8 steps for planning a successful project management schedule

It doesn’t matter how big or small the project you’re working on is, the schedule is a vital part of project management and is the key to a successful project.

Whether you’re planning the next team trip, or leading a multi-million pound M&A deal, project management tools and the schedule is a critical part of your efforts.

It identifies and organises project tasks into a sequence of events and creates the project management plan.

There can often be a temptation to get on with the work and worry about the schedule later, but this is likely to leave you exposed, and if challenged, you will have no evidence of whether your project is on track.

You’re never going to know exactly how your project will pan out, but with some educated guessing, you should be able to produce a schedule that will keep you and your team on a path to success.

To have the greatest chance of completing your project on time, you need to develop a schedule that is achievable, responsive to your clients’ needs, and is understood and supported by all project team members.

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Take the following steps to create a realistic and attainable project schedule:

1. Identify tasks

To begin your project plan, you must identify all tasks required to reach your end goal and establish a strategy for performing each task. Break them down into sufficient detail and place them in your schedule.

For instance, instead of listing a single activity named “determine requirements for new product” in your schedule, break it down further into “review correspondence,” “interview salespeople,” “conduct focus groups,” and “prepare a report of the requirements for the new product.”

Making your tasks more specific will give you more of an idea of how much time you will need to spend on them and what work needs to be done.

2. Plan your people

You need to find out who will be available to work on your project and whether you have enough team members for the tasks to to be completed.

This is particularly important in environments where budgets are tight, and many organisations hesitate to take on more staff.

Try to match your people’s skill-sets to the work that’s needed: have they done similar work in the past? Do they have desirable skills for this particular project? Have they shown an interest working in a particular area?

Having confidence in your team is essential, so try and pick a strong team with a wide skill set who will go that extra mile for you.

3. Plan with your team

Involve your project drivers (people for whom you perform the project) and supporters (people who help perform your project) in developing the schedule.

Team planning is more effective than planning on your own, and ensures that everyone involved has a stake in the schedule and ownership of the outcome.

Including your teams input ensures the schedule is reasonable and can help make sure you distribute the workload evenly across the team: be careful not to overload your key people, while under-utilising others.

To get things rolling, the project manager can create a basic high-level schedule; the team can then input thoughts and ideas to what will and won’t work.

You can assign each task to specific staff; this establishes ownership and responsibility for the task and you can make sure workload is distributed fairly.

4. Time your tasks

Estimating how long a task is going to take can be tricky but is important if you are going to create a realistic project schedule.

Use your task strategies to help you see how much needs to be done for each task and put a time frame on it. Make sure you consider the amount of time each task will take and the order in which the tasks are performed.

Be wary of including things like public holidays and team members’ leave when looking at the duration of a task.

You should identify tasks that must be completed before other tasks can begin and tasks that can be done whilst other tasks are being performed because this will cut down the time needed.

Again, involving your team in the estimation of the length of a project can be very effective because you can use people’s previous experiences; an estimate given by one team member may be challenged by another who has experience with similar work in the past.

5. Assess risks

When you are planning a project, it is important to remember that a schedule is not permanent because project tasks and stakeholder needs constantly change; your schedule is really just an educated guess about what might happen and when.

As project manager, you should expect your schedule to change. You must continue to understand the reason for any variances and make appropriate changes to the schedule to meet the changing project landscape.

You should also come up with a process for managing any potential change. Think about risks that could alter your schedule; recognise and write down all assumptions related to your project and its schedule.

For example, if you don’t know what your project budget is, write down that you will assume your budget will be a certain amount until you find out otherwise. Build a time reserve into the schedule for contingencies and unforeseen change that could cause schedule delay.

6. Include regular milestones

Adding milestones to your schedule and checking them frequently helps the project team stay focused and motivated, and allows them to measure their progress.

Having lots of tasks each week can be very daunting and milestones like end of certain phases of a project, the point where work needs completing, or sign-off obtained for work carried out can help put a whole project into perspective and keep everyone on track to a successful finish.

If you make an effort to publicise the fact that you’ve reached one of your milestones and congratulate your team, you should boost team morale and keep people motivated to get each milestone completed on time.

Milestones help keep your schedule timing on track because if for example you miss milestones that occur in the first couple of months of the project, you know whether your project is on schedule or not.

7. Use team calendaring

Team calendaring is a very useful project management tool that can boost productivity, efficiency and team morale.

As a project manager it can be difficult to track your own agenda, never mind your entire team’s.

Understanding working days, shifts and resource availability is critical to completing a project schedule and team calendaring is a great way for teams to track what each other are doing and when they are doing it.

By using a team calendar that all project members, drivers and supporters can access at any time, it means everyone is kept well informed on the movements and progress of the ongoing project.

Enterprise collaboration platforms that provide team calendaring make it really easy to track your teams schedule as closely as you like. These events (which could be milestones) will remain permanently visible on your and your team members’ calendars so it’s easy to see which short and long-term goals you are working towards.

As well as being great for organisation, this also helps to keep team spirits high by providing visualisations of how far away you are from reaching your goals and then to see them completed.

8. Stay updated

Make sure you regularly update the schedule with your team to check progress and make necessary changes.

It’s useful to set up a daily 15 minute meeting or phone call, for the team to inform each other what they did the day before and what they intend to do that day and highlight any issues holding them back.

Any issues can be discussed as a team but as project manager it is your responsibility to help remove any blockers standing in your projects way.

If you can’t organise a daily meeting, at least a weekly meeting is essential; digital tools greatly assist our productivity and efficiency but nothing beats face-to-face communication when it comes to executing a successful project.

So there we have it, eight steps you should follow to create an efficient and effective project schedule.

Remember nothing is set in stone; a lot of your schedule will be guess work and will change along the way and as the project manager you must be prepared to deal with these changes.

Problems arise, projects vary, risks exist and no matter how much planning and risk assessment you do, things you never imagined would happen, will. But by sticking to these points and creating a detailed project schedule, you will be more prepared to deal with issues that do crop up and smash your project.

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Emily Sullivan

Editoral/PR assistant at HighQ
She has a passion for researching and writing engaging copy and has a keen interest in how technology can enhance people's personal and business lives.
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