A project timeline is your best friend when tracking your project's progress, and one of the first necessary steps to move from an idea to implementation.
Abraham Lincoln nailed it, saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” You might be the most stolid project manager in the world, but if you miss the (ever-important) step of creating a project timeline on a complex project, you'll lose control over the project very soon. Even worse, your project might end up having cost overruns and not meeting expectations.
Without planning, most of us land at the wrong destination. Project management timelines make it easy to navigate our way to the finish line, just like GPS does for every driver. But here’s the thing. Creating a project timeline is a work-intensive process, similar to sharpening the axe. It is tedious, time-consuming, and drudging.
That’s why I created this guide to show you how to create a project timeline without putting too much effort and energy into the administrative work that timelines usually entail, so you’re more like the driver using GPS than a lumberjack.
- Hang on, what is a project timeline?
- Types of project timelines
- Static vs. interactive project timelines
- Why do you need a project timeline, anyway?
- Challenges in creating a project management timeline
- Key steps to make a project timeline
- #1 hack to create a feasible project timeline in no time
- Project timeline software
Hang on, what is a project timeline?
A project timeline is a canvas of project deliverables. It provides a simple, but comprehensive visual overview of a project from start to finish. A detailed timeline paints a roadmap for your project with milestones, tasks, dependencies, and delivery dates. It determines project capacity and builds the anticipated schedule for your project. Usually, interactive project plan timelines have the progress bar, which helps to track how far you’ve moved and how much time you still have to complete the project. Here’s a sneak peek into Forecast’s Timeline view, so you can better understand what it’s all about.
Types of project timelines
Generally, there are a few types of project timelines that serve different purposes - Gantt Chart timeline, Chronology Chart timeline, and Vertical Bar Timeline. While on the image above you can see the Gantt chart at its best, you can often meet chronology chart timelines when there’s a need to recall historical events up to this moment, or vertical bar charts to illustrate the numbers over time. Here’s the difference between the three and potential use cases.
Gantt Chart timeline
Since the invention of the Gantt Charts in 1910 by Henry Gantt, they have gained immense popularity among bar chart tools that hasn’t stopped. Although Gantt charts are more than 100 years old, they are still widely used by project managers to illustrate the big picture of the project of any size, providing an overview of the project’s schedule.
Almost every project management tool can boast of the Gantt chart timeline, in one way or another, that makes it easier to get a clear project snapshot. Most often, it is a horizontal line with time periods, where all project events, actions, and tasks are flagged along this line. This way, it is very easy to discern past, present, and future tasks.
Modern Gantt charts are interactive and real-time, which means that they can show the progress of the project up to the minute, based on time registrations and connections between different activities. Gantt charts vary from industry to industry, or project to project, and can look different, but the most common elements of the timeline show
- The project’s start and end dates
- What tasks the project consists of
- Task assignees
- When tasks start and finish
- The order of tasks, links, dependencies, and overlaps
- Task duration
- Project delivery date
- Project, milestone, and task progress
Here’s an overview of the interactive project timeline example in Forecast.
This is a chart used to depict the chronological order of the events from left to right, or top to bottom. Designed to show the order and succession of events, it could be used to create an overview of your project’s or company’s historical perspective. Historical timeline is a perfect timeline for events or long projects to showcase the key milestones.
Vertical chart timeline
Vertical chart timeline displays the amount of something gained over a period of time - weekly, monthly, or yearly. They can be used to show the company's monthly recurring revenue or applied to other scenarios when money come into play. Such timelines are widely used by marketing departments to illustrate the amount of leads or traffic generated every month. In general, it’s a good option for finance teams, or anyone trying to keep data records simple and sweet.
From all three types, Gantt charts are the most important, if not a must to create for every project manager, so we’ll focus on them from here. If you’re not yet into the benefits of project timelines, here are many reasons how it could help you with planning, running, and tracking projects.
Static vs. interactive project timelines
Depending on what tools you use to make project timelines, they can be static or interactive. A static timeline would be a fixed one-and-done initiative, inert to changes, like the one you could draw on paper or print, for example. It has to be re-planned and re-done from scratch whenever changes come in, let alone the fact that it’s missing functionality to show you real-time progress.
An Interactive timeline, in turn, is made with the help of project timeline software that gives you the flexibility to change the scope of work as you go. It automates re-planning, communicates progress, and might even show schedule variance when the project is underway. Because interactive project timelines are dynamic, project managers happily use them.
Why do you need a project timeline, anyway?
Now that you can define a project timeline, know its types and key elements, here is scientific evidence that demonstrates, again, that we shouldn’t underestimate the role of project planning.
Project Management Institute has proven the existence of a strong link between planning and project success. According to researchers, planning is associated with both project efficiency, meeting cost, time and quality goals, and overall project success, meeting wider business and enterprise goals. This is proved by Program Managers all over the world:
"A part of my job is learning how agencies operate. Often agency owners tell me that setting up project timelines is an important part of their workflows. That not only helps them streamline their objectives but also helps their clients understand the timeline of the course of action that the agency is going to follow." — Arsalan Sajid, Agency Partnership Program Manager at Cloudways
The benefits of having a project timeline at each stage of the project are substantial. There’s a long list of reasons why project managers creating project timelines have an edge. I've already mentioned a few times that it helps visualize project progress, keeping in the loop everyone who has a stake in the project, from team members to clients. But let’s dig deeper into the goldmine and see what a good project management timeline is really worth. Here are some key values:
- Makes a project plan complete. A project planning timeline provides a simple visual overview of a project from start to finish, showing how all the pieces of your plan come together. It connects all the necessary elements to activate the project plan.
- Keeps the big picture in focus. A single view on the project timeline can communicate the relevant information about your project status.
- Visualizes the common goal for the team. Project timelines give employees the ability to recognize their role in the process and see their contribution. Everyone likes to be put into the driver's seat from time to time. This is exactly what happens when project managers keep the timeline open.
- Keeps everyone informed and aligned. Project management timelines make project processes transparent to everyone, team members and stakeholders. It helps to build trust in client communication, too.
- Tracks the chronological order of events. Composed of a series of tasks, timelines contribute to the understanding of the order in which tasks should be completed.
- Reveals dependencies and prevents bottlenecks. If there’s one place to illustrate dependencies, it’s a timeline. In fact, if there’s a way to get notified of dependency violations, again - timeline.
- Communicates how change affects the project. In moments of change, the best you can do is to communicate how change requests will affect the project’s resources and the end date. Project timeline software like Forecast enables you to change things actively, helping you adjust the timeline and see it reflected.
Forecast’s customers that are using project timelines on a day-to-day basis also admit that it helps them to keep projects transparent and create positive vibes in client communication:
Viewing projects in a timeline is an asset for us when we are pitching to a new client. They like the overview and prefer to have the transparency on each part of the project. Throughout the project, our client can see how it is progressing and knows what is going on. - Rachida Laraache, Directrice Pôle Conseil SEO
Challenges in creating a project management timeline
Now, the difficult part about making project timelines is the guesswork that comes with estimating what can be accomplished (and when) with resources in place. The answer isn’t always cut and dry. Besides, with a lot of thinking and manual work involved, estimation is a very time-consuming process.
We’re never able to tell for sure how much time the task will take us to complete, let alone the entire project. There are so many factors to consider, like competencies of the performer, task complexity, or even dependencies, that a human brain can hardly process them all to produce a down-to-earth number. What you should definitely try to prevent is an estimate being the final product of your guesswork.
Key steps to make a project timeline
Let’s see what we can do to get that ball rolling despite the complexity and without opening excel. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a top-notch project timeline depends on project manager’s abilities to apply their soft and hard skills to planning every project. First, they should collect project requirements, gather the needed data, and think how it can be visualized. Then, it’s time to start breaking down your project into meaningful parts.
1. Split the project into milestones
Provided that you’ve collected project requirements and gathered the needed data, it’s essential to break down the project into milestones - bigger chunks of work that signal important achievements in the project. These are the phases in the project schedule that will help you divide the timeline and make project planning less daunting from this point further. Painting the project with broad strokes first, will come in handy in future communication with stakeholders, who oftentimes, are more interested in the progress of the major project phases than, for example, tasks.
2. Break each milestone into bite-sized tasks
When you have the bare bones of your project, it’s time to think small and split them into digestible tasks. It will not only help the team to clearly see their role in the project, but also enable you to get reporting to a more solid granular level in real-time. Breaking milestones into tasks, you have to keep the communication lines open and make the team part of this process. You’ll need their full participation and expertise to know what it takes to complete each task.
3. Determine dependencies between tasks
Some projects are like turn-based games, which means waiting until a specific action is completed to begin working on the next task. A built-in order for projects is peculiar for software development and IT industries.
Having task lists for each milestone, you’ll need to indicate if the specific order should be followed, and one task is dependent on the other task. Some tasks can only be done on condition that other tasks were completed. This is especially true for IT companies, where developers can’t start working on one part of the project without their colleagues completing theirs.
4. Give a time estimate to each task
As a rule of thumb, to complete the project timeline, project managers indicate how much time the task will take, measured in hours or story points. The point of accurateness to which project managers estimate tasks directly influences the plan and predictions. However, as practice shows, estimates are usually off-the-mark when you switch to the execution phase. Make sure you involve your team members to have a proper estimation process in place.
5. Check for resource availability
While you might have an understanding of who will be assigned to the project, it’s important to check if your project schedule doesn’t contradict the person’s workload and schedule on other projects. Heatmaps that showcase the entire resource pool turn out to be great for figuring out what’s Frank’s or Anna’s availability for the next months. We’ve collected the best practices for resource allocation here.
#1 hack to create a feasible project timeline in no time
It takes too much time and effort. We know. Especially time estimations, especially for long and complex projects. That’s why we’ve fully automated the process and here’s one hack you might want to try out to save time on administrative planning overhead and eliminate seat-of-the-pants stuff - apply Forecast’s Auto Schedule to your list of tasks.
This feature automatically estimates tasks, assigns resources, and sets deadlines for your project relying on loads of historical data it learned from you or other projects in the system. It activates your task list and instantly transforms it into a reliable project timeline.
The only thing to do is to break down your project into milestones and tasks, and Auto Schedule will take care of the rest. But it doesn’t stop there. Auto Schedule is not just a simple calculator. Its decision is partially based on resource availability. It understands that people can’t be in two places simultaneously. Below the timeline you’ve created, you’ll see how it affects the team’s schedule and who becomes over- or underbooked. From there, you can regulate the schedule to make it work for everyone.
Project timeline software
What outshines just another boring project timeline template? Advanced project timeline apps allow you to forget about static printed or drawn templates, thus making your timeline an active part of your project that can be followed in real time. While Forecast is much more than a project timeline creator, it fully automates this process better than any other tool. In combination with resource management, time tracking, and budget features, Forecast is as good as it gets. Try it out for yourself.