Depending on the complexity and length of your project, there are concrete steps you can take to develop a solid project schedule and ensure all aspects of your project are properly planned and accounted for.
Step 1: Write Down Activities
First, you’re going to work out what it is that you have to do. It might sound obvious, but this is the stage where you are likely to forget a couple of activities; once the project schedule is produced, you won’t remember to add them in until you realize that no one has done them.
The best way around this is to involve the team in constructing the list of activities. You could start off the list with everything that you know needs to be included (like all the broader project management activities such as risk management meetings and key reporting dates). Then get the team together to add to it.
Be sure to keep project scope in mind as you’re working on your activities. Activities are one of the main culprits for taking projects off-track. As you do this, also estimate the resources these activities are going to demand, to further assist in your scheduling.
It’s amazing what you’ll remember on the commute home, so plan in some time to update the project schedule before it is finalized.
Step 2: Establish Order of Activities
Work with your team to plan out the order of activities. It’s easier to do this on sticky notes and a big piece of flipchart paper before you start typing it into your software. Remember to highlight any dependencies related to external teams, too, as well as client and vendor dependencies. It’s not uncommon to invite representatives from key groups to these meetings to establish the clear dependencies for the overall project at the outset.
A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of a project schedule and it shows you the links between activities. These are called dependencies and are normally marked with a black line. Project management software (E.g. MS Project) will probably draw the links in for you if you enter the dependency information – in other words, which activities need to be done before or after this activity.
Step 3: Create Milestones
A project milestone is a particular point in time that marks the completion of something or another significant moment on the plan. For example, the end of a phase, the start of a product build.
Put milestones on your project schedule in appropriate places, and link them to the relevant activities. You’ll want milestones to appear regularly on the schedule as they will help you identify if you are still on target to complete all the work on time.
Step 4: Calculate Duration
Once you have a list of linked activities with milestones, you can add in any fixed dates. For example, many project management applications will automatically schedule your project to start today, but you might be planning some work that won’t start for a few months. So go through the dates and make sure that they are all as you would expect. You can alter them manually or add in any additional dates as required.
This is also the point to review how long each activity will take. Software will generally set the activity duration to whatever the default is, which could be as little as one day. Make sure that each activity lasts for the right amount of time by manually changing the duration.
Step 5: Allocate People to Activities
Your plan is nearly complete! But first you have to add in the details of the people doing the work. This is important because if you don’t work out who is doing what when you might inadvertently book an individual to work on too many things at the same time.
Go through the activity list and allocate your project team members to the appropriate activities. Ideally you would have gotten informed estimates from your team before putting them into the planning tool.
Check that you haven’t got anyone overstretched or anyone sitting around doing nothing. If you have, look at changing the order or dates of activities to better fit the times that your resources are available. This analysis can take a while but will help immensely as you proceed.
Step 6: Review Regularly
It’s impossible to create the perfect project schedule on the first attempt. Your schedule will also change as the project evolves, especially if you make amendments to the project scope. Have a formal review at least once a month, although you’ll probably be looking at and tweaking your plans much more frequently than that.
A final tip is to make sure that any stakeholders, and the project team, know that your schedule is likely to change so that they don’t expect that the document they get given on Day 1 is the definitive version! However, you should always aim for the schedule to be as accurate as possible, and knowing that changes are likely is never an excuse to do a poor job at the start.