As a visual tool that outlines tasks, completion dates, resource allocation and dependencies, Gantt charts are quite helpful in showing schedule status and detailed future plans at a glance. They were considered extremely revolutionary when they were first introduced in 1910, more than 100 years ago, and rightly so. But in modern management, they simply suck.
They suck because they convey a level of certainty that is completely unfounded. They send out a perception of control which the traditional stakeholder might enjoy, but the savvy one knows not to trust or care for.
Gantt charts are based on the Big Design Up Front and the waterfall model. These models originated in the manufacturing and construction industries - highly structured physical environments in which after-the-fact changes are extremely costly, or impossible. These models completely fail to take advantage of the flexibility available to us in industries like software, design and marketing, where after-the-fact changes are not only affordable but also encouraged. In these newer industries, if you don’t take full advantage of the ability to iterate, measure, learn and adjust you will fall behind. You will be unable to compete.
These industries are data-driven. You measure how you’re doing and you adjust. After-the-fact changes are a big part of the process. It’s the basics.
Why Gantt Charts don't work in the modern workplace
Take a look at your team and your values.
Do you value team communication and individual autonomy? Are you always looking for ways to make your product or service better, embracing change every step of the way? If you answered yes to these questions, then here’s why Gantt charts are useless for you:
1. Gantt charts require detailed upfront planning, and you know it’s useless
Gantt charts require a considerable amount of upfront planning. This kind of planning requires you to fill in all the details about all the tasks and subtasks involved, how long they will take, who will do them, as well as all the dependencies.
You need to put all this planning effort at the beginning of the project when you know the least about it. No wonder your timelines and estimates are going to suck. Not to mention that the project itself might change course, rendering all your plans obsolete.
In addition to the wasted time, the know-it-all document you just created provides a false sense of certainty. This is dangerous at best.
2. Gantt chart tools discourage change, but you know you need to embrace change to succeed
So after you've spent all this time on your detailed plans, how do you feel about changing them?
You are always adapting and making your product or service better. This involves being data driven, feedback driven, and continuously adjusting. It involves keeping an open mind and being flexible about change.
For example, if half way through your project it turns out that there is a better way to meet your customers' needs, it would be wise to change direction as early as you gather that customer feedback.
But your planning tool affects your behaviour. A Gantt chart tool makes change cumbersome. For one, it’s too detailed, and so it's time consuming to change. It also makes change feel like a failure. It’s not designed to embrace change. On the contrary, it’s designed with the mindset that change is a failure to follow your plan.
3. Gantt charts encourage policing your team members, but you know it is counter-productive...
…and you have better things to do!
Gantt charts tempt managers to see their team members as isolated resources which can replace each other. You have detailed tasks and subtasks at a micro-level, and a list of resources (employees), so it’s tempting to try to optimize and assign every task to someone leaving no person idle.
Having an 'end date’ associated with each task also encourages the manager to police their team members about meeting those ‘dates’. Yet no one benefits from this level of micro-management.
There is plenty of research that shows employee autonomy increases productivity. A hands-off leader hires the best, and then gives them the space to deliver. Instead of micro-managing your employees, you want to provide them with the environment were they are motivated to do their best, feel responsible over their work, and have the flexibility to do things as they best see fit.
4. Gantt charts discourage innovation
Innovation requires out of the box thinking. It requires an environment where people are encouraged to ‘see’ what can be done better, and come up with solutions. This environment is focused on results. You prefer an employee who comes up with new ideas that show better results over an employee who always meets the plan.
When your tool encourages micro-managing and prioritizes meeting your plans over keeping an open mind to better alternatives, you are hindering innovation.
Planning is important
Gantt charts may suck, but planning is still important.
Despite the fact this is clearly insanity, it is a terrifyingly common mindset in management ranks. Project planning and goals are obviously important at some level (otherwise how the hell would you know what you are doing?) but how did we move from “let’s have a clearly defined set of project goals and a strategy for how we’ll get there,” to “this is 100% accurate, carved in stone and will never change”?
The further away the projects are the less detailed the planning needs to be. For example, you need more detailed plans for what you will be doing this week than for what you will be doing 17 weeks from now.
Always keep your plans flexible. A good way of doing it is to plan your tasks loosely in weekly timeframes, and to keep re-prioritizing as you go. The cognitive effort spent on simply putting your tasks and projects into weeks is considerably less than that required in the exact plans of a Gantt chart. And when things don’t go according to the plan, you need a simple way of moving tasks and projects between this week and future weeks, as well as adding and removing tasks and projects.
Agile for everyone
During the time leading up to co-founding Sandglaz, I was a developer working at a company using a waterfall process, and I initiated a move towards agile development.
Meanwhile, my co-founder was leading a risk-analysis team at a top Canadian bank, and was looking for a task management tool to use with his team.
Discussing the state of task management, Gantt charts, agile and waterfall is what led us to build Sandglaz - a task management tool that provides a flexible way of planning and applicable to modern management. It’s for small high performance teams who work autonomously and are results oriented.
Here's what one of our users, who was also one of our early adopters, had to say about managing projects with Sandglaz versus Gantt charts:
"We tend to work on many projects at once, and from day to day, shifting priorities on one project can affect progress on another. Sandglaz is the first tool I've seen that is designed to fit the dynamic nature of how people really work rather than the typical old-school Gantt charting tool, which is really nothing more than a specialized drawing application, and assumes fixed schedules, fixed priorities, and static assignments of people to projects, thus requiring a project manager (who has way better things to do) to spend all his/her time updating the chart as circumstances (inevitably) change…” ~ Cory Snavely, IT Manager at the University of Michigan
Sandglaz was built with modern management ideology at heart. We accomplished this by using visual plans. You plan in rough milestones (e.g. weeks, months, etc.) reducing planning overhead, and the easy drag and drop of tasks between milestones encourages you to keep changing your plans as you go. Sandglaz is now packed with all the necessary task management capabilities, but instead of ‘pitching' it for you here, you can go ahead and try it for yourself.
Gantt charts are a thing of the past. They were once amazingly useful, and may still be in some industries, but they are ill-suited to most of us today.
Gantt charts encourage a bunch of things you should not be doing, including micro-management, wasting time creating upfront plans, and resisting change. The trick is to quit using Gantt charts, stick to high level planning, hire smart autonomous people, communicate well, iterate fast, and keep adjusting your plans as you go.