Among the most important tasks of any project manager is creating and managing effective project timelines. Timeline overruns can negatively impact even the best laid plans. In this helpful guide, you’ll learn more about the importance of accurate and carefully planned project timelines.
What is a project timeline?
A project timeline is a chart that tracks the chronological order of events and due dates for a project. It’s a tool that project managers and teams use to understand where the project is and where it’s going at a glance. An accurate project timeline keeps everyone informed, on task, and on time.
Projects vary in complexity and scope; however, they all have essential elements in common (including task due dates, durations, and dependencies) that should be included in your project timeline. A project timeline must answer such key questions as:
- What tasks do you need to complete to deliver project results?
- Who is responsible for completing each task?
- How long should it take to complete each task?
- When is each task due?
- Which tasks depend on other tasks?
Successful project managers have the skills to visualize and create realistic project timelines. They also maintain and manage the timeline throughout the project, keeping the team productive and engaged. Time management and adaptability are vital project management skills, since unexpected delays and change requests are inevitable.
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Visualizing project timelines.
A project timeline is a visualization of tasks, task owners, and due dates. Some also include key project milestones that must be reached at particular stages along the way to project completion. Project managers use a variety of visualizations, including:
- Gantt chart: The most popular type of timeline is a Gantt chart. It’s a horizontal bar chart that provides a clear picture of the project’s past, present, and future tasks and dates.
- Critical path: You often find a critical path within a Gantt chart, which can be created via work management software tools. The critical path is the longest chain of dependent tasks in your project, revealing the most critical deadlines for on-time project completion.
- Chronological chart: This approach is most appropriate for simple, linear projects wherein all the tasks have a start-to-finish relationship (i.e., one finishes before the next begins). The chart depicts tasks moving left to right, and cannot show different tasks happening simultaneously.
It’s important to provide a visual chart of a project timeline that others can easily understand at a glance. Keep it simple yet informative, and be sure that the tasks and due dates are attainable.
How to create an accurate project timeline:
An accurate timeline sets a project up for success, allowing enough time for teams to complete tasks in an organized and predictable way. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn how to create an effective project timeline.
1. Determine the project goals and contingencies.
Excellent planning is the top skill needed to achieve project management success. And the first step to creating a realistic plan and timeline is to determine your project’s goals.
Why are you undertaking this project? What do you hope to achieve by the end of this project? Once you’ve set your goals, it’s time to make a contingency plan. What could go wrong or take longer to accomplish? Planning for all contingencies is impossible, but acknowledging you need time for potential changes or delays will make your project timeline more achievable.
2. Break down project goals into tasks and deliverables.
Now that you know your project’s goals, it’s time to determine the steps your team needs to take to get there. Break project goals down into actionable tasks with concrete project deliverables. If a step seems too broad, break it down further into smaller tasks to help team members complete the work without feeling overwhelmed.
If you plan a long-term or large project, consider breaking it down into small sections called milestones. After the team completes all tasks in a section, they reach a key milestone and are one step closer to project completion. They then move to the next section to start working toward the next milestone. Milestones help a large or long project feel more attainable, with time built in to celebrate short-term goals.
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3. Figure out each task’s duration and due date.
To plan a realistic time span for a project, figure out how long each task takes to complete, and then set a due date for each task. Be sure to discuss task durations with the appropriate people on your team so you have a better understanding of what each task entails.
Also, be aware of task dependencies, which means knowing which tasks you need to complete before another can begin. Understanding task dependency and duration helps you logically order tasks.
4. Build a visual chart of your project timeline.
Which type of chart you decide to use for your project timeline depends on the type of project you’re managing. Gone are the days of struggling to map things out on paper, in a word processor, or on a spreadsheet.
Now, online work management platforms make it much easier to create a timeline. Most digital tools allow you to enter your information into a template and then generate a chart that’s easy to adjust.
5. Share your project timeline.
Before any work begins, share your timeline with everyone involved in the project. This includes your team and other project shareholders. Take their feedback into account, so you can make your project timeline as accurate as possible, and so everyone feels a sense of ownership and involvement from day one.
Create and execute effective project timelines.
To create an effective project timeline, project managers must set actionable tasks and precise due dates in order to help the team stay on task and reach project goals on time. No matter the type of project, the five steps in this guide will give your team greater odds of a successful outcome.