Whether you’re a new or seasoned project manager, creating a project timeline can be an exciting yet daunting task. This blog post will walk you through the basics of what a project timeline is and how to build it.
A project timeline is just about the most useful thing any project manager can have. It helps to create a project plan that you can stick to, both in terms of time and budget.
It also doubles as a project management tool, enabling stakeholders to monitor project progress as it unfolds and keep things on track. This article is the ultimate guide for how to create a project timeline simply and easily.
Complex projects have a lot of moving parts that can be hard to keep track of. They require a lot of planning to understand everything that needs to happen in order to deliver an outstanding end result.
Simply put, a project timeline is a plan to deliver that result. It lays out all the required tasks and how long they will take, and it becomes the roadmap that should be followed in order to achieve the overall objective.
Every project timeline is more or less a visual, descriptive summary of a project's schedule in terms of effort and time. It is created using scheduling software but anyone can use it–it’s simple! Project timelines describe the start and stop dates for tasks, the cost of individual activities, and the resulting deadlines for accomplishing the overall project objective on time.
But it's more than just that. It includes details of key milestones, dates, tasks, resources that are required and more. It should also take resource availability into account. There are many factors that go into making a successful project timeline that helps with both planning and tracking a project.
A project management timeline can be used to plan, monitor, track and assess all manner of projects. One helpful example is in the field of new product development.
In developing a new product, there are a range of specific phases; including planning, testing, developing and the launch. Within those phases, there are different tasks or assignments that need to be built out. Consider this protracted example:
Even in this abbreviated task list, you can see how creating project timelines helps to build out processes for achieving project goals. As well as that, it can be used to inform budgeting and deadlines with a greater understanding of everything that goes into delivering the final result.
For project managers, a project timeline informs all your planning for the entire project. It maps out all the steps that are involved in delivering the final result and helps to keep things on track.
But those aren't the only benefits. Your project timeline...
There are three main types of project timelines. The nature of your project will influence the best type of project timeline for you. The best project managers understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type, and can recognize when and how to use them.
A Gantt chart is perhaps the most popular type of project timeline. It displays all the different tasks and activities that make up the entire project and shows when each activity begins and ends. It also illustrates where there's space for overlapping tasks
A Gantt chart can also include details of different tasks, including individuals that are assigned to them, and the resources that are required. In this sense, a Gantt chart is a highly useful tool for all project managers.
A historical timeline is a list of all of the tasks that make up an entire project, laid out in chronological order. It's relatively simplistic in that it can be used to work through these tasks in order.
Historical timelines are best used when there are a lot of task dependencies; that is, tasks cannot begin until previous tasks have been completed.
A Vertical Chart timeline includes details of the incremental benefit gained as different tasks are completed. They're often used in projects that measure key data metrics, such as in finance, marketing or sales.
For example, consider a marketing department conducting a campaign aimed at increasing website traffic. A Vertical Chart timeline illustrates not only the overall project timeline, but the impact each task has on website numbers. It may also map website traffic each week, or month, to provide feedback on the effectiveness of activity within a certain timeframe.
This helps to recognize which project elements are most influential towards achieving the project goals. At the same time, it helps to identify tasks that didn't have as much impact as expected. This can be a valuable learning for future projects, or a chance to go back and do things differently.
Milestone charts are used in project management to make sure that the project is moving along according to plan. They take the form of a timeline divided into phases, and they help to identify when a specific task will be completed or when a certain deliverable will be met. Milestone charts can be useful for identifying where a project is falling behind schedule, and for planning ahead in case there is an emergency or an unexpected setback.
Within the scope of creating a project timeline, there are five key questions.
All of these questions combine to create an achievable project timeline.
Project timeline software takes a lot of the pain away from what can otherwise be a drawn out process. Creating a project timeline manually is time-consuming and error prone, even with a good Excel project timeline template.
However, using Runn makes it easy. Runn is intuitive and automated, syncing different reports and metrics in real time to give project managers and other stakeholders greater control over project planning and better visibility as it unfolds.
Users get both a high level overview of a project and the ability to drill down into the different phases and assignments within each piece of work. In organizations with many different projects underway at any given time, this helps to allocate resources efficiently, plan effectively and keep all internal and external stakeholders informed.
It also means business leaders and project managers don't get overloaded - the important insights are made clear on the main project dashboard, and it's still easy to go into specific details if need be.
Runn's project planner overview is a handy visual reference point, especially for project managers or business leaders with multiple projects on at a given time. It includes details of how to use Runn to create projects timelines, including the following steps.
Projects are defined by their scope. That includes goals, deadlines and deliverables that clarify what the project is, what goes into it and what it should achieve. All of this key information comes together in a document that can be shared with relevant parties.
Understanding the scope of a project is important because it identifies what success looks like and allows project managers to create a plan that delivers that success. It also prevents scope creep, where projects become bigger than intended.
Defining the scope of a project should be a collaborative process that includes a range of relevant stakeholders, including those who will be working on key elements of the project itself.
Project milestones are markers of key moments throughout the project. They're extremely effective for tracking and showcasing progress. They can also serve as reminders, for example when you've used half your budget, or you're half way through the project planning timeline.
Within Runn, there are five different types of milestones.
Project phases divide the project into smaller sections, making it easier to group similar tasks together. They can run concurrently or one at a time, and when they're completed, often signal a project milestone or key deliverable.
Phases may be further split into assignments if need be - see below. The benefit of having phases is they create a simple visual overview of the different components that contribute to the project. They make it easier to track project progress, and you can track metrics for each phase such as total hours, revenue, people cost and gross margin.
Resource availability will have a key bearing on your project management timeline, so it's important to use it as a metric to inform end dates and expectations. For example, if a certain staff member with particular skills needs to perform a crucial task, that staff member's availability will impact the project timeline. If they have planned upcoming leave, that will plainly impact their ability to contribute to the project.
It helps to create a list of all the necessary elements and resources that each phase or assignment require. Generic resources are often fairly available, but it's worth paying close attention to scarce or in-demand resources.
Assignments can be attributed to individuals who are responsible for completing or managing them. They can also be classified as No Phase, if they're not related to one specific phase or a project.
An effective timeline is an accurate one — one that you and your team can stick with.
Chances are you won’t be able to get it right in the first go. You’d probably estimate getting more done in less time. And it’s not your fault - it’s a mistake we commonly make, thanks to project fallacy, our tendency to underestimate the time that goes into completing tasks.
This doesn’t mean you can’t create a realistic, accurate project timeline. It just means that it can take you a few rounds of project planning before you nail creating effective timelines.
So, don’t give up. Use these tips to fast-track your odds of creating a successful project timeline:
As you plan timelines for projects, always consider the project team’s availability.
If you’re a Runn user, you can see a complete inventory of your employees’ availability including the work that’s already on their plate and when they’re booked on vacation. Runn also shows you each staff members’ skills. This way, you can choose the most relevant people for a new project.
Make sure you highlight which project tasks and phases are dependent on other internal, project-related, or external factors.
Also, figure out how you plan to work around these dependencies. This helps you save your project roadmap from hindrances and delays that occur due to dependencies.
Effective project timelines are born out of learning by iterating.
After you complete each project, go back to review how well tasks were completed according to the timeline. Did the team need extra time? If so, how much additional time did they need?
This information helps you understand how much more time to include in your project timeline for similar projects.
Always remember to add some extra time to your project roadmap for dealing with unexpected project delays. This is key to meeting your deadlines and boosting client satisfaction levels.
Instead of assuming employees will take X hours to complete their tasks, ask them.
Get the project team together and ask them to share their input on the time they’d realistically need to complete tasks.
But to ensure they’re offering as accurate estimates as possible, ask your staff to track their time completing similar tasks. This way, they can better understand how much time it actually takes them to complete the work.
And, finally, to win at sticking with your project timelines, it’s essential you train your team in time management.
You don’t even have to start off by bringing in time management experts. Instead, ask a team member who is always meeting their deadlines to give workshops to their peers.
It also helps to educate your team on some golden principles of managing their time. For example, eating the frog, and identifying their most productive hours so staff can schedule heavy lifting work during those times.
What’s more, consider creating a deep work environment for employees by limiting meetings or bundling them to 1-2 days in the week.
For a personalised, more in depth look inside Runn project timelines, book a free demo. You'll learn more about how using Runn as your project management tool can benefit you.
Runn is also available on a 14 day free trial with no credit card required. Get started today!
Learn how to use Runn's API to sync time entries from your preferred time tracking solution. Follow our example using Toggl Track for step-by-step instructions.
What fixed-price projects are, what to watch out for when managing one, how they compare to time and materials projects, and how Runn helps with cost, budget and schedule control of fixed-price projects.