Project scheduling breaks down projects into three parts: what needs to be done, when is it due, and what resources are required to deliver the work.
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 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 and prioritize projects, 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. Sometimes even the entire project can be deprioritized due to other projects.
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.
Hint: 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.
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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."
Zoom footage of Metalab's team working on Vice's project remotely
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.
The benefits of having a solid project schedule
Without a project schedule, the team and the client cannot know when work is happening, who is doing the work, and what they should be doing. In short: chaos!
A project schedule means you can:
- Allocate people to tasks (and remember: you’re allocating people, not resources)
- Ensure that people are not being over or under-booked onto project work–especially important when multiple projects might be vying for their attention
- Understand dependencies and reduce blockers. You can spot errors in the sequencing of tasks so people aren’t wasting time waiting for another task to be completed
- Help the team to self-organize–they can look at the schedule and see what they’re meant to be working on, which means you’re freed up to work on other tasks and not answering a hundred “what should I work on today” questions!
- Flag milestones and key deadlines with stakeholders and teams alike. You can spot them looming and plan accordingly
- Track progress. If you’re expecting to hit certain deadlines within a project, you can track the actual progress of work against the expected schedule. That doesn’t mean yelling at people if they’re behind. It means you can get ahead and manage any problems that could cause.
Your scheduling skills bring structure and surety to the table. Without them, people are unsure of what they’re meant to be doing and when they’re meant to have done it. By giving them structure, you’re freeing them up to do the things they’re specialists in. It’s a hugely important skill and a task that should not be underestimated.
How to create a project schedule in 3 steps
Scheduling a new project is an important task that can be expensive to get wrong!
You want to ensure you allocate enough time to deliver what has been sold, which is important for safeguarding your agency's financial well-being. At the same time, you also want to ensure that your clients receive what they paid for while taking care of your team's well-being and morale. It's all about finding the right balance!
As a project manager, you're likely the one who breaks down the project deliverables and creates a schedule for your team, letting them know when they're allocated to the project and for how long. There are lots of small pieces to fit together to form the larger picture of the project schedule. It’s important to work in the open and get input from your team and client as you build the work schedule.
Step 1: Talk to your sales team
Let's assume your sales team has assigned your team a project. All you know is that you and your team need to design and build a new website for the client and deliver it by a specific date. Your agency charges based on time and materials, not value-based pricing. This means your sales team likely prepared a proposal based on a brief and sold a specific number of hours or days to the client to complete the work outlined in the brief.
Hopefully, your sales team involved you and your team during the proposal phase to provide high-level time estimates, so you didn't overcommit or underestimate the effort required. Prior to creating your work schedule, communicate with the person or team who sold the project since they have the most information at this stage. Ensure you gather some key information like:
- What is the project? What are we doing?
- Has there been any discussion regarding the delivery of the project, such as feedback loops, key milestone delivery, specific considerations regarding security or tech stacks?
- Have deadlines been discussed, and if yes, what is the driving factor behind them? This is important because it will impact how you schedule the work.
- How much time has been sold? What hours/days do you have to schedule? This part is closely tied into the scoping of the work, too. How long does it take to build a website? That depends!
- Which people/disciplines need to be involved? Are those roles charged at different rates?
Once you have this information, you can start pulling together a draft schedule. Work with your team to figure out dependencies, gaps in knowledge, and what other work is happening.
Step 2: Meet with your team
Book a pre-kickoff meeting with your team to start outlining the deliverables and the timeframes according to any known deadlines and the project budget. By now you should know the budget of the project and any time-frames to factor in. For instance, if the project involves creating a campaign for a global event, it's crucial to work backwards from the event itself. Keep in mind that this is a hard deadline that’s beyond the control of both you and your client.
Create a list of epics with the team and begin putting estimates against them. This helps to give you a sense of how realistic the budget is and to start putting in some parameters around the deliverables. This will also form the beginning of your project schedule.
Build in feedback loops. If one of the epics is Design a homepage, there’s a strong chance your client will want to review this design more than once. Other stakeholders will also want to give their feedback. Make sure you talk to the client about how quickly they're able to get feedback. For example, maybe their CEO needs four weeks' notice before reviewing designs. Build this into your timeline!
Step 3: Get the client’s feedback on the schedule
Review this schedule with your client and get their input. Does this schedule look realistic to them with the suggested feedback slots? Will they be able to get assets over to you in time for designs to get started? Are they planning any annual leave you need to be aware of? Building a project schedule that works for your team and your client is important.
3 Project Scheduling Processes to Create Smarter Plans
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.
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.
An example of a work breakdown schedule.
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, organizes 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.
Source: Spotify blog
"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."
Spotify maps out every deliverable using Trello
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.
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, 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, but the team is also constantly dealing with new projects. 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 are 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.
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6 tips for creating and managing your project schedule
Here are some tips to help you build and maintain project schedules.
Don’t forget existing projects
Don’t get caught up in the excitement of landing a new project and neglect your existing commitments. Use a project management software tool like Float to capture all of your planned and upcoming projects. Float gives you a bird's eye view of what people are working on at any given time. Then you can then start to work out where this new project might be able to fit in.
Involve your team
Ensure you’re consulting with the folks who will deliver the work so you aren’t guessing on their behalf. Human beings are not great at estimating how long things will take, so one of the most valuable things you can do as a project manager is to ask questions, to help increase confidence in their estimates.
Plan for context switching
Remember that much of this preparatory work might happen while other projects are in flight, and context switching is a drain on time and attention - both for you and your team.
Avoid using estimates as deadlines
Don’t treat time estimates as deadlines. Tasks may need to be peer reviewed or be blocked by another task. Creating false or arbitrary deadlines will only create anxiety and confusion for your team and client.
Prepare for the unexpected
Not everything will go exactly as planned, so it's important to anticipate and prepare for surprises! While you can't predict every possible scenario, allocate time for bug fixing. Ensure you’re allowing time for the 101 different tasks that go into taking a new service or product live. You’ll want to make sure you have the right people at hand to handle unexpected bugs that always pop up during a launch.
Have a flexible project schedule
Your project schedule needs to be flexible. Things get delayed. People get sick. Priorities change. Your schedule will need to be able to handle change! Using software to manage this is much easier than tracking it on a spreadsheet—you can “lift and shift” blocks of time or multiple tasks very easily. An added benefit is that there is one single point of truth, so if you need to fast track, crash schedules, or use other leveling techniques, the changes will be automatically updated for everyone who has access to the schedule.
Why project scheduling software helps build better plans
Scheduling software helps team leaders track and manage their team's time.
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. 😎
Looking for the ultimate project scheduling tool that combines resource utilization with capacity management? Float is the top rated resource management software, and is trusted by 3,000+ teams around the world. Try it free for 30 days.
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