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5 years ago

Visual Project Management

Humans receive 95% of information through visual perception. We spend countless hours staring into laptops reading, analyzing, interpreting and feeling information flows. I think visualization is something we lack in many disciplines and project management is not a lucky exception.

Interestingly, latest trends in agile project management do care about visualization. Kanban success heavily depends on great visualization. Everybody loves Task Boards and Burn Down charts in Scrum. As you can see, there is some progress, but I think it is not systematic, just a side effect of other activities. It would be fascinating to create an orthogonal movement in agile project management community that focuses on visualization, I call it Visual Project Management.

There is only one really important rule about visualization:

Visualization should reveal problems, states and trends

Sure, we can add more rules, but they’d be secondary. Imagine you can see a Backlog and diagnose a disease right away:

Imagine you see a Board, and at the same instant you grasp all the bottlenecks:

I can’t provide quick visual solutions right away, but I think this approach will change the way  teams make decisions and improve their development process.

I wonder why we still have no good visualization tools for project management. I think the answer is that project managers are not strong in design, and designers are not strong in project management. Separation of responsibilities leads to basic, trivial decisions. PM should learn design and data visualization techniques to really invent new visualization. Designer should learn PM domain to invent new visualization. The ideal mix is a team where PM knows design and Designer knows project management.

Let’s review some examples to get a basic feeling of how visualization re-define things.

Why Kanban Board is a Great Step Forward

Information presentation really affects the ways we run projects. Here are two screenshots that contain exactly the same information. You can easily say which one is better.

This is a simple list of user stories taken from TargetProcess (I am working at TargetProcess, so forgive me biased screenshots). It contains quite many data about user stories like state, assigned people, effort, etc. However, this data is hidden. To make some decisions, you need to dig  and put some effort into it. It means you have a higher cognitive load. It means you’ll miss some details and sometimes make a wrong decision.


Next screenshot is a simple Kanban Board. While it is not the best example of Kanban Board, still it is good enough to reveal the difference. You see the same user stories on this screen. However, you can quickly identify  there’re too many user stories in In Progress state, but it is not critical, since there are no holes in development flow. You can somehow feel that most likely the team is doing pretty good. In some cases you can’t even quickly explain why you think so, you’ll need to analyze your own feelings to provide logical answers.


But the truth is that you have arrived to some conclusion with enough accuracy, really quickly. That is why visualization is so important in any discipline, including project management.

I believe we can have something much better than a simple Kanban Board. Kanban Board visualizes development flow, but misses other important things like people load, local problems, overall progress for all projects etc.

What happens if we have several teams and want to see their work on Kanban Board? Definitely, the board above will not show that. So far,  I haven’t seen good solutions to such problems. Software products are not good in presenting large amount of data in an interesting, meaningful manner. This should be changed.

Why Gantt Chart is Misused All The Time

Gantt Chart is a great tool as well. It is heavily used in traditional project management, but often with poor results.

Most of the project charts look the same and make the same mistakes: analytically thin, bureaucratic grid prison, not annotated, little quantitative data.
E. Tufte

This Gantt Chart is quite good and useful:


This Gantt Chart is bad and useless:


Stop. Think a little bit. Can you define the difference? Can you say why I’ve made such a conclusion?

First chart shows quite large project phases. Second chart shows very granular tasks. Gantt Chart is not a good tool to handle granularity. It works best to visualize long project phases, like releases or iterations. It just plain fails to visualize 500+ tasks in a project.

Gantt Chart has a large white space, it lacks information density. Thus it should be used carefully to visualize important information, not everything you have.

I think the frustration with Gantt charts arises more because of tool issues. People’s contexts of use may require information that is obscured by a Gantt chart. But Gantt charts are the dominant (sometimes only) visualization in many tools, and it’s difficult to impossible to extract and present the data in other forms.
Brian de Alwis

These were just two examples of visualization in project management. I believe we can be more creative to provide better tools and concepts, invent new ways to present project information and improve transparency. We definitely can do better. And we should.

I will post more about visual project management. This topic is really intriguing and promising to me.

  • Yves Hanoulle

    Where is the 95% comming from ?

  • Michael Dubakov

    I saw papers that states from 70 to 95% and took the maximum one :)

  • Danielle Kellogg

    You've tapped into some real truth here. No tools yet (as far as I know) present the broad scope of information needed about multiple projects in a way that is both visual and permits full knowledge for strategic decisions. Likely the best solution will require use data and business intelligence to optimize the performance. This is a tough thing to do when teams are so quickly changing tasks but businesses should look to add data about projects to their BI and new visual tools must be developed to give more visual insight for PMs, that reflect density of task assignments and dependencies.

  • Michael Dubakov

    Yes, that is why I have a dream to create such a tool 😉

  • Planning App

    There is a tool for multi-project management in visual way. Check out

  • Michael Dubakov

    Are you kidding? Ganttic is terrible and dangerous tool. It call people Resources. That's alone is a show stopper to me. There is NOTHING new and interesting in Ganttic. Same old Gantt chart. Same old UI.

  • Mikalai Kardash

    Based on the experience I can say that people that are experts in Gantt Charts and tools like MS Project will normally disagree with statement that “It works best to visualize long project phases, like releases or iterations. It just plain fails to visualize 500+ tasks in a project.”.

    I would start from questioning the assumption. Why small tasks are a pain in the a##?

    Also, it seems that you have too many “red” (critical) tasks. It should not be this way.

  • Michael Dubakov

    Software development is not bridge building or construction. It can't be split to 500 tasks upfront. If you have positive experience with planning quite large projects with 500+ tasks upfront you are most likely a genius.

    Small tasks by themselves are not bad. But having all of them on a Gantt Chart with all that dependencies is a bad idea.

    Gantt examples taken from Internet.

  • Mik Kardash

    As you correctly mentioned it really depends on what you are trying to see when you are looking at the Kanban board or Gantt chart. It does not mean that the tool is wrong, it means that your vision is distracted by all those details and peculiarities (small tasks).

    On the other hand, overloaded people and quality problems are not the bottlenecks by itself. They are an indicators of bottlenecks that are exist in development process. It can be lack or resources, lack of knowledge, etc. There is one good tool I know of – it is your (my, someone else's) team. You can ask people and they will happily give you a multitude of answers of what they need to know to get the work done, who's butt to kick, etc.

    The one tool I found very efficient is team work. Even across multiple teams it is the ultimate weapon against bottlenecks, overall slowness, de-motivation, lack of quality, etc.

    Wait a second. You have this weapon too :)

  • Margie

    I know nothing about computers, but my husband knows quite a bit. He created a digital Kanban Board and I thought I'd share it with you =)

  • Michael Dubakov

    Definitely teamwork is better than ANY visual tool. Definitely you should communicate and so on and so forth. That is obvious for any good project manager. I don't think it is worth to repeat it in agile blog. My point is that good tools help to spot problems and provide good guidance how they can be solved. You can do refactoring manually, but it's better to rely on ReSharper. You can ask every team member about problems, but sometimes it is easier to spot them on a team-level, not personal level. The tool can be as simple as whiteboard with clever visualization, it does not really matter. I believe visualization techniques can be applied to project management better and that is not happening so far.

  • Stuart

    If you are looking for a great project management tool, you may have a look on Hope you will find all in one here. Its a suitable alternative so far.

  • Michael Dubakov

    I didn't find at least ONE thing that makes teamplifier different from 100 other software tools. Why it was created?

  • jesson

    It is obviously true that for each project manager take care of a lot of things like managing the documents, collaboration as well as communicating with the team, conducting frequent meetings with the team so as to ensure that every one is updated regarding any recent changes made in the action plan. To manage all of those I am using some tremendous tools. Which are available in

  • jesson

    It is obviously true that for each project manager take care of a lot of things like managing the documents, collaboration as well as communicating with the team, conducting frequent meetings with the team so as to ensure that every one is updated regarding any recent changes made in the action plan. To manage all of those I am using some tremendous tools. Which are available in

  • Will

    What is the source of information that determines priorities of user stories when there are future dependencies on the completion of a supporting solution that itself is ranked low? I am looking for ways to have the team constantly aware of solutions which are needed early in the project. Data archive solutions are a good example, where it is a future need however an aggressively normalized data structure tends crash and burn the project as it becomes a cludge as the rewrite is too extensive.

  • Guest

    Michael, it’s been few years since this post:

    “So in short we are going to provide high level Gantt chart in future releases of TargetProcess (we have it on the roadmap). And we are going to provide a mechanism that will allow to set dependencies between stories (via custom fields most likely).”

    I’m curious if you have added any of the features you had described in your lost post? Specifically, it would be great if you could update us on the following:
    – High Level Gantt Chart
    – Mechanism that will allow to set dependencies between stories

    If you solve this problem – I’m buying!
    Thank you!

  • Michael Dubakov

    Dependencies are possible via Custom Fields now.
    High level Gantt chart is not fully there, there is only Gantt Chart for releases in all projects.

  • Guest
  • Nbsagi

    Joined the discussion late. Couldn’t see good example for agile tool making good visualization of progress, dependencies, bottlenecks, workload, resource planning, risks etc. in usable way (including the tool I’m working with). I’d love to see a good tool making project management easier 
    Regarding the comments on 500+ tasks in a Gantt, we did it well using MS Project server in large scale projects when every lead controlled less than 70 tasks and they all rolled up to a top level Gantt one can drill down to sub-Gantts.

  • Jeroen

    How can kanban best be used in a (non-IT) New Product Development process, as a better and lean alternative to traditional Project Planning using Gantt?

  • Java Developer

    We rarely used gant charts, however we always try to use the schedule and overlapping task have always been a place where we had to do a deep review, since it slipped out some place or other.

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