You have a project schedule, right? It’s probably the most important document for a project manager, whether you have plotted it with sticky notes on flip chart paper or used sophisticated project management software to produce it. It is the document that the whole team uses to work out what they are supposed to do by when. It’s the document your project sponsor will use to understand the project work, and you will use it too for project reporting and monitoring status.
In fact, without a project schedule, you could say that you don’t have a project! However, a project schedule is more than just a list of ordered tasks. It also needs to include much more to be useful. Here are 5 things that you can include on your schedule to ensure that it a great tool for your project.
Schedules aren’t just for tasks. While you might start out by creating a comprehensive task list, you can do a lot more with your project schedule, including adding resources to each task. Adding the details of who is doing the activity to the entry on the schedule makes it easy to see what work each individual is doing. The information will automatically feed through to your reporting software if you are using an enterprise-standard project management tool and you’ll be able to create resource reports with just a few clicks. The benefit of these is that you’ll quickly be able to see who has too much work and who needs some more tasks allocated to them so they aren’t sitting around waiting for things to do.
There is also a benefit for your team members as they will instantly be able to see what they are supposed to be doing when. It can really help them plan their diaries and it’s a visual reminder of deadlines. Some software will even let you send automated reminders to team members when tasks are due.
If you start off your project planning by creating a long task list, the chances are you are short of a few milestones. Milestones aren’t tasks per se, they are moments in time where you can take stock of what’s going on – activities that mark the end of a phase, the start of a stage or something similar.
Scatter some milestones through your project schedule at logical points. Aim for a couple of milestones per month so that you can use these in your project reporting to track your progress. Milestones are normally marked on a schedule by including a task with a duration of zero days or specifically marking the task as a milestone in the task properties.
#3. Summary Tasks
A summary task, also known as a hammock task, is an overarching task that comprises of several smaller tasks. It is different from a milestone, which marks (for example) the end of a phase. Instead, a summary task would be for the whole phase. All the tasks within that phase sit underneath it.
Summary tasks are useful because they allow you to group together related activities. Again, this makes project reporting easier as you can focus on the status of the project at a higher level.
#4. Actual Dates
It’s great to plan out your project at the beginning and add in all of the forecasted dates. In fact, you definitely need to do this! It gives you a schedule to work to and it ensures that your team has deadlines to aim for.
But when the work starts, you’ll also find it useful to record actual start and actual finish dates. You can use these to compare to your project baseline. A baseline is a snapshot of your schedule in time, so when you then begin work you can look back and see how well you are doing.
Using your actual start and actual finish dates will help you see if you are hitting your original target dates for task completion. They can show you if you are running late, in comparison to your forecasted plan, or even early! And they can help with task estimating as if you notice that a particular task has taken a lot longer than you expected, next time you come to schedule that task on a project you’ll know exactly how long it really takes.
Dependencies are the links between tasks. They help determine how long a project will take because some tasks can only be done in a certain order. Most tasks run one after the other, so your dependencies will run from the end of one task to the beginning of another. However, you may also find on your project that you have tasks that need to be done in parallel, or which have to start before another task. Dependencies will let you link all the tasks in the appropriate way.
Dependencies normally appear on your project schedule as little lines that end with an arrow. The arrow shows you which way the link goes, so it makes it clear which task is dependent on something else. A task can be dependent on several tasks so you can find your schedule looking very messy with lines going up, down and across it! Think about the order of tasks on your schedule and try to put related tasks next to each other so that the dependency lines don’t get too messed up.
Project schedules obviously include a lot of information – they are the most important thing for managing a project professionally so they need to really help you do a good job. They are a very useful tool, and so much more than a task list, but they are only as good as the information you include in them. Do your project schedules include all these elements?