When projects fall behind schedule or go over budget, it impacts the success and growth of your business. Some factors are out of anyone’s control, but developing an accurate project schedule is something every organization can and should prioritize. Project scheduling keeps team members aligned on key project details like tasks to be completed, deadlines, the scope of the project, costs, and more.
Of course, while scheduling in project management is a no-brainer, actually developing a realistic and effective project schedule is easier said than done. You have to gather and analyze the necessary data, get input from relevant stakeholders, then establish an accurate timeline everyone buys into. And naturally, the larger the project, the more difficult and complex the scheduling. To get a handle on the process of building project schedules, let’s start with defining how scheduling fits into the broader concept of project management.
What is Scheduling in Project Management?
Scheduling in project management is the process of defining a project in detail and creating a plan for when and how it will be completed. Building a project schedule, including a timeline with clear deadlines for each task, gives team members visibility into the work they’ll be expected to complete and keeps everyone involved on track.
Project schedules are broken down into tasks and milestones. The schedule should also identify all necessary resources needed to complete the project and set a timeline for completion. Realistic constraints and dependencies must be considered during these steps, each of which is critical for cost management purposes.
Scheduling in project management can be overwhelming, but creating a work breakdown schedule beforehand can help. A work breakdown structure takes the form of a visual representation of the project’s scope and deliverables. It lets the entire team see the tasks required to complete the project at a glance and serves as a strong foundation for completing the project schedule.
Project Scheduling vs. Project Planning
Project scheduling and project planning go hand-in-hand, but they’re distinct processes. Project planning is a high level process that involves defining the overarching framework of a project. It often involves creating a work breakdown structure and takes place before project scheduling. Project scheduling dives deeper into the details of a project, like tasks to be completed and specific timelines.
The Benefits of Scheduling in Project Management
Scheduling in project management can make a big impact on a company’s productivity. Here are just a few of the advantages of creating an effective project schedule:
Aligning all team members on project goals
Without a project schedule, your team won’t know what they’re expected to do or when they’re expected to do it. Scheduling keeps everyone aligned and moving towards the project’s goal quickly by eliminating ambiguity. When employees can transition quickly from one task to the next and pass on their work to the next team member as needed, projects get done on time and under budget.
Identifying roadblocks early
There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a project and encountering an unexpected obstacle. Beyond the additional expense and time it takes to overcome the new challenge, there’s the risk that you may need to rework part of the project you’ve already completed. Building a robust schedule in advance helps you identify potential problems and plan for them before they derail your project.
Ensuring you allocate sufficient resources
You need to know with certainty what resources you’ll need to finish a project successfully, from budgets to materials to labor and equipment. A detailed project schedule helps ensure that you haven’t missed any necessary steps and that you know exactly what you’ll need to complete the project when you expect.
Each of these benefits leads to further positive outcomes for your business. For example, when your organization empowers team members with visibility into project goals and the tools they need to succeed, they’ll be even more motivated to accomplish their tasks. Motivated, engaged employees are one of the most valuable assets any company can have, and they serve as examples for everyone at your organization to follow.
How to Visualize Project Schedules
There are many different ways to visualize project schedules, and that’s a good thing. Every project is different, after all, and team members may prefer certain visualizations over others. Gantt charts, task lists, and calendars are three of the most common ways to visualize project schedules:
- Gantt charts. A Gantt chart breaks down the project schedule in bar chart fashion, with the bars representing the timeline in which each task should begin and be completed. Dates typically run along the x-axis and milestones/tasks run along the y-axis.
- Task lists. Task lists do not use graphics, but they’re a simple, clean format in which to view a project schedule.
- Calendars. Calendars serve as a familiar way for team members to view task start and finish dates while also providing them with an easy way to visualize the entire project timeline.
6 Steps to the Project Scheduling Process
A quality project schedule is the result of a thoughtful, effective process. Follow these six steps for successful project scheduling.
1. Define the Project
If you completed project planning in the form of a work breakdown structure prior to beginning the project scheduling process, it will come in handy during this step. Take the framework you built for the project and define the tasks and milestones necessary to get the work done. While you don’t want to spend time laying out the steps of every workflow involved when building your schedule, you need to be granular enough to separate out each task to ensure your timeline is accurate.
2. Sequence Project Tasks and Milestones
Once you’ve determined which tasks and milestones are necessary to complete the project, you need to get them in the right order. Certain tasks may be dependent on the completion of previous tasks. If a dependency is not accounted for during this step, other team members will have to wait to complete their tasks, impacting the timeline. Even if there are no dependencies, team members need to know when they’re expected to accomplish specific tasks.
3. Define the Critical Path
The critical path refers to the longest sequence of tasks that must be completed on time to avoid delaying the entire schedule. A delay to any one of these tasks will push back project completion by the same amount of time. Accurately defining the critical path ensures you know what tasks must be completed when to keep the project on schedule. It’s necessary to account for the dependencies identified above when defining the critical path. You should also consult with the team members who will be completing the relevant tasks.
4. Allocate Necessary Resources
Do team members need access to certain equipment to complete a task? Would onboarding a new hire on a certain team help them complete their assigned tasks more quickly? Gather the data you need to fully understand the project’s resource demands and your organization’s capacity limits, then work to align them so your schedule is achievable. Accounting for the cost of resources as well as any additional time needed to obtain them before the project begins will keep your schedule tethered to reality.
5. Build a Timeline
You’re now ready to build out your timeline with solid dates for each part of the project. Your timeline should reflect the critical path and sequences you laid out above to accommodate any constraints or dependencies identified. And don’t forget to account for weekends, team members’ scheduled time off, holidays, and other factors that might impact available work hours. While you can expect your schedule to evolve due to scope changes, unexpected variation in productivity, and other potential issues, you’ll want to make sure it’s as accurate as possible to begin with.
6. Track Progress and Adjust the Schedule as the Project Progresses
You’ve completed your schedule and the project is underway. Hiccups and unforeseen issues are bound to occur, so you should track the progress of each task and milestone. If it appears adjustments to your schedule are needed, make them quickly to keep everything on track. Establishing good project controls is key here so you can maintain the integrity of your schedule even in the face of significant problems.
Strategies for Scheduling in Project Management
All but the simplest projects involve many moving parts and dependent tasks, so creating a project schedule that accounts for them and displays them for all team members is a must. Follow these tips to ensure you’re developing project schedules that contribute to organizational success:
- Bring in relevant stakeholders from the beginning. Leveraging the knowledge of team members on the ground helps avoid miscommunication, identify potential issues, and ensure you’re creating a timeline everyone buys into.
- Reference historical data. Practice makes perfect and history repeats itself! Look back at previous project timelines as a benchmark. Learn from them to consistently improve project schedules.
- Ensure all required tasks (and subtasks) are included. Unforeseen tasks, even small ones, can affect the scope of the entire project. You need to identify all required components of a project to create a useful schedule. While there’s no need to list out the process used to complete each task in your timeline, if there are discrete subtasks required to complete a larger task, account for them. If available, use a template to help avoid preventable omissions.
- Build in float to handle delays. Consider likely and unlikely risks to the schedule, and build in time to account for these potential delays so you don’t have to make significant alterations to project schedule or scope when they occur. If the timeline for a particular task seems ambitious, adding additional time to the schedule may be warranted.
- Clearly define the critical path. Getting this step right will ensure a thorough and accurate project timeline. Clearly identifying, prioritizing and resourcing tasks along the critical path makes completing the project successfully more likely.
Finding the Right Project Scheduling Software
If the idea of embarking on project scheduling feels daunting, you’re not alone. While organizations that carry out the largest, most complex projects have the resources to leverage specific scheduling tools, those carrying out smaller projects are left with more uncertainty.
Thankfully, EcoSys is an enterprise project performance platform that can help alleviate the stress of project scheduling by providing tools for better efficiency, predictability, and control. EcoSys lets you build schedules for projects of any size and provides complete visibility into project progress and performance thanks to powerful integration with your other scheduling systems. EcoSys also sets itself apart with native integration between scheduling and other critical project processes. Your organization can then easily leverage scheduling information across the entire enterprise for resource management, estimating and budgeting, progress measurement and forecasting, cost control, risk management, and more.