After taking a break from writing for a few weeks, I was planning to write about the importance of conversation in the work we do, but a late day Mastodon toot caught my attention today: “Gantt charts are lies“. Based on the hashtags accompanying the post, the author works in the software development domain using adaptive approaches.
While I can empathize with the frustration underlying the post, it resonated with me in the same manner as if someone had written “Flat head screwdrivers are useless“. While we might wish the folks who chose to use a flat-headed screw had used a Phillips or a Robertson instead when trying to unscrew one which has a messed up slot, depending on what you are trying to achieve, a flat head screwdriver might be just what you need. Apart from driving screws, I have found its value as a small pry bar is understated. One example has been to safely remove the sheet metal cover for my furnace filter which has extremely sharp edges.
When Henry Gantt had originally adapted the chart which is named for him, it had been used to document the activities and timelines for past operational work. Somewhere along the line, it started to be used as a tool for planning, tracking and communicating schedule information on in flight or future projects. This included adding details such as dependencies and baseline information.
The modern Gantt chart has benefited greatly from automation as prior to the introduction of rudimentary scheduling applications, they had to be redrawn any time changes occurred.
Like any tool, misusing a Gantt chart will cause problems and an experienced project manager should have the wisdom to avoid those.
Similar to a work breakdown structure, the level of detail in a Gantt chart should be based on the degree of confidence the team has in remaining activities as well as on the desired degree of monitoring of the work being done. While work whose delivery is highly predictive might benefit from the use of a detailed Gantt chart, one where a highly adaptive approach is required will necessitate the use of a chart at a very high level of detail or a completely different method of visualizing schedule information.
And like most other project management artifacts, if the frequency of updating the Gantt chart is much lower than the frequency of material changes to the schedule, the information presented can’t be trusted.
Does this mean we should stop using them?
In the author’s context, perhaps the risks of using a Gantt chart outweigh its benefits, but pragmatism is required to understand that they can still be useful in the right contexts and when used in the right manner.
(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores).