A great idea is only the start of a new business venture. We look at how to keep a project on track at all stages of its development using a free online planner.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It’s an overused cliché, but one that rings true – especially when embarking on a new project.

Unless you properly plan your project, it’s likely to run over in terms of time and budget. Project planning involves concepts such as Gantt charts, dependencies and critical paths. However, with suitable software much of the donkey work can be avoided.

For years the de facto standard tool in the project manager’s armoury has been Microsoft Project. But if you’re new to project planning and you need to learn the ropes, you can do so with free software. In the following tutorial, we’ll do just that.

As a zero-risk entry point, we’ve chosen a program that involves no up-front cost. AceProject is an online utility that offers five different packages, from the free Basic option to the $99 (£61)-per-month Gold. The packages differ only in the number of users, projects and tasks that you can create, and the amount of disk space available to you on AceProject’s server. We used the Basic package, which lets you create up to five users, five projects and 50 tasks. Online storage is restricted to 250MB.

AceProject offers sophisticated facilities for document, expenses, timesheet and HR management. As you become more familiar with the software, you may want to make use of its advanced features. Here, we deal simply with how to create a project plan, assign users to that project, and go on to monitor and update its status as the project proceeds.

Set up a project plan using AceProject

Step 1. Head to AceProject.com. Click ‘Sign up & pricing’, then ‘Sign up’. In the following workshop we’ll be demonstrating how to use the free Basic package. When filling in your personal details, note that the Account Name is your company name and the Username is your name.

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Step 2. Next, click ‘Log me in now’. AceProject will display the ‘Administration: Account Info’ settings as shown in the screenshot above. Enter as much detail as you wish, but be sure to fill in all the fields listed under Preferences. You can edit, add to or delete this information later if necessary.

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A great idea is only the start of a new business venture. We look at how to keep a project on track at all stages of its development using a free online planner.

Step 3. Click ‘Users’ in the sidebar to access AceProject’s user settings. For now, only your Administrator account will be listed here, but the free Basic package lets you create up to five user accounts. Click your Username to edit your preferences, then click Update.

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Step 4. Next, you need to assign accounts to any colleagues who will be collaborating with you on work projects. Click ‘Add a user’ and, as you did for yourself in Step 2, fill in as many of the information fields as you can. Repeat this process for each user account that you want to add to AceProject.

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Step 5. Click ‘Account Info’ in the sidebar and choose Branding to personalise your workspace. Here, you can change the colour of the interface and add your company logo to the header. We’ve chosen not to alter these settings, but it’s an easy task to accomplish later.

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Step 6. To begin a new project, click the ‘Portfolio: All Projects’ tab at the top of the window. In future, you’ll be able to select which project you want to work on from the list that appears here. For now, only an example project appears. You may wish to peruse this later as you start to get used to the software.

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A great idea is only the start of a new business venture. We look at how to keep a project on track at all stages of its development using a free online planner.

Step 7. Click ‘Add a project’ to bring up the ‘New Project’ page. As before, you can enter as little or as much detail as you wish, but be sure to enter a unique identification number and a descriptive name for your project, an estimated start and finish date, and your contact details as the project manager. Click Save.

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Step 8. Choose the ‘Portfolio: All Projects’ tab and click the number (not the name) of the project you’ve just created. The ‘Edit Project Information’ page that pops up looks like the New Project page but offers several new tabs. Click the Assignment tab to see which of your colleagues is currently assigned to the project.

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Step 9. Click ‘Assign a new user’ to assign the project to one of the user accounts you created earlier. Select the project manager from the list of users and ensure the Project Manager box below is selected. Click Save. Repeat the process if more than one user will be working on the project.

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Step 10. Next, you need to add tasks to the project. You can assign tasks to Groups (project phases) and apply a Type and a Priority. As the project progresses you can also assign Statuses. Although you can define your own Groups, Types, Statuses and Priorities, to start we’ll stick with those that are already defined.

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A great idea is only the start of a new business venture. We look at how to keep a project on track at all stages of its development using a free online planner.

Step 11. Click the tab for your new project on the ‘Edit Project Information’ page, then choose ‘Open project tasks’, ‘Add a task’. The ‘Edit Task Information’ page will pop up, allowing you to enter a title, description and start and end date for the task, or assign it to a Group, Type, Priority and User. Add tasks as needed.

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Step 12. As you add multiple tasks, you’ll need to define dependencies. Go back to a task you’ve already created and select the Dependencies tab. Under ‘Add a New Predecessor Link’ in the ‘Predecessor Task’ menu, select a task that must be complete before this task can begin. Repeat this process for each task.

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Step 13. A Gantt chart is a good way of seeing the at-a-glance status of a project. Select the Project tab, then in the sidebar choose Tasks, Gantt charts and then either Daily, Weekly or Monthly view. A Gantt chart shows when each task is scheduled to start and finish and indicates dependencies using dotted lines.

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Step 14. The plan is now complete, but it will only be useful if you keep it up to date as the project progresses. This is done on AceProject’s ‘Edit Task Information’ page (see Step 12), where you assign ‘In progress’, ‘To verify’ or ‘Completed’ statuses to your project as appropriate.

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