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The ability to plan is what defines an effective project manager, and one of the key pillars of that plan should be the timeline. Creating a project timeline is like drawing out the map before the voyage – it sets the goals and limits of the project’s duration so that teams can stay on-course (and within important deadlines). Without a detailed timeline, a project can quickly turn into a mess of wasted resources and broken promises to stakeholders.

But how should PMs go about actually creating a timeline that works? It takes a combination of accurate estimations skills, experience, and flexibility. Every schedule will be a little different depending on the project, but a successful project timeline generally has a few common elements and key steps that a PM should be educated on.

How to write a timeline that works

1. Outline the project scope.

A scope statement is like a promise of what you plan to deliver at the end of the project. Outlining the scope of a project should always be the first move any project manager makes. Defining scope can be difficult, but the general idea is that you:

  • Justify the needs of the project, and
  • Outline how you intend to get there

When it comes to time management, project scope is as much about what’s NOT included as what is – i.e., what you are not promising to deliver and, thus, won’t be held accountable for. That’s because projects with poorly outline scopes are more vulnerable to scope creep: when stakeholders add demands, goals, or deliverables after the onset of the project.

The consequences of scope creep are obvious: projects can become resource-strained and, of course, take longer than anticipated to reach completion. You stand a better chance of preventing scope creep (and any missed deadlines it causes) by defining a clear scope and sticking to it.

2. Create a work breakdown structure (WBS).

Once you have a clearly defined scope statement, you should define the project’s deliverables. This doesn’t necessarily mean tasks just yet, but rather larger chunks of the project that can be delineated in what is known as a “Work Breakdown Structure.” Another name for this step is what is considered the “scope baseline,” and helps to further explain the deliverables that will later be broken into work packages and then tasks.

3. Delineate tasks.

In this stage, you’ll break sub-deliverables into tasks and create “to do” lists. This is where the gap between the baseline and the goal must be considered, so you know exactly what needs to be done to get there.

It’s important to link tasks that are similar across work packages, because these will later help you to determine your dependencies.

4. Determine dependencies.

Much as the word suggests, dependencies are tasks that cannot be started until others end. Thus, they are “dependent” upon each other and will affect the project timeline if you do not schedule them accordingly.

Many project managers find that this tends to be the most difficult part of making a timeline, because as projects become more complex, many tasks may be intertwined with dependencies. It is at this point that software can be your friend for helping to build the schedule.

5. Consider timeframes and resources.

Delineating how long each task will take and the resources needed to accomplish it is also important when understanding how to make a timeline. Even though you have an allotted time for a task and a team member in mind, their schedule may conflict with the project’s timeframe – especially if you are managing many projects within a portfolio.

Thus, when building a timeline, it is critical that you take into consideration your availability of resources.

6. Identify milestones.

In order to gauge progress, you have to establish standards early on. Choosing some project milestones and metrics to measure success will help you stay on track and see where and when you may be slipping behind. Then you can adjust performance accordingly.

7. Build the timeline.

Now all that’s left is building the timeline itself. Make sure you align your tasks end-to-end and use color coding if necessary. Add in your milestones to establish a routine “check-in” on each task. Using software is your best bet, as it can do a lot of calculations and timeline building in an automated fashion.

Establishing a project timeline is important to aligning team goals and planning for obstacles. Defining the scope and the WBS is your first step. After that, deliverables and tasks can be outlined and resources allocated. Remember, if the map is already made, you won’t have to guess about where you are going.

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