Say you’re planning an important event, such as a wedding or family vacation. What are some of the first steps you’d take? You’d figure out where it was going to be, who was going to attend, how long it would last, and what activities everyone would do. Managing a project is no different. Some of your first steps are determining what work will be done, who is going to handle which tasks, and how long the work will take.
Project managers use project schedules to communicate this important information to the team and stakeholders. If you’re new to project scheduling—or just need to refresh your memory—this guide is for you. We’ll offer best practices for creating a schedule that helps your team complete work on time
What Is a Project Schedule?
The project management schedule is a document that outlines what work needs to be done, the order in which it needs to be done, what resources are required, how they will be distributed, and how long different parts of the work will take. The schedule helps project managers communicate and collaborate with team members and stakeholders, and keeps the project on track.
More specifically, a project schedule covers:
- Project milestones
- Tasks required to complete the deliverables
- Dependencies between tasks and milestones
- Resource requirements and allocation
- Deadlines, time frames, and task durations
Project schedules are used throughout the project management life cycle, as well as in project portfolio management (the process of determining the return on investment of projects). In industries that frequently undertake large, complex projects, such as engineering and construction, creating and maintaining the schedule is a full-time job, handled by a project scheduler or scheduling team. Sub-schedules may also be used in complex projects where more detail is needed.
As with many aspects of project management, scheduling is done in iterations. When creating a schedule, project managers estimate the work, timeline, and resources they anticipate. However, all this information is subject to change once the project is underway. The schedule is typically created during a project’s early stages, but is referred to throughout its life cycle.
Using project management software to create a schedule can help project managers and team members communicate about, track, and revise the schedule more efficiently and effectively. These platforms typically offer templates and sample schedules to guide you. They may also come with scheduling functionality that can automate much of the process, check resource availability, help you calculate task duration, and more.
Benefits of an Effective Project Management Schedule
There are many benefits of well-crafted project schedules. They allow managers, team members, and stakeholders to track progress, set and manage expectations, communicate, and collaborate. Tasks and deliverables can be monitored and controlled to ensure timely delivery—and if any delays do occur, you can easily gauge their impact and make the necessary adjustments.
Time and resources are two of the biggest factors that impact a project’s budget. Thus, an effective schedule helps you calculate, track, and report on costs. It also allows you to determine the best way to distribute personnel and other resources in order to achieve project goals. Extra resources can be assigned to projects where they’re needed most, and your team members can share the work so no one is spread too thin.
The Project Schedule vs. the Work Breakdown Structure
The work breakdown structure (WBS) is an important building block of your project schedule. It is a hierarchical reflection of all the work that needs to be done to create the deliverables, or end products, of a project. The main difference between the project schedule and the WBS is that the WBS focuses on deliverables, while the schedule is more comprehensive, including resource requirements and assignments, timelines and durations, assumptions, and risks.
There are differing views on the WBS among project management experts and organizations. They have varied opinions regarding whether the WBS is an independent document from the project schedule, and to what degree work is broken down. It’s up to your organization to decide how to handle the WBS.
“The project schedule relates to the work breakdown structure in that they are inherently one and the same, if utilized efficiently,” says Alona Rudnitsky, Managing Partner at digital marketing agency Helix House. “The two compliment each other, resulting in clear communication, tasks, and goals.”
Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule.
“The project schedule is the WBS,” says Cerila Gailliard, Certified Project Manager Professional Consultant at consultancy Orchestrating Your Success (OYS) LLC. Other project management experts do not distinguish between the two documents, but rather, simply include the WBS as one section of the project schedule. “The project schedule is the WBS,” says Cerila Gailliard, Certified Project Manager Professional Consultant at consultancy Orchestrating Your Success (OYS) LLC.
However you choose to approach project scheduling, create the WBS starting with the ultimate goal of the project. Then use the process of decomposition to break work down into smaller chunks that are easier to track and manage. There are various levels of decomposition that may be used: Some organizations only describe deliverables in their WBS, saving more granular descriptions of work for the schedule. Others break down deliverables into lists of specific tasks or activities in the WBS itself.
For example, in a project where the ultimate goal is producing a new household appliance, the marketing strategy for the product might be one of the deliverables. Some organizations would stop there, and save the breakdown of marketing strategy tasks for the schedule. Other organizations would break the marketing strategy down further into such tasks as creating advertising brochures and TV commercials.
Sumit Bansal, Founder of Excel training platform Trump Excel, uses the WBS to break down tasks, but also suggests using both the WBS and the project schedule, presenting different documents to different audiences. Bansal advises, “As a good practice, when you are discussing the project with high-level executives, use the project schedule, but when you work with client teams or project-level personnel, use [the] work breakdown structure.”
Tasks or activities are the lowest-level components of work that may be included in a WBS. Which of these terms is used may also vary by organization: Some classify “tasks” as groups of activities, with “activities” being the lowest level of work; other organizations do the opposite; and still others use only choose one of these terms to describe the smallest work item. The terms “control accounts” or “summary tasks” may be used to describe levels of decomposition that contain multiple tasks.
If you do include tasks or activities in your WBS, each should only have one owner. This not only keeps the document organized, it also helps you determine whether further decomposition is needed. If a task/activity is too much for a single owner to handle, then you know you need to break that work item up even more.
Finally, some organizations create “activity lists” that are independent from both the WBS and the project schedule. These outline all the deliverables from the WBS as well as the specific activities required to produce them. Again, you can choose the method that is right for your organization and project.
To learn more about this article, please read, The Definitive Guide to Project Management, https://www.smartsheet.com/definitive-guide-project-scheduling