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Gantt charts are a valuable project management (PM) tool. Used for planning and tracking waterfall projects, Gantt charts help stakeholders coordinate and agree on baselines for scope, budget and timeline—metrics used to determine project success.
Gantt chart software automates many PM functions, allowing managers to more easily create project schedules, assign tasks to users, track the progression of work items and share updates with the team.
Whether you're looking to purchase your first PM Gantt chart system or update your current software, this buyer's guide can help you make a more informed decision.
Here's what we'll cover:
What Is Gantt Chart Software?
A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of a project, displaying the scope (e.g., tasks and milestones) on the y-axis, against the schedule, or time, on the x-axis.
Tasks are illustrated as horizontal bars. Their position and length reflect the start date, duration and end date. Dependent tasks are connected using a physical link, e.g., the arrows in the screenshot below, and concurrent tasks are stacked according to their start dates.
A Gantt chart in Mavenlink
Gantt chart software is used to create digital Gantt charts, automating and saving time on various actions, including:
Scheduling task start and end dates
Assigning tasks to users
Identifying the critical path
Cascading changes across subsequent tasks
Sharing updates with stakeholders (e.g., task status, at-risk items and reprioritization)
The ability to cascade changes across subsequent tasks is a benefit that cannot be overstated. If Task A is late by one day, the start dates and due dates for each task following it will update accordingly. Managers receive an alert so they can schedule notifications to let team members know how the delay will impact their activities. They'll also have the option to notify stakeholders if corrective action is required.
Gantt charts act as visual aids that communicate project status at a glance. Information is centralized, which keeps stakeholders on the same page at every stage of the project life cycle, from planning to closeout.
Often, when Gantt charts are included as an application within a larger platform, teams can choose from "multiple views," meaning they can view tasks in a calendar view, list format or in a Gantt chart. If your stakeholders have different preferences for how they want to receive updates, you should consider this type of solution.
Best-of-breed tools are often more specialized than integrated suites. If you have industry-specific needs, or require custom fields and templates, a stand-alone system is more suitable.
Common Features of Gantt Chart Software
Look for the following capabilities as you evaluate Gantt chart tools:
Identify project requirements, break requirements down into deliverables and individual tasks (e.g., work breakdown structure). Assign start and due dates, assign priority and cost, add task notes and assign tasks to users. Drag-and-drop: Set start and end dates by manipulating the bar length on the calendar. Reorder tasks by dragging-and-dropping them along the timeline. Critical path: Identify the critical path by highlighting the longest sequence of tasks that determine the minimum amount of time needed to complete a project.
See each team member's availability and workload. Assign users to tasks based on availability and skill set (recorded and saved in a skills database), or use a placeholder resource until a user with that skill becomes available.
Form the project initiative; create the work breakdown structure; set baselines for scope, budget and timeline; develop the risk management plan; and develop a communication strategy for stakeholders. Some tools may include project templates you can choose from, or you can create and save your own. Read more: "Project Planning Checklist: 5 Steps Every Plan Should Follow"
See project status at a glance. The Gantt chart acts as a live dashboard showing a bird's-eye view of project progress. Reports will vary, but can include baselines (comparing actuals to the original plan), resource forecasting, time tracking and risk reports. Color-coding: Use colors to represent task attributes such as status (e.g., all overdue tasks are red), or to indicate who the task is assigned to (e.g., all Bob's tasks are purple). Task-shading: Use shading to represent percent complete, e.g., a task that's 25 percent complete would be one-quarter shaded.
Upload files to tasks, share with other users and store in a centralized, searchable repository. Ask vendors about storage limits within product tiers, archive or delete tasks and documents and integrate with new or existing content management systems.
Benefits and Potential Challenges
While there are many benefits to using Gantt chart software, small and midsize businesses considering these tools for the first time should also be aware of potential challenges.
Gantt charts can be used to convey a wealth of project information, from high-level scheduling to specific task details. Viewers know who is responsible for tasks, when tasks need to be completed and how individual tasks relate to larger project requirements and deliverables.
Tracking project progress publicly can be a great motivator for both individual productivity and overall team performance. Tools with time-tracking can also help users learn to better manage their time and prioritize their queue.
Visually laying out project requirements on a timeline, and breaking deliverables down into individual tasks is a great way to more accurately set baselines for scope, budget and timeline. Users can clearly see how adding items to the scope will push the project out, or how costs will increase.
As is true of any tool, the quality of the output is only as good as the data put into it. The value of Gantt charts is reliant on the accuracy of resource estimates used to create budget and timeline projections.
Gantt charts require upkeep. Especially if you want to use them for project tracking, you will need to assign ownership of the Gantt chart to a manager and require them to update the system accordingly.
Gantt charts don't automatically account for Murphy's law—whatever can go wrong will go wrong. So it's important to leave some cushion in the system to account for issues when you're building out project schedules.