Creating a Workback Schedule - A Quick Guide

So you've been handed a project, but the only requirement is the due date? A workback schedule can help you flesh out the details.
Steven Male

What do project managers do when they have a fixed project deadline, and don't know where to start? Create a workback schedule!

But what is a workback schedule? Why is it important? Let's take a look!

What is a workback schedule?

In contrast to traditional project scheduling techniques, a workback schedule is a tool that maps out a project's timeline in reverse order, that is from the delivery date to the start date. You should reverse engineer a project's schedule if the only thing you've been given as a requirement is the project's due date.

In simple terms, a workback schedule is calendar that clearly outlines all the tasks required to meet a project deadline by identifying task completion from end to beginning rather than from beginning to end. A workback schedule is also known as a reverse timeline. It helps you find answers to questions such as:

  • What is the start date of the project?
  • What tasks do I still need to assign?
  • Is anyone over- or under-utilized?
  • How much time does this project have left until it must be completed?

Project managers use a workback schedule by dividing time into specific blocks. Each block has been built on the blocks that have preceded it. This approach is especially helpful for projects in large organizations, where the ability to accurately estimate project completion times is vital in order to meet project targets. It also clearly communicates to everyone how much time is remaining before the due date.

New to project scheduling? Find the answers here:

A workback schedule example

Suppose you are a wedding planner and you have been tasked with planning a wedding for 100 guests within 5 months. You know that the delivery date will not change and so you need a workback strategy to ensure you tick all the milestones that lead to the wedding.

You have to ensure you meet with the bride and groom on a certain date to plan the theme of the wedding, plan when to order the cake, meet with florists, buy the gown and tuxedo, print invitations, choose the venue, and the many other things that add up to making the wedding a success.

You will probably start by identifying what can't be done until the last minute and then work back, identifying tasks that can be done earlier.

As items on the to-do list start to be ticked off, they are always framed and influenced by the end date, as that will not change.

Why workback schedules are important

The workback schedule is especially useful for complex projects with many moving parts where you want to ensure that each task gets the appropriate attention at the right time.

There are four main reasons why these are important:

They help with time management

Workback schedules provide an overall view of a project's timeline and the tasks required to complete it. This visual aid can make it easier to identify problems and make adjustments as needed. There will also be better communication between team members as you can see who is doing what task when. Workback schedules keep everyone accountable as there will be no time for slip-ups that lead to overrun.

They help with resource planning

They highlight the completion of specific milestones within the project and allocate resources for ongoing projects. For example, a PM can assign tasks to the right person at the right time as they can see they will be free on a particular date.

They help to identify unrealistic completion dates

By using workback schedules, it can become apparent when the time allocation for specific tasks is unrealistic. A workback calendar can be used to demonstrate to the stakeholders how feasible the timeline is, or if extra resources will be needed to meet the completion date.

They help create milestones

Creating a workback schedule allows you to visualize your project and deadlines in an actionable way. Unlike linear timelines, which focus on the end goal, workback schedules help you break down your project into individual tasks and milestones so you can plan and complete them effectively. Detailed workback schedules bring reassurance that nothing has been overlooked.

A workback schedule will allow you to plan out all of your tasks in advance. It will allow you to focus on one part of your project at a time, which improves productivity and reduces stress levels by eliminating distractions from other parts of your project.

These milestones help you:

  • Know exactly what tasks need to be completed
  • Know when certain tasks should be completed
  • Know how to manage resources
  • Set realistic expectations with stakeholders
  • Get things done faster without unnecessary stress or overtime costs.

When to use a workback schedule

You are more likely to use a workback schedule if you have a project that has a fixed end date regardless of the resources needed. This means that you will start with the last task on the last day. You will allocate your resources in reverse which will help you determine which dates you will need specific resources.

Reverse resource allocation also means that you will schedule specific experts for your project. For example, if you are creating a technical product and you know that only one person in your company has the specific expertise, you will schedule this person to work on this task on a specific date. You will also have to assign projects from this date backward to ensure everything is in place so that you can use this resource at the correct time.

Challenges associated with workback schedules

The biggest challenge PMs face when using a workback schedule is the fact that the deadline cannot be extended by any circumstances You can either start the project earlier or bring in more resources. Equally, there is no way to account for unforeseen issues, delays, or problems. Although the workback schedule will help organize the work and can be used to track progress, it is still a manual process. As such, it is challenging to manage or deal with unexpected events.

To add, most project managers are in charge of multiple projects simultaneously, and they need to quickly shift focus from one task to another. It can be difficult to keep up with changes, especially if a different person on the team makes those changes without prior consultation.

It’s also important to consider how long tasks will take you and your team members to do. If you’re off on your estimates, you will have to go back and edit your schedule again and again until you get it right.

Another challenge is trying to schedule all tasks and projects to be completed by a specific due date when you are facing time constraints. If you feel your team won't be able to meet the deadlines, have an honest conversation with your client to modify the project to meet the due date.

There are some ways of dealing with the downside of workback scheduling. One option is to use a project management tool like Runn that can automate some of the work so that you don't have to manually update everything all at once.

How to create workback schedules

To create your own workback schedule you have to:

  • Define your goal and get buy-in from stakeholders
  • Create an outline with action items that need to happen in order to achieve your goal
  • Identify key milestones for each action item: these are deadlines for actions that have multiple steps
  • Estimate how long each milestone will take (you can use the MoSCoW methodology)
  • In reverse chronological order, put all milestones into your management software or planner

Here are the steps you should follow to create workback schedules:

1. Work out the hard deadline or delivery date

Arrange any deliverables, due dates, and teams in order and estimate how long it will take to meet any deadlines. You will need to plan with your team members and communicate with your clients and other relevant parties to determine the appropriate due dates.

You can streamline production by coordinating milestone delivery dates to the same workday each week.

2. Estimate how long each phase of the project's life cycle will take

This is where you get into the specific details of the project plan. For an important project, it's a good rule to run at least two different versions of this to start with, such as a best-case and worst-case scenario.

If you are unsure about how long a particular task will take, or where it should feature in your reverse timeline, seek advice from colleagues who may be able to give you a clearer idea of the time tasks will take, and what the tasks nearer the deadline need to have in place before they can be undertaken.

3. Consider available resources

When planning a workback calendar or any other project, you should know the scope and resources available at your company, to properly give tasks to team members. You also need to plan for project uncertainties by reassigning projects or shifting resources from other projects. Consider whether you need to recruit additional resources to help meet a proposed deadline.

As you assign tasks, take into account days off such as holidays or sickness absence that might affect project deliverables. Don't forget time off for specific events like religious holidays or parental leave. Keeping aware of what is going on for your team members will help you to correctly factor in the number of days the team will actually be working.

4. Match resources to phases

For effective backward scheduling, you need to match resources to phases by ensuring the correct people or teams are working on a particular task. Resources such as transportation, money, and many other factors should match the milestones set.

5. Set your project start date

Creating a project's start date in reverse order using project management tools will help ensure that you allocate enough time so that you can have a successful project deliverable. This will help you and your team streamline operations and coordinate plans to improve operations.

One of the best and easy ways to create a workback schedule is using a resource management tool. Runn offers an effective project planning software that will help you create custom templates and timelines that will save you time during the initial project planning phase.

6. Experiment with different workback schedules

Since a workback schedule means spreading out and allocating resources, you may need to experiment with different workback schedules to see which one fits the project. Your first draft should not be your last draft - you may need a trial period to find a perfect schedule.

Modern scheduling tools make it easy for PMs to create different mock-ups. After creating a workback schedule, ask for input from team members and stakeholders and modify it as needed.

When you share the project schedule, stay organized and ask for specific feedback and ideas. Make sure everyone has a deadline for feedback, so the final schedule can be agreed upon and circulated without any hitches.

Final thoughts

Workback schedules help PMs keep track of what their teams are working on and how far along they are in tasks. The workback schedule is a way of organizing all the work in a project's life cycle, breaking down each task, and estimating how long each task will take. Projects can be very complicated, with many moving parts, and workback schedules are a powerful tool to keep everything organized and visible and ensure completion by the due date.

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