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Visualize the outcome of your current project. Is your team bolting across the finish line in triumph, being showered in champagne and accolades by your stakeholders? Or are they sidelined a half mile from the end, shouting excuses and limping back to their desks, hoping someone else will take the blame for their lack of results?

Your outcome is largely dependent on having a well-crafted project schedule. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that project scheduling is one of the most important components of project management and project scheduling software is one of the most important tools in your toolkit.

What Is A Project Schedule?

At its most basic, a project schedule is a sequenced list of activities and deliverables required to complete your project successfully and meet the project goals. 

Proper project scheduling, however, means more than dropping due dates or milestones into a Gantt chart. It begins long before determining the project’s critical path or creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) of necessary tasks or contract obligations.

Before you begin building your project schedule, be sure you can answer these questions:

  • What is the scope of your project? 
  • What skills are needed to execute the work? 
  • Who will do the work? 
  • What project management software will you use to keep track of your plan, and how will you configure that software?

After you have that information, your detailed schedule should include:

  • The duration of project activities
  • Key deadlines or milestones that must be met
  • The person responsible for completing each task
  • Dependency mapping, showing how project tasks relate to each other (ex. if the team must complete Task A before starting Task B, the end date of Task A on the schedule must be before the start date of Task B on the schedule)

Why Is Project Scheduling So Important?

Project schedules are critically important to successful project management because they promote team alignment and accountability and improve execution. Key benefits of project schedules include:

  • Better Defined Project Scope. Planning the entire project schedule yields a wealth of information that impacts nearly every aspect of project scope. For example, knowing what project activities are on the critical path can help prevent scope creep. Accounting for planned time off also helps craft a more accurate and realistic plan.
  • Improved Alignment. Documenting the list of activities required for project execution ensures stakeholders are on the same page about what is happening, when it’s happening, and who’s doing the work. This is especially important when it comes to understanding cross-functional task dependencies and the lead and lag time for key tasks.
  • Reduced Risk. A correctly done and well-implemented project schedule is one of the most effective project controls you can put in place for mitigating or eliminating risks through risk management. For example, the schedule can assist with resource management by highlighting resource overallocation, both human and otherwise, which may be impacting productivity.
  • Simplified Communication. At a glance, a Gantt chart is a visual representation of the schedule that can help you mitigate known delays and see a true picture of when a stakeholder can expect to receive a deliverable. Using a schedule as a project management tool can also simplify the process of preparing stakeholder reports.
  • Better Forecasting. Once you create the first draft of your project schedule, you can use it as a baseline to assess the accuracy of your original estimates and continuously improve your project management performance.
  • Identifying Bottlenecks. Proper schedule management can highlight if a team is consistently missing deadlines earlier in a project. You can use this information to make the case for bringing on additional staff to make up the difference before it’s too late.

How To Create A Project Schedule

The key steps involved in the project scheduling process include identifying activities, sequencing activities, and assigning task owners.

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1. Identify Activities

The first step in creating a project schedule is to list the activities that are required for delivering project success.

Engage with project stakeholders to gather a requirements “wish list”, work with the project team to come to a consensus on what is necessary and feasible, and then work backwards from the desired project outcomes to document what work is needed to achieve those outcomes.

2. Sequence Activities and Understand Dependencies

In the course of collecting input on the list of required project activities, chances are that your stakeholders have also volunteered information about their preferred order of operations and/or key dependent tasks (i.e. where they require input from other teams to complete their work).

For example, if you’re working on a software development project, you’ll typically need designs before starting development, and you’ll need to have features locked before beginning user testing. Add more details to your initial “to do” task list to pinpoint what needs to get done when and how the specific tasks relate to each other.

3. Assign Task Owners

The last step in developing your schedule baseline is to assign points of contact that are responsible for executing each task.

Assigning staffing helps you further refine the project scope by showing what is possible to deliver by when. Look for opportunities to streamline task execution (ex. can design prioritize work on certain features to let development hit the ground running faster?) This helps identify required lead or lag time by task and may also impact project dependencies.

How Scheduling Differs Across Project Methodologies

A project manager may apply different approaches to project scheduling depending on the project methodology that they choose to follow. The choice of project methodology depends on project type, complexity, organizational culture, and project manager preference.

Waterfall Methodology 

Launching a website is an example of a project that may follow a predictive, or waterfall, methodology. Even if the website being contemplated is highly complex, this type of project typically does not involve a ton of unknowns. The critical path will reveal itself on the project schedule relatively quickly, and most of the project planning is done upfront, at the beginning of the project life cycle. 

Waterfall project management relies heavily on Gantt charts and the critical path method (CPM).

Agile Methodology

Most software projects, however, follow an Agile project management methodology. Agile project management originated in Silicon Valley in the 1990s. A group of software engineers developed the agile project management methodology to better align with the fast-paced world of software development and tech startups.

Agile is known for being more flexible primarily because teams perform work in short bursts, known as iterations or sprints. Teams are more self-directed and emphasize people over processes or workflows.

Though Agile teams are self-directed, that doesn’t mean projects aren’t scheduled. Teams still have a need to manage people and track progress against deliverables. Kanban boards are important tools for planning and managing work in an agile environment.

Tools for Project Scheduling 

Once you have determined your project framework and project scheduling technique, it’s time to choose a project management tool from a plethora of project scheduling software options.

Choosing a Project Scheduling Tool

Here are some considerations to keep in mind when choosing a project scheduling tool:

  • Degree of Project Complexity. Keep in mind whether you are working on a complex project or a simpler one. That will help you narrow down what features you truly do—and do not—need in a scheduling tool.
  • Project Management Methodology. Choose a project scheduling tool that makes sense for your chosen methodology. For example, a Kanban board is an important feature for managing an agile project.
  • Simplicity. Avoid using more than one platform, if possible, as this causes confusion. You need your entire team to be on the same page, literally, when it comes to identifying bottlenecks or mitigating risks.
  • Usability. Even if a project management tool has a lot of bells and whistles, it will only work well if everyone on your team can and will use it. To help inform your choice, research whether your organization has a preferred project management tool or platform that it has used on prior projects.

Key Features of Project Scheduling Tools

Project scheduling tools should include these key features:

  • The ability to easily adjust dates and resource allocation in response to events and resource availability
  • An easy way to generate the critical path and a visual representation of your project timeline
  • Integrated time tracking to manage the budget impact of your schedule and help team members with time management
  • A mobile app for convenience
  • A library of project schedule templates, or the ability to save and reuse your own project schedules as templates

The Best Project Scheduling Tools

Here’s our list of the best project scheduling tools:

How to Implement and Improve Project Scheduling

Implementing a detailed project schedule sounds simple, but like anything else, it requires some prep work to maximize its effectiveness.

First, you and your team members should familiarize yourself with whatever project management platform or project management software will be used. You’ll then want to document how stakeholders should use the tool. This may include:

  • Conventions or protocols to follow (ex. what information to include, standardized picklists for data entry, what reporting views you’ll use for which audiences)
  • Roles and responsibilities—who is responsible for updating what content?
  • Access instructions (ex. login information, links, membership numbers, licenses)
  • Creation of a test project to make sure you can answer any questions that arise quickly.

No project scheduling software is perfect. As the project progresses, collect feedback about the team’s desired features for the tool. You may have chosen one project management suite, believing certain features to be critical, but ultimately find you rarely use them. Or perhaps you love the scheduling interface, but your team finds it cumbersome.

Project managers should use the feedback collected to improve how the team uses the tool. They can also liaise with the procurement team to relay suggested improvements to the vendor that may influence the product roadmap or help negotiate better pricing in the future.

By Sarah M. Hoban

Sarah is a project manager and strategy consultant with 15 years of experience leading cross-functional teams to execute complex multi-million dollar projects. She excels at diagnosing, prioritizing, and solving organizational challenges and cultivating strong relationships to improve how teams do business. Sarah is passionate about productivity, leadership, building community, and her home state of New Jersey.