The importance of time estimation in project management is widely discussed in the literature. But what to do with your time estimates? How to use them effectively? The answer — create a project timeline.
A project timeline is a visual and chronological depiction of every milestone you expect to accomplish during project realization. Basically, it is a linear scale with all project tasks placed in sequential order, as well as dates aligned with them.
Step-by-step compliance with your timeline is a guarantee of successful and timely project completion.
Besides, timelines serve some other practical purposes:
- They are the reflections of high-level project plans that can be presented to diverse stakeholders (sponsors, team members clients, etc.) to communicate project goals, deliverables and requirements with greater clarity.
- Throughout the process of timeline visualization, you may easily detect any gaps or overlaps among the scheduled project activities, which will let you distribute workloads more efficiently and establish more realistic and error-free project schedules.
- A timeline of a completed project might be used for the assessment of its actual vs. predicted results at the final stages in the project life cycle, which provides a ton of valuable information for future decision making.
Overall, a well-developed project timeline can offer you a plethora of benefits. In addition, it is very easy to make: simply open an Excel spreadsheet, create a table, follow the general design rules and fill your data in.
By the way, we have already prepared a free downloadable Project Timeline Template for you (look for it at the end of the article). But before you commence creating a timeline for your own project, let’s explore the design process in detail to demonstrate which elements you must include in the timeline in order to get the best out of it.
How to Design an Excellent Project Timeline in 7 Steps
To develop a perfect and credible timeline, you need to be fully aware of project specifics, goals and requirements. In essence, you must have a complete and thorough project plan with estimates for each task.
To attain that, just follow these seven steps:
1. Define project scope
A scope statement sets project boundaries and explains what your team is expected to produce by the end of the project.
For instance, if you want to develop an app, a scope statement (in its very basic form) will clarify which particular purposes that app will serve and which features it will include: “We’re going to create a social media app for art lovers. It will allow users to talk to each other through text messages and video calls, share their creations in posts, search for collaboration opportunities with brands, participate in discussion groups and creative competitions.”
In other words, at this step, you need to identify general project characteristics, directions, goals and objectives.
2. Elaborate a work breakdown structure and formulate tasks
Once the scope statement is made, you need to break down general project goals and deliverables into smaller components, also known as work packages. After that, these sub-deliverables are broken down into even smaller pieces of work — tasks.
Assume the app development example again. The project’s general deliverables are equated to the app’s various features recounted in the scope statement: video chat, discussion groups, posting, etc. Work packages for each of them will be as follows:
- Architecture specifications,
- Feature testing.
Note that although work packages for various goals in the provided project example are identical to a substantial degree, they might differ in other types of projects that are less standardized and more creative in nature.
Anyways, with sub-deliverables at hand, you can proceed to task formulation. Here is a brief list of those involved in work package 2 — Programming:
- Create a code design document,
- Select and implement a code control system,
- Develop user interface (UI),
- Develop code, etc.
Overall, you need to divide general project deliverables into very precise and specific to-dos. By using work packages as an interim output in this process, you can accomplish this step much more accurately, without missing a thing.
3. Identify task dependencies
Task dependency means a strict relational order in which every task in the project should be performed. That is to say, you can’t start working on some things before others are completed.
You can’t begin to code the app before thinking through its functional and technical specifications. Therefore, you need to set the right performance priorities and clarify which of the tasks must be fulfilled first.
At this step in the planning process, be sure to use flowcharts — they are perfect for visualizing task dependencies and make it much easier to comprehend information. The diagram can be as simple as an example below. However, more complex projects will usually call for a more sophisticated representation of task dependencies.
4. Estimate time for tasks
Now it’s the moment to estimate how many hours every task may take to accomplish. There’s a great variety of estimation techniques that will readily help you with that. Try to choose the one that provides as accurate forecasts as possible. Take into account both the best-case and worst-case scenarios (including relevant risks and uncertainties) and add some buffer time to your estimates if required.
5. Assess resource availability
Determine which resources you must have in order to deliver the project and analyze their current and future availability. Pay special attention to your workforce resources since, as a rule, their availability is more dynamic than of other resources.
Employees don’t work 24/7. They have days off and go on long vacations once in a while. If you implement flexible work arrangements in your company and let your team members freely choose when to be at the workplace and for how long, it can become even more challenging to predict the number of workers available in the long term.
To analyze workforce capacities both before and during project realization and avoid project delays, consider using a specialized schedule and leave management tool, such as actiPLANS. It will enable your team members to plan time off in advance and help you monitor how many of your workers scheduled to be on duty for any period.
After you’ve got all the necessary information regarding your employees’ availability, use it to forecast time required for task completion in days and months. What you have to do here is take your initial hour-based estimates and apply them to your team members’ schedules:if the fulfillment of a task is expected to take 40 hours, and a responsible employee works merely 5 hours a day during a standard 5-day workweek, you should set a deadline in at least a week and 3 days.
6. Decide on project milestones
A project milestone is a point in the course of project realization that signifies an important accomplishment — anything from the commencement of work on a series of tasks or the completion of a work package. In other words, a milestone symbolizes a progress point that you can use to assess your performance. Note that milestones should be timebound. Incorporate them into your project schedule along with task deadlines.
7. Create a timeline
Knowing your project tasks, their dependencies, milestones and time estimates, you can proceed to the final and the most exciting step — timeline design:
- List all the planned activities in chronological order on the spreadsheet. You may group them by work packages if some tasks will be performed simultaneously by different team members.
- Create a linear timescale with important dates clearly identified. Include both the milestone dates and the first / last days of the month.
- Indicate the duration for each of your project tasks with color blocks.
Now, your project timeline is completed!
Check out our free Project Timeline Template to see the above three steps executed in the Excel format. Use it as a reference point for creating your own timeline, adjust the chart’s contents to suit your needs and fill the data in.
To make sure your timeline serves its purpose well, follow these general guidelines:
- Apply color codes to distinguish between different tasks, unite similar ones or indicate their statuses (in-progress, under review, completed, etc.). Create a color code system and use it consistently throughout the document.
- Below the timeline, you may add a comprehensive table with all the relevant information about project work packages (task categories), tasks, start and end dates, color codes applied. The aim of such a table is to collect and systematize project data and to provide readers / viewers with an explanation about how the timeline is organized.
- Track time and work progress to stimulate team compliance with the created timeline, detect any risks of delays promptly and make schedule adjustments if necessary.
Note that one of the best ways to track project progress and employees’ adherence to time estimates is by implementing a time tracking tool, such as . This high-quality piece of timesheet software allows users to record how many hours they spend on different activities daily, analyze time use behaviors and receive automatic notifications whenever the risk of schedule overrun arises. Thus, actiTIME can assist you and your team in attaining better project outcomes.
Ready to give actiTIME a try? Sign up for a 30-day trial and start to improve your project-related time management practices absolutely for free.