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What is a Gantt Chart? Guide for Beginners

Joanna Marlow
Joanna Marlow
April 28, 2021

When you’re working on a project, there are so many variables to consider. Each project has a start and an end date, while each of its tasks also has its own timelines. 

As team members are assigned and information and activities are related to each task, it’s easy to lose track of what is happening. To help maintain a clear overview of the project's progress, the Gantt chart was developed as a visual tool to display processes. 

What is the definition of a Gantt chart?

As we have explained, it’s a visual representation of a schedule. Specifically, it’s a chart with horizontal bars that represent the progress of each task over a period of time. 

The days of the week are shown in a horizontal bar at the top, with the task phases listed in a vertical column on the left. The bars that appear in the middle represent the time frame indicated for each task.

Thanks to this straightforward design, users can see in just one glance what work needs to be completed on a certain day, and how much time they have left until final completion. Other things that are shown clearly in one single overview are:

  • The start date of a project
  • The project tasks
  • The project tasks are divided into phases
  • The start and finish of each task
  • Who is assigned to each task (phase)
  • The (planned) duration of each task
  • The correlation between each task (phase)
  • The date of completion of a project

The bars in the middle of the chart show the progress of a project phase. Let’s say one phase consists of four tasks. As the team members assigned to the tasks confirm when they are completed, the percentage of completion will be updated and shown on the bar. When four of the five tasks are completed, the bar will show that the phase is 75% completed. Once this changes to 100%, the chart will jump to the next progress bar that relates to the next project phase.

Also read: Marketing Management Tasks to Prioritize for Successful Results

Why is it called a Gantt chart?

The bar chart that became widely known as the Gantt chart was originally created in 1896 by Karol Ademiecki. Formerly working as an engineer, the Polish management professor developed a visualization for production schedules in the steel industry. He befittingly named it a ‘Harmonogram’. 

Even though his invention proved successful, not a lot of people beyond the Polish border were familiar with it. This is because Ademiecki only published articles about it in Polish and Russian. 

About 15 years later, American engineer and management consultant Henry Gantt developed a similar idea. His version of the bar chart was used during the development of huge projects such as Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System. It was this fame and fortune that attached his name to the concept of visualizing project schedules with bar charts. 

Illustration of people adding tasks to a Gantt chart.

A simple example of a Gantt chart

What is a Gantt chart used for?

It’s pretty clear that Henry Gantt and Karol Ademiecki were both experts in their field, with a background in engineering. For a long time, Gantt charts were considered suitable only for formally trained project managers.

The whole purpose of the tool is to have a clear overview of the task planning of big, complex projects. It serves as a visual representation of what needs to be done and when.

The tool was mostly used for projects that could span over months. Think of extensive projects involving construction, infrastructure, engineering, manufacturing, IT, or even the military. In these industries, you can imagine formal education and science are required to be able to outline a realistic schedule.

As the use of Gantt charts was simplified with software, this was no longer necessary and a broader variation of industries started to use it.

Related: A Complete Guide to Project Controls in 2023

Who uses a Gantt chart?

Since the concept of project management became more widely accepted, a far wider range of industries started to apply it to their workflows. Subsequently, they also preferred to be aided by visual representations such as Gantt charts. Especially now charts are simplified with software, and virtually anybody can use them. 

Gantt charts are useful for any type of company or organization that works on projects. This includes creative companies such as advertising firms, marketing agencies, or digital design studios. Most of the time it will be the project manager who prepares the Gantt chart, although it’s used by the whole team as a point of reference.

Because of how easy it is to use nowadays, even students or any individual who wants to keep track of important tasks or errands might use a Gantt chart.

Related: How to Create a Winning Marketing Project Plan

What are the benefits?

We’ll go over the benefits of using a Gantt chart here, which will explain why they are still so popular.

They provide a smart overlook: In just one glance, you can see everything you need to know about your project’s schedule from start to finish. Even if it’s a long-winded, complex project. This helps to understand why some tasks might take longer, or which are easier and quicker to tackle. 

They function as a command center: The whole team can refer to the Gantt chart at any point of time during a project. It functions as the map with all information needed to proceed. Moreover, it shows everybody what the rest of the team is working on, and how their tasks correlate. 

They promote critical thinking: When you have to define or adjust a timeline with such precision, you need to understand how each activity or adjustment affects the sequence and duration of a task. Gantt charts visualize all of this, forcing you to take it all into account.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Projects Effectively

How does a Gantt chart work exactly?

Before you start a project, all components should be clearly defined. This includes the budget, resources, deadlines, and goals. Once all of this is approved, you can start planning all the tasks then it is where the Gantt chart comes in. It’s created so that everyone will be able to see who should be working on what, and when.

How to create a Gantt chart?

Enter all your tasks into the vertical axis of the Gantt chart, while entering the start/end dates and dependencies in the horizontal axis. If you use a digital Gantt planning tool, the bars representing the task duration will appear automatically. Now everyone will be able to see who should be working on what, and when.

Back in the day, Gantt charts were created by hand, which was very time-consuming and required a lot of skill. Moreover, the whole chart had to be redrawn whenever adjustments to projects were made. As most projects tend to change continuously, amending the chart all the time became very exhausting. 

Having to rework a Gantt chart too many times, made the use of it almost get to the point where it was counterproductive. Saved by modern technology, Gantt charts can be created and updated with ease using appropriate software. 

Illustration of a woman working on her laptop at a desk.

Gantt chart software

Aided by software, Gantt charts are created and changed so much easier and faster. Plus, it allows you to do so much more than just plan tasks and attach them to a timeframe. Most of the time Gantt charts are made with Excel or various types of project management tools, which all fall under Gantt chart software. 

Intuitive tools will allow you to break down tasks into phases, add team members, and move timelines when necessary. Progress can be tracked in real time as adjustments can be made instantaneously. 

Countless apps and tools have the option to plan projects using a Gantt chart or allow an integration that facilitates this. Some will even allow you to switch between different visual representations of the tasks. 

This way the project manager can have different perspectives that focus on different aspects. While team members can choose to stick to a viewing option that relates to their activities the most.

How to collaborate with your team using Gantt chart software

Intuitive software is great for supporting team collaboration. As we have explained, a Gantt chart shows exactly what needs to be done according to a defined timeline. Names of team members can be added to tasks, which will be reflected in the timeline too. 

Using software makes this so much easier, as you can select the team member according to their availability and drag and drop them if necessary. Customizing the color to represent each team member also makes it much easier to see with one glance which parts of the schedule relate to them.

Furthermore, some software programs allow users to attach files to the tasks in Gantt charts. Whenever teams work on these projects, they can easily collaborate and keep each other informed this way. For example by adding comments, notes, images, videos, documents, and links.

What is the difference between WBS and a Gantt chart?

Now that you know what a Gantt chart is, it might seem similar to the WBS. There are some very important differences between the two though. A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) shows how the work on a project is structured. It breaks down the entire project into different phases, breaking down these phases into a set of tasks, sub-tasks, and activities. 

While this gives a clear overview of what needs to be done in detail, there is no timeline. The element of time is not included at all actually. This is a fundamental difference from the Gantt chart, for which tasks are not defined so precisely but the timeline is very concrete.