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Masooma Memon

Getting Started With Project Scheduling: 10 Ground Rules

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 crawling, 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 rules you need to follow.

What is project scheduling?

Project management scheduling is one of the building blocks of a successful project. 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.

Here’s step 1.

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. However, don't confuse it with project planning. Here's a distinction.

Project planning vs project scheduling

Project planning and scheduling are like night and day.

Scratch that.

They’re like night and…later that night. Literally.

Generally, a project starts with the initiation stage, which is followed by the project planning stage. During that planning stage, you will need to create a project plan. It includes estimating your resource availability, giving definition to your project requirements, making a project outline, setting a baseline, creating your project scope and only then — developing a project schedule.

In other words, the project scheduling process is a constituent part of project planning as a whole. It makes project planning complete and structured, gives room to deadlines, makes the project more realistic, and shows when you can deliver it and whether you can deliver it in a timely manner at all.  

But here’s another way to look at this.


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

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:

  1. Define the scope of the project: By outlining the goals, objectives, and deliverables of the project, project managers can ensure that everyone involved has a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished.
  2. Break down the work into smaller tasks: By creating a work breakdown structure (WBS), project managers can decompose the project into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be assigned to individual team members or resources.
  3. Assign tasks and resources: Project scheduling involves allocating tasks and resources to ensure that the project is completed on time and within budget.
  4. Monitor progress and make adjustments: By regularly reviewing and updating the schedule, project managers can monitor the progress of the project and make any necessary adjustments to keep the project on track.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders: A well-organized schedule can help project managers to communicate with stakeholders, such as clients, sponsors, and team members, about the status and progress of the project.

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.

Why project scheduling is important

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.

3 steps to creating a project schedule

These steps to drafting a timeline for your project start at the high level and move to map out the nitty-gritty tasks involved including their start and stop dates.

Follow along: 

Step 1: Identify the proposed project deadline

Begin with determining an end date for the project. This would depend on whether a client or stakeholder has shared a preferred turnaround time, or you are the one sharing a proposed end date.

In either case, you need a realistic estimate of how long the project would take so you can agree to a final date for the project. This information is helpful for setting tentative project schedules too. 

Step 2: Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

This involves creating a list of project deliverables and phases. Once you have those in place, create a list of tasks that would come under each phase and lead up to the desired deliverables.

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:

Here’s more on how to create a project schedule in Runn.

Lastly, for each project phase, add a milestone to make it easy to track project progress.

Step 3: Allot each task a start and stop date

While this may seem simple, you need to be mindful of a few things:

  • Always add buffer times to your project tasks. This is critical because the actual duration for each task typically varies from your estimate so it’s best to include some buffer time. Either add it on a task-by-task basis or factor it in as a whole to each project phase. 
  • Check resource availability as you create your schedule. Runn shows you your resources’ schedules including what tasks they already have on their work calendar and when they’d be on an off. This way, you can create a project plan that doesn’t lead to resource clashes or over utilization.

And you’re done. You should now have a visual timeline that makes it easy to keep the project on track.

10 rules for effective project scheduling

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.

Don’t neglect a schedule plan

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.

Always establish authority over the schedule

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.

Analyze workloads and required resources at the very beginning

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.

Talk to stakeholders to define “project success”

“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.

Automate the process

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.

Don’t forget to account for task dependencies

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.

Agree on point A and point B

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.

Determine your priorities

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.

Craft your project schedule pen on paper

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.

Always keep a vigilant eye on the project progress

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.

There’s no point in letting your project schedule take care of itself. You are the one who knows it best — its purpose, its methods, what it takes to achieve success. And you can use a well-crafted tool to save your own time as you set up each new project.

Book a demo with Runn to see how automated project scheduling can make your projects transparent, efficient, and successful.

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