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Project timelines for improved project management

Keep your team on track for what’s happening when

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Scheduling calendar

A project management timeline is a detailed schedule for your project. It spells out all of the tasks involved and a deadline for each so that your entire team can see when individual steps will take place and when the whole project will be wrapped up.

You and your team are rebranding your website, and there’s one question on everybody’s mind: how long is this project going to take?

Will you have it done by the end of the week? The end of the quarter? Will it be ongoing as you gather new testimonials and assets to include? Will it continue to grow and grow?

Pinpointing when a project will be completed and delivered is tough, and 48% of projects don’t meet their originally scheduled end date. A project management timeline can keep your team on the straight and narrow to prevent your projects from stretching into eternity. 

What is a project management timeline?

A project management timeline is a schedule for your entire project from inception to completion. It will break your entire project into smaller tasks and milestones, with a deadline assigned to each.

Your timeline allows you and your team to not only see when individual pieces are due, but also when the entire project will be delivered. 

Why are project timelines important?

Project timelines give your team an action plan, boost accountability, and help you steer around any potential roadblocks. And that’s only scratching the surface on the advantages your project timeline offers.

1. Give everybody a high-level view of the project

You know it’s easy to get lost in the weeds when you’re hard at work on a project. Your timeline allows your team to get a broader view, so they can zoom out and see what different steps are happening when. It lets them get context around their individual pieces to see how it all fits together.

You can also proactively identify any potential roadblocks or requirements before your project gets started.

2. Manage your resources more effectively

Your project will need resources like equipment, budget, and time from team members. Projects would be a dream if everything was available for you right when you needed it, but you aren’t carrying out this plan in a vacuum.

In PMI’s 2018 survey, 21% of respondents cited limited or taxed resources as their primary reason for project failure.

Knowing when specific tasks are happening helps you allocate and manage your project resources more effectively. So, if you know that your company’s graphic designer won’t be able to pitch in with your website redesign until the end of the month, you can plan accordingly.

3. Make overwhelming projects more manageable

How do you eat an airplane? One bite at a time.

Project timelines help make colossal projects feel more doable. To put together your timeline, you’ll have to break your project into actionable steps. That gives you and your team a roadmap you can use to put one foot in front of the other, so you can chow down that airplane without getting overwhelmed.

Need help? With our to-do list template, you can jot down all of those tasks and make sure you don’t put too much on your plate all at once. 

4. Keep projects on track

One of the biggest benefits of a project timeline is that it helps you stay the course. By breaking things down, it’s easier to spot any holes or inconsistencies and monitor progress. If a single piece misses its deadline, you know your entire project is at risk of falling behind schedule.

Your timeline will also increase accountability on your team, as everyone has visibility into who’s responsible for what (and when it’s due). 

That level of ownership matters, especially when you consider that 91% of employees say accountability is one of the most important things they’d like to see more of in their workplace.

Time sensitive ticket

How to create a project management timeline

From fostering a “we’re going to take down this project together” attitude to helping your team stay organized, a project timeline is a must-have for completing projects without tearing your hair out.

But while the perks are evident, there’s still a big question that needs to be answered: how do you create one? Follow these steps to draft a project timeline that supports your team in doing their best work.

1. Understand the project scope

Imagine we asked you to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How long do you think that would take you? Five minutes tops?

What we didn’t tell you at the start is that we want it on homemade bread. And it needs to have a very specific jelly from one farmer’s market that’s only open on Sunday mornings. And we want the crust removed and the sandwich cut into a star shape. Suddenly, whipping up that sandwich isn’t such a quick process, right?

That’s why it’s crucial to understand your project scope. This captures everything that’s needed to complete a project (including tasks, time, and resources). 

Identifying what’s required from the outset will not only enable you to create a more realistic timeline, it will also help you proactively address scope creep, which is when your project’s requirements expand beyond what was originally agreed upon. It’s a common plight, with a staggering 52% of projects experiencing scope creep. 

To define your scope, you’ll figure out your project’s:

  • Goals: What will your project accomplish? 
  • Deliverables: What is the output of your project?
  • Tasks and activities: What steps do you need to take to produce those deliverables?
  • Exclusions: What won’t you complete as part of this project? 
  • Constraints: What limitations are you working with? 

Then you’ll pull them into a project scope statement that you and your team can reference as you move through the project. With that statement in your back pocket, you can stay focused on the core parts of your project and say “not this time” to everything else.

2. Identify your project tasks

Your timeline isn’t about setting one end date for your entire project; you need to set milestone dates for tasks throughout the project.

If you want to get technical, you’ll refer to this as a work breakdown structure (WBS), which splits your big project into different deliverables. This makes it much simpler to tell what tasks are involved in each deliverable.

Sticking with our PB&J example, the final deliverable is a completed gooey, crustless, star-shaped PB&J. Yum. But to get to that finished sandwich, there are a few other deliverables you’ll need to complete (because remember, we said we didn’t want store-bought bread):

  • Homemade loaf of bread
  • Specific jelly from the farmer’s market
  • Peanut butter

Now that we have a grasp on each of our separate deliverables, it’s easier to see the tasks that are associated with each:

Deliverable #1: Bread

  • Choose a bread recipe
  • Purchase ingredients to bake bread
  • Bake bread
  • Give bread an hour to cool
  • Slice bread

Deliverable #2: Jelly

  • Find the time and location of the farmer’s market
  • Drive to the farmer’s market
  • Purchase the jelly
  • Return home

Deliverable #3: Peanut butter

  • Visit the grocery store
  • Purchase the peanut butter
  • Return home

Deliverable #4: Finished sandwich

  • Gather a knife and other supplies
  • Spread peanut butter on one slice of bread
  • Spread jelly on another slice of bread
  • Put two pieces of bread together
  • Remove crust
  • Slice sandwich into a star shape
  • Put sandwich on a plate to serve

Looking at all those steps, it’s not so simple, is it?

You might be tempted to scribble all of this on a piece of paper to make sure you don’t miss a step. There’s nothing wrong with starting that way, but you want to make this information accessible to your entire team.

Use a collaborative knowledge sharing workspace like Confluence to store notes, responsibilities, and details. Then add your tasks to a project management tool such as Jira or Trello so your whole team can get the satisfaction of moving them over and checking them off.

3. Assign time estimates to each task

You’ve written down your deliverables and their related tasks, but this still isn’t a timeline because we haven’t actually discussed time anywhere yet. 

That’s what you’ll handle in this step: figuring out how long each task will take you. Look at each of the tasks you outlined under each deliverable and take your best guess on the time required to complete it. 

Involve your project team in this process, as they’ll have a more realistic view of how long their assigned pieces typically take. Plus, it’s easy to fall victim to the planning fallacy (which states that we tend to underestimate how long something will take to complete) and your team can provide a much-needed gut check.

Clipboard list

4. Put your tasks in order

With your project tasks and time estimates ready to go, it’s time to start putting things in order so that you and your team have a logical sequence to follow.

There are a couple of things to be mindful of as you create your chain of events:

  • Task and resource dependencies: These are resources (like a team member or piece of software) that can’t be used at the same time or tasks that can’t be completed until a subsequent one is done. For example, you can’t spread the peanut butter until you’ve baked and sliced the bread.
  • Concurrent tasks: These are steps that can happen simultaneously, and identifying them can save you time. Maybe you can run to the farmer’s market while the bread is cooling off. 

Keeping your eye on these things means you can plan a timeline that’s realistic and efficient.

5. List deadlines

Remember that time estimates on their own don’t make a schedule. You need to assign hard deadlines. Saying, “This should take three hours” is a lot different than saying, “This task will be completed by Tuesday.”

Fortunately, your time estimates will help you set more realistic deadlines for your project tasks. 

To be safe, build in a bit of a buffer so you don’t run too close to the bone with your project. Surprises are inevitable, and you’ll be glad you padded the timeline with some wiggle room.

Know when your project will cross the finish line

Speaking of surprises, we know that the universe has a knack for throwing wrenches into your project plans, and you can’t plan for everything. That said, ironing out a project timeline is still well worth the effort. 

Foregoing a project timeline altogether means team members struggle to manage their own workloads, people don’t know what to do next, and your projects start to seem like recurring nightmares.

Your timeline doesn’t need to be set in stone, and it’s good to remain flexible to adjust when necessary. Even if you don’t stick to your plan to the letter, laying that groundwork early will still eliminate confusion, increase accountability, and keep your projects moving forward. 

One way to keep your team moving work forward with your project timeline? Make sure they have instant access to the information they need. Store all of your project notes, details, and responsibilities within Confluence.

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