How & Why to Build a Basic Gantt Chart for Almost Any Project
Posted by noahlemas
[Estimated read time: 13 minutes]
I had planned on writing about losslessness, about accurate reproduction. I’ve always found it strange that at just about the same time that true losslessness became widely available cheaply, we suddenly seemed to care less about fidelity than ever before. So I had wanted to discuss the Internet’s imminent future, almost undoubtedly VR-based and highly resolution-dependent, and how that vision is slightly at odds with its history of relegating virtually everything to simple, low-resolution, compressed formats.
With the path to writing such a post research and time-intensive, deadline-bound, and rife with potential rabbit holes that could very well result in me unintentionally plumbing the depths of the Internet, I began framing it as though it were typical proposed work — which, for me, means organizing a basic Gantt chart. It’s something I do to frame the projects included in client engagements, beginning even during the proposal stage.
Remind me again what a Gantt chart is…
A Gantt chart is a rather simple matrix of a project’s activities and its associated start dates and deadlines. You’ve seen them but perhaps not known they had a name (activities on the left, activity duration on the right):
Given the rise of agile project management within the technology and software industries in recent years, the humble Gantt chart is often forgotten about, mainly because a Gantt chart rarely meets the highly adaptive needs of more complicated projects (like software product development). But the same simplicity that has doomed it in complex spaces is also what makes it so easy to create and share in relation to the organization of simpler projects.
A Gantt chart is an assurance that we have a plan
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Clients want only two things: the first is a plan, the second results. In our industry, the results (or sometimes lack thereof) get the focus, with the plan usually an implicit conceptual agreement from the outset. If we don’t have a tangible plan from the outset, though, results will be largely arbitrary.
During the pitch/proposal stage, the reported results are usually case studies from our past work. Supplementing such case studies with a customized Gantt chart can illustrate to the prospective client that we’ve put more than cursory thought into the work we’re proposing and planning, and the results that we’re hoping to achieve.
It took me trial and error in both conventional client services and business development roles to learn that our agency work is often incomplete without a Gantt chart. I now find myself using them increasingly. Here, for example, is a very generic example of a simple Gantt chart framing a very basic SEO site audit:
Aren’t Gantt charts only needed in project management & sales?
“The sales department is not the whole company but the whole company better be the sales department.”
– Philip Kotler
Treating sales as somebody else’s duty is a common mistake that we make in search. If we are client-facing in any capacity, though, we should be considering things, both in scope and out (often we can’t help but think of the out-of-scope anyway), that could provide clients the best possible results. That is to say that since finding and presenting opportunities to clients is an important aspect of growing both client results and agency business, then we all really are in sales.
In fact, we are all working not just in sales, but also in project management. Realizing that and capitalizing on it wherever possible is an additional means of “getting closer to the customer.” Embracing the humble Gantt chart helps us to better organize projects by providing the needed framework in a standardized format that translates across roles, companies, or even industries. Gantt charts help us speak the “language” of project management, organization, sales, and business in general.
Gantt charts are part of the common language of business
“It seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”
– David Ogilvy
As a general rule of thumb, the bigger or more sophisticated the client, the higher the chance that a Gantt chart will be an important part of planning and winning the business, and the greater the chances that our point of contact frames work like a typical project manager.
Successfully navigating the proposal process is almost always a product of communicating in the common language. Gantt charts, then, are not only another means of speaking the common language but, as Vince Lombardi once famously said, of acting “like you’ve been there before.”
As with any other industry or interest, speaking the common language can be the only way to ensure that a wide variety of people within an organization can understand exactly what it is that we’re proposing.
A Gantt chart can also meet the expectations of legal & procurement
“Any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy is indistinguishable from molasses.”
In business development, the unfortunate reality is that a “verbal yes” (especially with a bigger client) is nothing but permission to proceed to the legal and/or procurement departments, where many a business development director has been maddeningly frustrated, and where important initiatives, unfortunately, can go to die a slow and painful death.
I stumbled into emphasizing Gantt charts entirely by accident. In researching a promising prospective client, I found a page on their site that outlined a case study from an entirely unrelated field. In one of the page’s images was a Gantt chart with redacted identifying details. On a lark, I included a rudimentary timeline that I thought represented something close to a Gantt chart. That process made me better understand the work that I was proposing, and I’ve been using Gantt charts since.
Not only did I win the business that time by implementing a Gantt chart, I have also won other accounts simply by knowing the audience, in so doing acting as though every last member is a project manager. A Gantt chart certainly isn’t a magic key to legal and procurement, but it’s a relatively small, subtle addition that can have a disproportionately strong impact.
Internal client teams expect, want, or need Gantt charts
“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
– Alexander Graham Bell
Assume for a moment that we did “get ink,” that we won a contract with a sophisticated client without a project plan or Gantt chart. In such a case, the internal team(s) will probably put together their own project plan and/or Gantt chart as a baseline reference point and as part of beginning to allocate resources.
When we hand this brand new account over to our client services team, would we prefer that they receive the Gantt chart that we carefully constructed and agreed on during the proposal process? Or would we prefer that the work be defined and framed by the people who had to hire our agency to consult on the work in the first place? Which is our most realistic path to being able to deliver the framed work and meet the goals of the campaign(s)?
Gantt charts help agency-side teams, too
“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal.”
– Walt Disney
The handover and kickoff can be phenomenally easy and well organized when we prepare an easily relatable and understandable Gantt chart to every member of our team (and our client’s). The handover is then as simple as sharing file permissions with the teams of our agency and our new client.
The typical handover to your client services should be smooth and easy, accompanied by a well-outlined plan. Often, though, handovers to client services can be a cluster of questions to which nobody really knows the exact answer(s). A basic Gantt chart goes a long way toward an orderly, sensible, smooth handover, something that only instills further confidence in the new client’s team. The Gantt chart serves as a great means of bridging the gap between what was promised by sales and what will be delivered by client services.
Competitors use Gantt charts, too
“Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”
– Will Rogers
Experienced as we are, we all know that clients and prospects respond almost viscerally to reports on competition, especially where their competition is clearly beating them.
On that note, you know who uses project plans? Some of your competitors. If all else in a proposal is equal (and you’d be shocked at how often that happens), the planning can be the tie-breaker, both because it implies sophistication and because, as noted above, it is much more likely to be converted into a contract/SOW that breezes through legal and procurement.
How to make a Gantt chart for that article about fidelity vs. connectivity
Okay, now it’s time to dig in and to actually put together a top-level outline of the article’s components, which include in this case preparation, research, writing, and editing. An outline is the best place to start building our Gantt chart.
In this case, we’ve created a 23-step outline (details below) for writing that article on “Fidelity vs. Connectivity.” Now, let’s make a Gantt chart of it…
Make a Gantt chart easily from a Trello board
To make a basic Gantt chart using Trello, frame a Trello board. I’ve created one called “Interesting Article Idea,” with a list; in this case, “Fidelity Vs. Connectivity” :
Next, fill out the related cards (which in this case consist of the 23 outline steps noted above) below the Fidelity vs. Connectivity list to include specific activities:
It’s a card list of how the article progresses and in what order. It’s still not ready to be a Gantt chart, but it’s close. In order to build our Gantt chart, define start dates and due dates for each card related to its associated activity, starting with what we anticipate to be the first, in this case “Research the history of ‘high fidelity’”:
When you hover over that card, you’ll see a small pencil icon. Click that edit/pencil icon to open an expanded menu of options. Then click “Change Due Date,” from which the following calendar menu will appear:
Click on the appropriate “due date” from the calendar (I’ve chosen a March 11 due date for this card, as we can see) and save changes, at which point our edited card will look like this (minus the giant red arrow, of course):
At that point, the card has a due date but no start date. In order to add a start date, go back to the card list and click on the March 11 due date (where the red arrow above is pointing), at which point we will have an this expanded menu:
Adding the start date here can be a bit elusive only because there is no “button” to do so. Instead, click on “Edit the description” (red arrow above) in order to open the following window:
In order to establish the start date, add it to the description window, using the format below (in this example a start date of March 7, 2016):
Repeat this process for all remaining 22 cards and you’ll end up with a card list like this:
What you’ll need to make a basic Gantt chart
I prefer to use Ganttify, integrating a Trello board, largely out of habit. Ganttify also provides compatibility with Basecamp or even, yes it’s true, Google Calendar, so there are certainly other options if you’re not a Trello user. A rather impressive Gantt chart can also be built in Excel (for our spreadsheet-obsessed colleagues). Point is, there is no shortage of options for making free Gantt charts.
Also worth noting: the Gantt chart is NOT a complete project plan, but instead merely a part of one. The Gantt chart organizes the “what” and “when” aspects of a project plan but largely doesn’t touch on the “why” or “who” aspects. A Gantt chart, then, can exist without a project plan, but a project plan usually cannot exist without Gantt charts. For the purposes of this post, we’re concerned only with the Gantt chart… and a very basic one at that; we’re stepping into the project management world as relative novices. By design, our sample Gantt chart here will be as simple as possible.
At this point, with your Trello board complete, you are ready to head over to Ganttify:
We’re working from Trello here, obviously. Click the Trello button and you’ll be taken to the following screen:
Allow Ganttify access to your Trello board by clicking the “Allow” button; you’ll be taken swiftly to the Trello/Ganttify dashboard:
And there it is waiting for you… automatically created from the existing Trello board you made earlier. Click on “Interesting Article Idea” and you’ll be served this pop-out window:
You did it; that’s a Gantt chart! It needs a little refining, of course, but you’ve created a usable Gantt chart. Perhaps the best part about the Gantt chart you’ve just created is the fact that you can simply adjust any of the “activities” on the timeline of the Gantt chart and the associated changes will be automatically reflected in the original Trello board. Let’s have a look at how this works:
Drag to increase the width of the first “activity” (red arrow above) and you’ll will see this change directly on the Gantt chart:
That change on the Gantt change then becomes part of the parameters of the original Trello board (requiring no changes to the underlying Trello board; Ganttify and Trello are essentially working together):
Changing all or part of your Gantt chart, then, changes the underlying Trello board (and vice-versa). Using the same process, you can easily change the activities back to the original dates. This means that changes are then automatically shared with collaborators (assuming we’ve shared our Trello board with other team members).
Exporting the Gantt chart to a format of your choosing means you can insert it into any document in the appropriate file type. To export, click the print icon (indicated by the red arrow below):
From the pop-out window above, click the print icon in the upper left corner. That will result in the following option window:
I’ve added the red arrow here to remind you that the cleanest possible outcome is a result of condensing the timeline to show only the dates relevant to the project (especially important when planning longer, more complicated projects).
Export to your preferred format by clicking “print.” The resulting JPG for our for our simplified example project looks like this:By this point, you’ll have a Trello board built out, a working version of a Gantt chart, and the knowledge/ability to edit in one place, with those edits reflected across platforms and immediately available to collaborators. You’ll be ready to insert your newly created file wherever you need it. It really is that simple! Of course, time and practice will provide for more detailed and complex, in-depth Gantt charts, but this is a great place to start.
We’ve started here with a very simplified Gantt chart but, as you begin to use them, you can add layers of depth and make them increasingly advanced. As you’ve seen, building basic Gantt charts is simpler (and perhaps more useful) than it at first might have seemed.
To summarize the process:
- Outline the project.
- Frame the associated Trello board.
- Define the start and end dates of each activity.
- Allow Ganttify access to the Trello board.
- Export from Ganttify to your preferred file format.
- Insert the newly created file into a proposal, business case, report, etc.
Regardless of your role, or whether you are agency-side or client-side, organizing work and communicating timelines via Gantt charts provides a necessary baseline for just about any project. When you build Gantt charts from shared resources like Trello, Basecamp, or Google Calendar, you also encourage efficient collaboration by ensuring that everyone on your internal teams, and those of your clients, start from “the same page.” Framing your work in Gantt charts improves your ability to organize, communicate, and collaborate, all of which increases efficiency and allows you to, as we say at Distilled, “work smarter, not harder.”
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