With the MS Project 2010, project managers have the option of scheduling tasks manually or letting MS Project schedule the task start and end dates using the scheduling engine. When I first head about this feature, I was convinced this is the dumbing down of project schedule development. However, I recognize a portion of Microsoft Project 2010 users fall into the occasional project manager role versus the traditional professional project manager role. This article examines the features of user controlled scheduling and identifies some practical uses.
Understanding User-Controlled Scheduling
User controlled scheduling enables project managers to develop project schedules with or without the MS Project’s scheduling engine. In the manual scheduling mode, tasks can be entered with or without durations, start dates or end dates. Durations and dates are entered as free form text and summary tasks do not inherit dates and task data from sub-tasks (Figure 1).
If sub-tasks are linked, the start and finish dates are not calculated unless the project manager chooses to enforce the links using the Respect Links button. From a user experience, the manual scheduling is much like planning a project in Microsoft Excel. This mode provides the flexibility to enter text-based values and document timing assumptions in the Start and Finish columns.
Project managers do have the option to switch between manually scheduled and automatically scheduled tasks. In the automatically scheduled tasks mode, the project engine kicks in and appropriately schedules the tasks based on the dependencies, calendars and resources assigned to the project. Fans of previous versions of MS Project will recognize the automatic scheduling mode as the familiar way of scheduling tasks in a project schedule.
When should you use manual scheduling?
The application of manual scheduling is beneficial early in the project when high level target dates are known but the detailed tasks and timing are unknown. The idea of conducting top down planning versus the traditional bottom up planning provides greater flexibility in identifying summary ranges for a project timeline. Rolling wave planning would be applicable for future project phases that are not well defined. In practice, this feature seems feasible as portfolio planning for systems implementations is often conducted at the quarter or yearly basis.
For managers who fall into the “occasional” project manager category, the manual scheduling mode allows managers to use Microsoft Project like a task list. Inexperienced MS Project users often complain about MS Project’s sudden date changes when changes are made to resource, duration or project dates. Manual scheduling avoids these concerns but the trade-off is the loss of benefits from the scheduling engine.
When project managers are conducting high level planning, the manual scheduling mode can be combined with the Timeline view in MS Project to create a phase level view of the project (Figure 2). These dates are only treated as high level dates as the supporting detail that determines if these dates are reasonable or not is missing. I have used manual scheduling for portfolio management and planning the upcoming year’s roadmap. Manual scheduling is much easier since I can provide date ranges and text as placeholders for next year’s portfolio.
The same view can be constructed using the automatic scheduling mode although project managers need to ensure they enter durations and dependencies correctly. With manual scheduling, the intent is to conduct a rough order magnitude of planning and later switch to automatic scheduling once specific task details are known.
User-Controlled Scheduling vs. Automatic Scheduling
Maybe I’m too old-school in the ways of MS Project. I’ve been using it since 1994 and maybe too indoctrinated in the way the tool is designed to work with the scheduling engine. I liked the fact that my dates change when I adjust a duration and the dependent tasks adjust. I like the fact that MS Project looks at the resource availability, corporate holiday schedule and individual calendars to calculate realistic end dates. This is the way a scheduling engine is supposed to work.
However, in order to use the automatic mode, you need to understand the implications of adding resources and dependencies to develop a dynamic schedule. If your goal is to use MS Project as a task list without any date forecasting features, then manual scheduling will be a welcome addition. If you are an “occasional” project manager who needs to track high level dates and manage at the summary level, you’ll appreciate the new flexibility in scheduling. For new project managers learning MS Project, the user scheduling feature may be confusing unless the appropriate amount of training is provided. Demonstrating how to develop a schedule in manual mode and transitioning to auto scheduled tasks increases the learning curve.
Make your own decision
Microsoft provides an entire video tutorial on user controlled scheduling and additional tips and tricks at http://www.microsoft.com/project/en/us/user-controlled-scheduling.aspx. I encourage you to watch the demo videos at http://www.microsoft.com/project/en/us/demos.aspx. For the majority of my schedules, I will still confirm the New Tasks Created scheduling option is set to Auto Schedule in MS Project’s Options settings but I’d like to hear your opinion. Comment below!