Developing a project schedule is one of the preliminary and most important aspects of project management. Getting on with work and thinking that you will worry about a project schedule afterward is a common temptation that can lead to regrettable consequences. It may halt a project, cause it to fail, or result in a plethora of mistakes that might be very costly to rectify.
So the need to develop a schedule when assigned a project cannot be overemphasized. Successful projects always begin with the creation of a solid and logical schedule. The building block of a sound schedule is a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS constitutes a hierarchical outline of a project and divides it into smaller, manageable tasks. A project schedule outlines these tasks, when they should be done, milestones, task dependencies and precursors, including other related activities and events.
In essence, a project schedule conveys what should be done to finish the project and when it should happen. It provides clear perspectives of tasks and activities, who will perform them, the resources needed, and specific timeframes. This ways, it offers evidence of whether the project is running late or as expected. Additionally, it helps project managers to know what tasks have already been done and the sequence of undone work.
The process of coming up with a schedule is not straightforward because it involves making predictions and estimations. However, this process can be less tasking if you follow a practical and sound approach.
Here are 8 steps for creating a project schedule that drives project success.
1. Define Project Activities
Defining activities is a further breakdown of tasks outlined in the WBS. At this point, project managers and planners should document specific activities required to accomplish the deliverables and tasks detailed in the WBS. The activities being defined at this stage are not deliverables themselves; rather, they are individual portions of work to be done to realize the deliverables.
During the definition phase, project managers should utilize everything they know concerning the project to create activities. Sometimes, lessons learned from previous or similar projects can offer ideas of what needs to be defined regarding the current project. Moreover, the expert judgment of project team members involved in creating the WBS can be very helpful when defining project activities. If you have been assigned a project in a completely new domain, seek the experts in that field to assist in defining tasks. In doing so, you get to understand activities linked to every task.
In some cases, you may begin a project without knowing much about what will be done afterwards. For example, you may only be having clarity for the three-month period of a project that is due in six months. In such situations, you should use rolling-wave planning. This is a technique that encompasses progressive elaboration as a project unfolds. It permits current and short-term deliverables to be completed while planning for future tasks and activities. Rolling-wave planning is particularly applied when the information required to plan for future activities is dependent on successful completion of preceding phases.
2. Define Milestones
A milestone shows a desired, important achievement in a project lifecycle. It indicates what should be achieved at a specified date. Milestones are defined with the aim of describing the desired future or state of affairs. Notably, a milestone has zero duration because it is not a task; rather, it is a checkpoint that represents an anticipated achievement. Project managers use milestones to know how a project is progressing, especially when working in an unfamiliar field.
Milestones should be used in planning all projects, whether large or small, to indicate the start or conclusion of important phases of work. Although different projects differ based on their specifics, many of their significant phases are similar. Having different checkpoints during planning, implementation, and testing stages help to know whether a project is on course. Without milestones, you may not know whether you will complete the project on time until when it’s too late.
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One of the simple ways to define milestones is to identify the ends of project phases. Each of these ends constitutes a natural milestone that can be used as a checkpoint for tracking a project. For instance, a software development project has various stages including planning, design, development, and testing. In this case, each of these stages represents a significant point (milestone) that can be used to assess the progress of the project. Also, project milestones can be defined by identifying tasks that must be completed in order to start new phases.
3. Calculate Realistic Project Timeframes
Have you ever fulfilled project tasks whose deadlines were way too tight? Chances are that planners underestimated the work needed to complete them. Project planners underestimate the time needed to accomplish project activities, particularly when they are unfamiliar with the amount of work to be done. Miscalculation of tasks duration is likely to have severe consequences in project implementation.
This emphasizes the importance of calculating realistic timeframes if project success is desired. The ability to do accurate estimations is an essential skill in project management. Without it, a project manager would not just fail to determine the duration of a project, but would also lack the commitment of the client supposed to sign off on the project. To be successful in your career as a project manager, you need to master the art of negotiating achievable deadlines and sensible budgets. This is because time and budget are among the key aspects that sponsors usually consider when determining project success or failure.
There are four steps that can help you make precise time estimations.
Firstly, understand the amount of work to be accomplished in the entire project. The work breakdown structure is one of the tools that you can utilize to obtain sufficient details about all that is required. Secondly, make a list of all the project activities following the order in which they should happen.
Thirdly, decide the people to involve in coming up with project timeframes. These should include individuals who will be involved in the actual work because they may have prior experience that can be drawn upon. Moreover, they are likely to own the time estimates they propose and will be determined to meet them. Lastly, come up with time estimates for every activity. There are different approaches, including bottom-up estimating and top-down estimating, that you can employ to calculate project timelines. Once you estimate the time required to carry out every task, add those estimates to the activity list developed in the second step, above.
4. Add Buffers
A buffer, in project management, can be qualitative, financial, or temporal in nature and offers project managers with leeway for addressing unplanned and unforeseen happenings. This means extra resources such as people, money, or time are reserved for challenging project phases. Buffers may be assigned to individual tasks or the entire project. To protect project duration and increase the chances of meeting the deadline, various buffers are used including project and task buffers.
A project buffer consists of the extra time inserted at the end of a project to safeguard its completion date. Specifically, it is added between the project deadline and last activity. This way, any delays consume the buffer without altering the project deadline. This buffer is usually managed by a project manager. On the other hand, a task buffer refers to the extra time allocated to individual tasks.
For example, a new fixture may take three days to design. However, the engineer responsible reports four days, thereby including a buffer of one hour to cope with any complexity or uncertainty. While a project manager may want to consolidate all buffers, some team members may want to manage their buffers so as not to appear late on delivering their tasks.
The size of buffers indicates the level of uncertainty among a project manager and the project team members. There are various buffer size calculation methods, including the Cut and Paste, The Root Square, and Min’s Fuzzy approach, that project managers and planners can utilize to come up with realistic buffer sizes.
5. Create A Gantt Chart
A Gantt chart is a popular tool in project management that provides a visual view of the links between project tasks. It offers a great way to show the work to be done on a specified time. Gantt charts help project managers to identify interdependencies among tasks, particularly when some tasks rely on the completion of others. Additionally, they are used to indicate resources, constraints, progress, and other project scheduling aspects.
Creating a Gantt chart can help to increase efficiency and productivity while ensuring tasks are finished on time. Although the chart can be drawn on a paper, Gantt charts created using Excel or project scheduling software is easier to set up and manage. Moreover, Gantt chart software helps to save time and minimize the possibility of missing important details.
To create a detailed Gantt chart for your planned project, identify all the essential tasks. Alongside this, list important things that should be accomplished and projected duration for each. Then, determine associations between different tasks. Following this, input all tasks in your spread sheet or software in their order of timeline. Essentially, your chart should have a task that indicates the beginning of the project and another that signal its completion. All the other tasks should fit within these two tasks. Once this is done, assign resources and timelines to those tasks. If you are utilizing software, it should automatically generate a visual chart of your project.
6. Cover The Entire Project Scope
To cover the project in its entirety, you should consider every the client expects. The scope statement is fundamental in provident an in-depth understanding of what needs to be done to fulfill the customer’s needs. As an efficient project manager, you should create a list of activities required to deliver the scope.
Then, understand the order of tasks and activities. While some managers may choose to begin with the hardest tasks, the nature of a project mainly dictates the order of different tasks. In addition, figure out the tasks and activities that can be done in parallel. This includes determining activities that depend on the completion of others and recording those dependencies. This will not just save on project time but will also guarantee maximum utilization of project resources.
7. Allocate Tasks to Team Members
The process of allocating tasks to different individuals begins with matching their skill-sets to project work. As a project manager, you should find out whether your team has previously done similar work. Determine whether they have skills that would be very useful in particular stages of the project. After determining these, allocate each task to the most suited individual.
It is important to ascertain that no one is overstretched and at the same time nobody should sit around with nothing to do. If it’s needful, you should reorganize certain activities to ensure that everyone is assigned work based on their availability. Similarly, an efficient planner needs to consider the availability of different resources to avoid allocation of tasks when related resources are unavailable.
After assigning tasks to the project team, always review your schedule to identify conflicts and ensure an even distribution of work across team members.
8. Check The Project Schedule For Errors
The project scheduling process is integral to the success of any project. Whether you are using defining milestones, timelines, or using Gantt charts, mistakes may occur. However, the errors that stem from the scheduling process are entirely avoidable. Before the project schedule is used, it should be checked thoroughly to identify and rectify any faults.
Some common errors during scheduling include poor task estimates, failing to determine project milestones, having unlinked or orphaned tasks, and failing to consider public holidays. Even after the schedule is implemented, it should be reviewed progressively to correct other errors such as unequal distribution of work. By identifying and rectifying errors, you promote project success.
Developing a realistic and logical project schedule is worthwhile because it is a significant factor in project success. An all-inclusive project schedule outlines tasks to be completed, order of task execution, specific durations, and individuals to be involved in the project. By assimilating the above steps, you will be equipped to develop schedules that guarantee the success of your projects.