Project Scheduling 101: What It Is + How To Do It
Every project needs a plan.
Breaking down projects into tasks and deliverables not only helps keep a project on track, it also prevents teams from being overworked and burning out. Float’s Global Agency Productivity Report found that scheduling is still a big problem for modern agencies. In fact, 62% of agencies identify scheduling as their biggest project management challenge, and 43% of team members say their work is rarely scheduled effectively. It's time to find a better way to schedule projects!
Project scheduling is not rocket science (but it can certainly help rocket scientists plan their time better). It allows you to define the "what" of a project—what needs to get done, and when each part will be delivered.
Instead of trying to master complex project management techniques, we're going to break down 3 project scheduling processes (with examples from successful brands) that you can use to build better project schedules.
What Is Project Scheduling?
Project scheduling involves breaking down projects into three parts: what needs to be done, when it needs to be delivered, and what resources need to be utilized. A project schedule often contains tasks (usually with start and finish dates), deliverables, and milestones.
Alas, no matter how hard we try and how carefully we plan, we all know that schedules can change for lots of different reasons. A task might take longer than anticipated or another project in your pipeline might need immediate attention. Other things pop up too, like team members who are out sick or on holiday.
Ultimately, you can't avoid unexpected issues from arising once a project kicks off. That's just the nature of the beast. What team leaders can do is create a working, flexible schedule so that when these problems occur (and they will), it's easier to pivot and still deliver projects on time.
💡 Pro tip: What’s the difference between project planning and project scheduling? Project planning is all about picking a methodology and deciding what procedures your team will need to follow to deliver a project on time. Project scheduling takes those plans, costs, and deliverables and plots them onto an operational timeline.
Metalab's Design Director, James Hobbs, says that at the start of any project, there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap to success. When his team worked on a project for Vice (where team members were spread across different time zones) Hobbs says flexible schedules play a big role in its overall success.
"With our lead designer in South Africa, our animator in Paris, and myself in Portland, we quickly learned how to work in a way that complemented each other’s schedules; Shaun and Adrian would design while I slept, and I’d wake up excited to see their progress.
As their days wound down, I’d compile notes and send them over for them to be able to dig into in the morning."
As the project deadline drew close and the project's final tweaks and changes came in, the team's flexible schedules carried the project to the finish line. Hobbs says that three parts of Metalab's planning process—trust, alignment, and accountability—helped lay the foundation for a successful project.
So what can we learn from Metalab's scheduling success?
To deliver a project successfully, you need a flexible project schedule that can absorb speedbumps as you work through it. If you can manage changes as a project progresses, you can reassign tasks and use your team's capacity to make sure it still gets delivered on time.
Here are 3 processes you can start using today to build smarter project schedules.
3 Project Scheduling Processes To Create Smarter Plans
1. Work breakdown schedule
A work breakdown schedule is a simple way to organize projects because it works towards an outcome-based plan.
Instead of having a detailed, daily schedule for your team, a work breakdown schedule focuses on key deliverables by focusing on the "what" of the project. Because this process focuses on end deliverables over day-to-day planning, you can distill an entire project into one chart that shows a breakdown of broad tasks.
Shopify's Simon Heaton says web designers can use a work breakdown schedule to simplify their project schedules. As work breakdown schedules are similar to standard wireframes, designers can use the same process to map out a project's individual components instead of a site's pages and folders.
Heaton says using a work breakdown structure relies on using the "100% rule," where the final deliverable shows 100% of your work and costs.
"For each subsequent sub-deliverable, you should apply a percentage value associated with the total amount of work and the budget.
The value of all sub-deliverables within a work group should add up to the total percentage of that work group, while all work groups combined should add up to 100% together."
While this process is an excellent way to break down a project into broad deliverables and assign a rough budget, it doesn't assign dates to each deliverable. This process is good for mapping out your entire project without getting bogged down in every last detail (that's what #3 on the list is for 😉).
2. Milestone schedule
A milestone schedule is a more detailed version of a work breakdown schedule as it marks when important parts of projects are completed.
If we look at the earlier example of the website breakdown and use a milestone schedule, we could map out deliverables like finishing the site's design. Once that's finished, the team could move on to the next milestone—copywriting. Milestone schedules are useful because they allow team leaders to visualize important goals and predict when a project will be complete.
In fact, it's how the design team over at Spotify keep their projects on track.
Spotify's Head of Design Ops, Cliona O'Sullivan, is responsible for organizing hundreds of designers across five locations worldwide. She says the key to keeping her team in sync is to stick with their three-chord rule.
"These chords are also interconnected. For example, a program to onboard new designers successfully and quickly (in Learning & Inspiration) will be dependent on simplifying access to our design toolset and connecting the new designer to our design system (Tools & Systems)."
The three-chord rule mirrors the most critical aspect of a milestone schedule: one part of a project can't start until the previous milestone has been ticked off and completed.
Spotify's unique workflow means that its designers need to be in touch with each other from the start to finish of every project, and milestones must be organized in the right order. That way, when one piece of a project is finished, the next phase can begin.
"We treat each design ops program like any large production: we write a clear brief, scope the work, build a roadmap, set success measures, facilitate a team through the process, and—best of all—deliver."
By using Trello to break down its projects into small milestones, Spotify's designers can review, prioritize, and change project deliverables based on their backlog and what they feel is the most urgent.
💡Pro-tip: Integrate your project scheduling with Trello.
Resource management software makes project scheduling a breeze. Using a tool like Float, you can directly integrate your Trello boards with your resource calendar to sync and schedule projects with ease. Find out more here.
3. Detailed schedule
This project scheduling process relies on team leaders breaking down projects based on which tasks need to get done, when they need to get done by, and who needs to work on them.
This project scheduling process stands out because it's focused on teams who are working on complex tasks or juggling several projects at once. If your team members are continually jumping from project-to-project, this process gives you an easy way to build a detailed schedule right down to the daily and hourly tasks.
It's how BuzzFeed keeps their team on track while juggling between 100-200 video projects at any given time. Not only does each of the video projects that land in their pipeline take 2-3 weeks to complete, the team is also constantly dealing with new projects too. So they need a way to reassign tasks to whoever is most available and best suited for them without throwing their entire workflow off.
BuzzFeed’s Post Production Manager, Leah Zeis, is in charge of breaking down video projects into deliverables and creating a schedule. She says before a project is started, the creative team fills out a project form that maps out who is on the project team, what the deliverables are, and what the overall project timeline is. Then, the project's timeline is assessed, and tasks are allocated to the available people in Float.
“It’s in Float that we start creating and assigning the editing tasks and resources to get the project delivered. We add information like the project due date and budget so that at a high level we can see what our resource capacity and availability is to schedule the right team for the job.
When you’re managing 100 to 200 projects at once, we need to be able to see everyone’s schedules at a high level.”
BuzzFeed's team leaders know who has a free afternoon to take on a last-minute task using a detailed schedule. If a project falls behind or a team member gets sick, their detailed, flexible schedule ensures that their deliverables remain on track.
Why Project Scheduling Software Helps Build Better Plans
Specialized software helps team leaders track and manage their team's schedules.
It can also automatically store data for every project you take on so that it's easy to track utilization and measure how efficient your team is being. That's what helps you build better, smarter project schedules. Once you know how long it takes your team to do the work, you can plot deliverables better, and ultimately, complete tasks faster.
With a tool like Float, teams can plan multiple projects at once and get an accurate picture of their overall capacity. Not only does this protect your team from burning out, but it also means that you'll know if your team has the time to take on new projects, or if you need to hire outside help.
Float makes it easy to see how a project is progressing, when it will be finished, and whether any teammates have the capacity to take on additional work to help see the project over the finish line.
You should know by now that project scheduling isn't rocket science. In fact, with the right tools and planning, it's a quick and easy way to ensure that every project in your pipeline stays on track—and your team stays sane. 😎