Managing 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. Creating accurate project estimates can be just as hard.
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 and 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.
Ultimately, project timelines are about time management, which may be the most important thing for every project you’re involved with.
Below, you’ll learn all about project timelines — what they are, how they help, and how to leverage top-tier project management software to create them more effectively.
What is a project timeline?
“Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.”
~ Peter Drucker, renowned management consultant
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.
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 with multiple steps and 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.
Makes change 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 four 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 weigh up your priorities and choose one that’s best suited to your project’s needs.
1. Gantt chart timeline
Gantt timelines are one of the most popular types of project charts as they provide a quick snapshot of an entire project, including the end dates of tasks, key project milestones, the dependencies between tasks, and who is 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 from 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 dealing with data — like finance projects or a marketing department 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.
4. Kanban timeline
Kanban timelines are a good solution for teams that rely on a Gantt chart for overall tracking, and a Kanban board to figure out what to do today or this week.
A Kanban timeline is a bit of a hybrid. It doesn’t go as deep or as technical as a Gantt can, but uses the same basic approach. Some Kanban timelines can be expanded out to a conventional card workflow, and the two (timeline and card view) are linked together.
How to create a project timeline
A successful project timeline keeps your team on track and working as efficiently as possible. Below, we’ll break project timeline creation into six simple steps to set your agency up for success.
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 and 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 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: 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 project 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 the actual design process.
Step 3: Estimate the time of each task
It’s far easier to estimate how much time a task will take if you break 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 conducting competitor research.
Against every smaller task you’ve listed, put an estimated amount of time so you can start to see the overall project take shape. Leveraging an easy-to-use project management platform with native time tracking will make this job a whole lot easier too.
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 while another team member works on the website.
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 avoid overlapping tasks and ensures everyone stays on the ball.
Step 6: Plot each task on your timeline
Bring your project to life by mapping out each task on your timeline. Note any task 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.
Examples of projects that need a project timeline
Project timelines work well for any project with many moving parts. Let’s look at just a few specific examples to demonstrate their benefits.
1) SEO content strategy project timeline
Creating a theme for the blog
Putting together branding style guidelines
Developing a content plan
Writing the content
Editing and delivering the finished blog
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.
2) Website development project timeline
A website development project similarly has many steps. Some can be worked on in parallel, while others need to follow a sequence for best results. You’ll see some variation in how agencies set up these timelines, but most will follow similar steps to this:
Strategy and planning (determining what the site needs to do and how it will be built)
Design (visual concepts and wireframes)
Development and programming (the actual technical creation work)
Asset development (writing content, selecting photos, creating graphics)
Testing and review
Bug fixes and maintenance
Several of these big steps have multiple sub-processes. Some are sequential while others can be executed independently.
3) Advertising project timeline
Advertising projects tend to have many moving pieces as well. Let’s say that your advertising agency is tasked with creating a campaign for your client’s new Bluetooth earbuds. Your timeline may fall into a few stages:
Extensive market analysis
Identifying distribution channels
Asset development (blogs, press releases, print/digital ad design, etc.)
Back-end metrics monitoring and reporting
In our example (and any ad campaign), a structured timeline will allow time for research, which will ideally lead to a more successful campaign. Designating time to monitor metrics ensures that your agency can apply successful elements of the campaign to future projects, and iterate on elements that weren’t as successful.
Project timeline software: What you need to know
Building project timelines that are resilient, flexible, and adaptive requires the right set of software tools. A whiteboard (physical or digital) just isn’t going to cut it for all but the simplest projects.
A new class of project management software includes powerful project timeline software capabilities. Of course, every option out there takes its own unique spin on the concept and has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s what you need to know as you select a tool for building and managing project timelines.
1) Features to look for in project timeline software
There are dozens of project management tools out there, and most of them will tell you they can provide some project timeline software functions. But not every tool is equally strong here.
Here are a few features you should look for:
Support for multiple timeline formats, including Gantt charts: Gantt charts are a tried and tested way of visualizing project timelines. Even if you don’t plan to use Gantt charts every time, you want a tool that can handle them when needed.
Depth plus breadth: The best tools let you get as granular and detailed as you want — and zoom out to a high-level overview. You should be able to zero in granular details like spending versus budget, task and project progress. However, you should also be able to get a high-level overview of broader information like project/account profitability and project health. You'll need depth and breadth at various points, so choose a project timeline tool that provides both equally well.
Intuitive timeline updates: Things won’t always go according to plan, and you don’t want to burn needless hours manually retooling your project timelines. Look for a solution that can automatically reflow tasks based on your current situation.
2) Tips for using project timeline software
While project timeline software is essential, what you get out of it depends on what you put in. Here are some quick tips for maximizing the usefulness of your project planning tool:
Update your timelines regularly: Data-driven decision-making requires accurate, current data. It’s hard for a team to thrive and make the best choices with a timeline that’s no longer accurate.
When in doubt, over communicate: Just because the team can access and view the project timeline doesn’t mean everyone will. Keep up strong communication about updates, progress, and changes to the timeline.
Link dependent tasks: Some lightweight project management tools can’t do this, but we believe it’s vital. Tasks that cannot be completed until an earlier task finishes are called dependent. Project timeline software allows users to note this in the project plan and timeline, preventing confusion and poor planning.
Get started with a project timeline
When 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
How long each element will take
Then, it’s a case of mapping these out in a structured, visual format using project timeline software.
Teamwork.com is a superior choice for creating project timelines, helping you better manage deadlines for client work while delivering better, more efficient work for those clients. With support for Gantt charts and detailed project planning, Teamwork.com’s powerful project management software gives you insight and visibility into all of your projects, making sure you never miss a billable minute while staying on track all along the way.