January 27, 2022
General
Nicole Tiefensee

Newly Minted PM? Here's How to Create a Project Timeline

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.

What is a project timeline?

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 timeline example

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:

Planning

  • Assembling and acquiring resources
  • Creating a development plan
  • Creating a project management plan

Testing

  • Conducting testing
  • Performance validation
  • Monitoring
  • Feedback

Development

  • Prototype
  • Assessment
  • Second prototype
  • Confirmation
  • Development begins

Launch

  • Partnerships
  • Marketing and launch content
  • Publicity
  • Distribution
project timeline 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.

What are the benefits of a project timeline?

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...

  • Lays out the project plan going forward. At any point in the project, someone can look to the project timeline and understand both where it's at and the next steps. This includes being able to see the very next phase, know when that work will begin, and carry out any remaining project planning, such as confirming resources.
  • Keeps the overall objective in mind. In any project, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. A project timeline helps stakeholders to understand what it is they're all working towards.
  • Provides motivation. A team member that understands the complete picture of a project will be more motivated when working on a task, because they can see the benefit they're creating.
  • Aligns goals. A project timeline is a map that leads to a certain point. Anyone contributing to the project is therefore working towards that common goal.
  • Informs project stakeholders. A visual timeline shows internal and external stakeholders how a project will progress, then tracks that progress in real time. Keeping everyone in the loop builds trust and enables good communication processes.
  • Prevents delays. A project timeline helps to identify bottlenecks and determine dependencies in the process. Discovering these in advance helps to come up with a plan that minimizes the effect on progress.
  • Improves adaptability. Most projects don't play out exactly as planned. However, a good project timeline makes it easy to adapt to changes as they occur, and informs stakeholders in the process.

Types of project timelines

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.

Gantt chart

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.

gantt chart timeline

Historical timeline

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.

Vertical chart timeline

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.

types of project timelines

Milestone chart

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.

How to create a project timeline

Within the scope of creating a project timeline, there are five key questions.

  • What tasks need to be completed to deliver this project? Create a list of every task that will go into the project.
  • How long will each task takes? The duration of each task ultimately informs how long it will take to complete the project.
  • When is each task due to be completed? Deadlines for individual tasks can come from the overall project deadline.
  • What task dependencies are there? A task dependency is any piece of work that needs to be completed before that task can begin. Some tasks may be able to overlap, but it's important to spend time determining dependencies in the planning process in order to understand when work on each task can start.
  • What resources are available? In particular, the number of employees that are working on a project and the skills/expertise they have will influence how quickly the work will progress.

All of these questions combine to create an achievable project timeline.

Using Runn project timeline software

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.

How to create a project timeline using Runn

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.

Step 1: Figure out the scope of the project

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.

Step 2: Create project milestones

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.

project timeline milestones

Within Runn, there are five different types of milestones.

  1. Financial deadlines. i.e. When payments are due or invoices are sent.
  2. Warnings. i.e. When it's time for scheduled maintenance, or a proportion of the project budget has been spent.
  3. Commencement milestones. i.e. The start of a new phase within a project.
  4. Completion milestones. i.e. At the end of a phase of the project, or the end of the project itself.
  5. Flagged milestones. i.e. Key events or deliverables, such as budget being approved or sponsorship being secured.

Step 3: Split the project into phases

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.

Step 4: Book resources

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.

6 tips for making an effective project timeline

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:

1. Assess resource availability

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.

2. Identify and define task dependencies

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.

3. Study past projects and the time it took to complete them

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.

4. Build in buffer time in your timeline

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.

5. Get regular input from your team

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.

6. Train your team in time management

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.

Get up and Running

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!

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