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Are Microsoft Project and Excel the only options for project management?

“Big brother is watching you.” A cult quote from a cult classic: 1984, George Orwell’s prophetic novel, published in 1949! 1984 was also the year that Microsoft Project was released.

The project management package is used by “over 20 million project managers” according to Wikipedia. Microsoft Excel followed closely behind. In 1985, Apple Macintosh released the first version of the multifaceted spreadsheet. It’s undeniable that both are useful.

Project management solutions: MS Project and Excel at the forefront

The next 20 years saw the project world frozen in a hierarchy-bound, rigid, framework, characterized by top-down projects. MS Project became THE solution for project management. But what sort of projects?

Complex projects run by project managers in “command and control” mode. Projects which were the exclusive domain of managers well versed in the tools and methods. Other developers based their solutions on a similar approach. Project management software became the preserve of IS managers.

From the 2000s, companies realized that their survival depended on their capacity to adapt or transform faster, and at every level of their organization. More projects to launch and more need to succeed. But size varied greatly.

Business units started launching projects that were no longer the project managers’ prerogative. Yet project management was not under their remit. Their primary occupation was human resources, finance, marketing, communication, operations, or quality. MS Project didn’t meet their needs for user-friendliness, flexibility, and collaboration.

Result? They resorted to the only solution on hand: Microsoft Excel

In just one organization, hundreds, even thousands of “projects” from different departments, found themselves in a multi-layered, unmanageable pile of Excel files. Business units quickly, and unsurprisingly, reached the limits of Excel: lack of collaboration, costly and laborious monitoring and consolidation, sloppy data handling, and projects derailing.

The next ten years witnessed a stand-off between business units and the IS department. Managers turned to the IS department, crying out for simple project management solutions that worked in the field. But IS departments didn’t have any alternatives. It does what it knows, and it knows what it does! Front-line staff needed to “get back in line” if they were serious about running a project. Their only solution was the existing project management tool.

But increases in transformation and innovation programmes, focus on operational excellence, strategic plans, and flourishing initiatives in companies on the move exploded the number of projects, and, in some cases, tools.

Organizations began legitimately looking for serious alternatives to what had become “monsters”: the classic project management tool, MS Project, and multi-layered Excel.

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Microsoft Project: Why do we need an alternative?

Microsoft Project is the standard for tracking projects of various sizes. The dependency chaining works quite well and helps visualize resource and task scheduling. Good for milestone tracking at a high level, while also designating resources to specific tasks. Fits well if you use a waterfall model.
John Orate, senior manager and IT professional at Schneider Electric*
* Quoted from a survey conducted by G2 Crowd in 2015 covering more than 600 reviews and ratings from business professionals regarding their use of project management software packages and their satisfaction with them.

It’s true that MS Project suits the waterfall model of project management, much used in software development and based on a linear, sequential cycle. However, it quickly shows its limitations whenever flexibility or simplicity is required.

MS Project - what’s the use?

MS Project emerged from a need for Microsoft itself to organise its own projects. The package was so effective at project scheduling, allocating resources, and determining resource costs, that it was swiftly boxed for sale to businesses.

It’s now safe to say that MS Project is used by most project managers and schedulers, and it works wonders in some situations. MS Project is well suited to large-scale, lengthy, and complex projects, such as major construction works (like a bridge or factory), developing software, and industrial engineering. It’s ideal when teams work together on a project with highly interdependent tasks and where complete control is necessary.

However, it's clearly not a one-size-fits-all solution. The strengths of MS Project are also its weaknesses. It is rigid and complex, requiring training in both the method and use, just to name a few of the main pitfalls.

The limits of Microsoft Project: a few examples

It’s important to make the difference between extraordinary large-scale projects that need MS Project – and less extraordinary projects. Projects that are perhaps strategic, but rarely critical. Projects often run by team members who are less focused on tools and methods, such as:

For these projects, teams are more independent, and deliverables are less interdependent. Microsoft Project induces counterproductive micromanagement. Teams are often scattered around different departments and sites, and project management challenges are more about:

  • Transparency on the state of play for key deliverables;
  • Effective and efficient collaboration between team members;
  • Flexibility; and, as far as possible, user-friendliness!

MS Project is first and foremost a scheduling tool. However, limiting project management to scheduling is much too simplistic. Don’t forget managing requests, project prioritization, coordinating simple actions, group tasks, and projects with the same efficiency, and the inevitable need for effortless, regularly updated reports.

Highly collaborative projects need an alternative to MS Project. Download our guide to take it to the next level and get your organization on track:

Download our expert view to make your transformation projects a success

Switching to Microsoft Excel is not a whole lot better

Microsoft Excel is the leading alternative to Microsoft Project. At least, it’s the most common. But the creators of Excel never dreamed that their spreadsheet would be used to manage projects. Because Excel is quite simply not a project management tool, and even less a tool for facilitating, collaborating, and coordinating.

Monitoring projects with Excel

Microsoft Excel is accessible and is used everywhere throughout businesses. It's a powerful application, and can be used to:

  • Summarize data in dynamic pivot tables;
  • Represent data in graphics;
  • Build calculation formulas;
  • And if need be, program data processing using macros.

The common factor is data processing and analysis. Excel is ultimately a spreadsheet for manipulating figures.

Excel can, of course, be used as a database for archiving all the tasks completed under a continuous improvement plan, for example. But don’t be fooled. An Excel spreadsheet is a data snapshot, frozen in time. Whereas project management means people on the move, and they must keep moving.

Applied to project management, Excel forces data to be summarized in cells, making information hard to read. Trying to consolidate – not to mention analyze – multi-layered projects requires even more mental gymnastics.

Excel is not a more collaborative version of MS Project

The application’s DNA – fixed data – is the first obstacle. Excel is no better than MS Project when collaboration is required.

It’s not easy to work together in project mode, i.e., at the same time, on the same Excel spreadsheet. Lack of control over data entered by different team members raises constant doubt about reliability. Data is not necessarily updated by project participants, so it’s quickly out of date.

Over-reliance on spreadsheets makes it difficult to collectively manage action plans. The law of the instrument, also known as the law of the hammer, Maslow’s hammer, or the golden hammer, is a cognitive bias that involves over-reliance on a familiar tool.

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham Maslow, 1966

Using Microsoft Excel to manage action plans is a perfect example.

Project managers running multiple projects across various files quickly find themselves lost in a maze. Wasted time and energy and data errors weary teams, demotivated by updating “unproductive” files. Yet those updates are essential for managing project progress and keeping initiatives on track.

What other project management solutions are worth considering?

Alternatives to MS Project and Excel must be collaborative and participative

Traditional project management systems don’t offer managers driving innovation, operational excellence, and transformation programs the visibility they need. They don’t provide a road map. A combination of simplicity to engage teams and minimal structure to allow execution flow is required for effective collaboration.
Benoit Brulant – Founder, Humanperf Software

Solving the problem means clarifying the vocabulary first. 90% of “projects” managed by business units are not complex or critical. Organizations are increasingly referring to initiatives.

Depending on the context, an initiative may mean a simple action, a group task, or a project. Microsoft Project and similar tools are not up to the task when faced with all these initiatives. Businesses are asking for a unique solution that manages action plans, group tasks, as well as “simple” projects. They want an ergonomic and intuitive solution that speaks their language.

Yet, engaging and empowering team members are the crucial performance levers in project management. We developed IDhall with them in mind for managing tens, hundreds, even thousands of initiatives in organizations of all sizes. A solution that speaks to the business and adapts to the maturity of the project management team and to management and coordination needs. Our clients often choose IDhall to complement their existing project management tool.

This article was originally published on February 20, 2018 and was updated on November 22, 2022.

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