Effective project schedule management is the difference between project heaven and project hell. It’s the practice of effectively listing project activities, deliverables and milestones. Good project schedule management dictates how you allocate resources in your team, assign budgets and spend, wrapping it up in an easily understood and actionable project timeline.
While often your project schedule will be based on a large number of estimates and assumptions, it’s the only tool you’ve got that will explain the progress of your project to your team, stakeholders and clients.
Scheduling is also the word of law in project management. But how do you make sure that your project schedule management is in check and able to deliver your promised outputs?
Here are some tips and tricks that will help you deliver project schedule management effectively, that will inspire confidence in your ability to effectively deliver as a project manager.
1. Understand Your Outcomes and Deliverables
You can’t plan a route before you know your destination. That’s why it’s fundamental that ahead of scheduling your project, you understand the deliverables and outcomes.
Engage with your client, stakeholders and team to work out exactly what needs to be delivered and how you will measure those achievements. You cannot even begin to create a high-level overview of the project until you know what you’re trying to achieve, so clearly define and explain each outcome in detail on a single page.
Once you have agreed exactly what your project aims to achieve and when the deadlines need to be met, you are ready to start scheduling your project.
2. Get the Work Breakdown Structure Right
After you’ve established your project’s deliverables and outcomes, use a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to drill into the project scope, to break down each one into manageable tasks.
Using this technique, you will be able to add extra layers of detail into your project deliverables and outcomes, helping you and your team better understand the tasks that will be required to deliver your project.
When developing your Work Breakdown Structure, don’t forget to consider which tools you’ll be using to track and schedule the project. It doesn’t matter what they are. Just make sure you’re comfortable using them.
Make sure that you do not overlook any of the deliverables.
It’s also important that you continue to drill down into the project until you are satisfied that you are at a level of detail that will allow you and your team to establish realistic estimates. These are estimates both on the cost of the work as well as the time and path to complete the work.
3. Break Down Activities Until They Are Manageable
Each activity in your project schedule must be understandable, and something that ideally can be completed with at most a week’s work.
If you are developing a new engine for a car manufacturer, giving someone the task of ‘developing the prototype engine’, will not cut it. When presented like this, the task is vague and open to interpretation. It will not help the project team understand what’s involved in the task, or help you as the project manager effectively review progress against the task.
Instead, in the case of developing a new engine, you could begin the task with ‘research new technologies’. Follow that with ‘review of the type of prototype you can deliver’. Then including tasks like ‘finalize initial concept designs’, ‘consult engineering experts’, etc.
Even simple projects need to be broken down into small segments. This could include a new customer drive for your sales staff. You could start with the development of a new pitch or strategy, or even have a timetable for the development of first stage new ideas for doing the task.
Remember, if you don’t understand what will be involved in completing the task, it’s too abstract and requires more a detailed explanation.
4. Don’t Commit To A High Level Schedule Until The Low Level Schedule Is Complete
When starting a project, it’s hard not to commit to final deadlines. However, you should never commit to your project plan’s high level schedule until you have fully considered and developed a low level schedule.
The difference between a high-level schedule and a low level schedule is simple. The former only includes key milestones, while the latter details every single task involved. If you only rely on the high level schedule, you will not fully understand what is involved when completing the task, so your estimated budget might be incorrect.
While it may seem easy to apply deadlines to tasks with just a high level schedule, doing so will have you over-promising and under-delivering.
You can share projected high level schedules when starting a project, just don’t agree to the contract until you’ve done some adequate due diligence.
5. Never Neglect Dependencies
When developing your project schedule, a quick way to do it is to write down all the tasks and responsibilities. However, this is a shortcut that will come back to haunt you.
Whatever your project, certain tasks will have dependencies. This specifically means tasks that need to be completed before other tasks can begin.
Say for instance you need your team to get out there and sell a new financial product to customers. They cannot start selling the product until you have a finalized version of what it is, otherwise, they’ll just be wasting their time.
Identify which tasks are dependent on other tasks. If it isn’t immediately clear, consider drilling down further into the activities involved with each task.
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6. Scrutinize Your Supplier’s Deliverables
When working on a large project, you will rely on suppliers. It’s normal and you will bring them in because they are experts in their field.
Just remember that these suppliers will have their schedules, which may or may not have been as rigorous as yours.
Make sure that you meet with your suppliers and review their project schedules. If you have any doubts about the clarity of their estimates, request an explanation and where necessary, ask them to review their schedules.
Remember, if your supplier doesn’t deliver on time, it will have a knock on effect on your own project schedule.
If you’re yet to sign a contract with them, considering adding punishment fees to the contract should their services be delivered late. Ultimately, when you miss a deadline because of a supplier, it’s you who will be blamed. So don’t let it happen.
7. Listen to the Experts
Project teams are full of experts. While you’re the project management expert, your team will have a better understanding of how long it will take to complete certain activities in the project schedule. More, they will know whether you’ve missed, or added too many steps for the delivery of a certain stage of the project.
Always ensuring that you consult your project team will help you clarify all aspects of the project schedule and manage it more effectively. There’s a chance that you may not have understood the requirements of a task, or even didn’t realize that your team will need an additional supplier to deliver on their project goals.
It might even be useful for you to bring in external project experts to provide advice on whether your project schedule is realistic or not. Expert opinion that corroborates your own estimates will help you build your confidence in you ability as a project manager, and your team’s confidence in the project.
8. Review And Update The Project Schedule Regularly
Projects are in the habit of evolving. While your final project schedule was meant to be final, it probably won’t be. Things change, people get promoted, and sometimes work is completed either quicker or slower than you initially expected.
That’s why it’s incredibly important that you regularly review both your high level project schedule and your detailed project schedule. This is easily achieved during Project Review meetings, so get them in your diary now.
A formal evaluation report is a great way to make sure you are actively reviewing the project schedule, so don’t forget to use one.
9. Never forget the Critical Path
Once you have a detailed project plan, it’s easy to forget the critical path. Don’t. Whenever you are reviewing detailed tasks and progress activities, always have a copy of the overall critical path at hand.
Considering the critical path will help you and your team realize whether you’ve missed something important, and empower to spot potential delays and obstacles early on. This gives you the advantage of warning your management or your client of problems well before the project spirals out of control.
10. Use Compress Schedule Techniques
However well you’ve managed your project, unfortunately sometimes you will need to shorten already tight schedules. When you are faced with this challenge, use schedule compression techniques.
These techniques include crashing and fast tracking. Crashing is the application of additional resources to an activity to make it happen quicker. Fast tracking is the process of executing tasks that would have previously happened one after the other, simultaneously.
Both techniques work when used in moderation, however it is important that you are careful when you use them. Reassigning resources can disrupt work on other aspects of your project timeline.
11. Use a Scheduling Tool
Spreadsheets are great, but they’re not always the most accessible or convenient ways to present information. Once you have established your project schedule, consider using a project management scheduling tool to assign and monitor tasks more effectively.
There are plenty of options available, of which many are free. This includes Monday, Hive, Workfront or even the more tried and tested Microsoft Project.
Before implementing a scheduling tool, ensure that you have consulted your project team. They need to be comfortable using it and understand why you are putting it in place. Although you may face some initial resistance, after a short period of time teams generally see the benefits and experience an uplift in productivity.
12. Review and Analyze Risks
Your project has risks. In practice most risks will affect your schedule. That’s why it’s important that you’re aware of them and keep a track of them throughout your project.
While developing your initial schedule, review the potential risks to the project and identify which risks could have an impact on it. Once you know what they are, put in place plans to mitigate the risks as they emerge.
13. Use Scheduling Diagrams
Don’t be afraid to get your Gantt on. Gantt Charts are a great way to help your team visualize your project schedule and understand how certain tasks feed into other tasks.
These charts are specifically designed as a visual way of showing the progression of tasks over time, and are a great way to highlight the work that is due on specific days.
Many project management tools have built in Gantt Chart generators, so you’ve got no excuse not to use them.
14. Remember What You’ve Learned
You’ve been involved in more than one project, haven’t you? Make sure you use your past expertise and skills to your advantage.
If you have worked on a similar project in the past, take a critical look at the initial project schedule and assess how the actual dates transpired. How late was it? Where did you overestimate? Where did you underestimate?
Use past efficiencies to your advantage to help you develop a new and improved project schedule based on past mistakes.
Take into account changes to resourcing and team capabilities. Perhaps your team has other pressures on it at the moment. It’s important that you recognize exactly what you can deliver now against what you were able to deliver last time.
15. Invite Scrutiny
Whatever the stage of your project schedule, it never hurts to invite in some external scrutiny. It could be someone from a different team in your company, a consultant, or even a peer that you respect.
Try not to be too protective of your project.
While everyone understands that it’s your project, you need to be able to take on board constructive criticism. Plans aren’t always right first time. More, it’s incredibly difficult to objectively review your own work.
Project management is difficult and scheduling is one of the most difficult aspects of the discipline.
If you’re having trouble, or just want to make your next project the best one you’ve ever delivered, make sure you take some time to really work out your project schedule.
Investing in scheduling is what will make your project scheduling management the best in the business.