How to Create and Stick to a Project Schedule
Developing a realistic project schedule and adhering to it as a project moves forward is critical for success. Project scheduling techniques in the context of hybrid and remote teams provide project managers with more options than ever to complete work quickly and efficiently.
This article will show you how to create accurate project scheduling and keep your team on track once a project begins.
Project schedule basics: Setting a schedule in 6 steps
Project schedules are important in the context of any effort. When it comes to simple projects, it might be easy to see how specific tasks and subtasks relate to each other. In such instances, assigning project timelines and due dates can be relatively easy.
However, in the project management world, complex projects often abound and time frames must be carefully determined using more advanced scheduling techniques that take things like task dependencies and resource allocation into account.
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The sections below provide a step-by-step guide to accurate project scheduling.
1. Assess and organize your project’s component tasks
The first step in project scheduling is creating a careful breakdown of all parts of the project. Using a work breakdown structure (WBS) can be extremely helpful here.
To create a WBS, begin by stating the overall goal of the project. Then, identify all of the main deliverables associated with the project. For example, if the project involves bringing a new product to market, deliverables may include initial market research, product design, product prototype development, the creation of a production plan, product marketing, production, and distribution.
For each identified deliverable, create a task list detailing what needs to be done to achieve each deliverable. You may also indicate time estimates for each task, which project team members will be assigned to each task, and which resources are needed for each. Those additional metrics will make the overall project planning and resource management processes easier.
If you use project management software, check to see if it includes WBS tools that you can use to make creating the breakdown easier and that allow you to easily translate the breakdown into a project timeline later on.
2. Define the sequence in which project tasks must occur
Once you fully understand which tasks need to be done to complete the project, it’s time to start evaluating task dependencies and determining in which order tasks should be completed.
The critical path method (CPM) is another project management strategy you can deploy here. This method evolved out of the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.
To make use of CPM, arrange the individual tasks into dependent chains. For example, if three tasks can only be completed in a certain order (e.g., brainstorming, outlining, and creation of a rough draft), then they form a dependent chain.
Some tasks may have no dependencies and can be completed at any time during the project life cycle, while others may be part of long dependent chains.
Once all dependencies are identified, determine which chain is the longest. Note that “longest” doesn’t mean the chain with the most tasks, but instead it means the chain that will take the longest total time to complete.
The longest dependent chain is called the critical path of the project. It provides a baseline estimate for the minimum total time it will take to complete the project and will allow you to set a preliminary start date and end date. By having all of the other task dependencies identified as well, you obtain a better overall picture of the scope of the project.
3. Assess your current resources and availability
The final project due dates and duration may vary from the baseline estimate obtained via the CPM depending on available resources. While it may be possible to complete several tasks simultaneously from a task-dependency standpoint, the project finish date will need to be extended if there aren’t enough team members or resources to complete tasks in parallel.
For this reason, you need to assess resources and availability before you can go further in creating your project plan. Resources include team members and their schedule availability, as well as any tools, equipment, facilities, or supplies needed.
Identify all resources needed for each project task, including how many team members and how many work hours each will require. Then, make a list of the resources you have and determine a RACI for your project. This will enable you to reconcile the schedule with available resources.
4. Consider hiring independent talent to support your core team
If you find that your resource pool is lacking, you have a few options:
- You may be able to reassign team members from other projects depending on their availability.
- You may require team members to work overtime to complete the project (though this option can lead to burnout).
- Or you might hire freelancers to supplement your current team.
Hiring freelance talent might be your best choice because you don’t have to worry about taking resources from other critical projects, it minimizes the risk of burnout on your team, and you can add very specific skills for very specific periods of time. However, which option you choose depends on your overall project budget, any deadlines that must be met, and the desires of the project stakeholders.
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Are you still working on your project budget? Our article on the six steps to creating a project budget can help.
5. Combine estimations to reach an initial project schedule
By the time you reach this step, you should have a clear picture of what each task requires, which tasks depend on others, and how resources can be distributed among the tasks. Now you can combine all of this information into an initial project schedule.
How you go about doing so depends on what tools you have at your disposal. Some project managers choose to tackle this using whiteboards and markers or a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. However, many others find it helpful to use a scheduling tool, which may come with project management or project scheduling software.
For example, if you have access to project management tools that allow you to create a Gantt chart (a bar chart visualization of project timeline tasks), the ordering and assigning of project tasks will be much easier. It also provides you a clear picture of the work being done at any given time.
6. Consider additional time to reflect possible contingencies
Because even the best-planned projects contain some level of uncertainty, it’s often a good idea to include time in your project schedule to reflect on how things are going so far, whether the timeline is working, or whether adjustments need to be made. Keeping some cushion in your schedule can help smooth out workflow hiccups as you go.
Sticking to your project schedule: Key techniques to stay on track
As all project managers know, it can be difficult to adhere to a project schedule once it’s set. Sometimes tasks take longer than anticipated, a worker is out sick, delivery of materials is delayed, or the client requests changes to the overall project scope.
The first step in staying on schedule is making sure there are open channels of communication with all team members. This allows you to become aware of bottlenecks or problems in real time and makes it easier to course-correct before the problems start compounding.
Below are some additional tips to help you keep your project on schedule.
Tips to keep your project on schedule
- Create a three-point estimate. Instead of creating a single timeline estimate, determine the most optimistic timeline, the most likely timeline, and the most pessimistic timeline. You can then take a simple average of all three estimates. To find how much you can deviate from the schedule and make the final deliverable, find the standard deviation. This provides an overall more realistic project schedule.
- Monitor continuously. Because projects change and evolve, continuous monitoring keeps you in the driver’s seat and allows you to steer the project around obstacles as they arise, making it less likely that problems will compound and obliterate the initial project schedule.
- Consult team members and use historical data. Errors in your initial estimates of how long each task will take to complete lead to errors in your final time estimate. Make use of experts on your project team, as well as historical project data to improve your initial estimates.
- Deploy crashing and fast-tracking as needed. Finally, if your project is falling behind schedule and you absolutely must meet the final deadline, you can shorten the remaining timeline by fast-tracking or crashing. Fast-tracking involves looking for ways to compress the critical path or to perform as many tasks in parallel to the critical path. Crashing requires adding extra resources (additional independent professionals or overtime hours, for example) to finish the project as quickly as possible.
Stay on schedule with skilled professionals
Keeping your project schedules under control is critical in any business. Delaying finish dates can lead to unhappy clients, overspending, and can negatively impact future work. If you need additional team members to keep your projects on track, take advantage of Upwork’s platform. Upwork is the best place to find and hire skilled independent professionals in any area of expertise.