Nine really good reasons to stop using Gantt charts
Posted by Team Sharktower on September 27th, 2021
If you’ve clicked on this article, chances are you belong in one of two camps.
You already suspect that Gantt charts are more bother than they’re worth (in which case, read on and enjoy)
You’re a Gantt chart enthusiast who’s outraged that we’re against them (in which case, read on and tell us we’re wrong 😉)
First, let’s consider the origin of Gantt charts and why they’re still a go-to for project planning and management.
Henry Gantt before he started updating his project plan (left) and after (right)
Why Gantt charts exist
Gantt charts as we know them have been around since around 1910, when Mechanical Engineer Henry Gantt (that’s him in the pictures) developed them for ‘systematic, routine operations’ and to measure employee productivity.
Gantt charts are pretty much based on the ‘Waterfall’ approach to project management. Ironic really, since one of the first major projects to use them was the construction of the Hoover Dam.
In fact, that’s three good reasons to stop using them already, before we’ve even started the proper list:
They’re based on theory that’s 110 years old.
They were intended for ‘systematic, routine operations’ (since when was a transformation project systematic or routine?)
They were designed by a Mechanical Engineer for construction and manufacturing projects. Unless you’re planning to roll out a new IT system using concrete and steel beams, think again.
So why are they still so commonplace?
A typical Gantt chart (we’ve blurred the details, but things weren’t much clearer before to be honest)
It’s too easy to say people use them “because they always have”.
We know that’s not true.
Junior project managers are being taught how to use Gantt charts every day (whether they like it or not).
We think it’s more to do with box-ticking, and the false comfort that if everything’s listed out neatly in one place, then the project is more likely to go to plan. And as anyone who’s NOT a junior project manager knows, that’s never the reality. A few weeks – or even days – into the project, all you have is a ticked box, an out-of-date plan, and a headache.
Gantt fans, are you still with us?
OK, we’ve got nine chances to change your mind. Here goes:
1. Gantt charts don’t work the way our brains do
Think of a project initiation meeting. You have some of the best brains around the table. Everyone’s talking animatedly, throwing out ideas and taking turns to draw out the project plan on a whiteboard. Exciting, isn’t it? You end up with a mind map packed with great energy. Then someone takes it away, picks it apart and wedges it all into blocks of lines and columns. In a couple of hours, you’ve gone from fluid ideation to a tightly regimented plan that’s actually prohibitive to change.
2. And they kill creativity at every stage
It’s not just the way Gantt charts look that kicks the creativity out of things. When you follow a plan that’s built around dates and deadlines, there’s [literally] no space for new ideas. As projects evolve, the people delivering them deserve the chance to pipe up and say “Hey, I’ve thought of a better way to do that!”. But Gantt Chart Says No. No wonder team members lose interest and slip into a disengaged robot delivery mode. So you might meet the deadline, but have you ended up with the best possible solution? Probably not. And your teams will be miserable, too.
3. Ever tried to link your Gantt chart to your supplier? Or multiple suppliers? Don’t.
And yet, that’s how complex projects work. They are delivered by a linked ecosystem of multiple departments, clients, consultants, suppliers, subcontractors, each working off their own plans that have been built differently, in different tools, and almost impossible to link together. Even if you could, the resulting Gantt chart would be too huge to be useful.
4. Projects are complex, but Gantt charts are just bar charts
A data centre migration project has thousands of activities, tasks, dependencies, risks and decisions. If you used a Gantt chart to represent this, it would look like a plate of spaghetti. If you can mentally understand a plate of spaghetti, then Gantt charts are for you. Mmm, spaghetti.
5. Gantt charts don’t make sense to non-project people
You know the people you rely on to actually complete the tasks – the ‘staffers’, ‘doers’ and team members? Well, most of them don’t understand your Gantt chart (if they even get to see it). That means that communications, updates and questions end up being duplicated in unnecessary email chains and endless status reporting and meetings.
6. The feeling of security you get from a Gantt chart is an illusion
The execution dates on a Gantt chart are likely to be different in reality. It’s common not to know all dependencies at the start of a project, time estimates might be based on unknowns, or the scope changes as you go. But Gantt charts work best when all dependencies are known and planned. Every time you change the scope or discover a gap in your plan you have to update the plan, which becomes messy and time consuming.
7. Gantt charts don’t like change
Project leaders can’t predict how technology might change, or the feedback they’ll receive from stakeholders. Things change. But the Gantt chart says, in rigid colourful bars: “We’re starting here, and we’ll do all of this in order until we reach there, OK?!”. Think of the project as a road trip. Plan your route on a static road map, and you’ll have no idea what obstacles you’ll encounter along the way – or how to avoid them. An intelligent platform (yes, like Sharktower) is the SatNav of project planning, enabling you to re-route, respond and adapt as things change.
8. They’re not very agile either
Many teams are working in a blended environment, using aspects of both Waterfall and Agile project management. You could use a Gantt chart to show sprints, but to to track progress, you’d also have to add the tasks assigned to each sprint. And then delete any tasks which are subsequently removed from the sprint. Which is all manual and duplicates processes likely already being done in JIRA. Eurgh.
9. The critical path is simply the longest path to project completion, not necessarily the most critical tasks.
There are activities that could delay the entire project based on time estimates (providing the complex dependencies used to maintain the critical path are correct AND the estimates used to calculate the durations are accurate). But isn’t that true for any activity that’s difficult to complete, involves multiple resources and has any number of unknowns? We’re not just managing routine tasks and activities anymore. We’re managing risk, stories, decisions, outcomes, and value. Try putting those in a Gantt chart…
So what’s the alternative?
Sharktower’s Delivery Map planning tool is a living visualisation of the entire project throughout delivery. See tasks, decisions and user stories in one place.
This 4.5 minute demo shows how to create a project plan in Sharktower.
Love them or loathe them, Gantt charts can no longer handle the rapid, continual change most businesses are experiencing. If you’d like to know more about how Sharktower is taking planning to the next level, get in touch and we’ll arrange a time to talk.
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