Tips to avoid your Gantt chart becoming a work of fiction
Rob Calder is the SSA’s Head of Communications and completed his PhD in 2018. He has turned to Gantt charts many times to organise big projects, but has also watched his Gantt charts disintegrate – resulting in a desperate grab for multi-coloured squares that viewers of The Crystal Maze will remember as being devastatingly ineffective.
It is infinitely better to have a detailed plan that adapts to change than to have no plan at all.
Gantt charts are an excellent form of pre-loaded nostalgia. There will be a moment in the future when you’re tidying away the paperwork from your completed (ha!) project, asking yourself what exactly happened. You will come across the original Gantt chart and be stopped in your tracks – immediately transported back to a time when everything looked possible and the project looked like something that actually could be completed. A simpler time. Your eyes will mist over at the loss of innocence and you will probably need a hug.
The reality is that 60% of Gantt charts become a work of fiction almost as soon as they are submitted. So often, they just don’t survive impact with reality. But please don’t let this put you off making one. Their inevitable disintegration doesn’t devalue them at all. All plans change, and yours are no exception, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan. It is infinitely better to have a detailed plan that adapts to change than to have no plan at all.
Gantt charts are worth doing for two main (and several non-main) reasons. First, your funder wants a Gantt chart; all funders want a Gantt chart. So, it’s probably best to give them one. It will make them happy and everyone benefits from having a happy funder. Your funder doesn’t want a Gantt chart just for fun, or because it seems appropriate and no one can quite remember why. They want a Gantt chart because it shows that you have thought about the practical side of your project. It demonstrates to them that you’re not just someone with a whim and a positive outlook, but that you are someone who knows what’s involved and is ready for it. You are someone who has thought about the order in which things need to be done and who has worked out how long each element is likely to last. This is why, when you submit a Gantt chart, it should be detailed enough to reassure your funder. Don’t have three vague phases like ‘read some stuff’, ‘collect some data’, and ‘do some writing’. Instead, provide enough detail about specific tasks to show that you’ve thought about them, like ‘write search strategy’, ‘screen articles (title + abstract)’, and ‘perform data extraction’.
The second main reason to do a Gantt chart is that it makes you face the things you don’t want to think about. The very act of colouring in those small squares forces you to acknowledge that you cannot start data collection until you have ethical approval, and that you cannot get ethical approval until you have reviewed the literature. And that both things will almost certainly take longer than you want.
Be a scientist about it and base your time estimates on data and not imagination.
A Gantt chart forces you to confront the things you don’t know and to get accurate estimates for the many stages of your project. At some point, you’ll be working on your Gantt chart (idly wondering whether to colour-code processes differently from tasks) and will need to decide how long to allocate for ‘pilot first survey’. Don’t make it up. Ask someone who has piloted a survey. Ask several people and average their responses. Be a scientist about it and base your time estimates on data and not imagination. Don’t risk having your wonderful project reviewed by someone who looks at your Gantt chart and thinks, ‘Two weeks for piloting a survey? Not a chance!’, and circles a withering ‘2/10’ in the margins of your application in a devastating red pen.
The several non-main reasons to do a Gantt chart are as follows:
- A Gantt chart enables you and your team to negotiate operational decisions and work sequences in a way that few other project tools do. This alone is probably worth the ticket price.
- They help you to see the whole project in one view. This is good for getting insights but is also psychologically reassuring.
- They often oscillate wildly between being visually pleasing and unnervingly chaotic and have their own peculiar beauty as a result.
- They allow you to allocate two months to ‘writing up’ that you won’t get, but which avoids the horrors that would result if you didn’t have those two months in hand for everything else.
- A Gantt chart is a present for the future version of you who will have to tidy all this mess up. Use the last row of your Gantt chart to remind yourself to celebrate and to give yourself a hug, because you might well need to be reminded.
by Rob Calder
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