Gantt charts have stood the test of time in the world of project management. They were used well before the development of computers, and many PMs still use them in their software systems and on their phones.
This method of project management is popular because it is useful and flexible. Gantt charts can be applied to almost any project, though many managers need to tweak the process and visual layout to make it accessible. If you aren’t using Gantt charts in your planning process, here’s how you can test and adapt this PM tool to your needs.
What is a Gantt Chart?
A Gantt chart is a graph that shows the steps required to complete a project, typically with the project requirements on the x-axis and time requirements on the y-axis. The charts also show who is responsible for each step within the process.
Gantt charts were named after their developer, Henry L. Gantt, in 1917. However, they have taken on multiple names in the past 100 years of use. Gantt charts are often referred to as Bar charts, writes the team at Project Management Information. This is because the tasks, budget, and time are mapped out in bars across the x and y axis. Some people further complicate things by using the term Bar (Gantt) charts versus simple Gantt charts. There is no significant difference.
Gantt charts became popular because they were similar to the spreadsheets used in project management and other parts of the business world, writes Josh Spilker ClickUp Project Management. However, they are more flexible and customizable than most spreadsheets. They also show what elements of the project overlap and which tasks are dependent on the completion of other elements.
Modern technology and SaaS programs have made it easier to show these dependencies on graphs and make Gantt charts more valuable with additional data and layouts.
Gantt charts can be as simple or as complex as you can want to make them. The team at Asana list a few criteria most Gantt charts include. These help PMs and teams understand the scope of the project, and include:
When the project is due.
When to start and finish each task.
How long each task takes.
Who is responsible for each task.
Which tasks are dependent on others.
However, this initial clarity can be hard to maintain as the project progresses. There may be microsteps that project managers forgot to document, which means they have no real idea about the scope of the work and whether or not it is falling behind. Plus, some PMs might want more in-depth information alongside each task, which is hard to add if you’re creating Gantt charts in Excel.
Understanding the basics of Gantt charts and using them in small-scale tasks can better prepare your team to use them in larger, more advanced projects.
Understanding Project Dependencies
One of the main benefits of Gantt charts is that they feature dependencies within a project. These dependencies are actually the reason why the Gantt chart flows in a descending line rather than just a straight column.
“Any project contains task dependencies — meaning that a certain task can’t be started until the previous one is completed,” explains Kat Boogaard at collaborative work management platform Wrike.
Project managers who don’t take dependencies into consideration may build an impossible plan where people are trying to accomplish things that can’t be done without something else being completed first.
For example, if a company wants to hire a new team member, their Gantt chart might include posting the job, reviewing resumes, calling potential hires, and interviewing top candidates. These steps are all dependent on each other. The company can’t review resumes until the job has been posted. They can’t interview potential employees until they review the resumes, and so on.
There are different types of dependencies that come with projects and Gantt charts. Depending on how complicated your project is, you may employ all of them, or just one or two. Dominic Tarn at Mac app provider Setapp did a great job of explaining these dependencies:
Finish to Start: One person cannot start until another person has completed a task.
Start to Start: One person cannot start until another person has started.
Start to Finish: One person cannot finish until another person has begun.
Finish to Finish: One person cannot finish until another person has finished.
Using the job interview example again, a manager cannot start reviewing resumes until the job is posted. This is a Start to Start dependency. If the company keeps an open application window before reviewing potential hires, then it would be a Finish to Start dependency. This is because the job posting task needs to be completed before the next task begins.
The Benefits of Using Gantt Charts
Gantt charts are perfect examples of how project management tools aren’t limited to engineering companies or IT developers. They are flexible and easy to use.
For instance, Gantt charts can be used to manage social media marketing campaigns, adding clarity when there are multiple messages, channels, and audiences to reach. In an article for SpinSucks, Samantha Lile shares how: “Gantt charts are also ideal for content and editorial calendars,” she writes. “Who is creating what, and when does it need to be published? You could answer these questions with a simple checklist. But what happens when content is dependent on several teams or individuals for completion?”
Gantt charts are meant to create a sense of organization in a chaotic office world, and they are meant to help employees and overworked teams most of all.
“Too many problems arise when resources are stretched over too many tasks and processes,” writes Sandeep Kashyap, founder of project management software provider ProofHub. “Gantt charts allow you to use your resources effectively as you get to see a project’s timeline where you can easily see how and where resources are being utilized.”
These resources, in particular, relate to your workforce. You can make sure that certain team members are only working on one or two steps at a time, so you don’t overload or burnout a few key players or teams by asking them to juggle multiple parts of the project at once.
Project Scheduling. Stakeholders and workers can see how long a project is expected to take and which parts will take the longest.
Task Management. PMs can track who currently owns various tasks and what needs to be completed to move forward.
Progress Tracking. Everyone can see if the project is on schedule and how much leeway there is for timeline changes.
Team Collaboration. Teams can see when they need to collaborate and on what, so they can better plan to work together.
Even if your company doesn’t use Gantt charts for its projects, you can use one for your own management and mapping.
“This is an excellent way to be able to keep your thoughts organized while you are working on projects,” writes Jane Hurst at LifeHack. “You can compartmentalize the various parts of each project, and this makes it a lot easier to get things done. You can do little things one by one and see results, rather than focusing on everything all at once.”
The PM is most likely to refer to the Gantt chart and use it on a daily basis, while the rest of the team will only make a note of when their part is set to begin. As long as this chart is valuable for you and keeping the project on track, it should be an essential organizational tool.
Gantt Charts Have Their Drawbacks
While Gantt charts have many benefits, they do have some limitations, which many project managers are likely to notice as they start using this tool.
The team at Twproject says that Gantt charts can quickly become too complex for some projects. There are so many moving pieces and factors related to projects, like resource allocation and microsteps, that many projects outgrow the initial Gantt plan.
Additionally, these charts are hard to print onto one sheet. They are only valuable if they are viewed online (otherwise one chart would take up the whole conference table). In some cases, switching to an alternative PM tool might be better.
Another issue that many people bring up with Gantt charts is that they reflect the time of a step, but not the amount of work required. Gavin Donnelly at project management platform Workep brings up this exact point, noting that the drawback can make it difficult to ascertain how many resources are necessary to complete a task.
Think about this from a cooking perspective. Looking at a Gantt chart for making a meal, you would see that the time the main course spends in the oven is the longest. At first glance, you might think that this is the most work-intensive, when it’s really the buying, seasoning, preparing, and serving steps that create more work.
When looking at a project, it can be hard to see how labor-intensive a step is just because it is completed relatively quickly.
Communications professional Alison Arnot is the first to admit that Gantt charts aren’t for everyone. In the first place, not every project needs a Gantt chart; and, secondly, a standard chart might not be right for your business. “Understand that there is no ‘off the shelf’ version of best practice,” she writes.
Your organization and staff is unique, and the information you present needs to be tailored to what is useful. You will likely run up against a wall if you try to force your organization into a Gantt-shaped hole.
How to Start Using Gantt Charts in Your Business
Once you understand the benefits of using Gantt charts, you can start to add them to your own projects.
If you want to stay low-tech, look at this in-depth tutorial about how to create a Gantt chart in Excel, created by Hasaan Fazal, CEO of PakAccountants. This is a great place to start if you are trying this chart style for the first time and want to see how it is received by your team before you invest in professional Gantt-creation tools.
Once you are ready to grow out of the traditional Excel spreadsheet, Gantt.com has multiple resources, tutorials, and tools for using this chart in software form. Through these tools, you can learn how to assign resources to your chart and add more information. This will be refreshing for many PMs relying on Excel comments and notes to document their charts.
Finally, you can expand to additional project management tools and resources as you need them. Pritam Tamang at Software Advice compared four software options that specialize in Gantt chart use and creation. That said, many project management tools (like Asana mentioned earlier) have Gantt functions built in. If you already use a collaboration tool for your project management, then you may have Gannt features that you’re just not using.