans:

  1. Define the project scope — Clearly define the objectives and deliverables of the project so that each task can be aligned with the overall project goals.
  2. Create a project charter — A project charter is a document that defines the project’s objectives, scope, and stakeholders. It can be used as a reference point when creating tasks to ensure they align with the project’s goals.
  3. Develop a work breakdown structure (WBS) — A WBS breaks down the project into smaller, manageable tasks that can be assigned and tracked.
  4. Involve the team — Involve the team in the task creation process so that they can provide input on feasibility and resource requirements.

2.2 How to Create Project Tasks in Excel

Now that we have tasks neatly broken down into manageable pieces, consider the following tips when adding them to Excel:

  1. List every item (tasks and subtasks) on a separate line.
  2. Add the following parameters on the task level:
    • Start date
    • End date
    • Effort estimate
    • Dependencies (link to other tasks, more on that later)
  3. Include actuals and regularly update them
    • Actual start date
    • Actual effort
    • Percentage completed

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3. Second Tip — Use Gantt Charts Like a Pro

3.1 Why Gantt Charts Are Essential in Project Plans

Gantt charts are essential for several reasons:

Even though it's not the most efficient project-planning tool at our disposal, Excel remains a viable alternative for the project manager on a budget.
Even though it’s not the most efficient project-planning tool at our disposal, Excel remains a viable alternative for the project manager on a budget.
  1. They provide a clear visual representation of the project schedule –Gantt charts display the start and end dates of tasks and their dependencies, making it easy to see how they are related to each other and how they fit into the overall project timeline.
  2. They help identify potential schedule conflicts — Gantt charts allow you to easily see when multiple tasks are scheduled to coincide, which can help identify potential schedule conflicts.
  3. They help identify critical path — Gantt charts help identify the critical path of the project, which is the sequence of tasks that must be completed on time to ensure that the project is finished on schedule.
  4. Gantt charts are easy to update, especially when using specialized project management tools.

3.2 How to Create Gantt Charts in Excel

To create a project plan with Excel, you can follow these basic steps:

  1. Step 1: Open a new Excel document and create a table with rows for each task or step in your project.
  2. Step 2: Include columns for each task’s start date, end date, duration, and other relevant information.
  3. Step 3: Add a Gantt chart (instructions below) to visualize the tasks and their dependencies.
  4. Step 4: Use conditional formatting to highlight important information, such as tasks that are behind schedule.

You can add a Gantt chart in Excel using the following steps (or download the template using the link below):

  1. Step 1: Create a table with columns for the task names, start dates, end dates, and any other relevant information for your project.
  2. Step 2: Select the data range for the table, including the column headers.
  3. Step 3: Go to the “Insert” tab and select “Gantt chart” from the chart options. A Gantt chart template will be created using your data.
  4. Step 4: To customize the chart, you can right-click and select “Format Chart Area” to adjust the colours, font, and other design elements.
  5. Step 5: To add a progress bar, add a new column to your table with the % complete for each task. Then, select the chart and go to “Chart Tools” > “Design” > “Edit Data” to add the progress data to the chart.
  6. Step 6: To add dependencies between tasks, you can use the “Predecessor” column in the table, add a number to indicate the task that is the predecessor of the current task, and then use the “Gantt chart wizard” to link them, the wizard can be found in “Chart Tools” > “Design” > “Gantt chart wizard”
  7. Step 7: To view the chart in a more compact format, you can adjust the timescale by right-clicking on the chart and selecting “Format Axis”, and then adjusting the “Major unit” and “Minor unit” settings.

3. Third Tip — Resource Allocation

3.1 Five Benefits of Efficient Resource Allocation

Project resources (budget, time, and labour) are generally scarce, making efficient resource allocation a must-have skill for enterprises to succeed.

Resource allocation ensures that the project has the necessary resources to complete the tasks and achieve its goals. Resources include financial and human resources such as staff, equipment, materials, and time. Properly allocating these resources helps to:

  • Keep the project on schedule — By allocating resources before it kicks off, a project is more likely to be completed on schedule. Proactive resource allocation means project managers can secure the right resources in the right amounts when they need them.
  1. Stay within budget — The project can be completed within the allocated budget by efficiently managing resources, ensuring maximum productivity, removing bottlenecks, and minimising idle time.
  1. Maximise productivity — By allocating the necessary resources to tasks on a project’s critical path, understanding task dependencies, and prioritising tasks efficiently, the project can make the best use of its resources and maximise productivity.
  1. Reduce risk — By identifying potential resource constraints early in the project planning process, steps can be taken to mitigate those risks.
  1. Improve communication and coordination — By clearly identifying which resources are assigned to which tasks, team members can better understand their roles and responsibilities, which improves communication and coordination.

3.2 How to Create a Resource Manager in Excel

Efficient resource allocation and management are central to project planning. While involving significant manual effort, Excel remains a great tool for tracking project progress. Macros, formulas, and pivot tables are powerful features in Excel that can help reduce manual effort.
Efficient resource allocation and management are central to project planning. While involving significant manual effort, Excel remains a great tool for tracking project progress. Macros, formulas, and pivot tables are powerful features in Excel that can help reduce manual effort.

There are several ways to allocate resources in an Excel project plan. Here are a few:

  • Create a separate sheet or table in your Excel document to track resource allocation.
    • This sheet should have columns for the resource type (e.g. staff, equipment, materials).
    • It should also have the task or activity to which the resource is being allocated and the duration or quantity of the required resource.
  • Use a Gantt chart to visualize the resource allocation.
    • You can do this by adding a separate bar for each resource type on the chart and using colour coding to indicate which resource is allocated to which task.
  • Use pivot tables and filters to analyze resource allocation.
    • A pivot table can help you identify areas where resources are being over or under-utilized and make the necessary adjustments.
  • Create a summary sheet to view the overall resource allocation. This sheet could show the total number of hours or quantity of each resource allocated across the project.

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