Create a more accurate project timeline with these 7 steps

Regardless of whether you’re working in a waterfall or agile project, building an initial project timeline presents unique challenges.  

Waterfall projects, on the one hand, are usually rigid in both structure and schedule, putting a premium on high-quality up-front estimating. Agile projects, on the other hand, depend on flexibility and at-times intricate work sprints, meaning managers must try and account for the inevitable waves of change. Either way, building a reasonable project timeline is a make-or-break step in a project’s early stages.  

The following checklist can help project managers and owners cover their bases, from building a project’s first task to planning out rounds of approval and mitigating project risks. 

1. How does my end goal break down into individual tasks? 

The first step to building a comprehensive timeline is to start segmenting the project down. Take your final objective and work backward to map out the individual tasks that will need to be completed to reach that end. Start with only key points, then make successive sweeps through the timeline to build increasingly granular moments in between. 

Depending on your project methodology, those smaller milestones could group into the kind of sequences that eventually become sprints. Waterfall projects will mainly draw their framework from the more macro key points.  

2. How much time is needed for each task? 

Once you have your tasks fully mapped out, start layering in the projected time required to complete them. Depending on what platform you’re building your timeline in, it might start looking like a traditional Gantt chart — and that’s a good thing. The terms “project management timeline” and Gantt chart can often be used interchangeably, although not all project timelines have to be in Gantt format. 

Knowing how much time each task will take can also help agile managers assess the total number of sprints the project requires. Even if the project’s end delivery date is its most important factor, make sure to start compiling work and time estimates from the teams responsible for each task. Later, this will help ensure you can measure a project’s timeline needs against the reality of its execution.   

3. What is the key deliverable for each task? 

Steps 1 and 2 are primarily about creating and visualizing the project timeline itself. From here on out, the process shifts more to vetting and logistics planning — bringing the schedule to life with the realities it will take to achieve it. 

Start by identifying the key deliverables for each task or sprint; use a similar process to Step 1, by making progressive sweeps through the timeline to identify increasingly granular deliverables. The more accurate your list of deliverables, the more accountable your project teams will be to agreed-upon objectives.  

4. What are my task dependencies? 

The universal truth of project management is that every project is destined to undergo change. Scopes, resources, and timelines are often moving targets, and project managers can only plan so far ahead. 

What they can do, however, is flag tasks or objectives that are dependent on other steps in the process. That way, all parties are aware of the downstream effects of upstream shifts. 

Most project management tools allow users to tether one task to another, making it easy to simulate the ripple effect of a missed deadline. While the rigid nature of waterfall project timelines lends extra importance to this step, identifying dependencies can help agile managers further crystalize the work that goes into each sprint.   

5. What kind of hours and resources are available to complete each task? 

Back in Step 2, you built the amount of time it would take to complete your project’s primary tasks; now, it’s time to make use of the time and resource estimates you compiled from team leaders. Knowing a certain task should take five days is one thing. But a discipline lead who cannot commit five days worth of team hours is obviously a complicating factor. Reconciling those two data points will help you identify possible friction points or outside contractor needs.  

6. Who is responsible for executing each task? 

Part of allocating available resources is attaching individuals or teams to specific tasks. This step is more than just smart note-taking: It also helps stakeholders and decision-makers get a bird’s-eye view of what level of company leaders will be needed to get the project done. 

The sooner you can lock key individuals down for distinct deliverables, the better. Team leaders are usually more likely to take resource estimating seriously if their specific resources are going to be attached to essential documentation. This step can also help identify areas where work handoffs are especially fragile for both waterfall and agile methods.  

7. Who is responsible for approving each task or group of tasks? 

This could almost be a sub-point to Step 6, but there’s a difference between detailing who will perform a task and who will be approving the deliverable. 

In many cases, approvals may need to come from stakeholders who are far removed from the day-to-day execution, or at the very least multidisciplinary groups that will have to review sequentially. Charting out those potentially complicated approval steps is a crucial point for many projects — review rounds that creep beyond their allocated team can grind a project to a halt.  

Project timelines are a critical piece of any project plan. Not only do they establish the specifics on the execution of a project or product initiative, but their construction process also helps assess the project as a whole, surfacing key discipline feedback that can help stakeholders set realistic expectations on what can and can’t be done.  

Like many project documents, timelines are destined to undergo both planned and unplanned revisions. The trick is making sure those revisions are managed in the same fashion that the original schedule was built in: through the carefully collected information. Whether you’re using a waterfall or agile methodology, the quality of that information is the primary ingredient for how reliable your project timeline will end up being.  

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