Why You Need a Master Schedule to Balance Project Timelines

Master schedules consolidate information about project activities, milestones, and deliverables to communicate them to key stakeholders. Here's how.

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Managing a project is no easy feat, and as a project manager, it can feel like you're expected to be in multiple places at once. With so many details to keep track of, from deadlines and dependencies to stakeholder relationships and progress against milestones, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

But what if I told you there was a tool to help you keep everything in check and prevent your project from going off the rails? That tool is a master schedule, and it's an essential part of any project manager's toolkit.

By understanding what a master schedule is and how to use it, you can stay on top of all the moving parts of your project and ensure that everything runs smoothly.

What is a master schedule?

You can think of a master schedule as a summary-level view of key project information. It aggregates project activities, milestones, and deliverables captured in the work breakdown structure across various project components.

It's important to note that a master schedule differs from project and resource schedules.

  • A project schedule lists the activities, with start and end dates, that are required for project completion. Project managers typically use project schedules to manage less complex projects.
  • A resource schedule assigns people to work on a project or a task within a project based on their availability and aptitude to perform the work. Resource planning software like Float can help you identify where staff may be overallocated or underutilized to improve resource planning and forecasting.

Example of a master schedule

The table below is an example of a master schedule. Note that it includes milestones and deliverables in addition to project activities. It summarizes the tasks from each team required for successful project delivery.

Example of a master schedule
Example of a master schedule.

When to use a master schedule

Project managers use master schedules to communicate information about complex projects to stakeholders that are either more senior or do not need to understand the low-level details of project execution.

The big-picture view helps stakeholders understand how project activities progress, the dates of key milestones and deliverables, and which teams are working on which tasks.

For example, in the context of a product launch, a project manager may create a master schedule to report on the cross-functional effort's progress, including design, product, and engineering, and go to market. However, these teams may maintain separate project schedules that roll into the master view.

Someone from the design team is likely to be intimately familiar with the project schedule for design, but they don't need to follow the go-to-market schedule at the same level of detail as they do the design schedule. Instead, they can consult the master schedule to learn more about the go-to-market team's high-level plan to promote the product.

Like most project management artifacts used for project execution, master schedules are subject to change. Project managers should create an initial plan to drive the project timeline but remain flexible to update the master schedule as the project evolves.

How do you create an effective master schedule?

Here are some best practices for creating an effective master schedule:

  • Consult with stakeholders. Make sure you are incorporating a comprehensive suite of project perspectives. A successful master schedule requires input from diverse cross-functional stakeholder groups to ensure you don’t overlook any critical dependencies.
  • Develop the schedule at an appropriate level of detail. Be sure to capture the progress of tasks along the critical path. These are the tasks that are essential for project completion. For example, you need to know when the design team will finish mobile designs for engineering handoff.

    You don’t necessarily need to see the working-level steps that went into completing the mobile designs if there are no cross-functional impacts. The design tasks that are not on the critical path for the project would reside in the project schedule for the design team. The design tasks that fall along the critical path would roll up to the master schedule.
  • Automate master schedule upkeep using scheduling software. I find it’s best to design your master schedule to automatically sync when changes are made to the individual project schedules that comprise the master version. Float updates in real time, and notifies your team of changes via an in-app activity feed, Slack (direct integration), and email.

    This way, you don’t have to make changes in multiple places, saving you time and reducing the risk of introducing errors via manual updates. For example, if you need to fast track the schedule, you can move tasks in your resource planning software, and all dependent tasks, milestones, and phases can be moved automatically, too.

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Pro tip

Use the search function on G2 to find reviews that mention the ability to sync your master schedule automatically. By doing this, you can find software that makes it easy to keep your schedule up to date and ensures that everyone has access to the most current information.

<tip-button>Learn more</tip-button></tip>

What you should include in a master schedule

If you're creating a master schedule, there are several vital components that you should include to ensure it's comprehensive and practical. These components are:

  1. A list of key milestones and deliverables and their corresponding due dates. This will help ensure that the project stays on track and that all deadlines are met.
  2. A summary of cross-functional activities required to complete project work, including expected task duration. This will provide an overview of all the tasks needed for project completion and help project managers identify potential bottlenecks or areas where additional resources may be required.
  3. Cross-functional dependencies that may impact project delivery. This will help identify which tasks must be completed before others can begin and ensure that all activities are conducted in the correct order.
  4. Information on which teams are responsible for performing which tasks. This will help determine resource allocation and ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Three tips for using a master schedule

Once you've developed a master schedule, it's important to know how to maintain and update it. Here are three tips for using a master schedule effectively:

#1. Create a set cadence to update the schedule

Set a regular cadence for updating the schedule. Depending on the project duration, aim for weekly or monthly updates. Post it in a central location and distribute it to key stakeholders along with a project brief or status report. The goal is to establish a habit of updating the schedule and to ensure that others are used to seeing it.

Even if your stakeholders don't review it closely, establishing a cadence promotes trust that you're managing the project appropriately.

#2. Take advantage of automated syncs

As noted when creating the master schedule, check for automated actions to minimize the effort required to update the schedule each week. This can save time and ensure that the schedule stays up to date.

#3. Assign a point of contact (and a backup) for each project schedule that rolls up to the master schedule

This way, if someone fails to update their project schedule or if you have questions about any of the tasks, you have someone to approach with questions and ensure that your master schedule remains effective.

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