A project usually begins with the best of intentions, but an unscheduled project can go off track fast, resulting in a tangle of complications and costs that were never included in the budget. According to the Project Management Institute, companies lose $109 million for every $1 billion spent on projects and programs.
The size of a project is a big factor in how important scheduling is. The larger a project is, the more chances there are for errors and for them to fail. In fact, large projects are 10 times more likely to fail and twice as likely to be late, over budget and missing important milestones compared to smaller projects.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Definition of project scheduling: To create a living document used to ensure all the work needed to complete a project is done on time. It includes both the tasks and the resources required for those tasks. Each task is assigned a place in the schedule with a start and end date.
Selecting Software for the Project Scheduling Process
While it's possible to schedule a project using a map on a wall, most people prefer using software. At its most basic, for a small project, you can use Microsoft Outlook, OneNote, Google Calendar or even a spreadsheet shared with your project team. Keep in mind, however, that these solutions are little more than shareable to-do lists.
Scheduling software like Microsoft Project makes the process much easier. Because most tasks are interdependent, if one needs to be rescheduled, the dependent tasks can be shifted automatically as required. Project scheduling software can also generate automatic email alerts to notify each team member when a task is due or overdue, as well as letting the project manager know when a team member's availability has shifted.
In 2019, some of the most popular project management software packages, based on market share as calculated by TechnologyAdvice, include:
- CA Clarity
- Atlassian JIRA
- Microsoft Project
How to Schedule a Project
Before starting a project, you should begin the scheduling process by answering three questions in broad strokes:
- What needs to be done? This is the final outcome of the project, like building a house, developing a product prototype or upgrading a computer network.
- When does the project need to be finished? This is the date the final outcome needs to be finished.
- Who will do the work? This is the team you'll need to work on the project. It may be specific people or job titles that need to be filled.
The answers to these three questions will serve as the foundation of your schedule. To complete the project schedule, there are eight steps you should take:
1. Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to define the tasks that need to be accomplished, as well as the milestones and deliverables. Each task, from buying supplies to polishing the final product, should lead toward the project outcome. Milestones are major achievements following some tasks and don't take any time in the schedule. Deliverables are products and services the client requires.
2. Determine the relationships between the tasks, making sure to identify which tasks others are dependent on. In most cases, one task can't be started until an earlier task or tasks are completed. This can be done using a flow chart or a Gantt chart.
3. Assign a person to each task. If more than one person is required for a task, select one to be in charge of that task. If work needs to be done at different locations, make sure you add these to each task.
4. Assign resources to each task requiring them, like tools and supplies. If you need to order or pick up items for a task, consider making these separate tasks so they can be assigned a completion date. Depending on the software you have, you can create schedules or task lists for tools, meeting rooms and other resources required for projects.
5. Estimate the time required for each task. Talk to those who are responsible for the tasks before estimating how long it will take. If nobody on your team has previous experience with a specific task, consult with someone who does have experience to get an estimate. Try to anticipate delays in tasks and leave some time as a buffer between tasks.
6. Identify unknowns and variables. Make notes of any assumptions you have made, like the ability of people to work overtime if needed, and any risks that may come with the project. Make notes of any uncertainties, like lead times and lag times of supply deliveries, travel times, etc.
7. Identify the critical path. The critical path consists of the tasks that have the least amount of flexibility in the schedule and can't be delayed without jeopardizing the entire project. For example, if a consultant is flying in from out of town to work on one task on a specific date, the tasks leading up to her task would be on the critical path.
8. Double-check everything. Ensure that everyone is available for the times they're scheduled and that materials needed for the project will be arriving on time. If there's question on how long a task may take, add some extra time to be on the safe side.
Keeping a Project on Schedule
Projects rarely go according to plan, so once a project is initiated, you must refer to the schedule regularly to ensure that one delay doesn't lead to catastrophe. This is where a static document like a spreadsheet can lead to problems. Suppose, for example, the client changes his mind and wants a new deliverable or a vital team member is unavailable on the first day to complete a task.
With proper scheduling software, team members will be notified when a task is approaching and you'll be notified when any task becomes overdue. If you need to reschedule a task, you can usually drag and drop it into a new position. Not only that task but every dependent task down the chain are rescheduled automatically.
Project scheduling software gives you the ability to add people and resources to tasks and to track them independently of each project. Most software packages offer interactive Gannt charts so you'll have a visual display of each task's duration. If you have recurring tasks, scheduling software should also allow you to set these up so you can place it wherever needed without having to create the same tasks over and over again.
As the project requires changes, simply dragging and dropping tasks into new positions updates the entire project. When someone completes a task, the software updates for everyone automatically. The project manager and anyone else who needs to know will get an automatic alert.
Whether you're a sole proprietor working with a couple of employees or the manager of several hundred people working on a series of projects, scheduling people can often be the most complicated part of project management. People get sick, take holidays and vacation or have other commitments on parallel projects. You need to be prepared for these events and, whenever possible, have backup resources you can put into action if needed.
Consider color-coding tasks in the Gantt chart based on the people required. It's also important to choose a project scheduling software that can connect with your personal calendar and the calendars of the project team so you'll always know at a glance who's supposed to be where, and team members won't accidentally double-book themselves on other projects.
- Project Manager: What Is Project Scheduling?
- Microsoft: Project Management Software
- Microsoft Office: The Six Not-So-Obvious Reasons a Project Plan Fails
- Workamajig: A Beginner-Friendly Guide to Work Breakdown Structures (WBS)
- University of Wisconsin: Develop Project Schedule
- TechnologyAdvice: Project Management Software Buyer's Guide
A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.