This guide is about how to create a project timeline in 8 steps. Whether you’re new to project management or an experienced manager, you’ll find this guide useful.
Using a web design project as an example, you’ll learn everything you need to make a project timeline.
Here’s a breakdown of what we’ll cover:
- What is a project timeline?
- Why do you need a timeline?
- Types of timelines
- How to make a timeline?
- Challenges in creating timelines
- Software tools to make timelines
What is a project timeline?
A project timeline is a visual representation of a project. From a project’s initiation to its end, a timeline shows the entire project lifecycle. It’s a critical output of the project planning process.
A well-made timeline gives you a big picture overview of:
- allocated resources
- and, delivery dates
In addition, using project timeline software, you can also track the progress of a project.
Why do you need a project timeline?
There can be no debate that better planning makes work better. Project management research has shown that planning and project success are closely related.
Here’re a few reasons why you should consider making a timeline:
- Communicates the project plan visually in detail. A project management timeline provides a visual overview of a project. It also provides details about the project’s tasks, resources, milestones, and delivery dates.
- Tracks and communicates project progress. As tasks get done, you can all see how far the project has come. Also, you can see if the project is on track to meet the milestones and delivery dates.
- Motivates the team to deliver. Nothing is more motivating than seeing tasks get done, milestones met, and the project progressing. A timeline motivates the team and helps it stay on track.
- Helps prioritize project activities. A timeline gives clear visibility into the dependencies within a project. That way your team and all stakeholders can clearly see what needs to be prioritized.
- Reveals constraints and risks. Finding the right resources at the right time is critical to a project’s success. A timeline helps identify resource availability as well as risks that can derail the project.
Now that you know how a project timeline helps keep everyone involved in the project on the same page, let’s look at the three types of timelines.
Types of project management timelines
There are two major types of timelines — chronological timelines, and Gantt charts. In addition, timelines can also be static or interactive.
Chronological project timelines
Chronological timelines can be horizontal or vertical.
These make it easy to visualize sequential activities, that is, activities that occur one after another. This makes chronological timelines useful for very high-level project roadmaps.
Gantt chart project timelines
Unlike sequential timelines, Gantt charts can also be used for mapping out synchronous activities, that is, activities that can occur in parallel.
Each industry has its own ways of making Gantt chart timelines. However, there are a few common elements.
- The horizontal axis of a Gantt chart represents a timeline.
- The vertical axis represents the project’s tasks or task segments.
- Horizontal bars on a Gantt chart represent the task start and end dates.
Static project timelines
Static timelines are often read-only timelines. You cannot interact with a static timeline or work collaboratively on it with your team. This makes it difficult to track a project’s progress in real-time.
Static timelines are often designed using graphic design tools and presentation software.
Interactive project timelines
Unlike static timelines, interactive timelines make it easy to collaborate and track a project in real-time. Also, you can easily adjust an interactive timeline if the project schedule changes.
Most modern project management tools come with an interactive Gantt chart timeline.
Project schedules vs. timelines: What’s the difference?
Both project schedules and timelines serve a similar purpose — communicate which project activities will be done by when. However, there’s a slight difference between the two.
A project schedule is mostly a tabular representation of a project’s activities and milestones along with the due dates. On the other hand, a project timeline is a graphical representation of the schedule on a timeline. And because it’s a timeline, instead of just the due date, timelines also need task start dates.
As a result, a project timeline makes it easier to understand a project’s schedule. It also serves as a visual way to communicate deadlines to the entire team.
How to create a successful project timeline?
Creating a timeline may seem simple. However, breaking down a project into executable tasks can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new. But even if you’re a veteran project manager these 8 steps will help you systematically create a timeline.
Step #1: Establish project scope
A project scope statement freezes a project’s requirements, priorities, and constraints. Essentially, it documents what’s included and what’s not included in a project.
If the project’s scope isn’t defined or approved by the client, chances are project owners may request deliverables outside the original requirements. This is called scope creep.
As a result, projects fail because of poor delivery and result in unhappy clients and a burnt-out team. This is why it’s critical to establish, document, and get the scope approved by the client.
The scope document is a detailed project brief. However, it doesn’t have to be complex. Here’s a simple project scope template that you can download to get started.
Step #2: Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Once you’ve established a project’s scope, the next step is to create the WBS.
To create a WBS, split the project into work packages. One way to do that is to split the deliverables defined in the project scope into smaller deliverables. Another way is to split the project into phases by milestones.
How you choose to create a WBS depends on the type and complexity of a project.
For example, our web design project can be split into phases like design, development, testing, and deployment. However, we can execute some design and development activities parallelly.
Instead, we can split the project deliverables into the following sub-deliverables. Each sub-deliverable becomes our work package.
Step #3: Build a task list
Next, we split the work packages into tasks. Tasks are the activities that you need to execute to deliver a work package.
When splitting a work package into tasks, ensure that the tasks are neither too big nor too small.
Big tasks are difficult to estimate and inherently risky. On the other hand, small tasks need to be micromanagement and end up wasting a manager’s time.
At the end of this exercise, you’ll create a task list needed to complete each work package. Here’s a task list for our example website design project.
Step #4: Prioritize tasks by dependencies
A dependent task cannot start until prior tasks, on which it depends, are completed.
Identifying task dependencies helps you discover tasks and work packages that need to be worked on in a sequence. On the other hand, independent tasks and work packages can be worked on in parallel.
For complex projects, you may want to visualize your task list on a flow chart. For our simple web design project, it’s fairly easy to identify dependencies to prioritize work.
Step #5: Estimate the time required for each task
Once your task list is prioritized by dependencies, the next step is to estimate the time required to complete each task.
During estimation, it’s fair to assume that the person responsible will give their undivided attention to the task. If you’re unable to estimate, look at previous projects or talk to an expert.
Ideally, each task should be between 4 to 40 hours to complete. Anything less will increase the communication and process overheads. And anything more will increase the risks of task failure.
When estimating the effort required, it’s advisable to add a small buffer so that your team has some breathing space before the final deadline.
Here’s how our website design project task list looks with estimates.
Step #6. Identify & allocate resources
Next, you need to identify what resources are available to complete the project. Often resources are your project team members, vendors, or contractors. In the case of industrial or construction projects resources could also mean machinery.
A team member’s availability is often the biggest limiting factor when you assign tasks. This is particularly true for project team members who are shared across multiple projects.
Resource allocation is an entire topic in itself. You may want to read this guide on resource allocation to learn more.
Toggl Plan’s team timeline is color-coded with different colors for each project. This helps you quickly visualize your team’s workload and availability.
Step #7: Add milestones
Project milestones are important dates on the timeline. These help you monitor progress and get intermittent feedback from clients.
Milestones help you adjust the expectations if estimates go awry. Plus, intermittent client feedback can help your team correct the course early, in case the client expects any changes. Also, they help your team stay motivated to deliver on time.
Typically, a milestone marks the end of a phase.
Here are the milestones for our web design project.
Step #8: Make a project timeline
Finally, it’s time to make a project timeline. But before that, you need to determine the start date for a project, based on resource availability.
To create a timeline, you can use something as simple as paper and pen, or use a timeline software tool to create interactive timelines.
Here’s a project timeline example for a web design project in Toggl Plan.
Challenges in creating a project management timeline
Based on the steps above, there are 3 major challenges you’ll encounter when creating a timeline for a project.
- Insufficient project information: No project can succeed with insufficient information. That’s why it’s critical to freeze the project scope and get it approved before you begin planning and execution. It also helps to communicate frequently with clients at each stage of the project.
- Estimation: Timeline planning often stumbles during the estimation step. However, keep in mind that an estimate is just that, an estimate. It’s difficult to estimate how long it’ll take to complete a task. There are a lot of factors involved — task complexity, resource availability, resource competency, etc.
- Resource availability: Managing resources is possibly the biggest limiting factor. Particularly, if team’s share resources. A project manager should book a resource, not just for the estimated time, but also for a buffer period before or after the actual scheduled task.
Also, your job isn’t done once you’ve created the timeline. To ensure that the project is completed within budget and on time, you’ll need to avoid these 5 mistakes.
How to create a project schedule?
Creating a project schedule is very similar to creating a timeline — steps one through seven of the above process remain the same.
Often with complex timeline maker software (like Microsoft Project) or with static timelines, project managers create a schedule before making a timeline.
Once you have identified a project’s tasks and key milestones all that is left to do is put due dates against each based on the estimates and resource availability. Depending on your location and team culture you may also need to consider public and weekly holidays.
Here’s a project schedule example for our web design project:
Once the tentative project schedule is approved by the project’s stakeholders, the schedule is frozen. In addition, dates are booked for the project’s tasks and resources.
Project timeline software
As we discussed before, using a project management tool can make it easy to plan timelines. What specific tool you choose depends on your needs and constraints.
Here are a few options you may want to consider:
Toggl Plan is a simple, drag-and-drop timeline tool.
With Toggl Plan, you can plan tasks on a timeline, add estimates, allocate resources, and set milestones. In addition, you can also create custom workflows and track all the tasks as they move from to-do to done.
It’s perfect for teams and solo workers who juggle multiple projects at a time.
Here are some more project planning tools that might interest you.
Creating a project timeline using Excel
You can also use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to create a timeline. While Excel does not come with a structured timeline tool, you can use the horizontal bar chart tool to create a read-only Gantt chart.
Most people already use the Microsoft Office Suite, and Excel timelines are great for you if you don’t need a lot of interactive functionality.
Project timeline templates
Timeline templates are another way to create a timeline.
These templates help you quickly create timelines for presentations. However, these are static timelines and don’t offer a lot of interactivity.
A timeline helps you visualize your project from start to finish.
It’s critical to manage client expectations and keep your team motivated to complete the project.
Creating a timeline can be overwhelming. But timeline tools can make your job easy. And if you follow the 8 steps above, you can easily create a perfect timeline for your project.