Microsoft Project – Gantt Chart Outline and Task Essentials

The Gantt Chart view in Microsoft Project is the default view of new project plans, and understanding the basics of working with the Outline, Project Summary Task, Summary Tasks, and Subtasks will be critical to your success with project plans in this view.

If you’re a seasoned pro with Microsoft Project, then this post is likely not for you (not to worry, I’ve got some great intermediate-to-advanced content lined up). Instead, this post is for students and professionals who are new to the product. After reading this, I’m hoping you will have:

  • Gained context on key terms used when describing your project plan and its outline.
  • Learned how to use the basic features for controlling the Gantt Chart view, Summary Tasks, Subtasks, and how to add the Project Summary Task to your plan.

To that point, don’t worry if those terms don’t exactly make sense right now…read on and they will.

Summary Tasks and Subtasks

When you work in the Gantt Chart view of Microsoft Project, your projects will consist of Summary Tasks and Subtasks listed in the Gantt Chart Entry Table view by default. This may seem obvious, but if you’re new to Microsoft Project, it may not be clear exactly which elements in the Task Name column of the table view outline are defined as “Summary Tasks” and “SubTasks”.

So, to start, open up Microsoft Project, and create a new project plan using the “Simple project plan” template:


You should be starting here:


What I’d like you to do now is, click below the last Subtask, which is the Task Name labeled “Task 8” (I’ll explain where the definition “Subtask” comes from in a moment), and add the following entries into the Task Name column: Summary #4, Task 9, Task 10, Task 11. If you look, you’ll see that the indentation in the outline is unexpected. All of these items are indented beneath the Summary Task labeled, “Summary #3” (explanation of the term “Summary Task” is also coming up immediately below).


Before we make any changes, let’s finally take a look at the source of these terms Summary Task and Subtask. Find the Indent and Outdent buttons in the ribbon under Task > Schedule and hover over them. Read the tool tip text…

Outdent Task: This task may become a summary task


Indent Task: This task becomes a subtask


Now you can see that these terms, Summary Task and Subtask, are not randomly chosen. They are proper terminology as defined by Microsoft. And, to drive the point home, here is a quick demonstration that will show you when tasks truly become Summary Tasks and when they are officially Subtasks based on how/when they are added to the plan, and how you use the Indent and Outdent buttons. This video also shows that you can find the indent and outdent functions in the mini-toolbar, which is displayed by right clicking on the task:

Project Summary Task

There is a special Summary Task named the Project Summary Task. Many of the out-of-the-box templates come with this special task enabled by default, and as you grow with Microsoft Project and start to create more complex project plans, I think you’ll want to add this summary task into your plans. Basically, what you need to know:

  • The Project Summary Task is a a special summary task that will be added as the very first task in your plan, and it will become the parent of all other summary tasks and subtasks.
  • It defaults to have a Task Name value of your project plan file. In this case you’ll see “Simple Project Plan”.

The checkbox for adding the Project Summary Task is not obvious for new users in my opinion. It’s located in the ribbon under Gantt Chart Tools > Show/Hide > Project Summary Task:


Click the checkbox – you now have a single parent summary task, the Project Summary Task, that defines the root of your project plan hierarchy and calculates the total time of all tasks:


Also in the Gantt Chart Tools > Show/Hide section you’ll see the Outline Number and Summary Tasks check boxes. These have a significant impact on your project outline, and you should take some time to toggle them, view the results, and see which format you and your colleagues prefer (which may change from project plan to project plan).

Outline Button

The final topic for this post is the Outline Button, available in the ribbon under View > Outline:


The main takeaway here is that the top section applies only to the group of summary-and-subtasks that have cursor focus while everything in the bottom section of the Outline button settings applies to the entire Gantt chart entry table:


Thanks for reading.




Categories: Microsoft Project

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply