Using Excel 2010 to manage simple projects

Microsoft Excel 2010 fills the gap between Microsoft Project 2010 and a simple 'To Do' list, helping you plan and keep track of smaller scale projects. A home or office move, monitoring targets against performance, planning an event or a small refurbishment, all can be successfully managed using Excel 2010. Planning and keeping track of the progress of your project reduces stress, improves communication, prevents missed deadlines and ensures that resources are available at the right time. Most importantly, it vastly improves the likelihood that your project will be completed on time and within budget.

Let's take moving home as an example project. It is important that things are done in the right order, as there are a lot of small tasks to be carried out and something could easily be missed. We'll begin by creating a workbook (File, New), and add Column Headings; "Two Months", "One Month", "One Week" and "Moving Day". To the left, we'll add Row Titles "Jane", "Jim" and "Julie". (In this example, Jane and Jim are moving house with their daughter Julie. Add the names of everyone who will carry out task/s as part of your team during the project).

Begin entering the tasks, thinking carefully about the best order to carry these tasks out in. If your project is a common one, as in this example, you can search online for other people's checklists and plans to use as a guide. In the picture below, there are some example tasks along with a few notes.

Setting out the tasks needed in order and by those responsible is an excellent way of highlighting any forgotten items, potential problems or work overload. In our example, Julie is going to put the cat into its case on moving day, but someone needs to make sure the cat is in the house first. Other questions are likely to be raised by this first stage process: in this example, who is getting permission for Julie to have the day off from her current school to visit new ones? Once Jim and Julie have chosen a school, who will formally register her at the new school?

Breaking each task into smaller tasks helps to show if anything is missing, clarifies the order the tasks should be carried out in, and whether everyone has the necessary skills or resources. Once all the tasks are listed and assigned to the right people, progress can be followed by changing the font colour when a task is finished or has become overdue.

It is a good idea to put one person in charge of overseeing and co-ordinating the project, so someone always has an overview and can redistribute tasks in case of illness, for example.

Tip: When editing Excel spreadsheets saved in your Office 365 site, multiple people in the project can update the Excel spreadsheet simultaneously. This will enable the project manager to instantly know which tasks have been completed and/or which tasks need to be reassigned if anyone on the team is absent.

It's also useful to have a contingency plan and budget in case of the unexpected. In this case, what will happen if the house movers don't arrive on moving day? One contingency plan is for Jane to hire a van from the local self-hire centre, whilst Jim enlists friends and family to help move furniture. Jane will need to have her driver's licence and a credit card to hand, and because the contingency plan has been made in advance, she knows not to pack those items away.

Excel 2010 spreadsheets and workbooks are a great tool for planning small to medium projects. For more complex projects, use different worksheets in one workbook for different aspects of the project, or different team members. For very complex projects, it's better to hire a professional Project Manager, who will use a dedicated project management application such as Microsoft Project 2010.