How to build a project planning timeline in 6 steps

Every manager wants to start a project on the right foot. When you think through the project planning stages carefully, crystallize the plan onscreen, and share it with all of your collaborators, the likelihood the project will succeed increases.

One of the best tools to use in project planning is a timeline. Most people absorb information better in visual format than in text — in fact, humans process images 60,000 times faster than text. Forget about long-winded documents that no one wants to read. A project planning timeline works because it contains a lot of important information but is visual and easy to digest.

When you create a timeline with project management software, the timeline is transparent and dynamic, so project team members can collaborate on a task in any stage of the timeline with a few clicks.

Let’s explore the steps to creating a workable, accessible project planning timeline.

1.Outline the project scope

A timeline must begin with a broad statement of the project and its scope. This statement should be brief yet detailed enough to create solid context.

Here’s an example: “The project is to produce a client conference for 150 people to be held on July 20 at The Breakers Hotel. The conference will include drinks, a workshop, and a sit-down lunch, and will end with a mingling networking session.”

Include the broad details, such as the type of project (i.e., holding an event, installing a new system, producing a catalog), the size of the project, the due date, and even the total allotted budget, if known.

2.Break down the project into smaller tasks

Now is the time to separate the larger project into smaller parts. Each part should be a specific task. You can break a specific task into subtasks if necessary, especially if they involve several people with different responsibilities.

Let’s say the project is the production of an e-book. While the writer is responsible for writing the e-book, the research assistant will provide the background data.

You can define writing the e-book as one task with two owners/collaborators — the writer and researcher — or two separate tasks assigned separately to each (task 1: researching, task 2: writing). Both are logical. It’s simply a matter of making sure what you do fits your company setup and resources.

3.Define what each task involves

After you break the project into smaller parts, the next step is to take a closer look at each task and consider what resources you’ll need to get it done. This involves asking a lot of questions.

Start with staffing. Who has the skills to take on the task at hand? Will you need to outsource?

Next, take a look at what equipment you need. This can include everything from office supplies, new software, short-term equipment rental, and perhaps even flights and accommodations if the project involves travel.

Then, consider the costs. How much does each task require in terms of budget? Are there areas that you can reduce or cut entirely? Where is the budget likely to need extra padding?

Last, how much time will each task take to complete? Will it take one week or two to choose a caterer? How long will the e-book design process take?

The answers to these questions and more will help you properly sketch the resources required for every task and subtask.

4.Develop a workflow

You’ve figured out all the tasks and the resources each one requires. Now it’s time to consolidate all that information into a chronological time frame.

Start by pinpointing the order in which tasks need to be completed. This is known as identifying “dependencies.” Certain tasks can only start after others are complete. For instance, a menu can’t be finalized until someone confirms the caterer and pays the deposit. Design assets must be ready before you can schedule a social media ad.

Setting an order for the project tasks can get complicated. There are lots of things to consider besides dependencies. Other project team member commitments, the availability of meeting rooms, and payment schedules to suppliers are all examples of the many threads that you must weave into the project planning timeline.

5.Enter the timeline into project management software

It’s time to create a version of the project timeline that all collaborators can access, view, edit, and share. Many companies use spreadsheet programs like Excel or Google Sheets to create a project timeline, but these programs don’t have any of the special functions and features that come with project management software.

Project management software includes things like task builders, task assignment capabilities, task completion markers, collaborator boards, chat and messaging tools, and many other features designed specifically for running a project. When using project software to create a project planning timeline, you can integrate these features to make the timeline far more interactive and effective for all team members.

6.Share the timeline and get feedback

Share the timeline with the team stakeholders and collaborators to make sure all details are correct. Identify any overlaps or gaps in the schedule. Make sure that the dates are logical and workable. Double-check that you’ve assigned tasks to the right people.

Team members should be responsible for approving the parts of the timeline that they own. Remember, though, a project timeline is highly collaborative and integrated. Encourage the team to look the whole timeline over from beginning to end and ensure that the parts work well together.

Project planning timeline — it’s not a matter of size

For large, complex projects, getting everyone on board can be tricky, and having a centralized project timeline helps focus the team. But a project planning timeline can work well with smaller projects, too. Whether there are two collaborators or 20, a great project planning timeline works as a focus point, keeping everyone aligned and in agreement on how to do the project right — every step of the way.

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