The 8-Step Guide to Creating a Quality Project Schedule

Scheduling | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

A businessman holding a colourful Gantt chart

Successful projects start with a good, quality project schedule. Creating a schedule is one of the first tasks you should do when given a project to manage. The temptation is often to get on with the work and worry about the schedule later - this is a mistake. You will be left exposed and, if challenged, will have no evidence of whether your project is on time or running late.

This article looks at a simple, practical approach to creating project schedules. After reading it, you will have a sound approach to creating schedules that you can use for future projects. Without further adieu, here's the 8-step guide to creating project schedules that drive project success.

1. Plan with the Team

Team planning is more effective than planning on your own. It ensures everyone has a stake in the schedule and ownership of the outcome. The project team must account for all the phases, milestones, and tasks to reach a successful conclusion.

I like to create a basic high-level schedule to kick things off. It's better than sitting in a meeting with your team staring at a blank screen. Even if it's inaccurate, it creates a talking point and helps the session start moving.

2. Cover the Project Scope

Use the scope statement from your charter or BOSCARD to ensure you include everything the customer expects you to deliver. List all the activities needed to deliver the scope.

Look at the order of activities. It's often best to start with the most challenging tasks. The type of project may dictate the order. You cannot build a house until you have laid the foundations. Think about the work you can do in parallel. What is dependant on finishing other activities first? Make sure you include those dependencies in your schedule.

3. Group the Tasks into Phases

Projects typically go through phases, starting with an idea and progressing all the way to launch and rollout. You should arrange your project schedule in these phases. Here's an example I've used for software development projects:

  1. Ideas (the first concept, creating the team and everything needed to get the project started)
  2. Feasibility (often developing a prototype, model or proof of concept)
  3. Build (doing the work to create the product or service)
  4. Launch (preparing to go live with the product or service, often as a pilot first)
  5. Rollout (delivering product or service to the broader audience following updates from the pilot)
  6. Closure (finishing the project, disbanding the project team and tying up any loose ends)

4. Create Milestones

Adding milestones to your schedule helps the project team stay focused and motivated. Milestones are the end of phases, where work needs completion or sign-off needs to be obtained for work carried out. These milestones are how the team sees and measures progress.

Poring over hundreds of tasks each week is daunting. Milestones help put the entire project into perspective - they keep everyone on track to a successful finish.

5. Make Time for Time

When adding time estimates (hours or days) against tasks and activities, use people's experience. Better still, if you can use a database of production rates to give more accurate estimates.

Estimating as a team is effective because it allows team members to challenge estimates. If one team member gives an estimate, another may challenge it because they have direct experience of similar work.

Make sure everyone agrees with the estimates and signs off during the session. This way, there are no arguments later.

6. Plan Your People

Now that you have your schedule, it's time to add your people, either existing or new team members. Try to match your people's skill-sets to work. Have they done similar work in the past? Do they have a skill that would be useful in a particular aspect of the project? Have they shown an interest in working in a specific area?

A frequent mistake people make when new to project scheduling is to use people for 100% of their time. It's best to assume people will only be productive on the project for 80% of their time. Administration, filling out timesheets, team meetings, support and other unrelated tasks take up the remaining 20% of their time.

Once you have assigned people to the tasks in your schedule, review it for conflicts. Do you have areas where people are working on two work streams simultaneously? Is the work allocated evenly across the team? Be careful not to overload your key people while under-utilising others.

7. Check for Errors

Check your schedule thoroughly to ensure there are no errors. Here are a few common problems found in schedules:

  • Not including public holidays
  • Not including team members' holidays
  • Missing links to dependencies
  • Creating one continuous block of work with no milestone deliverables along the way
  • Using poor task estimates or guesses instead of using people's experience or a database of production rates
  • Starting with a finish date and making the schedule fit it
  • Assigning people for 100% of their time
  • Dividing tasks between more than one person
  • Not building in contingency time in the event things go wrong

8. Update Regularly

Remember to regularly update the schedule with your team to check progress and make adjustments where necessary. A daily 15-minute Scrum-style meeting or Zoom call is helpful, one where team members individually say what they did yesterday, say what they intend to do today and highlight any blockers holding them back.

It's your responsibility as the project manager to help remove any blockers and smooth the path ahead.

In Summary

  1. Define the tasks and activities using your scope statement
  2. Sequence the activities and identify any dependencies
  3. Group the tasks and activities into phases
  4. Create milestones
  5. Create time estimates for the tasks and activities
  6. Assign people to the tasks and activities
  7. Review your schedule for errors and correct them
  8. Hold daily progress meetings with your team and adjust the schedule

A quality project schedule is the basis of project success. Spend time with your team creating a meaningful and realistic schedule.

Recommended read: How to Build a Project Schedule in 5 Easy Steps by Andrew Makar.


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