I’ve been a fan of The Omni Group for quite some time (ever since the Mac OS X Public Beta), but I was intrigued by their recent announcement of a new project management application named OmniPlan.

Project management has always been my biggest weakness when it comes to big projects. I can do the research, develop the solutions, determine exactly what needs to be done, and do the work, but my achilles heel is usually estimating how long a project will take, what resources it’ll really require, and what has to be done in what order (at-least for the entire duration of the project).

So, what does one do to help manage projects with such a deficiency? Do you read more books on project management? Use flow-charting applications (such as the excellent OmniGraffle) to plan them out every step of the way?

I’ve tried some of that, but it’s a lot of time and effort not spent on my numerous projects. In addition to the amount of time you can waste trying such methods, how do you then track all of the changes that you’re making to the plan each day, hour, and minute. I’ve tried to just plod along with my calendar & to-do lists (iCal) and bug-tracking software while still keeping the big picture in mind, but it’s easy to lose track of stuff along the way.

Well, it looks like that time is over. I’m very impressed with the ease of use of OmniGraffle and the current functionality (glaring bugs aside… it’s beta software, after all).

One can quickly create a hierarchal task list (i.e. a to-do list), with milestones included, and with a little drag and drop to the the Task: Dependancies (or clicks of the “Connection” button) you can set the prerequisites for tasks and milestones. While you’re doing this, you see OmniPlan hard at work (although it seems to make it look way too easy) generating a Gantt chart from your tasks. Enter some estimated durations for various tasks and your Gantt chart starts stretching itself out with the correct timeline.

The results are, true to The Omni Group’s usual style, very sleek and clean:

Start adding resources such as staff members, equipment, and materials and you can assign them to each task, create calendars for each (so you know when they’re available together), and assign cost per unit or hour. Assign a couple people to a task and it shrinks the amount of time required to complete it.

When you’re done with your planning stage, you can hit the “Set Baseline” button to lock down your original plan and start marking progress. Something taking longer than expected? Reschedule it. Later, you can view how your current view compares to your baseline so that you can see where mistakes or poor estimations were made.

All the while, OmniPlan will keep track of where your critical path is through your tasks so that you know what to keep an eye on to keep the project moving ahead at the right pace.

One of the most impressive features of OmniPlan, besides the ease that it brings to planning and, most likely, to continuous management of a project, is the export feature. You can export (or import, if you have the need) to a Microsoft Project file as well as image formats and a web site. If you export to a web site it’ll generate an site with the project status, task report, resource report, Gantt chart, and various calendar files (project milestones, resources, and to-do lists) which your staff members can subscribe to.

Also, the .omniplan files are an XML file, so (for those more technical project managers) two people can work on the same file using a version control system.

So far, I am very impressed with this product and will definitely be dishing out the $150 when it is finally released. I have encountered a few major bugs, but that’s why it’s being released as a public beta. However, I think that The Omni Group has become a little bit Inspector-crazed in the last few years and there are currently a lot of basic features that can only be accessed via the many Inspectors and their panes.

I highly suggest taking it for a spin, but the bugs are probably going to keep you from using it for a full project at the moment.

BTW – For those of you with OCD and ADD, listen to Merlin Mann’s recent podcast entitled “The Perfect Apostrophe”. Truly a great anecdote!

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