For every $1 billion invested in projects, $122 million was wasted due to poor project performance, according to the Project Management Institute. Understanding project management basics can help you avoid that level of waste.
One of the key aspects of a project management plan is a project schedule. In this piece, we’ll explore how you can create your own project schedule to help successfully complete your next project.
At a glance: How you can create your own project schedule
- Step 1: Quantify your project’s tasks and required resources
- Step 2: Determine dependencies
- Step 3: Estimate the time required to complete tasks
- Step 4: Find the critical path
- Step 5: Pick your milestones
- Step 6: Document risks and assumptions
- Step 7: Set deadlines
- Step 8: Review and complete your project schedule
Overview: What is a project schedule?
A project schedule is a formal timetable that enumerates start dates, deadlines, and resources required for a project.
Depending on the complexity of a project, a schedule can be as simple as a checklist of tasks with deadlines or a complex multipage document.
Regardless of the size of the project, creating a schedule is one of the most important project management steps.
Generally, creating a project schedule falls under the responsibilities of a project manager. However, all stakeholders within a project should be involved in the process.
Realistic and detailed project schedules are important because they help keep projects within budget and on schedule. They also avoid miscommunication between stakeholders and eliminate ambiguities across project teams.
What factors should be considered when making a project schedule?
Project schedules consist of multiple factors that need to be quantified before the formal schedule is finalized.
Getting each of these factors right helps ensure you’re creating a realistic schedule that will lead to a successful project.
Deliverables are the outputs of a project. Different tasks within your project schedule will produce different outputs as they are completed.
Deliverables can be tangible or intangible. Exactly what a deliverable looks like depends on the stage of the project and the tasks it consists of.
The finished product or service you provide to your client is obviously one of the most important project deliverables. However, well-planned projects often have other deliverables for internal or external stakeholders throughout the course of the project. As you might expect, deliverables for external stakeholders (usually your client) are external deliverables.
Similarly, deliverables for internal stakeholders (usually any stakeholder other than your client, such as employees, contractors, etc.), are internal deliverables.
A few key characteristics of a project deliverable are that:
- It’s within the project’s scope
- Relevant stakeholders agree to it
- It’s a result of deliberate action
- It’s related to achieving project objectives
Examples of external project deliverables include a finished house in a construction project, a wireframe to show your client what a website will look like, or an improved workflow.
Examples of internal project deliverables include meeting minutes, internal project progress reports, or audit reports to ensure quality.
If you’re having a hard time telling internal and external deliverables apart, just remember this: If it goes to the client, it’s an external deliverable.
Deadlines in project scheduling are just what you’d expect: due dates for task and project completion. The concept is simple, but deadlines and timeframes are vitally important to successful projects.
Setting realistic deadlines means finding a balance between budget, available resources, and client expectations.
Of course, this is easier said than done. All too often, despite the best efforts of stakeholders, projects miss their deadlines. This, in turn, hurts customer satisfaction, morale, and budgets.
By creating a well-planned project schedule, you increase the probability that you can set and meet realistic deadlines.
In project management, resources are all of the people, capital, tools, and technology needed to carry out a project and the associated tasks.
While time constraints related to deadlines are an important part of creating a project schedule, it’s crucial not to overlook your resource constraints.
As a project manager, you’ll need to carefully allocate resources to ensure they’re in the right place at the right time. For simple projects, resource management may come down to assigning tasks to a few employees. For complex projects, you may need to coordinate access to facilities and equipment across multiple project teams with varying schedules.
In many cases, projects involve tasks that cannot begin until a prerequisite task is completed. Dependencies define the relationship between different tasks throughout a project.
For example, suppose you’re working on a construction project to build a house. Before you can install insulation, you need to finish running electrical wiring. Before you run electrical wiring, you must complete the frame and exterior walls of the house.
In this case, the insulation depends on the electrical wiring being installed. Similarly, the wiring depends on the frame and exterior walls being complete.
In project scheduling, milestones indicate when key project objectives have been completed.
Using milestones enables you to track the status of a project at a high level. Sticking with the house example, if the frame should be complete one week in, that could be a project milestone.
If you check in with stakeholders and see the frame is complete in week one, that’s a good sign. Alternatively, if you see that that milestone hasn’t been met, you can investigate and work to get back on track.
A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Technically, a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a deliverable related to a project. However, it is important enough to call out separately as it’s an important part of a project schedule.
“a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables. It organizes and defines the total scope of the project.”
Given that description, you may ask, “What’s the difference between a WBS and a project schedule?”
A WBS focuses on project deliverables and is not concerned with time constraints or dependencies. With the WBS, you can get a clear idea of the work required to produce your project’s outputs. A project schedule brings time and dependencies into the mix and enables you to properly allocate resources and set deadlines.
How to create your own project schedule
Now that you understand what a project schedule is and the key components, we can start creating one. Before you dive in, you should already have a clear understanding of the project’s scope and objectives.
Step 1: Quantify your project’s tasks and required resources
To begin, you’ll need to quantify all of the tasks associated with completing your project. At the same time, be sure to detail the associated deliverables and required resources.
Quantifying all of your project’s tasks and deliverables enables you to make accurate estimates going forward.
At this stage, you may need to collaborate with internal project teams to understand the various subtasks required.
You’ll also want to make sure your client has the same external deliverable expectations you do. For complex projects, this stage will include the creation of the WBS.
Tips for quantifying your project’s tasks:
- Engage your stakeholders: Project team members can provide you with the technical expertise needed to clearly quantify project tasks and required resources. Hold meetings or have your list reviewed by stakeholders to ensure accuracy.
- Be clear about deliverables: Mismatched expectations can cause huge problems down the line. Make sure the customer is on board with your external deliverables and that project teams are on board with internal and external deliverables.
- Understand the resources required for your tasks: A person can’t be in two different places at the same time. Similarly, two tasks may require the same piece of equipment. Make sure to quantify what resources are needed for your tasks to avoid double-booking your team members or resources.
Step 2: Determine dependencies
Now that you know what tasks you need to complete, you can begin to map dependencies. There are a few different types of dependency relationships:
- Finish-to-start: This is the most intuitive dependency type. To start one task, you must finish a prerequisite task.
- Start-to-start: The start date of a task is tied to the start date of another task.
- Finish-to-finish: The finish date of a task is tied to the finish date of another task.
- Start-to-finish: The start date of a task determines the finish date of another task.
Mapping out the dependencies for all of your tasks is an important prerequisite for realistic scheduling and resource allocation. Collaboration with your internal stakeholders is vital to getting this part of your project schedule right.
Tips for determining dependencies:
- Use a network diagram: A picture is worth a thousand words. Spelling out dependencies with words alone can be confusing and lead to errors. In a nutshell, a network diagram is a graphical representation of dependencies that can make project scheduling easier.
- Don’t set timelines yet: Remember, at this point, you haven’t begun to generate time estimates or set deadlines. At this step, you’re setting the stage to create accurate timelines.
Step 3: Estimate the time required to complete tasks
Now that you understand the dependencies that exist between tasks, it’s time to estimate how long they will take. Doing so will help you set realistic deadlines and identify the critical path later on. You’ll need input from relevant stakeholders to complete this step.
Tips for estimating the time required to complete tasks:
- Track your time once the project starts: Even for experts, estimating the time complex tasks will take is difficult. Do your future self a favor and track how much time tasks take on all of your projects. This will provide you with a precedent for future estimates.
- Experiment with different time estimation techniques: Most of us have an optimistic bias when it comes to estimating the time required to complete a project. Different estimation techniques, such as PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique), can keep your estimates honest.
Step 4: Find the critical path
After you’ve laid out your dependencies, you’ll be able to determine the critical path for your project. In short, the critical path is the set (or sets) of dependent tasks that dictate if your project is completed on time.
Many paths in a project can have some slack built in, meaning that even with some delays, the project can still meet deadlines.
That isn’t the case for the critical path. Unless you can work some magic, a delay in the critical path means a delay in project completion.
Tips for finding the critical path:
- Your project can have multiple critical paths: Complex problems can have multiple critical paths. As a project manager, you need to identify and track all of them.
- Critical paths can change throughout a project: The real world is never as clean cut as your network diagram. If one set of tasks is completed ahead of schedule, and another set is behind, your critical path can change.
- Get familiar with CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT: PERT is an excellent project management technique for time estimation. CPM complements it well and helps you mathematically identify your project’s critical path.
Step 5: Pick your milestones
At this point, you’ll have a solid foundation for your project schedule. From here, you can take a step back and pick your milestones. It can be easy for project management beginners to trivialize milestones.
After all, if everyone executes as planned, all that matters are the deliverables and deadlines, right? While that makes sense at a high level, as a project manager, you need to make sure everyone is on track to deliver. Milestones help you do that.
Tips for picking your milestones:
- Spread milestones throughout your project: Improving monitoring and visibility is one of the core benefits of creating milestones. Therefore, it’s important to ensure you spread out milestones to make sure you’re executing consistently throughout the project. It’s easy to focus on the end-of-project deliverables. However, early and mid-project milestones such as contract signings and approvals are key to making sure you stay on schedule.
- Remember that milestones aren’t tasks: A milestone is a marker, not a task. This is important to remember because milestones don’t take time to complete; they simply indicate when a phase within a project begins or ends.
Step 6: Document risks and assumptions
Assumptions are often stigmatized as negative. However, in project management, you must make assumptions regularly.
For example, if your procurement team tells you that materials will arrive on February 1, that’s an assumption you’re banking on.
Inherent to any assumption is an amount of risk. For example, say there is a 10% risk those materials don’t show up until February 8. That means there’s a 10% chance that one assumption could delay your project by a week.
When you quantify and document all of your risks and assumptions, you’re able to forecast your project’s overall risk, create contingencies and backup plans, and reduce the impact of one of your assumptions falling through.
Tips for documenting your risks and assumptions:
- Quantify impact and probability: Some assumptions have a low probability of being false, but getting them wrong could derail the entire project. Conversely, other assumptions may be more likely to be proven false but have less of an impact on project completion. Make sure to take both risk and probability into account at this stage.
- Offload and mitigate risk where possible: If you’re dependent on just one supplier, find a backup just in case. Additionally, be sure you have adequate insurance to protect all aspects of your project.
Step 7: Set deadlines
Now you should have a firm grasp of the time your project will take as well as the risks and assumptions underlying your estimates. At this point, you can set the deadlines for your project.
Deadlines are a simple enough concept, but getting them right is a challenge. There is constant tension between speed and quality.
As the project manager, it’s your job to create realistic deadlines that balance the demands of different stakeholders.
Tips for setting deadlines:
- Set deadlines for deliverables and milestones: While the final deliverables to your client or end user are important, you need deadlines throughout the project to keep your team on track. Be sure to set deadlines for all of your major milestones and deliverables.
- Give your team some wiggle room: Don’t set deadlines based on your most optimistic projections. Add a cushion that allows you to avoid a situation where a single setback derails the entire project.
- Use scheduling software: If you’re dealing with a team of more than a handful of members, consider using a project scheduling software to avoid miscommunications. Dedicated project management software like Asana or Wrike can help increase visibility and awareness around deadlines.
Step 8: Review and complete your project schedule
At this point, your project schedule is effectively complete. This step is where you review your schedule for accuracy and have stakeholders sign off on the schedule’s feasibility.
A few items to check for during the process are:
- Only in-scope tasks are included in the schedule
- Resources are available for the dates and times you allocated them
- Milestones are spread out throughout the project
- Deadlines have a cushion that is proportional to the risks and assumptions tied to the underlying tasks
Tips for reviewing and completing your project schedule:
- Engage your client: While you need your team’s expertise to create work estimates, you also need to make sure your client is happy with the schedule. Not only do you want to make them happy, but you may need them to sign off on various deliverables and milestones throughout the project.
- Don’t overlook holidays and vacations: When you’re in the weeds, creating a schedule, things like paid time off can be easy to forget. The employees and contractors working on your project may have days off during the project. Now is the time to verify that you’ve accounted for that.
Should you use a project management software for your project schedule?
If your project is complex enough to warrant an in-depth project schedule, using project management software probably makes sense.
Identifying the best project management software begins with understanding the general benefits project management software can afford you. From there, you can select a specific software based on features, your needs, and pricing and then create a plan to implement the software.
To help you get started, let’s take a look at some of the primary benefits of using project management software:
- Improved visibility: Keeping everyone on the same page is a big part of successful project management. With cloud-based project management software, team members can check project status, schedules, and reports from anywhere. For example, Jira offers Scrum Boards that allow Agile team members to quickly identify which tasks are “blockers.”
- Granular reporting: Project management software enables you to create reports at a high level or drill down into the details. In many cases, you can even extract the data to perform analytics and improve your decision-making.
- Improved collaboration: Communication is vital to project success. Project management software can enable team members across the globe to stay in the loop via chat, virtual meetings, and real-time updates of project documentation.
- Purpose-built project management features: Network diagrams, story mapping, Gantt charts, budgets, and project schedules are just a few examples of the resources project teams may need. With dedicated project management software, you benefit from having many project management features available to you. Of course, more features can mean more complexity and a more difficult time for users. That’s why ease of use and an intuitive interface are important as well. Monday.com is an excellent tool that balances a robust project management feature set with an easy-to-use interface.
If most of your projects are small in scale, you may wonder if project management software is worth the cost.
After all, you can probably get by without it. It’s true that smaller projects may be manageable through spreadsheets and whiteboards alone, but dedicated software can add value for small teams, too.
Create a schedule to keep your next project on track
It’s become a cliche, but those who fail to plan are effectively planning to fail.
Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Atlassian, Microsoft, and Smartsheet and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $85 calls on Microsoft and short January 2021 $115 calls on Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.