Say you’re planning an important event, such as a wedding or family vacation. What are some of the first steps you’d take? You’d figure out where it was going to be, who was going to attend, how long it would last, and what activities everyone would do. Managing a project is no different. Some of your first steps are determining what work will be done, who is going to handle which tasks, and how long the work will take.
Project managers use project schedules to communicate this important information to the team and stakeholders. If you’re new to project scheduling—or just need to refresh your memory—this guide is for you. We’ll offer best practices for creating a schedule that helps your team complete work on time
What Is a Project Schedule?
The project management schedule is a document that outlines what work needs to be done, the order in which it needs to be done, what resources are required, how they will be distributed, and how long different parts of the work will take. The schedule helps project managers communicate and collaborate with team members and stakeholders, and keeps the project on track.
More specifically, a project schedule covers:
- Project milestones
- Tasks required to complete the deliverables
- Dependencies between tasks and milestones
- Resource requirements and allocation
- Deadlines, time frames, and task durations
Project schedules are used throughout the project management life cycle, as well as in project portfolio management (the process of determining the return on investment of projects). In industries that frequently undertake large, complex projects, such as engineering and construction, creating and maintaining the schedule is a full-time job, handled by a project scheduler or scheduling team. Sub-schedules may also be used in complex projects where more detail is needed.
As with many aspects of project management, scheduling is done in iterations. When creating a schedule, project managers estimate the work, timeline, and resources they anticipate. However, all this information is subject to change once the project is underway. The schedule is typically created during a project’s early stages, but is referred to throughout its life cycle.
Using project management software to create a schedule can help project managers and team members communicate about, track, and revise the schedule more efficiently and effectively. These platforms typically offer templates and sample schedules to guide you. They may also come with scheduling functionality that can automate much of the process, check resource availability, help you calculate task duration, and more.
Benefits of an Effective Project Management Schedule
There are many benefits of well-crafted project schedules. They allow managers, team members, and stakeholders to track progress, set and manage expectations, communicate, and collaborate. Tasks and deliverables can be monitored and controlled to ensure timely delivery—and if any delays do occur, you can easily gauge their impact and make the necessary adjustments.
Time and resources are two of the biggest factors that impact a project’s budget. Thus, an effective schedule helps you calculate, track, and report on costs. It also allows you to determine the best way to distribute personnel and other resources in order to achieve project goals. Extra resources can be assigned to projects where they’re needed most, and your team members can share the work so no one is spread too thin.
The Project Schedule vs. the Work Breakdown Structure
The work breakdown structure (WBS) is an important building block of your project schedule. It is a hierarchical reflection of all the work that needs to be done to create the deliverables, or end products, of a project. The main difference between the project schedule and the WBS is that the WBS focuses on deliverables, while the schedule is more comprehensive, including resource requirements and assignments, timelines and durations, assumptions, and risks.
There are differing views on the WBS among project management experts and organizations. They have varied opinions regarding whether the WBS is an independent document from the project schedule, and to what degree work is broken down. It's up to your organization to decide how to handle the WBS.
“The project schedule relates to the work breakdown structure in that they are inherently one and the same, if utilized efficiently,” says Alona Rudnitsky, Managing Partner at digital marketing agency Helix House. “The two compliment each other, resulting in clear communication, tasks, and goals.”
Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule.
“The project schedule is the WBS,” says Cerila Gailliard, Certified Project Manager Professional Consultant at consultancy Orchestrating Your Success (OYS) LLC. Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule. “The project schedule is the WBS,” says Cerila Gailliard, Certified Project Manager Professional Consultant at consultancy Orchestrating Your Success (OYS) LLC.
However you choose to approach project scheduling, create the WBS starting with the ultimate goal of the project. Then use the process of decomposition to break work down into smaller chunks that are easier to track and manage. There are various levels of decomposition that may be used: Some organizations only describe deliverables in their WBS, saving more granular descriptions of work for the schedule. Others break down deliverables into lists of specific tasks or activities in the WBS itself.
For example, in a project where the ultimate goal is producing a new household appliance, the marketing strategy for the product might be one of the deliverables. Some organizations would stop there, and save the breakdown of marketing strategy tasks for the schedule. Other organizations would break the marketing strategy down further into such tasks as creating advertising brochures and TV commercials.
Sumit Bansal, Founder of Excel training platform Trump Excel, uses the WBS to break down tasks, but also suggests using both the WBS and the project schedule, presenting different documents to different audiences. Bansal advises, “As a good practice, when you are discussing the project with high-level executives, use the project schedule, but when you work with client teams or project-level personnel, use [the] work breakdown structure.”
Tasks or activities are the lowest-level components of work that may be included in a WBS. Which of these terms is used may also vary by organization: Some classify “tasks” as groups of activities, with “activities” being the lowest level of work; other organizations do the opposite; and still others use only choose one of these terms to describe the smallest work item. The terms “control accounts” or “summary tasks” may be used to describe levels of decomposition that contain multiple tasks.
If you do include tasks or activities in your WBS, each should only have one owner. This not only keeps the document organized, it also helps you determine whether further decomposition is needed. If a task/activity is too much for a single owner to handle, then you know you need to break that work item up even more.
Finally, some organizations create “activity lists” that are independent from both the WBS and the project schedule. These outline all the deliverables from the WBS as well as the specific activities required to produce them. Again, you can choose the method that is right for your organization and project.
To learn more about the WBS and download a template, visit our WBS page.
Types of Project Management Schedules
Before you start building your schedule, you’ll need to determine what type to use. The type of schedule you need largely depends on the complexity of your project—as a general rule, the more complex the project, the more comprehensive your schedule must be. The type of project schedule you choose may also depend on who will primarily be using it and/or the project’s developmental stage. Creating some sort of visualization for your schedule can also help team members and stakeholders gauge progress at a glance.
There are three types of schedules, with ascending levels of complexity:
1. Master Project Schedule
This type of schedule is best for simple projects. The format includes a basic list of work items, a timeline, and/or a calendar. The Master Project Schedule is developed in the early planning stages of a project. It includes a high-level outline of the primary deliverables and activities/tasks, as well as how long they will take to complete.
Since the Master Project Schedule is a simple, straightforward representation of a project, it’s helpful to use when communicating with, or attempting to win buy-in from, project leaders, stakeholders, and team members. It can also be used in team meetings or brainstorms. For example, a project manager may create this type of schedule initially, then develop it into a more complex schedule with the help of the team.
You can download our sample template here.
2. Milestone Schedule
This is a more advanced schedule that is best for bigger projects with multiple key deadlines. It may also be referred to as a “summary schedule,” and typically uses bar charts that plot action over time. It gives the project manager a snapshot of important milestones, and is typically used throughout the entire lifecycle of a project.
A Gantt chart is one of the most common tools for visualizing more comprehensive project schedules. Gantt charts are two-dimensional bar charts that depict a project’s tasks and the time required to complete them. It’s also a good idea to note the project milestones on this chart, including the project start and end dates. In this way, managers, team members and stakeholders can track progress toward individual tasks and milestones, and can compare actual progress for the entire project with estimated, or “baseline” dates.
Gantt charts are especially useful for presenting progress reports or hosting team meetings. If you need help getting started, we’ve created a Gantt chart template you can download.
3. Detailed Project Schedule
This is an in-depth schedule that’s best for large, complex projects. It can also be used throughout the project lifecycle. Depending on the complexity of the project, the schedule may be broken up into stages or phases and each may have their own sub-schedules.
Project managers use detailed schedules to:
- Track and manage work on a daily, hourly, or weekly basis
- Communicate progress to stakeholders
- Identify, track, and plan for the relationships (or “dependencies”) between work items
- Identify, track, and plan for any constraints on resources, work items, or deadlines
- Manage resources more effectively to keep projects on track
PERT charts (which may also be referred to as “network diagrams,” “network analysis diagrams,” or “activity networks”) are often used to visualize detailed schedules. While Gantt charts simply plot tasks and milestones over time, PERT charts depict networks of tasks and milestones, and the dependencies between them over time.
PERT charts or diagrams often use arrows to show predecessor and successor relationships (for example, Task A is the predecessor, and must be done in order for Task B to start; Task C, the successor, can’t begin until both Tasks A and B are complete). Depicting these relationships helps identify dependencies and constraints. For help creating a PERT chart, download our template.
Of course, the type of schedule and visualization you use is ultimately based on what’s best for communicating with your team and stakeholders.
“Sometimes, for smaller, iterative projects ... the best visual aid is an ever-changing whiteboard, because it helps us sketch out a timeline or wireframe and send it for approval, so we can keep moving,” says Leigh Anne Bishop, Digital Project Manager at brand experience firm BrandExtract. “Whatever type of methodology you choose, it needs to be documented so your team is aware of the project goals, it’s easily accessible, and your team can keep moving forward.”
Trump Excel’s Bansal agrees that the visualization you choose will depend on the project. “The visual representation should be carefully chosen based on the nature of the project and the client involved,” he says. “For example, if you have a short ... project with standard processes, you can use a simple Gantt chart, milestone chart, or even a simple table to detail out tasks and deliverables. However, if you have a long project with many different resources/teams involved, it is advisable to have a detailed project plan.”
10 Essential Steps for Creating a Project Schedule
Once you’ve determined what type of project schedule to use, you can start building it. This process may vary depending on your industry, organization or project type. However, most project management experts recommend following these steps:
1. Hold a brainstorming meeting. Most experts recommend starting the scheduling process with a team meeting, which may or may not include other stakeholders. You may want to create a rough outline of the schedule or a list of ideas to start the discussion. However, the meeting’s primary goal is to solicit feedback from the people who will actually be working on your project.
“Ask those responsible for doing the work for a list of the tasks they need to complete, an estimate of how long each will take, how much effort is involved, and what input they need from others,” recommends Donna Duncan, Owner and Consultant at SEO firm B-SeenOnTop. “The role of the scheduler is then to organize responses into a single, cohesive and interconnected plan.”
Your team members have unique insight into how long the work will take and what their own capabilities are. What’s more, by involving them at this stage, you can win buy-in for the project.
“If you can include the people DOING the work in the planning, it will be more effective,” says Susan Fennema, CEO of process development and consulting firm Beyond the Chaos. “They will help you know what you ... overlooked, and can give you a feel for how long each step might take.”
You may also want to seek input from the client and other stakeholders. They may have unique insight into factors outside your organization that could impact the schedule (for example, the rules and regulations of a client’s company or industry).
At this step, it’s a good idea to reference some of the other related documents listed above. These can give you a better idea of the project’s goals, scope, constraints, deliverables, success criteria, and your stakeholders’ expectations.
2. Determine clear, measurable milestones. A milestone is an event or marker that denotes an important point in the project. As a result, it has no set duration, so a deliverable may count as a “milestone,” but a task would not. Rather, a task is the work involved to reach a milestone or complete a deliverable.
Major milestones include project kickoff and completion. Other milestones may occur at the end of a task or activity; at the end of phases/stages; or at any time where work must be completed or approved. Where contractors are involved, milestones may align with when payments are made.
Here are some examples of milestones for a product or software development project:
- Project kickoff
- Approvals of designs and prototypes
- Completion of various phases of testing
- Launch marketing and advertising campaigns
- Shipments to customers
- Project closeout
3. Create a WBS that includes all project deliverables. As described above, the WBS (which can be part of a project schedule) should detail all the deliverables for the project. It may or may not include a breakdown of the tasks needed to produce the deliverables, depending on your organization. The WBS may be a section within your project schedule, or it may be a stand-alone document that is referred to when creating the schedule.
At this stage, Bansal says, you should “get in touch with the client to scope the project and finalize the deliverables. It helps to avoid scope creep (the tendency of clients to increase the scope of the project) in the future.”
4. Outline and sequence all tasks/activities. Again, this is either included in the WBS, or is detailed in the schedule itself, depending on your organization. Wherever you put this information, it’s important to clearly document all the tasks necessary to complete the deliverables. This will avoid confusion about what needs to be done to achieve goals and meet deadlines once the project is underway.
Once you’ve defined all the tasks that need to be performed, use dependencies to sequence them. To do this, consider how the tasks relate to one another, as well as any time or resource constraints on the tasks.
There are two types of dependencies:
- Finish-to-Start: The predecessor task (Task A) must be finished before work on the successor task (Task B) can begin.
- Start-to-Start: The successor task (Task B) begins at the same time as the predecessor task (Task A).
One way of determining task dependencies is to use “network logic,” a process of arranging tasks in the order in which they would logically fall. It may be useful to start with the most difficult tasks first. Defining the priority of each task also helps ensure the most important tasks are completed first. With a clear picture of the sequence of tasks and the relationships between them, you will be better equipped to address scheduling conflicts later on.
5. Define the critical path. Also known as the “critical path analysis,” this is the process of determining the best path to take through all tasks/activities in order to finish a project on time. It involves looking at the project at a high level, breaking it into the most critical tasks, and calculating the time to complete the whole project based on the time it will take to complete those tasks. Managing the critical path is an essential part of project management; if critical tasks aren’t completed, your final deadline may be delayed.
Critical path analysis involves determining the earliest and latest start and end times for critical tasks, and estimating the dependencies between them. You must also factor in the availability of personnel and other resources that could impact timing (for example, equipment needed to start the installation or implementation phase of a project). In this way, you identify the longest possible sequence of tasks involved in finishing the project.
6. Estimate task duration. This is one of the hardest parts of project scheduling, but it’s also one of the most important since it has a huge impact on project cost. The term “duration” refers to the number of working hours, days, weeks, or months that you expect team members will need to complete a task.
In Smartsheet, you can set the duration for a task in increments of minutes, hours, days, or weeks. In Microsoft Project, there are three different duration options for estimating costs and times:
- Fixed work: When the work is based on a predetermined quantity, such as delivering a given number of products, or working a certain number of hours.
- Fixed duration: This designation is used for team meetings or milestone review sessions.
- Fixed units: This is the default setting and it reflects the number of resources assigned to a given task, and the percentage of their time they’re available to work on it. For example, a team member assigned to work 20 hours per week (of a 40-hour work week) on a task would have a fixed unit of 50 percent.
Estimating duration correctly is important for both parties—it keeps clients happy, since work progresses on schedule, and it keeps team members happy, since they can easily meet deadlines. However, underestimating how long tasks will take is a common project management mistake. This causes project “frenzy,” which occurs when the team hurries to complete too much work in too little time, and the client has to compensate with additional funds. In this case, quality suffers, and morale decreases on both sides.
“Make sure to keep some buffer time in the schedule,” Bansal suggests. “More often than not, things don't always go as planned, and the buffer time helps you get things back on track.”
Many factors impact task duration, such as:
- Team members’ individual schedules
- National holidays, office closures, and last-minute emergencies
- Team and client meetings and time spent collaborating
- Team members’ skill, experience, and efficiency levels
- Errors and miscommunications during project planning and development
However, there are some things you can do to improve scheduling effectiveness:
- Recognize that most people don’t work at 100 percent efficiency all the time, and estimate duration accordingly
- Look at historical data for projects with similar scopes and resource requirements to make time estimates
- Consult outside experts and/or research similar projects done by other organizations if no internal data is available to use as a baseline
Indeed, says Gailliard of Orchestrating Your Success, “Pulling historical information to create a schedule would put you ahead of the game. It is much easier to edit and change than to start with nothing.”
7. Estimate resources. Another important step is determining what resources are available to work on your project. Some team members may be working on multiple projects at once, which can cause scheduling conflicts. Resource allocation can help you avoid missing deadlines and over burdening specific team members.
To estimate resource availability, consider:
- The sequence in which tasks need to be completed
- Time restrictions, such as team members’ vacations and other work, as well as company holidays and office closures
- Cost restrictions, such as the number, skill levels, and hourly requirements of team members the client’s budget will cover
- How skills and experience of team members affect their ability to complete work within certain time frames
Using project management software with resource management functionality can make this step much easier. For example, Smartsheet’s resource view dashboard allows you to view staff availability across multiple projects at a glance. In Microsoft Project, you can also view availability and assign resources to individual tasks using the Gantt chart view. If you don’t have a project management program, consult project, company, and individual calendars to determine availability.
“Be sure to accommodate weekends, holidays, vacations into [the] schedule—and don’t forget people might get sick, as well. So, provide as much padding as possible.” Fennema advises.
As mentioned in the WBS section above, it can be helpful to break tasks down so that each task can be assigned one resource as its “owner.” This allows for more granular control over the work being done.
8. Note assumptions. Record any assumptions made during scheduling that could impact the timeline. This provides transparency and facilitates changes later on.
“Clearly spell out assumptions,” Trump Excel’s Bansal advises. “For example, in one of my projects, we assumed that the client would get the required reports, while the client assumed otherwise. This led to a huge cost implication.”
As another example, if it was assumed that an experienced team member would be completing a given task, this should be noted in the schedule. That way, if a team member with less experience is later assigned to the task, the project manager will see the assumption, and build extra time into the task duration to accommodate them. Failing to include this assumption could cause project delays, since the less experienced worker will likely complete the task slower.
9. Determine and document risks. Analyzing the risks involved with your project can help you schedule accordingly. Make sure to include extra time in your schedule to deal with both identified and unidentified risks.
Examples of risks include:
- Resource unavailability
- Incorrect duration estimations
- Tasks being performed by less experienced team members
- The use of new technology team members are unfamiliar with
- Misunderstandings between your team and the client about elements of the project scope or schedule
A good practice is to add a “risk multiplier” to tasks where you’ve identified risks. A risk multiplier is a percentage of time that will be added to the schedule, based on the severity of the risk and the importance of completing the task on time. For particularly high-risk projects, you can include an extra task in the schedule just for risk management, so extra funds can be set aside to cover potential delays.
Fennema, of Beyond the Chaos, notes the importance of this step. “Be sure to include time in your schedule to tackle the unknown and unexpected. No project will run perfectly,” she says.
BrandExtract’s Bishop also recommends that you “identify any potential risks before finalizing a project schedule. If I plan on a week of review, but the client knows it will take them two weeks to get approvals … we need to work that out up front.”
10. Review and revise schedule. Congratulations, you’ve completed your schedule! Now, it’s time to review everything, make sure it’s accurate, and make any necessary changes.
Check your schedule to ensure that:
- Task start and end dates align with staff availability
- Milestone, deliverable, and task start and end dates are realistic
- The right resources are assigned to the right tasks
- Schedule constraints, such as vacations, holidays, and equipment availability have been accounted for
- All tasks have dependencies
- There are no large chunks of work without milestones
- Extra time is included to accommodate identified and unidentified risks
- Your schedule aligns with the project’s critical path analysis
Meet with your team both before and after you’ve created the schedule to get their feedback on its feasibility. Gailliard recommends, “verifying tasks, resources, and costs with the project team.” Alternatively, you can ask team members for their own time, task, and resource estimates, then see if they align with your own.
Fennema suggests consulting with your client or customer, as well, and suggests, “After you develop the schedule with the people who will do the work, make sure you get buy-in from the people who are expecting the delivery, to make sure that they are available and able to work during testing times or launch times, etc.”
If you’ve distributed resources improperly, you can use a technique known as “resource leveling.” This involves rearranging the sequence and/or assignment of tasks so work is divided evenly among team members, and helps prepare for potentially unavailable resources. Some project management software platforms can perform resource leveling for you, or you can do this process manually, using calendars to verify availability.
Another way to check your schedule is through “what-if” scenario analysis. This involves using a simulation to measure the risks of different negative scenarios, such as a project delay or cost overrun. Then you can compare the impact of these risks, and make contingency plans in case they occur. Again, make sure to add risk multipliers for tasks that are high-risk. Some software systems can do “what-if” analysis for you, as well.
When your review is complete and your schedule has been approved, you now have a “baseline schedule.” Since the schedule is a living document, it may be revised at various points throughout the project life cycle, but the baseline schedule will be used to begin the execution phase. Once the project is underway, you can compare actual timelines and costs with what was predicted in the baseline schedule.
Resources and Related Documents for Project Scheduling
Parts of the project schedule may be closely related to other important project management documents (listed below). What separates the project schedule from these documents is that it provides a complete timeline and schedule, detailing all the work that needs to be done—and the resources that need to be utilized—to deliver the project on time.
These related documents can help guide you when creating your project management schedule:
- Project charter: A preliminary document that covers project objectives, lists team members and responsibilities, names stakeholders, identifies the project manager, and authorizes them to begin work.
- Statement of Work: Outlines how the work in a project will be done, and the guidelines that contractors and collaborators must follow.
- Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): A breakdown of project deliverables; it may also cover the work required to complete them.
- Contract Data Requirements List (CDRL): A document used in government procurement contracts listing the data requirements that have been authorized for the project.
- Action plan: A list of the tasks/activities that need to be done to achieve a goal.
- Network analysis/critical path analysis: An analysis that shows the relationships between tasks and helps plot the best route to completing a project on time.
- Personal and project calendars: The calendars of managers, team members, and stakeholders, as well as any established calendars for the project as a whole, can help determine resource availability and plan important deadlines.
- Scope statement or definition: This covers the project’s major objectives, highlights key deliverables and provides an overview of the work to be done.
- Activity and resource requirements lists: Some organizations may create lists of the activities or tasks needed to complete deliverables, and/or lists of resources required for the project (including their skill level and availability).
- Risk analysis: A formal risk analysis involves consulting project, organization, and industry-related information to identify risks to your project and determine their severity.
Best Practices for Project Scheduling
Now that you’ve learned how to create a project management schedule, we’ll review some scheduling best practices. These are based on advice from renowned professional organization the Project Management Institute (PMI), as well as other notable project management resources and experts.
Be clear and detailed. Experts emphasize the importance of being as clear and specific as possible in your schedule. “This is probably the most important aspect of all. If your employees know what to do, and when to do something, everyone is held accountable for their work being completed on time,” says Helix House’s Rudnitsky.
Bansal of Trump Excel agrees, adding that the more detailed your schedule is, the more effective it will be. He adds, “Detail out the exact deliverables with timelines, the number of [resources] working on the project, check-in calls to discuss the project, … [and] the dependencies.”
However, while you should be clear and descriptive, you must also take care not to overload your team and stakeholders with information.
“You want to have enough detail to know when the project might be at risk, but not so much detail that you get bogged down maintaining the plan, and don’t recognize and resolve problems early and quickly,” says B-SeenOnTop’s Duncan.
Follow industry standards. A good schedule should cover all five of the traditional process groups listed in “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge” (known as the PMBOK® Guide): the industry-standard guide to project management best practices. These five process groups are:
- Initiating: This includes the first phase of project management, where the project is authorized, the scope is determined at a high level, and the project manager and key stakeholders are named. These elements should be referenced in the schedule you create.
- Planning: Detail the complete scope of the project, including the budget, milestones, summary, and risks. This is typically when the schedule is created.
- Executing: At this point, the project gets underway and the actual work is done. This process group includes schedule revisions - based on delays, resource availability, and/or cost adjustments that occur once the work begins.
- Monitoring and Controlling: This process group encompasses all stages of the project life cycle, since it involves checking your plans and calculations, making adjustments to the schedule and other documents, comparing estimated with actual work, and reporting on progress.
- Closing: The final process group in which the project gets final approval from the client and is formally closed out. Your schedule should include deadlines and details for these processes, too.
Make sure your schedule follows any additional best practices specific to your organization or industry. For example, the Association for Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE) and the U.S. Government are developing their own standards governing project management acquisition and accounting processes.
Make sure the workload in your schedule is balanced. It’s important to assign the right people to perform the right tasks, and that the workload is distributed evenly so no one is spread too thin. Again, have team members review the schedule to make sure the workload seems reasonable. This is especially crucial in organizations where budgets are tight and/or staff have limited availability.
Bishop also recommends doing a regular, high-level review of everything your team is working on to ensure the distribution is appropriate. “Once a quarter, I release a color-coded ‘Websites at a Glance’ Gantt chart ... for our team, so we are able to simultaneously see the full scope and timing of multiple projects, [and] to plan and manage our teams without overburdening any one employee,” she says. “We need to see those projects collectively, so we can see where the weight falls and where changing of assignments is needed.”
Build your schedule around deliverables and milestones, not around tasks. It may be instinctual to build the schedule around tasks, since they represent your team’s actual work, but you should resist this urge. If the schedule is built around tasks, it’s hard to tell whether changes stakeholders request fall within the project scope.
Tasks may be carried out in a number of different ways and may have a variety of outcomes. Deliverables and milestones, on the other hand, are quantifiable, and have certain standards and criteria they must meet. What’s more, building your schedule around these elements helps you stay on track to meet goals.
To help you distinguish between tasks, milestones, and deliverables, Fennema provides an example. “If you were planning ... a dinner party, your milestone might be to complete the cake for dessert the day before the party. But, the [task] breakdown would include things like buying the ingredients, mixing and baking the cake, letting it cool, icing the cake, etc.” In this example, the cake is the deliverable.
Break work up with milestones. As mentioned, regular milestones help you keep projects on track and measure your team’s progress toward completion. For example, if you miss key milestones early on, you’ll know well in advance that the final delivery will be delayed.
Milestones also help put the project in perspective. Establishing regular wins keeps team morale high, while slogging through tasks with no end in sight can be daunting and demoralizing. However, when building the schedule, don’t start with the project completion date and work backwards. This can result in inaccurate duration and deadline estimations. Instead, build it around deliverables and milestones.
Prepare for change. It’s not a matter of if the schedule will change—it’s a matter of when and how it will change. Stakeholder needs, events, risks, and tasks constantly change in project management. As the project gets underway, the schedule will evolve from a prediction to a plan, and you will need to update it as new information surfaces.
When creating your schedule, make assumptions about what changes might happen when, and what kind of effect these would have on the project. Including risk multipliers and extra time for important tasks will allow you to make changes without throwing the project off course.
However, you should also build-in controls to prevent changes that fall out of the project scope from being approved. For example, any client changes that would delay a project by more than one day could automatically be escalated to a panel of client and team representatives for review.
Look out for “hangers.” All tasks should have at least one predecessor and one successor. Make sure your schedule doesn’t have “hangers,” which are tasks and milestones without these dependencies. Hangers break the flow of the project and disrupt critical path analysis, so be sure to add missing predecessor or successor tasks when reviewing your schedule. Milestones marking the beginning and end of the project are the only ones that don’t require both of these dependencies.
Use schedule compression to meet deadlines. Schedule compression techniques help you complete certain tasks faster. “Crashing” is a schedule compression method where extra resources are assigned to a task. “Fast-tracking” is another method, where tasks and activities are rearranged so they can be completed simultaneously instead of sequentially. However, this method comes with the risk of tasks and changes being overlooked, so use it cautiously.
Break schedules up into stages/phases. It can be helpful to divide your schedule into stages or phases, where a deliverable is completed or milestone is reached at the end of each stage. Especially in large, complex projects with many tasks and milestones, this approach can help team members track progress, stay motivated, and catch problems before they affect future stages and impact the project deadline.
Fennema is a believer in this approach, saying she prefers “to break projects down into smaller phases that wouldn’t require them usually.”
Bansal takes this a step further, making sub-schedules for each project phase, and advises, “A good practice here is to break down the project into small parts, and have a schedule for each part.”
Bishop describes how this approach is used at her company: “Start with an overview of your project, and break it into buckets for each phase of the project. ... Then, once you begin each phase, you can get more granular at the outset of each phase. Start at the 10,000-foot view, then write a tighter, granular view as you go.”
Here’s an example of stages Bishop might use in a BrandExtract project:
- Content strategy and information architecture
- Design and content production
Hold regular team meetings. Regular meetings with your team, the client, and key stakeholders will help you manage your schedule more effectively. During these sessions, all parties can ask questions, get updates on task and project progress, and make decisions about estimates and work. You may wish to create an agenda and designate a leader for each meeting to keep it on track.
In addition to the initial feedback session, daily, 15 minute Scrum meetings are a cornerstone of Agile project development. These meetings help managers and team members stay involved and aware of any changes or challenges. During a Scrum meeting, every member of the team quickly updates the group on the progress they’ve made, what they’ll work on next, and any roadblocks they’ve encountered.
Evan Harris, Co-Founder of investment firm SD Equity Partners, recommends holding a mid-project brainstorming meeting, as well. “We have found that halfway through the project, there is often new information that impacts the outcome, and most groups include this new data in an unorganized manner,” he says. “Some stakeholders will develop great ideas halfway through the project, and will not share them unless there is a structured session. We ask everyone to let us know what is working, what isn't, and how we can improve the current project as a whole.”
Smartsheet Takes Project Schedules to the Next Level
Smartsheet is a work management and automation tool with a familiar spreadsheet interface. Use one of Smartsheet’s customizable work breakdown structure or project scheduling templates to get started working on any project - big or small, simple or complex. Even if the deliverables are small and don’t take much time to produce, you still need to estimate how long each task will take, figure out the resources required, and assign activities to team members.
If you started your project schedule in Microsoft Project, you can import it into Smartsheet to provide access with more users who can actively collaborate on the schedule. Attach all of the project management documents to the schedule in Smartsheet so stakeholders, team members, and clients (when applicable) can have access to the most recent information in real-time.
Use Smartsheet’s robust collaboration and communication features to make real-time updates and alert your team about the new changes, and share your plan with internal and external stakeholders to increase transparency and keep everyone on the same page. With an extensive range of smart views - Grid, Calendar, Gantt, Sights, and Card - Smartsheet works the way you want.
See how easy it can be to create and manage project schedules in Smartsheet. Sign up for a free 30-day trial today.
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