How to create a project timeline: The ultimate guide
Trying to manage a project with multiple moving parts can feel like herding cats. Aligning the assorted tasks so they tie up neatly and ensuring everyone’s on the same page at all times is hard work.
Enter the project manager’s best friend: a project timeline.
A project timeline allows you to bulk schedule tasks so that you can see what needs to be done when and keep an eye on the overall timeline of a project. Without one, it’s easy for a project to derail and descend into absolute chaos - which, let’s face it, isn’t a good look.
What is a project timeline?
At its core, a project timeline is an overview of a project’s deliverables laid out in chronological order. It maps out what needs to be completed before a new task can commence and keeps everything ticking along nicely.
Usually, it comes in a visual format, which means stakeholders and team members can get a quick overview at a glance. This allows them to picture the roadmap of a project, including the key milestones, manage individual tasks that need to be completed, dependencies, and those all-important delivery dates.
An example of a project that needs a project timeline
Project timelines work well for any project that has a lot of moving parts.
Say, for example, you’re designing and developing the content for a new client’s blog. The project might involve several different elements, like creating a theme for the blog, putting together tone of voice guidelines, coming up with a content plan, and actually writing the content.
In a project like this, where some things need to happen before others can begin(like the content plan needs to be created before the content can be written), it’s important to have a structured timeline to avoid any bottlenecks.
The benefits of a project timeline
Every good project manager knows that a project timeline is their trusty companion when starting out on a new adventure. Not only does it help everyone involved visualize the steps in a project, but it helps keep tasks on track to impress stakeholders.
If we dig a bit deeper, we’re greeted by a lot more benefits. Here are a few:
Reveals a clear path forward. It’s easy to see what step to take first and what needs to happen after that (this is particularly helpful in an overly complex project that has multiple steps and multiple layers).
Maintains the big picture. It’s hard to see the end of a project when there are so many little steps needed to get there. A project timeline helps you visualize everything in a single view so you can focus on the bigger picture.
Ensures everyone has the same goal. You need your entire team on board for a project to be successful. Project timelines help everyone recognize how they slot in and what role they play in the overall success of a project.
Keeps everyone in the loop. A project timeline helps everyone involved track the progress of a project, which builds trust with stakeholders and makes communication far easier.
Tracks what happens and when. Knowing the hierarchy of tasks and what needs to happen before something else can take place is a crucial part of project management. A project timeline helps you lay this out clearly and concisely.
Prevents bottlenecks and hold-ups. Discover potential dependencies to avoid bottlenecks that delay a project and frustrate stakeholders.
Make changes easy. Projects don’t always follow a linear route. Something might crop up halfway through that needs addressing. A project timeline makes it easy to actively change elements of a project and switch up tasks without leaving anyone in the dark.
The different types of project timelines
There are three common types of project timelines that you might have already come across. Each one comes with its own unique set of pros and cons, so make sure you weigh up your priorities and choose one that’s best suited to your project’s needs.
Gantt timelines are one of the most popular types of project timelines as they provide a quick snapshot of a project, including the end dates of tasks, key milestones, the dependencies between tasks, and who are assigned to each task.
Today, Gantt charts are particularly interactive and can be updated and edited in real-time. This makes them a handy addition to a project because they’re always up-to-date.
2. Historical Timeline
Simply put, a historical timeline lays out the tasks involved in a project in chronological order, either from left to right or top to bottom.
Think about your average history timeline that markers key dates from a specific time period - this is the basic structure of a historical timeline.
3. Vertical Chart Timeline
Vertical charts are best suited to projects that deal with data, like finance projects or a marketing department that’s tracking leads. They essentially show the gains of something over a specific timeframe, like how much website traffic is generated each month or how much monthly recurring revenue (MRR) is coming in.
How to create a project timeline
Creating a project timeline should be the first step you take in any project. Setting it up early on will help you get started more quickly and stay on track. But if there are a ton of tasks and more than a handful of employees involved, it can get tricky.
First things first…
What should a project timeline include?
There are five key parts involved in a project timeline:
Their due dates
The duration of each task
Team members or assigned employees
Steps to creating a project timeline
Step 1: Understand the scope of your project
Before you do anything, it’s crucial that you know the scope of your project. This will help you decipher how long each task needs, the overall timeline of the project, and how many team members you need to bring on board to get it done.
Start by writing a project scope statement that includes all the deliverables you need to create, as well as a potential list of resources you’ll need to complete it.
For example, if you’re running a rebranding project for a new client, your scope statement might look something like this: “we will produce a logo and five-page website design for X by [date]”.
Step 2: Split the project into milestones
Once you’ve written a scope statement, list out everything involved in the project.
If we continue to use the logo design project example above, this might include mock-up designs, color palette research, a branding workshop, edits, and any other deliverables and steps involved in the process.
You can then turn the list into milestones - e.g. What needs to happen first? At what point will you share your progress with stakeholders?
From there, it’s a case of splitting up each milestone into manageable smaller tasks and plotting them in your timeline.
For example, the first milestone might be to complete three mock-up logos for the client. This might involve a design team meeting, client questionnaires, competitor research, and of course the actual design process.
Step 3: Estimate the time of each task
It’s far easier to estimate how much time a task is going to take if you’ve broken it down into parts.
While it might be difficult to know how long it will take to come up with three mock-up logos, you can be pretty certain about the timeframes involved in hosting a meeting, running a client questionnaire, and carrying out competitor research.
Against every smaller task you’ve listed, put an estimated timeframe so you can start to see the overall project take shape.
Step 4: Assign tasks to your team
At this point, you’ll need to start dishing out tasks to your team. Start by noting down all the resources you might need for a project and matching those up with your team’s talents and skills.
For best results, play to your team’s advantage.
For example, if you have a prolific logo designer who’s not so hot with website design, have them focus on the logo part while another team member can work on the website design.
Step 5: Choose your project timeline software
You can always track your project timeline in a spreadsheet or via another manual method, but it’s far easier to plug it into a project timeline software that updates in real-time. This helps you to avoid overlapping tasks and makes sure everyone stays on the ball at all times.
Teamwork makes it easy to manage complex projects and track the timeline of each individual task. You can assign each element to a team member and run all communication through the tool to keep it in one place.
Step 6: Plot each task on your timeline
Bring your project to life by mapping out each task on your timeline. Make a note of any dependencies - for example, in the logo design project, the color palette research needs to take place before any design work begins - and plot them accordingly.
You’ll begin to get a feel for what activities will be happening at any given time, and team members can easily manage their schedules.
Get started with a project timeline
Done right, project timelines can mean the difference between a successful project that gets completed on time and a messy pile of chaos with missing deliverables and unhappy stakeholders.
The key to creating a project timeline that works is to know exactly what tasks are involved, which team members will complete them, and how long each element will take. Then, it’s a case of mapping these out in a structured, visual format using project timeline software.