Understanding the project baseline in project management

Max Rehkopf By Max Rehkopf
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I’m often amazed at how good we’ve gotten at setting goals. With the rise of OKRs and other goal setting frameworks, professionals from nearly every industry can reliably set goals for projects and teams. I’m equally surprised at how hard it can be to understand why you’ve achieved a goal or fallen short. A project baseline helps add valuable context to that conversation. By creating project baselines, you can now start your exploration with the simple question, “Did we hit our project baseline?” With that context, you can more easily understand why goals were hit or missed. 

What is a project baseline in project management?

A project baseline is a fixed reference point used to compare project performance over time. Project baselines are used by project managers to understand how project scope, schedule, and cost are progressing through the completion of a project. Project baselines differ from goals in that they are focused on the status of a project where a goal is focused on the outcomes. Adding project baselines can help you understand how the status of a project over time contributed to the completion of the project goals. 

Let’s imagine a software development team jumps on a two-week project to make a legacy sign-up form GDPR compliant. There’s urgency here because it’s 2023 and that form should have been compliant years ago! There’s also complexity here as those inputs are used across the business and each endpoint needs to be secured. A project manager spins up the project and work begins. 

Three weeks later the team celebrates a successful end-to-end test and the solution pushes to production. Was the project successful? 

A focus on the project goal would say yes! A check with the project baseline might lead to a different answer. The baseline would set a schedule, scope, and cost for the project, so let’s check-in. The project was set for two weeks but ran to three. The scope was for development only but it turned out that design was needed for a GDPR pop-up. The costs ran over as the designer wasn’t budgeted for and the dev team is now a week behind on their next project. We always want to celebrate success but a project baseline helps all teams understand at what cost that success came.

Key elements of a project baseline

Project managers know what’s required in a great project plan. We’re lucky that so many project management fundamentals are now widely used and understood. The key components of a project baseline are likely already discussed during project formation and by simply packaging them together we have a project baseline and are ready to start work.

1. Scope

Project scope is a detailed outline of the activities, resources, and deliverables associated with the project. Importantly, scope sets the project’s boundaries with clear statements of what is and isn’t included in the project. Project scope also outlines key stakeholders, teammates, processes, assumptions, and constraints. All of this is documented in a scope statement. 

A simple scope statement from our GDPR example: “Development team A” to code and deploy a solution for GDPR compliant usage and storage of the data from “Sign up form B” in two weeks or less. 


2. Schedule

Whether your org company sprints, hours, days, or weeks, your project baseline needs a schedule. A complete schedule has a start date, end date and the elapsed time between (duration). Many teams label project end dates with nice qualifiers like “projected” or “estimated.” The nice thing about a project baseline is that we do not deal in uncertainty. Setting the schedule on day one is a requirement to use the baseline effectively. 

In the GDPR example, a project manager might have set a two work-week schedule with two days for discovery, five days for development, and three days for testing and deployment. 


3. Cost

Project managers get really good at this! Project cost is a dollar or time amount that teams agree to allocate to a project. Cost includes a budget for any expenses the team might incur in their execution of the project scope. Where teams are concerned, lost time not working on other projects can be a consideration in project cost. 

Let’s assume that “Development team A” in the GDPR example is composed of hourly workers and so the cost of the project is all of their hourly rates times 40 hrs per week times two weeks. 


How do you set up or create a project baseline?

Your project baseline should live within your project plan. These are best created in open, editable docs easily accessible to all team members in the project. A Confluence template can help your teams spin up pre-formatted project plans with a dedicated space for the project baseline. 

Often the first thing added to your project page is the scope statement. Scope statements are usually written in sentences or bullet points that cover important work, resources, and deliverables for the project. Scope statements are then often edited again and again as things change.

The growth opportunity is to take that scope statement and lock it into the project baseline. Rather than make changes to the scope statement, you revisit your intention and have a clear gauge of the scope creep that so often derails the project. 

Next up is the schedule. Again, your project managers are experts at this! PMs favor gantt charts and roadmaps to help easily visualize the project schedule. A roadmap will help you sequence different streams of work so that you can make sure everything lines up. You set your start date and end date on the roadmap so that the project duration is clear. 

This is a great opportunity to start organizing your work items in Jira. Let’s simplify your project scope into four tasks: design, develop, test, and deploy. Now let's make four Jira issues, one for each task. We now add a start and end date to every issue. With one click into the roadmap view, we have an accurate visualization of all the work that needs to get done and by what dates. Embed this roadmap into your project baseline in confluence and you’ve added a schedule. 

The last thing you need to finish your project baseline is cost. Just like scope and schedule, cost will remain fixed once written into the project baseline. A teammate from finance or accounting can help tally your project's cost, and will often need to help adjust that cost over time. Thanks to setting that cost in your project baseline, you can see exactly how much you over or under budgeted once the project wraps. 

Example of a project baseline in Confluence

Your goal is a dedicated space for your project baseline that contains scope, schedule, and cost of the project. Your project baseline lives within your project plan document. The first thing to do in a project plan is bring together the team. Here’s an example of different roles you might assign to the many folks that will help complete the project.

Project plan view

Add a quick “Project baseline” header to your page and start pulling the key components together. First you want to define scope. This example shows a simple way to structure what’s included in your project and what is not.

Scope view

Next you can focus on visualizing the schedule for the project. Roadmaps embedded in a Confluence page are the simplest way to do so. 

Timeline view

The last thing to add is project cost. We’ll leave it to the finance folks to determine the best way to represent your budget and expenses in Confluence. The most important part of your project baseline is that this information is set at the start of the project and left alone until the conclusion. 

Benefits of a project baseline

There can be pushback when you’re adding another process to existing project management practices. Adding a project baseline can unlock exciting benefits for project managers, team leads, project contributors, and stakeholders. 

Clear goal reporting

Your project baseline houses the three most important components of a successful project. When reporting on the success of your project, you can use the project baseline to qualify that success. This leads to more honest goal reporting, where you can celebrate the milestones but also acknowledge that they came a week later than planned. 

Limit scope creep

Scope creep is when a project scope changes over time. Scope creep often burns out the team and contributes to missed deadlines. By setting the scope in your project baseline, you have tangible proof of what you committed to and can use that evidence to strengthen your resolve. It’s always hard to say no but the project baseline will have your back.

Stay on schedule

You put a lot of effort into the project schedule. A roadmap or gantt chart is easy to reference to see how your project is tracking. This can be tricky with multiple work streams and dependencies between teams. Publishing your schedule can act as a great motivating factor for teammates who can clearly see how their work affects others and the overall project schedule.

Use Confluence to make your project baseline a breeze

When adopting a new process, eliminating friction is key. Confluence helps eliminate friction by letting you add project baselines into your project page templates. The project baseline contains elements that you are likely already creating and simply repackages them into a new container. Adding this container to your project page template will speed adoption across the business. Atlssian has great resources to get inspired about template creation and get started with Confluence