Getting started with project scheduling? Learn the building blocks of an effective project schedule in our complete guide.
Project scheduling is one of the most critical aspects of your project because it will determine how things will progress, how fast they will progress, and whether they will progress at all.
It is so much more than just a project delivery date on your calendar.
It’s a web connecting things together: your company and project goals, budget, resources, and time. A project schedule is yet another tool that will help you see how feasible the project is.
If your project schedule is full of cracks, you might have a wrong idea that you’re sprinting to the finish line, while in reality you may be delivering late and overspending.
In this article, you will discover the essence of project scheduling, the value it holds to project management as a whole, and the ten hard-and-fast best practices you need to follow.
Project scheduling is the process of plotting project assignments and people you’ll need to complete them on a timeline - so you can deliver project outcomes within a specific timeframe.
It is a subset of project planning that’s concerned with the who and when of project delivery.
It's like the old joke that asks 'How do you eat an elephant?'
'One mouthful at a time.'
The project scheduling process is about breaking that elephant down into manageable mouthfuls. Then working out who’s going to eat what and when.
In business speak, project management scheduling lets you break large projects into small tasks that are manageable and measurable. It helps you understand what resources you'll need and whether there are any potential conflicts (such as two tasks that require the same resource at the same time).
A project schedule is the tool that communicates what work needs to be performed, which resources of the organization will perform the work and the timeframes for critical tasks. The schedule also helps project managers to measure progress toward completing project deliverables, identify any scope creep that may have occurred and determine whether deadlines are realistic or need to be changed.
In fact, McKinsey found that IT projects generally go 45% over budget and 7% over time, delivering 56% less value than initially promised. And when it comes to software projects, they are usually the first ones in the red zone for cost and schedule overruns.
But on a merrier note, if you take the time to understand what project scheduling in project management really is, explore working project scheduling techniques, and what tools can help you rule the day there — your chances for success will increase.
Project scheduling and project planning - it’s confusing! They’re both plans about how to deliver your project. Aren’t they the same thing? Afraid not. The five Ws can clarify things: what, why, how, when, and who.
Project planning is about the why and what. It asks the big questions and paints the bigger picture - defining project goals, scope, deliverables, strategy, budget, and more. It considers broadly what work needs to happen and how it will be done - as well as how it will be managed and monitored for success. Project planning lays the foundations of how the project will be executed overall.
Project scheduling is about the how, who, and when. Who needs to complete the work and when will they do it? How will you optimize that for maximum efficiency and minimal waste? It is a subset of project planning and has a specific focus on creating a detailed project timeline - including specifying tasks, their interdependencies, likely duration, and required resources.
Here’s a good way to remember it:
“PLANNING = WHAT + HOW. SCHEDULING = WHO + WHEN
PLANNING details WHAT work needs to be completed and HOW it needs to be done.
SCHEDULING determines WHO will complete the work and WHEN it will be completed.
PLANNING is the process of detailing what materials, tools, tasks, and services are required to solve a problem and the procedures you need to do that work safely and properly.
SCHEDULING balances the workload against available resources to minimize waste.”, explains Emad Al-Mataz, Facilities Operations Manager.
The purpose of project scheduling is to plan, coordinate, and track the tasks and resources needed to complete a project. Project scheduling helps project managers to:
Overall, the purpose of project scheduling is to help project managers to effectively plan and coordinate the tasks and resources needed to complete a project successfully.
A project management world with no project scheduling in it is a world of chaos.
Imagine a train station with no timetables, a business calendar full of meetings with no hours mentioned, a dinner recipe with no cooking time for each ingredient. That’s what a project is without a sturdy project schedule in it.
Without a detailed project schedule, you run the risk of delaying important activities or starting them too early, which can have a knock-on effect on other parts of your project. With so many moving parts, it’s essential to create a project schedule that will keep your team and clients informed about what is happening on your project and when things are likely to be completed.
But despite the seemingly convincing value of a reliable project scheduling process, many people still neglect it.
Wellington recently conducted a survey and found that only 48% of respondents baseline their project schedule, only 59% create a scoping document, and only 62% engage in risk management.
Dr Michael Emes, Director at UCL Center for Systems Engineering believes that “these are fundamental aspects of project management, yet seem to be seen as optional by a significant proportion of respondents.”
Project scheduling saves you a lot of headaches upfront. It simplifies and amplifies communication, helps you avoid scope creep, and makes it easier to monitor project progress, performance, and costs.
In other words, it gives you better control over the project, helps you predict the unpredicted, and empowers all the teams involved to productively work together. It is not just a matter of project planning, but also of project efficiency.
Need more convincing the project scheduling process is worth it? Here are four key reasons why it makes business sense.
Project scheduling breaks big projects down into defined, manageable, measurable tasks. This makes it easier to complete the project and stay on course. McKinsey found that IT projects generally go 45% over budget and 7% over time, delivering 56% less value than initially promised. In that context, project scheduling is worth a try.
A project schedule makes it easier to monitor projects by giving project managers smaller, more frequent milestones to work towards.
Project scheduling gets down into the detail, so you’re not surprised by the unexpected halfway through a project. You map task dependencies so you can complete work in a logical sequence, and you plan resources to make sure you’re not blindsided by a talent shortage.
It also focuses the mind on the ‘what ifs’ - like ‘What if a critical resource is called away to another project?’ It helps you prioritize and plan for contingencies.
Project scheduling involves identifying - in advance - the resources you’ll need for each task. This gives project managers time to ensure they have the people and skills available when they need them.
It gives you the chance to make informed choices about who to use, to balance cost and quality considerations. And it helps you spread workload evenly across your team, avoiding resource utilization issues. Like overutilization that causes burnout and bottlenecks, and underutilization that wastes your time and money.
Effective resource management is a key lever of success for project-based businesses, and the scheduling process is fundamental to it.
Project scheduling sets expectations of what work will be completed, who by, and when. It encourages teams and individuals to take ownership of their deliverables - and removes room for miscommunication or misunderstanding.
It also creates accountability to the client - providing a realistic delivery timeline you need to meet. This helps you make strategic decisions should anything in the project slip or change.
OK. Now you understand what project scheduling is - and what your project schedule will include - how do you actually go about creating one?
This involves identifying all the tasks, determining the order they need to happen, and estimating how long they’ll take. Starting with the overall project objectives, create a Work Breakdown Structure. This means breaking down the project down into phases, and then those phases into individual tasks.
Breaking the work involved into smaller tasks makes the project easy to manage and complete. It also makes it easy to group similar or related or dependent tasks into phases which you can then bracket with start and end dates.
Beside each task that you add, include a rough time estimate of how long it’d take. Keep in mind though: assumptions will only help you create an unreliable schedule that project teams won’t be able to keep up with.
The solution? Talking to the project team to learn how long specific tasks take. It’s also a useful idea to look at your similar past projects and see how long those took. Make sure you review the actual start dates and planned dates to understand how long the actual work took.
You can always create a paper-based WBS. However, paper schedules mostly work for one-person teams who don’t need to coordinate project scheduling with others. A better, more collaborative option is using a project scheduling software such as Runn.
Not only does it help you see which projects (and tasks) are in the pipeline but it also helps with capacity management and checking resource availability. On the whole, here’s how your project tasks look like in Runn:
This is one area where using project management software can speed things up. You'll be able to look at data from past projects to see how long historic projects or tasks took, to help make your estimates more accurate.
From here - equipped with the project start, end, and milestone dates - you can begin to create a provisional schedule and see how it all fits together. Fingers crossed it does! If not, there are techniques to help - see below.
FYI, the first schedule you complete is called your baseline. There’ll probably be revisions along the way.
Here’s more on how to create a project schedule in Runn.
Consider any possible risks and uncertainties that could impact the schedule. Incorporate a buffer into the schedule - and have a plan for managing issues as they arise (see techniques below).
Now you need to dive into your resource calendar and find suitable resources to perform each task.
To assign resources that fit your budget, schedule, and quality goals, you’ll need to search on factors like
Depending on your resource allocation processes, you might be able to allocate them directly or put in a resource request to your PMO.
Resource management software is going to make your life much easier here. If you're managing resources using Excel, you’ll know it’s hard to work out who’s available or if they have capacity. Good resource management software helps you search, find, and drag-and-drop resources into your timeline.
Next, you hop into whichever project management software you’re using to create your schedule visualization. If this is a Gantt chart (it usually is!) add start and end dates for each phase, milestone, and task. Add resource info here too if your tool allows it.
While this may seem simple, you need to be mindful of a few things:
And you’re done. You should now have a visual timeline that makes it easy to keep the project on track.
Congratulations! You’ve created your project schedule. But what now? It’s no good if you’ve just made something pretty to sit on your computer and never see the light of day.
A project schedule is a living reference document. It needs to be consulted - and revised if needed - throughout the project. Here’s what to do with it next.
Taking a dip into the do’s and don’ts of agile project scheduling is like looking at the weather forecast before booking a vacation — this is how you make sure your (project) money will be well-spent.
But apparently, not everyone looks into that ‘weather forecast’.
The PMI talked to 4,455 project management practitioners and found that in the past 12 months, only 52% of their projects finished within the initially scheduled times.
So, which of the project scheduling techniques are the most appropriate today for managing a project?
Here’s your essentials kit.
A schedule plan is not a project schedule. In project management, this schedule management plan (SMP) aims to help you get ready to create the actual project schedule chart later on.
In short, it is a document that usually explains how your project will be developed, monitored, and managed. Here you will need to mention the methodology of your preference as well as the project scheduling tools you will be using in order to potentially enhance your end result.
A reliable project scheduling example will always encourage you to select someone who will be in charge of your project schedule. This person will also need to be the bond keeping all the stakeholders together and making sure everyone stays on track with their part of the project.
There are lots of negatives you can avoid by finding the right person to take over the project schedule. The list includes but is not limited to flawed communication, misleading information, poor relationships among stakeholders, and a multitude of potential project delays which customers never receive well.
If you want to avoid double-bookings, burnouts, heavy workload, and resource clashes, it is crucial to make sure that the people you choose to include in your project schedule actually have the time to take on such a responsibility.
Proper workload management will always require you to have a bird’s eye view of everyone’s schedule and workload.
Here’s what it looks like at Runn: you get to see all of your resources and their availability prior to adding them to your project schedule and then give them tasks based on how many hours they still have free.
“Most projects continue to fail to meet their objectives. One of the reasons for such a high rate of project failures may be the way we manage, measure and monitor project performance and project success,” says Sameer Khan, Project Manager at HCL Technologies.
But what is success, really?
Do we rejoice upon a successfully completed task? Is it about a milestone reached at the right time? Is it about meeting the customer’s expectations or exceeding them?
Answers to these questions usually stem from the way your company defines project success. And having that definition in place will make it easier for all the stakeholders to align their efforts and agree on the way they should approach a project in the first place.
What usually makes project scheduling into quite a pickle is that it needs to be dynamic — dependencies might change, tasks might get delayed, resources might face availability issues — you name it.
This means that although a project schedule gets created prior to the project launch, it has to remain agile in case you need to make any adjustments.
With project scheduling software like Runn on the table, you can quickly schedule or reschedule your tasks and resources by clicking, dragging and dropping to allocate work.
Dependencies, especially if they go unmanaged, can make it or break it for a project.
They hold the power to kickstart the domino effect and cause one delay after another in your task delivery dates. This is especially relevant if you are working with a cross-functional team where one part of the project cannot start before the previous one gets completed.
For example, your marketing team will be unable to go public with software updates if the product team delays their delivery.
“Dependencies drive the project schedule. Once a task is linked, every change you make to the Predecessor affects the Successor, which affects the next one, and so on.” — says Igor Zdorovyak, Director of Projects at Immunovant.
When do you start and when will you finish?
This sounds clear and straightforward, but if you look at all of the factors you need to consider before deciding on those dates, there will be more questions than answers available.
And what if your priorities change and make a direct impact on that point B? Does that mean the project schedule has to get adjusted?
By all means.
But you can simplify this process and use the best project scheduling software to get real-time planning insights on your project. For example, you can use Runn's real-time charts and graphs to schedule allocations and edit schedules with the latest information on the project pipeline and capacity changes.
You know how they often say you always need to have a backup plan at the ready, a life jacket to keep you out of trouble?
In project scheduling templates, that life jacket is prioritization. Which is even more relevant if you have a portfolio of projects to manage.
When creating your project schedule, see if you can mark some of the items as high priority or low priority. That way, in case of unpredicted change, you will know exactly what to do in order to keep your project schedule on track.
Pen on paper might sound somewhat archaic to project managers but it’s the concept that counts.
Discussing your project schedule with the team members is not enough for it to actually steer the project. You need to solidify the critical path and visualize all of the time and resource-related decisions you have come to with the team.
In 2022, getting it to pen on paper means finding relevant free project scheduling software and visualizing every resource, milestone, task, and dependency in a chart.
Considering how unsteady projects tend to get, being ready for change, re-planning, and adapting in case of a force majeure is key. Tracking project progress will keep everyone up-to-date.
“Complexity adds risk. Schedules with many team and task interdependencies are hard to plan and manage. Picture a ballet versus a dance party. The planning, choreography, and practice required for a successful ballet is mind-boggling. Complex projects with unknowns and unpredictable interactions are inherently risky. Upfront planning efforts are unlikely to succeed. However, iterative planning practices reduce risk by incorporating feedback loops that allow for learning and adapting”, says Alan Zucker, Founding Principal at Project Management Essentials, LLC.
To wrap up, always remember:
“It is very important to understand that project management is not project scheduling; but project scheduling is merely a tool of project management” — says Russell Taylor, General Manager at Boggabri Coal Mine at Idemitsu Australia Pty Ltd.
Project schedule management, therefore, represents all the efforts you put into creating and maintaining a rock-solid project timeline with each resource, milestone, task, and dependency that will have an impact on your project.
Project scheduling is the art of managing project time, predicting potential delivery delays and accounting for them, and basically creating a time trajectory your project will need to follow to succeed.
As you might guess, there’s a wealth of software available that makes light work of project scheduling. You can do it in project management software - or resource management software like Runn.
Lots of tech says it is for resource scheduling but doesn’t really cut the mustard.
When it comes to project scheduling systems, you need something with a project planner and a people planner, so you can easily align the two in your project schedule.
Ideally, you want a platform that makes it easy to:
To simplify the process of creating project schedules, check this article evaluating the 9 best tools for project scheduling.
If you’d like to get hands-on with project scheduling tools immediately, try Runn for free for 14 days.
Here’s some of the cool stuff you can do:
Sometimes managing people is more difficult than managing projects. But taking into account human resource factors, you can succeed with both. Here are the most common ones.
A resource heatmap is often the quickest way to see who is available to work on a project. Create one today to optimize your resource planning process.