My most complex project (and why I didn’t use a Gantt chart to manage it)

Michael Vernik
Michael Vernik

This is a guest post by Michael Vernik, Co-founder and CEO of DigiSpoke.

In previous roles, I was responsible for overseeing the launch and maintenance of a number of massive websites and applications. If asked which I thought was most difficult to orchestrate, several instantly come to mind. One of which I’d like to share today.

Customizing game characters

Choosing from a selection of prefabbed plumbers in red or green outfits to embark on a brick crushing, mushroom stomping adventure is just not as cool today as it seemed when I got my first video game console on a cold 1989 New York winter. When I was asked to work on a project to create and maintain a website in which game characters could be customized, I instantly felt the blood rushing through my veins. Complex, yes. Big budget, check. On the surface, simple. In reality, immensely complex.

It was very clear early on in the planning phase that this would be a project spanning many teams and disciplines. Managing web content without a fancy built-in application takes a hefty dose of coordination, but this project would require the help of over 50 internal and external resources across 4 continents and six agencies. We were a part of the Marketing department, so the overwhelming majority of this work would need to be outsourced to third parties that needed to be actively managed by my team of Project Managers.

The tools of the trade

Our project management logistics were only as good as our diligence and instruments, so when it came time to choose our tools, we ran through many options. A ticketing system was at the heart of our operation, but that’s a subject for a different blog post. Beyond that, the team needed individual project tracking solutions and there sure were many to choose from.

The most obvious choice was MS Project, but interestingly, none of the project managers wanted to use it. Although it was packed with features, we felt that it suffered from massive amounts of bloat. Tools work best when they can do their job quickly and get out of the way even quicker.

When it comes to a new tool, getting people to use it can be a serious challenge. Anyone who’s ever tried to launch a system requiring contributors to indicate start and stop times for their work knows that it takes a colossal amount of diligence on everyone’s part to maintain this level of detail. Often times, these systems are based on idealistic visions on the part of the software designer – the sort of thing talked about in seminars. In reality, unless based on compensation or reward, they almost never work.

For our project we looked at other solutions in our quest for granular task control and collaboration, only to find a world of either loose task control systems or new takes on Gantt chart solutions. Agile and Kanban systems are great for engineering teams with autonomous goals, but break down very quickly if used for projects with multiple dependencies and parallel task scenarios.

Henry Gantt

Henry Gantt developed his namesake charts for visualizing project status at the start of the last century. They were put to serious use for the first time during World War I. At the time, they were a great way to visualize the complexity of projects and keep track of status. The information age came and went and Gantt charts remain the predominant system for seeing the “big picture.”

However, a project manager’s experience with technology will often dictate whether or not they will use Gantt charts. Unfortunately, the user experience of Gantt charts is just not synonymous with 21st century tech and today users. Gantt charts suffer from a myriad of flaws.

The Gantt chart user experience

Gantt charts have a tendency to get very wide when used to plan longer projects. A single task on the critical path taking several months to complete can stretch the Gantt chart for pages. When rendered on a screen, scrolling and zooming can save paper, but they add steps to what ideally should be just a glance.

The problem is compounded because most information about tasks resides in a spreadsheet-like grid to the left of the Gantt chart. This means that in order to process the information behind each task, a user has to move their eyes side-to-side, click and switch contexts to a new window, or wait for a tooltip to pop up.

We’re all used to this kind of eye and finger acrobatics and think of it as normal. But Gantt charts just weren’t good enough for our gaming project – we didn’t want ‘normal’; we wanted ‘good’.

Why has innovation leapfrogged project management solutions? We live in an age of streamlined user experiences. The designers of my phone religiously counted clicks and taps for every common action. If it took too many, they redesigned until it didn’t. It’s about time we applied this type of methodology and modern tech to project management software.

Co-ordinating everyone despite scope changes

We heard the news we were dreading. The kind of news any delivery team hates to hear with a looming deadline. Now the game character designer app needed a database of user-generated designs. The game servers could only provide a set of five characters at a time and no one thought to tell us sooner. This was a major bullet point on the retail box and the game’s release date would not get pushed because we required more time.

This change meant that gamers now needed the ability to design their characters with predefined colours and shapes, upload their own skins, and show off their creations across the community. Community Managers were standing by to moderate designs, run contests, and engage in discussions across the forums. The user interface and experience specialists would deliver their static designs and our editors would write and optimize content from the Marketing stakeholders.

Dozens of other people were involved: third parties were engaged to build the backend systems and databases based on a strict set of guidelines. The Web Analytics team would work with our stakeholders to understand their metrics and goals, then tag and monitor the site and application. The QA team would ensure that everything was as bug free as possible. The localization team would translate all content. The systems teams would prepare our servers, conduct security audits, and publish the site at the exact time it was announced on our blog and social channels.

All of this was achieved as planned. We were used to scope changes – to use a metaphor, landing planes on moving aircraft carriers was our business. And we did this approximately 200 times a month.

So what tool did we end up using? We constantly leveraged our ticketing system, which was at the core of our operation. But to visualize project status, there was only one solution that worked well in our environment. Excel. And so I left the company in search of a better way.

About the author: Michael Vernik is Co-founder and CEO of DigiSpoke. DigiSpoke builds products that take the complexity out of project management by allowing users to visually map tasks, predict times and dates, and easily collaborate with each other.

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