A Gantt chart is a tool that shows your project schedule in a visual way. If you use a tool like ScheduleReader you’ll be familiar with how they look. If you haven’t spent much time using Gantt charts, you might think that they are time-consuming and difficult to set up. That isn’t the case, as long as you keep a few things in mind.

Here are 8 elements all great Gantt charts have in common. Get these right, and you’ll be well on the way to communicating project status easily with your stakeholders and team.

1. Task Names

Yes – it’s obvious but it’s the most important element! Include descriptive names of all your project tasks. Calling the work names like 'Develop Stage 1' and 'Testing Part 2' doesn’t really give you the detail you need later on.

Use names that mean something to you and the team.

2. Task Length Bars

This element is calculated automatically with project management software and it’s the part most people think of when they think about. It’s the horizontal visual task bar that shows the length of the task.

The great thing about this is that it allows you to compare the relative length of a task to other tasks in the same project. If the requirements gathering phase looks a bit short in comparison to other phases, perhaps you should consider boosting the amount of time spent here! Equally, it will help you spot extra-long tasks.

These ones are difficult to track and monitor because they stretch over such a long period of time. You can take your cue from the Gantt chart and split up the task.

3. Task Length/Effort In Days

You have an alternative way of looking at the duration of each task. Built into your Gantt chart is the option to show the task duration in days. You might need to make the column visible or tick an option to have this display, but it will be there somewhere. You could also display the effort involved, if you do effort-based planning.

Seeing the duration in days is a good sense check for the team. It helps you quickly identify errors as well. If your project schedule looks a little bit odd, a scan down the list of duration days may help you spot where the problem is.

4. Task Start and Finish Dates

The visual bar chart and the task lengths are useful, but your team members will also want to know when they are expected to start work on a task. That can be quite hard to work out from the horizontal bars themselves.

The Gantt chart will also show start and end dates for each task. You can either manually enter these or you can have them calculated automatically based on the task dependencies (more on how tasks link together below). You’ll see the dates change as you start to add in actual information about project progress, so always make sure that any auto scheduling you do is checked over as accurate.

5. Task Groupings

Long projects can get difficult to manage on a Gantt chart because there are so many lines of tasks. You can make your schedule easier to manage by grouping tasks together. You can have a ‘parent’ (or summary) task with ‘subordinate’ tasks connected and below them.

The parent task is the major task, for example, Testing Phase. The sub-tasks listed below it represent each step that has to be done to ensure the parent task can be marked as complete. You make sub-tasks by indenting them underneath a parent task. This is a helpful way to organize your schedule as it allows you to roll up the work and track the parent tasks. You can deal with task groups instead of individual lines where it’s helpful to do so, for example, when your project sponsor wants a high level view of the work and you don’t want to show all the sub-tasks as that would be information overload.

6. Links Between Tasks

A Gantt chart that doesn’t link tasks together is just a fancy placeholder for effort. You should link your tasks together to show how the work flows through the project, and Gantt charts make it easy.

Linkages between project tasks are called dependencies. They join tasks together. Watch out on big projects with lots of tasks, as the black lines that represent the dependencies can make the schedule look messy. Even so, it’s better to have the dependencies in that not have them at all. You can more easily follow the flow of work. If you spot a task that doesn’t have any linkages you can look into that. It’s not often that a project task in a complicated project would have no impact or link to anything else.

7. Allocated Resources

While you don’t have to add people’s names (or roles) to the Gantt chart, most project management software like ScheduleReader will display them. Simply set up your schedule to show this information and then you’ll be able to share it with the team.

The benefit of having resource names on the schedule is that you can see who is doing what as you look down the Gantt chart. This isn’t the slickest way of showing the overall resource profile for the whole project, but it’s straightforward and simple, and a good reminder of who is responsible for what.

8. Milestones

Finally, great Gantt charts show milestones. Milestones are scattered throughout the project and represent fixed moments in time when something is happening. They are basically tasks with a duration of zero days and are either complete or not started. They’re the basis of a tick list that helps you navigate through the project. If you are on track to hit all your milestones, you are doing well!

Ideally, you should spread your milestones out. One per month is a good target to aim for but it does depend on your project and the work involved. Scanning down your Gantt chart to spot the milestones will help you see if they are evenly spread and distributed throughout the project. Gantt charts are invaluable for project managers and their teams. They definitely make it easier to manage a project, and with the tools available for project teams now they are simple to put together and interpret.

Great Gantt charts incorporate all of the above elements, and there are plenty more that good Gantt chart software will give you the option to include. These are the elements that every Gantt chart should have.