Project timelines provide a framework for planning and organizing projects and are an essential part of project management.
Some teams use Excel spreadsheets, while others prefer automation tools and Gantt charts. But what about timelines? Where do they fit in, and are they right for your project and resource management?
In this post, we’ll discuss how to set up a project timeline that gets things done on time and on budget. 🙌
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What is a project timeline?
A project timeline shows the work needed to complete your project in a visual way. It shows when each task will be completed so you can keep track of progress. It also communicates what's needed to meet deadlines, which makes it easier to manage expectations and prioritize projects in the long run.
In other words, a timeline provides the big picture of deliverables, which helps ensure a successful project. It's basically the schedule project baseline you need to monitor and control progress over time.
People commonly use the words "schedule" and "timeline" as though they're two different things. But, in essence, they achieve the same result. A schedule just focuses on dates, as opposed to a timeline's list of tasks.
It's ideal to use both together since they complement one another by providing different perspectives. For example, a project schedule shows all the activities required to finish a project, while a timeline includes the order of tasks to be completed.
➡️ See what a master schedule is and how it differs from project schedules and timelines.
3 common types of project timelines
There are three main types project timelines: Gantt charts, PERT charts, and calendar/chronological timelines.
This type of bar chart gained popularity during World War I, when it was used to help military planners organize their logistics operations. It's named after American engineer William S. Gantt, who invented the chart a few years prior.
In his original design, Gantt created a horizontal line representing the duration of a project. Then he added vertical lines at regular intervals along the length of the line. Each interval represents a single day. At the top of the graph, he placed a bar showing the start date of the project. And at the bottom, he showed the completion date.
Today, a modern and more visual Gantt chart would look like this:
The color-coded bars represent the various tasks that need to be completed. Each bar stretches across the calendar, showing how many days it should take to finish the job. The person assigned to the task is on the left/ If more than one activity takes place on the same day, then multiple bars cover the area.
In addition to listing the due date, some Gantt charts include information such as the estimated number of person-hours required to perform the task, task dependencies, and task priorities.
A project evaluation review technique (or PERT) chart is similar to a Gantt chart but focuses more on estimating than scheduling. Instead of using tasks color-coded to a project, it uses a diagram with rectangles and circles as nodes to represent key milestones. These nodes are connected by arrows indicating dependencies between them.
For example, if there's an arrow connecting node 1 to node 2, completing milestone 2 requires finishing milestone 1 first. Similarly, if there's an edge (representing a dependency) between 3 and 4, then milestone 3 must come first.
Here's an example of a traditional PERT chart:
PERT charts today have become more interactive and flexible. With Float's linked tasks feature, you can shift tasks around and keep track of changes.
When project needs and resources change, it's simple to adapt the schedule to accommodate the changes and stay on schedule. If you need to move or extend a task, it will automatically shift the second task the same amount of time forward or backward.
A calendar timeline shows each event happening in chronological order. It looks similar to a traditional calendar, except it displays the entire life cycle of your project, making it easier to visualize project roadmaps.
You can use it to plan future projects or even track the progress of current ones. It also makes planning multi-year projects easier since you can identify what will happen in year X versus year Y. This allows you to manage expectations better.
A project timeline consists of three components:
- List of project tasks
- Task start and end dates
- Duration of each task
With Float's project view, you can see a calendar timeline with task dependencies, task priorities, or product roadmaps, offering you a quick glimpse into any project.
Why do I need a project timeline?
Keeping your projects and team members organized and productive is challenging without a way to visualize tasks and deadlines. This is what makes project timelines a must for project managers.
Here's a look at some of the ways you can benefit from using a project timeline:
Project timelines keep you on top of all aspects of your project, so you're able to meet any deadline. They allow you to quickly assess whether you have enough staff available to get the job done and whether projects with dependencies are creating bottlenecks in your workflow.
You can use resource management software like Float to create and track project milestones, individual tasks, and key deadlines.
Here's a project timeline example:
Keep everyone on the same page
When working together on a team, having access to a shared document where everyone has visibility into their work, and other people's contributions is essential. A project timeline provides this functionality, especially if you adopt software.
This enables everyone with access to view projects, tasks, timelines, and schedules using a mobile or desktop device. This is especially helpful in cases when you have to make changes to the timeline, e.g. by fast tracking the schedule to complete a project faster. Everybody will be alerted to the change and you'll be able to allocate work to those available.
Prevent scope creep
Scope creep happens when a project grows beyond initial estimates due to unforeseen circumstances. If left unchecked, it could lead to delays and cost overruns.
Using a project timeline gives you insight into potential issues before they become problems. For instance, you may notice one person is taking longer than expected to complete a particular task. Or perhaps another member isn't meeting their commitments.
By tracking these problems early, you'll be able to address them sooner.
Plan resources effectively
Having a way to track resources and hours worked makes it easier to maintain budgets. It also provides insight into when you need to hire more people or cut back. Using a project timeline lets you see exactly how much time certain activities take up. With all this information at your disposal, you can allocate resources efficiently.
But this is only possible when you're using the right tools. Buzzfeed knows this all too well. In any given month, it publishes between 100 and 200 video projects. So it needed a way to manage it all using software—particularly, a resource management tool that could handle its large workload.
The solution: adopting Float as its resource management software.
"We needed a resourcing software that could handle our workload, without outages and lag time, and that could make updates in real time," says Richard Klopfenstein, post-production engineer at Buzzfeed.
It took only a week to begin using it and a month to transition fully. Now, Buzzfeed uses Float daily to manage its projects.
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A bottleneck occurs when there aren't enough resources to finish an important task or when a task dependency is waiting on someone slowing down the pipeline.
In some cases, this goes unnoticed until it's too late, causing a missed deadline—or worse—the loss of a client. That's why it's critical to identify bottlenecks ASAP.
With a project timeline, you can easily spot which parts of your process require extra attention. It's even quicker to spot if you're using software to visualize project timelines.
How to create a project timeline
There are eight critical steps in creating a project timeline:
- Analyze the brief
- Make a work breakdown structure
- Set mini-milestones
- Map project and task dependencies
- Estimate a timing for each task
- Determine available resources
- Map the project onto a timeline
- Analyze and plan for the future
1. Analyze a project brief
Before starting, review the project brief or project charter thoroughly. Make sure you understand what needs to happen by identifying:
- What will be produced
- Who will produce it
- Where it will go
- When it's due
- How much it will cost to complete
Once you have all the necessary details, begin planning your project timeline. You'll also have an idea of the budget required to forecast delivery and a way to track spend in real time.
2. Make a work breakdown structure (WBS)
A WBS breaks down tasks into smaller pieces, each representing a step in completing a larger goal. It's used to organize workflows and track dependencies for all tasks.
You start by breaking down the entire project into its smallest possible units. Then break those units further into subtasks. Continue doing this until you've broken every part of the project down into individual tasks. For example, if you were building a house, you'd start at the foundation level first. From there, you'd move on to framing, then roofing, etc. Once you get to the top, you'd continue working from the inside out.
You should always try to keep as many moving parts together as possible. Otherwise, you risk having multiple teams working simultaneously on different aspects of the same task.
The goal is to avoid confusion and ensure everyone stays focused on the right project priorities.
3. Set mini-milestones
Next, set milestones required to complete the project. These will guide project progress throughout its lifecycle. For instance, you may want to plan milestone dates like "Design phase" or "Build."
Then break down these milestones into smaller milestones. For example, if you have a branding project, you can have the following under "Brand Design":
- Select brand colors
- Choose branded font
- Draw logo concepts
- Design final logo
Tracking small milestones allows project managers to track progress and key deadlines better.
4. Map project and task dependencies
Now that you have a clear picture of where things stand within the project, map out any potential dependencies between tasks. Look closely to ensure you don't skip seemingly unrelated tasks (otherwise, you'll have unwanted bottlenecks to deal with).
This ensures nothing falls through the cracks and makes it easier to prioritize tasks based on importance.
With Float, you can link task dependencies to visualize project workflows and make bulk changes, which helps save time and keeps your team agile.
5. Estimate timings for each task
After mapping out important milestones and a task list, it's time to estimate how long each should take. This way, you can determine how many people you need for each task and how much of their time they must dedicate.
You can estimate timing for tasks by looking at your history if you use time tracking. Figure out how long it normally takes to complete the same or a similar task. Does it vary based on who's performing the task?
Factor all of this to ensure you're making adjustments to estimations based on your team's capacity and speed.
6. Determine available resources
Review your current resource availability, as you may be able to add more staff members to finish certain tasks faster. Or maybe some of them are already stretched thin. Either way, you now have an idea of whether you have enough staffing to meet upcoming deadlines.
If not, adjust your estimates accordingly, ask other stakeholders to pitch in, or get outside help from temp or contract workers. It's essential to communicate clearly, so everyone knows exactly what needs to happen next.
You don't need to start from a blank page!
Use our project timeline templates to save time and make sure you have everything you need to plan schedules effectively.
7. Map your project onto a timeline
Visualizing your project timeline makes it easier to see bottlenecks, project schedules, deadlines, and team capacity. This is only possible by adopting a resource management tool like Float.
Float is equipped with project management features that let you add, edit, and track tasks while on the go. Float's project planning features allow you to create project phases to group tasks and shift timelines in a single click.
If you are already using a project management tool, Float integrates with project management software like Asana, Jira, Teamwork, Trello, and WorkflowMax.
8. Analyze and plan for next time
Once you've mapped out your project management timeline, you'll want to analyze where things went wrong last time around. Was there too little communication between departments? Did one department fall behind schedule? Were there any unforeseen issues along the way?
If the answer is yes to any of those questions, address them fully before starting again. To do so effectively, look back at previous projects and see if you should improve processes, change roles, or hire new employees.
Float has dedicated project reports showing all the numbers needed to keep projects on track. It also makes planning future projects more accurate, thanks to hindsight!
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Make project and resource planning easier with timelines
Managing people and projects is tough work. Why make your job harder than you have to?
With the right project planning tools, you can streamline your efforts and avoid delays. It's time to make your projects easier to plan and organize!
Create project timelines with the #1 rated resource management software
The world's top teams use Float to plan their projects, manage capacity, and schedule resources. Try it free for 14 days, no credit card required.Try for free