How long does it take to complete a project? With several teams working together and several milestones to reach, creating a timeline is more complex than it looks on the surface. To get it right, you need to know what the client needs from the final product, what resources are needed to deliver the product, and when parts of the project need to come together to move forward. These tips will help you work through the process from start to finish.

Start with Scope

Before you can plan, you need to know exactly what the customer needs and when it needs to be completed. This is more than merely a deadline: the more you know about required features, the more you can break down the process into manageable segments. From there, you can start planning around available resources:

  • Are there any off-the-shelf components that can be used, or does everything need to be made from scratch?
  • Are there other projects within the company that may limit access to teams?
  • Will equipment need to be brought in? What about outside personnel? How long will it take to get everything place?
  • Is there anything on the horizon that will reduce access to resources, such as holidays, vacations, or planned production downtime?

Get Everyone on the Same Page

Your team members know their jobs better than you do. Work with the teams, asking them for three time estimates for each task: an optimistic time, a pessimistic time, and an average time. Not only is this useful for estimate calculations like beta distribution, it makes everyone aware of possible problems so they can be identified and fixed quickly once the project is underway.

Once these people are working on the project, they’ll know where their deadlines came from and will be more invested. It’s hard to think of a project manager as a harsh taskmaster when the time the team is given is based on their own estimates.

Working Out Dependencies and Float

Now that you have an idea of how much time each task will take, it’s time to figure out a workflow. Some tasks can be performed at the same time, while some will need other tasks to be completed before work can begin, like having a working prototype for testing or finalizing specifications before design begins.

Once these critical paths have been established, a total time for the project can be estimated by totaling up the time needed for each path based on earlier estimates. Whatever path takes the longest will be the estimated total project time. From here, float, sometimes called “free float” or “slack,” can be estimated. By establishing the minimal time of completion for each path based on average expected completion times, it’s just a matter of figuring out the time differences between the longest path and every other critical path in the project. Those extra days can be used to sort out problems without putting the project behind schedule.

Putting it All Together

Now that you’ve established how long each part of the project will take, it’s finally time to make a project timeline. Most project timelines use a Gantt chart which separates each goal into separate lines with critical paths matched by color and non-critical times marked by black lines. This makes it easy to get a quick overview of the project and make adjustments as the project progresses. However, it’s not the only option: milestone timelines simply lists dates when goals are going to be completed, leaving out team details. This makes them great for executive summaries.

Improving Your Timeline Process

Feel overwhelmed by the complexity of timeline planning? Cadence Management is here to help. Along with complete courses on project management, we have courses that focus on scheduling and scope to give you the tools you need to manage workflow and get projects done on time.