WBS, Network and Gantt: Why start by hand?

By Tania Melnyczuk

On the job, you’d be silly to do it without scheduling software if you’re working on larger projects. But starting your Project Management journey by getting straight into Microsoft Project isn’t a good idea. You too quickly start to trust the result you see on the screen, and and you can easily miss some key principles.

Learn to do a WBS, Network Diagram and Gantt chart by hand first. If you skipped this step in your education, go back and do it. There are very few instances in which I’ve seen this to be a waste of time for existing software users. Although the content of our Intensive Workshop in Project Management is flexible, we inevitably incorporate an exercise involving the basics and some of the best practices for working with a WBS, Network Diagram and Gantt chart.

Why this old-fashioned approach?

Unless you have dysgraphia, you probably think better when you’re working with a pen in your hand. Thoughts flow more quickly from your brain to the page than from your brain to your hand to the tab to the button to the keyboard to the… you get the idea. I know it’s only a few seconds (or less), but important connecting thoughts get lost in that process unless you’re really, really refined in the skill.

WBS and Gantt chart for a machine assembly

Pen-in-hand in the real world of projects

Quick sketching on a flipchart or whiteboard is also a good idea if you’re working with a team to come up with the initial tasks for a project. Never mind if it gets a bit messy. Don’t interrupt the flow.

When you later move your sketchy teamwork into software, turn cludgy task names into consistent ones.

Where possible, ensure that every task has a predecessor and successor. Milestone task 2.1 in the picture below exemplifies this principle. This milestone doesn’t really need a successor, because its predecessors feed into other paths. But it has been linked to the final milestone to ensure that all the loose ends in the project are tied up. Keeping things consistent in this way will help you train your eye to spot discrepancies and mistakes later as you work with plans consisting of thousands of tasks.

Network diagram with WBS

Spot the mistake in the diagram above. (Hint: It’s in the WBS numbers.) 

Other reasons why it’s good to learn to do it by hand

Understanding the software

There are other good reasons to start by hand. Many self-taught users of scheduling software don’t ever look at the Network Diagram. Because they start out in the Gantt chart, they often inadvertently set dates in stone which should rather be determined by logical dependencies between tasks. I often come across less-than-ideal practices when I am doing Consultative Tutoring with existing Microsoft Project users. They may be working on very large projects, but suboptimal scheduling practices undermine their effectiveness, and they sometimes don’t really understand what the software is trying to do. Doing it by hand in the beginning helps to ensure that the task logic really reflects what is logical in the real world.

Doing it better with CCPM

This brings us to the great irony of the Critical Path Method, which relies on the task logic to determine the project’s duration: the Critical Path Method cannot adequately cater for the way things work in real life. I’ve seen super-experienced project managers come up with exceedingly convoluted ways of creating buffers for every task using software, to allow for more realistic time management.

But there’s a better way. Once the organisation is mature enough, it may be best to move to Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM). Critical Chain uses the Critical Path Method as a foundation, adding buffers to create a more natural reflection of the realities of interdependent activities and human behaviour. If the methods have already been understood by pen-in-hand learning, then the implementation of better systems which build on them becomes so much easier.


Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.


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