Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Life beyond Gantt charts

Gantt charts got introduced into Project Management around 1915 only.  Credit of developing Gantt charts goes to Mr.Henry Gantt who was an American mechanical engineer. How ever he was not the one who invented this concept. The first known Gantt Chart was developed in 1896 by Karol Adamiecki, who called it a Harmonogram . But he never tried to popularise the concept and when he published some details about this new concept, it was all in Russian ! So he nearly missed the fame, or else we would have called those charts ‘Adamiecki Charts’ or something like that! [I think many people in Russia & Poland are still calling schedules as 'Harmonogram'  and not Gantt Chart!]

Gantt charts are part of most of the project management software. Infact most of the people think these project management or scheduling software as ‘Gantt Chart Making Machines’ !! When ever you hear ‘Primavera’ or ‘MSP’, I am sure the first thing comes in to your mind will be a screen shot of Gantt chart! – Blue, yellow and red bars securely guarded in grids!(Prison ??) There are other tools or representations for schedule like Network Diagram , but for most of the people a schedule is a gantt chart.

I have observed that people show reluctance to go through huge schedules (which are basically Gantt charts) in detail. Generally those beyond 2 pages (read – a few hundred activities!). 
(Image courtesy - Edward Tufte - http://www.edwardtufte.com/)

Undoubtedly Gantt charts are an effective way of scheduling. Computerised Gantt charting help generation of histograms & s-curves. 
Well , something useful will go popular , thatz it !

Gantt Charting was a revolutionary concept when introduced. But whatz next ? Approximately after a century since its invention, are we going to witness any revolutions in scheduling? If yes, what are the possibilities? How are we going to solve the issue of crowded crampy unreadable cluster of activities and relationship lines?
Let’s define the major objectives of scheduling:
1)      To identify & list out what to do in the project
2)      To decide and indicate when to do and on what sequence
3)      To find out how long it will take to complete
4)      What resources , how much needed ,when
A Gantt chart shows first 3 things graphically. Fourth one is entered in scheduling software against each activity & resource histograms are generated.
What if , we can include some pictorial representation to the activities?
What about assigning a graphic/icon (customisable with sub titles) to WBS and activities?
Follow the style of ‘Menu structure’ in interactive multimedia software’s, where an ‘icon’ is used to represent a menu item with a short description. When menu icon is clicked it will open sub menus.
Again sub-menus are graphical (which even layman can understand!) , with a ‘Back’ link to the parent menu item (Preferably a ‘Home’ link for the root menu).
Will that be great, if I can browse through the details of any project at the ease of browsing through an interactive brochure? Those who are interested can always go to minute details , others can just browse through the top level activities / WBS. A great tool for management reporting isn’t it? Well, even site supervisors and foreman can understand this graphical schedule better than traditional Gantt charts.
Now let’s call the ‘root’ menus as ‘WBS’ and work packs. The terminal elements or contents are activities. In these activity pages, we can provide more information like photographs, drawings, resource details..etc (Minimum requirement should be an activity description – always keep ‘minimum’ requirements for ‘busy’ people !!)
The icons should be placed in the back drop of columns, which is the ‘Time Scale’. There is no grid, unlike traditional Gantt – there are only columns. Activity relations can be shown with simple arrows. (Flexible ‘free hand’ arrows) .When a WBS (menu item) is clicked the work packs appear in blank screen. Again the work pack items are distributed against time scale (each work pack is a small graphic with sub title). When any one work pack is clicked, it will show the activities under that work pack (again they are graphics distributed against time scale) When any of the activity is clicked, it will show the activity page, which show complete info about the activity. Back, forward & up (one level up) links should be provided for easy navigation.
To sum up, each page except the activity description page (the terminal element) are graphical menu items distributed against time scale with link arrows. Since activities of a particular level are only displayed at a time, the screen won’t be cluttered. It will be pleasant to eyes and easy to understand. Those who want to se how each WBS elements and work packs are planned, can go deeper by clicking the corresponding WBS/ Work pack.
Let the traditional Gantt chart co-exist with this and let the software do all the calculations which it used to do for scheduling and resource allocation. Just add one feature to that – ‘Add icon / graphic’.  
The new ‘graphical schedule’ interface is an ‘Add-on’ additional feature. Because – a picture says a thousand words! And more over, people like simple reports... Not really those boring bars jailed in black and white grids!!

What about printing?
Printing removes the interactivity of the report. But each screen can be printed out separately (if needed) and can be correlated though proper numbering & coding. If the print results in a bunch of A4 sheets, the top one will be the WBS (which most of the senior management are interested in!) A cool graphical representation of project with some crispy titles and linking arrows distributed against a time scale.
Print only the details which are necessary. Relevant work packs can be displayed where work is happening.
Now there is an issue with file size. I am sure Adobe™ will surely have some solution for this. Because they own the wonderful flash file format which renders megabytes worth graphical content in mere kilobytes!
If anybody wants to build this application, I would expect that to be built in ‘Flash’ platform. It is visually rich, web ready, streaming and it has got great scripting features. Back end, it should use the proven scheduling algorithms.
I would expect release of such a ‘Graphical Scheduling Package’ –“GSP” , by 2010 !
Well, any time I am expecting calls from software corporations, who want to cash the next revolution in scheduling! – “Graphical Scheduling”.(haa haaaaa…)
You may feel this as a great idea or even foolishness , but I feel creative thinking should go on. If every one were happy of what they had yesterday, the world wouldn't have been the same. After all creativity & innovative thinking are the growth drivers for mankind!

Further Reading:

View some of the interesting time lines and GUI's (Click to Enlarge)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mind Mapping and Visual Thinking in Project Management

When ever I hear the term ‘Mind Mapping’ , it take me back to my high school days. Those days we used to prepare for various competitive exams. In most of the help guides there will be a centre spread advertisement “Mr.Raj Bapna’s Mind Maps for high scores in competitive exams’. I think Raj Bapna can be called as the Indian ‘Buzan’. Btw, Mr.Buzan is the guy who took ‘Mind mapping’ to great levels.
I think India has got a great edge in the subject of Mind Mapping. India’s rich intellectual culture has contributed a lot to research about human mind, its reasoning skills and psychology. Combined with the rich art culture, it has derived a lot of great works in mind mapping.
“A picture speaks a thousand words” – its very true. I learned to draw before I learned to write. I paint reasonably well and I was able to secure many prizes in school, university & inter university levels. I had felt many times that I have more photographical memory, rather than the conventional memory. It is very difficult for me to remember long numbers and generic data.(Its very hard for me to remember phone numbers, bank account numbers ..etc) But I have relatively higher capability to remember formulas, relations and diagrammatic representations. I classify myself as a guy with average (or slightly below average) memory and relatively high logical/analytical skill.
I was using mind mapping techniques well before since I heard about it! When ever I had some idea , I used to take a paper & pencil & draw out what ever was in my mind. There were many reasons behind it. One thing is , I used to forget what I was thinking few minutes back and this ‘Brain dumping’ helped me to organise my thoughts and look at them in a ‘Bird’s eye’ view. I draw pictures, arrows, lines, comments, balloons and clouds to express my thoughts. In my younger days , I used to arrange plays (which can be considered as small projects) at my home. My brother and cousins were actors and I was the writer, director, artist, designer..etc etc.. and last but not the least , the lead actor ! Rest of the family watched our drama! I used to make diagrams & story board for the play and lots of planning to arrange the exotic costumes from household stuff   !!
Later during my college life, I have organised several programmes and led several IT based projects. For overall planning, navigation and interface design I have used mind mapping extensively. Lots of white papers scribbled with graphite!
Now as a project management professional, in the age of enterprise project management tools, still I use paper & pencil extensively. I draw bar charts & histograms in paper before I go to full fledged planning. The beauty of paper and pencil is that, it offers no limitation to imagination! I write & draw what ever comes to my mind. Some times I draw symbols of plant, equipments and even people (The fat guy, the contractor with big moustache.. :) ) in the plan. While in kick off meetings and short discussions I take notes as mind maps (Not just boring titles!) I may be doing this because I am so much fond of sketching.
Of late, I have read a lot of articles on replacing the conventional barcharting with ‘Mind Mapping’. I will give a set of links which will help you to gather information regarding usage of Mind Mapping in Project management. There are a range of softwares starting from basic diagramming tools to full fledged enterprise level mind mapping packages you can choose from!
After observing the latest developments in Mind mapping tools for project management and the debates going on among the PM professionals I have drawn the following conclusions regarding the same.
Mind mapping is the excellent tool for (When used in Projects):
  • Development of new ideas / initiation stage of projects
  • Base planning (Top level planning)
  • Plant layout discussions (In software projects IT hardware/ sw network design)
  • Brain storming
  • Recording planned actions in meetings
  • Explaining a change in the plan
  • Erection methodologies (Especially useful for heavy lifting using cranes)

How ever for detailed planning and management we need sophisticated tools, which have evolved by taking inputs and feedback from the industry. We just can’t dump them and adopt Mind Mapping as an alternate tool. I would recommend PM professionals get familiar with Mind Mapping tools and use them additional to the existing tools. “mindmeister.com” is a very good attempt for establishing an online platform for mind mapping. I have found it very interesting and useful. Its collaborative features make it wonderful software to try with!

Mind Map image credit: