Creating a project schedule can easily get out of hand when using a spreadsheet. There are so many details to consider in the equation - people, assignments, phases, milestones, costs - that it almost always turns into back pain. Worse, project scheduling becomes even more tangled when you need to update a few bits and pieces. Change one thing, and it has the uncontrollable domino effect on all the moving parts.
If you'd like to speed up the process of creating a project schedule and carve out more time for impactful work, dive in into our guide.
First things first, let's define a project schedule.
There isn't one accepted project schedule definition, but there is general agreement over what a project schedule is.
A project schedule is a timetable that outlines project phases, milestones, assignments, as well the start and end dates of every activity.
A project schedule also details the order of tasks and which team members have been assigned to complete them.
For a project manager, having all of this information in one place is gold. A good project schedule becomes one of the most reliable and effective project management tools, enabling reliable project planning, up-to-date decision making and efficient resource allocation.
All told, a project schedule gives project managers the best chance of delivering the ultimate goal: a project that's completed to satisfaction on time and on budget.
What is included in a project schedule? Project scheduling draws on a wide range of different aspects, and there are many different project scheduling techniques to structure one. Project schedules should strike a balance of being simple enough to understand while also having enough detail to be executable.
PMI outlines the following steps to get an ideal project schedule:
A work breakdown structure is the first step in building a project schedule. A WBS breaks down the entire project, usually in terms of either project deliverables or functions.
Work packages are the low level tasks that make up each element within the WBS. There may be a number of tasks that comprise a single element, and each task should be able to be allocated. It can also outline important details such as the scope, timeline and budget that applies to each work package.
Activities break down work packages even further to describe the specific steps an individual will take to complete them. For example, the steps involved in setting up a social media marketing campaign that is part of the overall marketing of a new product.
This is important because it makes tracking progress objective. With this in mind, activities should be measurable.
Logic describes the relationship between activities, and the way one activity will flow into another. For example, what signals that work on an activity can begin? The simplest logic is that the preceding activity has been completed, which is known as Finish-to-Start.
Defining resources can be a complex process, but doing this step in detail will prevent bottlenecks down the line, such as a last-minute realization that you need a resource that isn't available. Defining the resources needed involves two stages:
Defining the total duration of activities will help to create a budget and project timeline that is achievable. It can also help to identify the number of resources that are needed. For example, if there's a large bottleneck during the programming stage, it may be that additional programmers can be allocated to that activity.
There are two key considerations in defining timelines:
Now you've completed a draft project schedule, the next step is to see if it makes sense. One of the most important things to consider is if it meets your contractual obligations. Beyond that, there are other important aspects to analyze. You may need to adjust your project schedule based on these aspects.
The critical path method is one of the best known project scheduling techniques, and is defined as the longest path through a project. It means the longest flow of consecutive activities from one to another. By identifying the critical path, you can make any adjustments that are needed - for example, you may change your logic, or you may allocate more resources to an activity.
Constraints come in the form of dates, and they often require an alteration to logic within a project schedule. It may be that a staff member is unavailable, or you're contractually obliged to complete a piece of work by a certain date. This may mean that an activity needs to start earlier than it otherwise would.
Constraints can be hard or soft, depending on how forgiving they are - there may be a non-negotiable deadline, or one that is ideal but flexible.
Knowing all the elements of a project schedule isn't enough to understand how to create a project schedule. There's a lot to get your head around, and doing it manually in an Excel spreadsheet can create a lot of headaches. It's error-prone, time consuming and makes it almost impossible to track project progress in real time.
Today, effective project scheduling means using dedicated project scheduling software. It helps by walking you through a proven project scheduling process that's been developed by experts over many years. It's a much clearer, more strategic process than finding your own way forward using a blank spreadsheet.
If you asked experienced leaders which tool is most likely to be used in project schedule management, the overwhelming majority (if not all) will be using dedicated project scheduling tools.
Other advantages of using project scheduling software include:
Not all project scheduling software is made equal. As McKinsey outlines, in order to effectively manage projects, tools need to have given sufficient thought to schedule development. Runn has been proven to add value to more than 33,000 projects around the world, including planning more than 11 million hours of work.
When scheduling a project in Runn, you'll need to know:
Creating a project budget at this stage is optional, but scheduling is much easier when you know how much money you have available for certain tasks. Whether you allocate a budget to your project right off the bat depends on the estimating method you use.
In the Project Planner, you will find your project.
To divide the project into different parts, hover above the Phases row and click-and-drag, or click and select the calendar to choose start and end dates.
You can add important milestones if needed as well.
When you expand the project in the Project Planner, click on Assign person. Find the person you want to contribute to the project and select them.
You can select multiple people at one time, or select a placeholder if no-one's available. It's easy to transfer ownership of a task from a placeholder to a real person once you know who it's going to be.
Assign tasks by either selecting specific dates in the calendar view or by clicking and dragging on the project timeline. You can also create repeating assignments for those that need to be done multiple times.
Continue assigning tasks as needed. Make sure you keep an eye on your costs as you go so you don't over-allocate resources and go over budget.
That's everything you need to know about creating a project schedule without using a manual spreadsheet. Instead of using a project schedule template in Excel, try creating a project schedule with Runn, it's completely free!
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