Data Visualization 101: Using a Power BI Gantt Chart for Project Management

Aileen Capistrano
data visualization

They say a picture speaks more than a thousand words. That’s mostly true in any business — especially when you’re in project management data visualization can be much more important.

When it comes to project management, it’s vital to communicate details in ways that the team members can best manage and understand. Visuals add a valuable element to getting everyone on the same page, something that Gantt charts exemplify.

 

What is a Gantt chart, and how does it help with project management?

Gantt charts may have been around for the past century, but the fact that it’s still one of the most widely used graphs in project management speaks for its worth.
In a nutshell, a Gantt chart is a bar graph that maps courses of action in a project over time and visualizes responsibilities for each task. Gantt charts visualize project schedules and tasks, giving them a start-to-finish structure.

That was how Henry Laurence Gantt — the one who popularized this kind of visualization —— envisioned it when he used it to track Hoover Dam’s construction. Gantt chart arguably played a role in helping the massive project to be completed two years ahead of schedule. Now, it’s one of the most popular ways for project managers in different industries to schedule, manage, and monitor specific tasks and resources in a project.

A typical Gantt chart shows tasks on the vertical axis while schedules are laid out on the horizontal axis. Each task is represented by a bar that displays the time required for the project. The bar represents the percentage of tasks that were accomplished. The length of the bar is proportional to the time necessary to complete the task. It also shows links between various tasks in the project. Understanding these links is important to effectively monitor the project — a delay in one task may have a negative domino effect on others.

data visualization

A sample snapshot of what a typical Gantt chart looks like

With a well-designed Gantt chart, project managers can efficiently track and communicate changes in a project. Some of the must-have components of an effective Gantt chart include:

  • Milestones. These are specific points in the project timeline used to mark any significant activities or important events in the project. These are often indicated with fixed dates, and defines a checkpoint in the project schedule. This enables project managers to more accurately estimate the time it will take to begin or end a task.
  • Dependencies. These show which tasks are linked together, including milestones. These are used to track the progress of tasks and check if they are complementary or collectively exhaustive. By knowing their interdependencies, the project manager can prioritize what to tackle first.
  • Summary tasks. Also called parent tasks, these are top-level tasks that group related subtasks or events together. As its name implies, they provide an overview of related activities within a project and helps the project manager organize them in the workspace.
  • Planned and actual progress. The project manager must have a way to indicate the progress of the planned work or view how the tasks are doing compared with those that have been scheduled.

Gantt charts: Advantages and disadvantages

Gantt charts are very useful for:

  • Checking the progress and dependencies on time and resources that are needed to accomplish the project.
  • Allowing relatively complex information to be summarized into high-level overviews that can be easily managed and understood.
  • Increasing productivity through collaboration and communication by illustrating how tasks can overlap and which needs more priority.
  • Avoiding overworking team members by tracking bottlenecks, owners of certain work within the project, and tasks that can be delegated to others.
  • Anticipating risks that may come along within the project’s schedule and enabling the project manager to create contingency plans.

Gantt charts are indeed valuable in project management, but it’s not a silver bullet. They also have drawbacks:

  • They can be time-consuming to set up and maintain, especially for complex and bigger projects. During Henry’s time, Gantt charts were done in pen and paper, so you can imagine the tremendous effort involved redrawing the chart every time a task is delayed or reprioritized. Even with today’s Gantt charts, they can still be extraordinarily resource-intensive to manage complexities, even with the help of a software.
  • They can be confusing and chaotic as you add more tasks and subtasks. A Gantt chart becomes less valuable when it’s too complicated.
  • When not set up properly, they could limit visibility. Traditional Gantt charts often include only project overviews, start dates, and end dates. The length of the bar, for example, only indicates timing and not the complexity of work. Details could be overlooked and not accounted for — the amount of work needed to accomplish a task and how dependencies are broken down, among others.

Today’s technologies are adding more value to Gantt charts by simplifying their setup and maintenance, enabling them to be adaptable to complex projects, and integrating them with some element of automation. A Power BI Gantt chart is a good example.

A sample Power BI Gantt chart and how it can be customized

Power BI Gantt chart and data visualization: Adding interactivity to project management

Power BI is a business intelligence tool that provides interactive elements to data visualizations. A Gantt chart on an interactive canvas can enrich project management. In Power BI, visuals interact with each other, so project managers can easily look at resource allocations and task completions, and view tasks in different perspectives.

A Power BI Gantt chart also overcomes the inherent limitations of its traditional counterpart. For one, large amounts of information can be organized and automatically updated whenever changes occur in any part of the project. Because of its shareability, any team member or stakeholder can provide inputs — often in real time — which keeps everyone in sync. Workflows, files, and data from different apps or services can be synchronized or integrated through APIs.

A Power BI Gantt chart allows for further customization, flexibility, and some automation. Some of the elements that Power BI adds to traditional Gantt charts are:

  • Unlimited number of dates per project.
  • Automatic generation of project phases and their color codes
  • Assignable milestones
  • Different visualization and formatting options
  • Dynamic labels

The dynamic labels feature, in particular, is a nifty add-in for a Power BI Gantt chart because it allows complex information to be presented or highlighted quickly. When using Power BI to create visualizations, different combinations of measures in Data Analysis Expressions (DAX) — a formula expression language used in Power BI to calculates values — are needed just to highlight or present certain data. The dynamic labels add-in simplifies this through a drag-and-drop feature that allows data to be added to the visualization.

The dynamic labels feature is custom and free add-in created by Lingaro to help teams easily show selected data without the added complexity of creating DAX measures. This allows project managers, for example, to quickly dive into the specifics of a project, which can be very useful when presenting them to stakeholders.

A sample chart that shows the dynamic labels feature in Power BI

In any given project, teams need to plan activities and allocate resources in multiple tasks. A Gantt chart is a communication and collaboration tool that provides team members clarity on when and how to accomplish them. A Power BI Gantt chart takes this clarity to the next level by making this visual representation interactive. By adding more powerful tools like the dynamic labels feature, a Power BI Gantt chart can provide a visual beyond project overviews and schedules — it can open up new opportunities to effectively manage work.

Lingaro Solutions in data visualization

Lingaro provides a free, in-depth tutorial on how to use and work with a Power BI Gantt chart. Lingaro also provides a free Power BI Gantt chart that is also available in Microsoft AppSource, which can be used to visualize and track multiple tasks and projects, even those with large portfolios typically found in enterprise environments. Businesses can further customize this Power BI Gantt chart with dynamic labels, a free add-in that allows visualizations and reports to be shown or presented faster without the added complexity of creating different DAX measures.
 

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Aileen Capistrano
IT Project Manager I Scrum Master

Aileen Capistrano is a project manager, scrum master, team leader and technical expert with over 14 years of hands-on experience in the IT industry, helping organizations implement business intelligence capabilities. She has delivered projects in various industries on a global scale and has created long-term enterprise analytics and digital transformation road maps for organizations.

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