Gantt Charts and Complexity: dissonance with its representation

By Mark Grimshaw

Since becoming involved with project management in the early 90’s, I have always struggled with some aspects of methodology. Training programmes present methodology which makes sense while being delivered. However, when faced with the vagaries of the real world they somehow seem to fall short. I’ve created and presented many Gantt charts and a means of visually representing a project but this also falls short. However, I have felt it has limitations but had not until not attempted to explore them

When managing a project the Gantt chart appears to lose some of its value. After a period of time, its importance to the management activity seemed to wane. It lacked the ability to represent the complexity of project activity. It did give a visual representation of progress, but the progress made didn’t really fit with that presented in the Gantt chart. It took on an unreal representation. Project board and sponsors liked the charts but as a project manager it was not representative of the ‘real’ project. Producing charts became more a chore than an asset to my project management. However, doubtless Gantt charts are valuable to others understanding of a project.

In my own limited way, I have sought to adapt my project management practices to deal better with the complexity, uncertainty and shifts which I find particularly interesting. The Gantt chart remains, with some unease, one of the most-used tools in my project management practice. I have not come across many project managers sharing my unease.

I recently came across some research by Geraldi and Lechter (2012) taking a critical look at the history of project management. A particular paragraph about Gantt charts was of special interest:

"While a Gantt Chart can be useful to cope with some of the ‘complicatedness’ of projects, and embraces the importance of time and timing, it is based on principles that are not valid to all projects. The consequence is a propagation of a management approach that does not explicitly cope with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and change. In that respect, the Gantt Chart fails to acknowledge insights from years of organization theory research and project management research with a firm grounding in contingency theory."

This paragraph highlights the complex rather than complicated nature of projects. This sheds light on issues I have been struggling with. I view projects through a lens of complexity and uncertainty, for others use a complicated lens is used. The Gantt chart is representative of a complicated project world but not a complex one. In a complicated world, it remains a vital tool but their use in a complex world is met with a necessary unease.

The problem does not lie with the Gantt chart rather changing meanings and perspectives of the project world it represents. It is unlikely that many project sponsors, and boards will hold a complex perspective of projects. Thus, dissonance project managers feel having a complex view will be with us for some time. It is up to us to manage the transition of meaning associated with the Gantt chart to add value in complicated and complex project worlds.

Perhaps this may assist a shift in thinking towards recognition of complexity, and the limitations presented by current project management methods. That is not to say tools and techniques are no longer useful. Rather it may encourage their being subject to greater evaluation in response to complexity.


GERALDI, J. & LECHTER, T., G 2012. Gantt Charts revisited: A critical analysis of its roots and implications to the management of projects today. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 5, 1-1.


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