LiquidPlanner Helps Manage Project Uncertainty

Click the image to see screenshots"Bob, when can your team deliver the prototype of the new product?" "March 22," says Bob. Bob's response to this question is based on lots of hard information, from his knowledge of the task at hand to his experience with his team to performance on similar projects in the past. But it's still just a guess. And every milestone, deliverable and sub-task scheduled for that project will also be a guess. But that's the way project management works. Everything has a due date, and, when a team doesn't meet that date, members feel like they failed, which can lead to poor morale and even more missed deadlines. The funny thing is, almost nothing else in the world works that way. For the most part, uncertainty is a key aspect of scheduling. For example, the cable installer doesn't tell you he'll be at your house at exactly 11:45 a.m. He says he'll be there sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. However, while uncertainty may be a fact of life, project management traditionally has not tolerated it at all.

Click the image to see screenshots
LiquidPlanner

"Bob, when can your team deliver the prototype of the new product?"

"March 22," says Bob.

Bob's response to this question is based on lots of hard information, from his knowledge of the task at hand to his experience with his team to performance on similar projects in the past. But it's still just a guess. And every milestone, deliverable and sub-task scheduled for that project will also be a guess.

But that's the way project management works. Everything has a due date, and, when a team doesn't meet that date, members feel like they failed, which can lead to poor morale and even more missed deadlines.

The funny thing is, almost nothing else in the world works that way. For the most part, uncertainty is a key aspect of scheduling. For example, the cable installer doesn't tell you he'll be at your house at exactly 11:45 a.m. He says he'll be there sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

However, while uncertainty may be a fact of life, project management traditionally has not tolerated it at all.

That is changing with LiquidPlanner, which launched in beta at the Demo conference. LiquidPlanner not only tolerates uncertainty, it actually embraces it: Key to LiquidPlanner is its ability to take into account the shifting timelines of real-world projects and to work those shifting timelines into both project planning and analysis.

For example, when adding a task to a project in LiquidPlanner, users can define both a low and high range on how many days it will take to complete the task. This kind of best/worst-case-scenario planning is something that nearly everyone does. (How many times have you told a boss, "If everything goes right, I can have this done in two days, but if I run into problems, it could take a week"?)

LiquidPlanner also uses this information to estimate a project's performance. As tasks are updated and completed, LiquidPlanner provides updated estimates on a project's progress, offering early information on projects that are ahead of schedule and those in danger of falling behind.

The application itself is a very well designed AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML)-based Web interface, providing all the classic GUI and usability features, such as drag and drop and contextual analysis windows.

LiquidPlanner also has some nice features to aid in project and task management. It provides many flexible views for tracking and analyzing the progress of projects and tasks, with many visual cues (such as red project tracks for those in danger of slipping) to help users keep track of their projects.

In addition, LiquidPlanner includes a kind of shared collaboration space where project members can attach comments, documents and links to a project or task. During my tests, this feature proved to be pretty bare-boned, but it did work well as a small discussion space for any item in a project.

A nice feature was LiquidPlanner's ability to add virtual team members to a project. This will allow organizations to be flexible about adding a team member as requirements change.

Of course, LiquidPlanner also includes many of the more standard but still welcome project management features. A well-designed dashboard page provides a nice overall view for users to quickly see what they are working on and the status of projects they are involved in.

LiquidPlanner also includes analytical and reporting tools to help users estimate the performance of projects and to detect if there are problems in terms of resources dedicated to tasks and projects.

In its current beta state (which could run until year's end), LiquidPlanner is free to use. After the beta, according to the company's Web site, the service will be free for individual use but will cost $25 for each member added to a project space.

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