Your project timeline is the most vital tool to manage any project successfully. It tells you which tasks are complete and outstanding, and who owns them.
It often includes information about cost and anticipated timeframes, as well.
Also known as a project schedule, a good project timeline is in-depth but easy to interpret. It encourages teamwork without removing accountability. And it streamlines a project manager’s duties without oversimplifying them.
In this article, we will look at:
- What is a project timeline (and what it is not)
- How to create a project timeline in 10 practical steps
- A working example of how to create a project timeline
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What is a project timeline?
Let’s begin by defining the main deliverables of any project: project plans, work breakdown structures (WBS), and project timelines.
These are often confused. In fact, they are unique entities, each with their own purpose to enable project success. They also happen to be dependent on each other.
Project plan vs. work breakdown structure vs. project timeline
The project plan is a formal outline of the project goals, stakeholders, scope, responsibilities, and schedule.
That sounds like everything, right?
Well, as you will discover in this article, each of the elements mentioned is substantive. You must break many of them down further into subtasks that may not be relevant to all stakeholders.
Instead, the project plan is a single document for key project figures to refer to when they need the essential overview.
From the project plan, project managers can produce the work breakdown structure (WBS). This is a hierarchical representation of the tasks that teams must complete throughout the project lifecycle. The WBS does not detail how the tasks are completed; just that they are essential for successful project delivery.
Looking to create your own WBS?
Now that you understand the crucial components required to deliver a project successfully, and why a project timeline is useful, it is time to create it.
10 steps to create a project timeline
1. Write and approve a project plan
Project plans can be basic or detailed, but you should have one, no matter what. It forces you to ask essential questions, the answers to which will help you to plan the timeline and mitigate risk.
To complete your project plan, you should sit down with any essential stakeholders to answer the “who, what, why, when, and how” questions. For example:
- …will gain from the project outcome?
- …are the key stakeholders?
- …else wants the project to succeed?
- …will the outcome look like?
- …is included in the project? What is not?
- …is the budget?
- …expertise do you need to ensure success?
- …happens if the project is delayed/canceled?
- …other projects can your business complete at the same time?
- …is the deliverable necessary?
- …complete the project now?
- …does the deliverable need to be ready, and is this date flexible or fixed?
- …will the deliverable benefit the business/employees/customers?
Depending on your industry and project, you may have other questions to include here. And you may want to implement project estimation techniques to predict your resources, costs, and timeline with greater accuracy.
The main reason to ask these questions is not only to secure stakeholder approval. You also achieve the following early on in the project lifecycle:
- Attainable goals
Learning that the project goals are unrealistic or impossible later is a waste of resources.
- Project scope
By understanding a project’s goals and budget, you can mitigate against scope creep. This is when gradual changes alter a project’s outcome from its original vision.
- Ensure key project leaders, including you, understand why the project is desirable
By understanding the benefits and objectives of a project, you are better equipped to answer questions and make decisions.
Also, you will inspire confidence in your teams if you can show that you comprehend the project well.
It is crucial to secure approval for the project plan and publish it for everyone to see.
This does not mean you cannot revise the document later. But it serves as a reference point for everyone to understand the objectives.
In other words, it means everyone is on the same page!
2. Generate a work breakdown structure
It is time to identify the smaller deliverables. This is your work breakdown structure. Do not worry about how long these tasks will take or how they relate to others around them. Just write them down.
3. Create specific project tasks
Then, go even further.
Break those deliverables down into smaller subtasks. We recommend using a Kanban board to structure them in a hierarchy.
The goal here is to be able to glimpse at a logical layout of all the required tasks and see how they fit together.
4. Determine task ownership and resource availability
Next, assign owners to each of the subtasks you identified in step 3.
Probably, you have already discussed who will handle each job. But this step ensures you do not overlook this.
Once you have assigned owners to each task, it is time to invite each resource specialist and team leader into your discussion.
There are a few reasons why you should do this.
- It gives task owners an early opportunity to see the WBS and to flag if something is missing.
- It establishes your trust in your team and their expertise, which is an effective project management trend in 2020.
- It encourages a culture of communication and feedback (more on this later).
- You should call on their expertise for the next steps.
5. Sequence steps and estimate time required
Depending on your experience, you may be able to sequence the steps of your project timeline alone. However, it is still a good idea to call on your team leaders and specialists to help you and ensure nothing is missed.
While the previous step tells you which resources you will need to deliver the project, this step will tell you when you need them and for how long.
Want to jumpstart your project timeline?
Try one of our free templates and start building your plan in Hubstaff Tasks.
6. Identify dependencies and bottlenecks
Often, this step is completed in parallel with step 5. While sequencing your project steps, you will identify which ones require other tasks to be finished before another can start.
Also, you will note which tasks can only be completed on their own or by one person. These are called bottlenecks, and they might exist because of resource availability or because the work is fundamental to later tasks.
It is important you identify all dependencies and bottlenecks in your timeline so you can ensure an efficient use of time and resources. Realizing you have a bottleneck too late, for example, will lead to delays and confusion.
Even if you think you have identified all dependencies and bottlenecks in step 5, we recommend reviewing them again before moving on.
7. Choose your project timeline software
The way you construct your project timeline depends on the project methodology you and your stakeholders want to use. For example, do you prefer a Waterfall-style Gantt chart, suitable for more rigid project deliveries?
Or do you favor flexibility, iteration, and communication? In this case, an Agile approach like Kanban is more appropriate.
The style most suitable to your teams and project needs will inform the software you choose to create and manage your timeline.
Of course, it is possible to construct a working project timeline in Excel. However, there are many specialist project timeline tools available that make creating and managing a project more efficiently.
When factoring in which tool to use, do not only think of the essentials to create a project timeline, but what extra functions would make your job easier.
8. Construct your project timeline
Whether you are using a spreadsheet or a project management tool, begin by listing all WBS deliverables and subtasks in your timeline.
Add the respective task owner to each one. Next, add the timeframe (this may be in hours, days, or both).
Then, use notes, a color-coding system, or your chosen program’s functions to assign dependencies between tasks.
If you would like to see an example of how to build an Agile project timeline, skip ahead to how to create a project timeline in Hubstaff Tasks.
9. Assign milestones
You now have a functioning project timeline.
You can see all the steps needed to deliver the project, who owns which one, and how long it will take to complete them.
Now, you want to make sure you can track project progress as easily as possible.
To do this, group tasks together and create project checkpoints throughout the project lifecycle.
In Agile PM tools, you can group several jobs together into an “Epic.”
The checkpoints throughout your project are called “milestones.”
Milestones offers three key advantages:
- Key stakeholders can quickly see how the project is progressing without needing to view the more detailed project timeline.
- They serve as important review points in the project lifecycle, where you, your team, and the stakeholders can consider how things are progressing and if any changes are needed.
- You and your team will feel motivated every time you successfully hit a milestone.
10. Share the project timeline with the stakeholders and team
Finally, make sure you publish the project timeline somewhere your stakeholders and teams can access it.
They should not be able to edit the timeline, but ensuring other people can see it creates accountability.
As a result, you will feel a greater responsibility to use the timeline every day and keep it as up-to-date as possible. This is the key to maintaining and using a highly effective project timeline.
And that’s it! You have a project timeline to guide you and your team to deliver your project objectives.
How to create a project timeline in Hubstaff Tasks
So, now you know how to create a project timeline in theory. Next, let’s look at how to create one in practice.
In this example, imagine you are the project manager for a globally distributed business with a small team. Your teams need to be flexible and individuals should focus on being efficient and productive.
For such a project, you should consider using a Kanban management tool, like Hubstaff Tasks. So, we will use this project management software to show you how to build your own project timeline.
1. Create an account
Head over to Hubstaff Tasks and click “Get Started” to create your free account.
For the purposes of this demonstration, we are going to create an account for the fictional web design company called WebDyno.
2. Begin a project
From the Dashboard, click “New Project.”
If you want to build a project timeline from zero, select the Blank template.
Hubstaff Tasks has almost 40 free templates to use for different objectives. You can see a description of each template by clicking each one.
WebDyno needs to deliver a website refresh for their client. So, we are going to select the template Website Design by clicking “View Details” and then “Choose template.”
Give your project a name and then select “Create.”
3. Add people
From your project Dashboard, click the “Add people” link to invite your team into the project.
Enter their email addresses and they will receive a link asking them to create an account. Hubstaff Tasks is free for up to 5 people.
You can even assign roles, including who can manage, collaborate with, and view the project.
4. Organize lists
You can create, delete, and customize lists all with the click of the mouse. Select the list name to rename one. For more settings, click the three-dot icon and then “List Settings.”
To change the order of your workflow, drag and drop your list to where you want it.
5. Add tasks
Now it is time to start inputting your WBS tasks and subtasks.
Click “Add a task” or the plus symbol on the appropriate list category and name your task. Click “Save” and then click the newly created task to add details.
Assign owners and followers, add attachments, create a checklist and so on. You can even create a Sprint for priority tasks or assign the task to a collection of activities (an “Epic”) from within the task itself.
Assignees can update the task, update the checklist, and add attachments. They can also leave comments for each other.
Add labels, timetable information, cost estimates, if you have this information.
6. Progress or complete tasks
Your timeline is ready and your team can begin!
As tasks progress from one phase to another, drag and drop them to the appropriate list.
And remember to update the task assignees if someone else needs to take ownership.
If you want to request feedback from your teams, create a Stand-up by clicking “Stand-ups” at the top of the screen. You can collect these on a regular basis to make reporting on progress even easier.
More tips for using a project timeline
Before you begin applying these steps to create your own project timeline, here are some additional considerations to help you even further.
Success with software
While you can create a timeline by other means, project management software is linked to high-performing projects.
Project timeline programs are also a proven money-saver: 66% of organizations using project management software complete projects within the initial budget.
Depending on your industry, the size and distribution of your teams, and your preferred project methodology, some programs are more suitable than others when it comes to creating your project timeline.
But whatever your project goals, you are more likely to have success using project management software.
You should create a project plan to protect against scope creep. But it is possible to be flexible, as well.
After completing your project timeline, revisit your project plan with your stakeholders. Is there anything new and exciting you can add, knowing what you know now?
After staring at your project timeline for months on end, it can start to feel like it has a hold over you. Never forget, it is a tool to make your job as a project manager easier. You are in charge!
There’s no such thing as too much feedback
In step 4, we mentioned establishing a culture of communication.
The more eyes you have on your project timeline, the more people can inform you how things are progressing and help to resolve issues.
Using a tool like Hubstaff Tasks, with its teamwork functions, is the ideal way to keep your teams talking, yourself informed, and your project on track.
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