In his famous book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," author Steven Covey says to “begin with the end in mind.” The idea is that until you have a clear vision of what you’re trying to achieve, you can’t take the most optimal steps to achieve it. The same is true for project management, and that’s precisely why a workback schedule is such a powerful tool.
Read on to discover just what a workback schedule is, as well as how you can develop a workback schedule template for your team or organization that will help you get projects up and running faster and easier.
What is a workback schedule?
A workback schedule is a tool used to map out a project’s lifecycle and its major phases in reverse order — that is, from the delivery date back to the start date. If you’ve ever been given a project to manage with nothing more than some parameters or guidelines and a due date, then you’ve probably already utilized a workback schedule, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
In that scenario, you likely pulled up your calendar, made a note of the deadline date, and then started working backward to determine when you’d need to have the major project milestones accomplished in order to be ready for delivery by the deadline. Essentially, a workback schedule is a way of reverse engineering a project based on a given timeframe for delivery.
Why use a workback schedule?
When you’re managing a project with a hard deadline that cannot be missed, it’s imperative to develop a workback schedule for a few key reasons. First and foremost, a workback schedule helps you determine whether meeting the deadline is feasible or not. If you are under severe time constraints and can’t ensure that all the project elements will be completed to safety and quality standards by the proposed deadline, a workback calendar will help you demonstrate this to the client, project sponsor, or stakeholders as well as help you plot out a more realistic delivery date.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have less time than you typically would for a given project and an absolute, unmovable deadline, using a workback schedule can help you make necessary adjustments and expedite certain tasks or processes in order to meet the delivery date. For instance, you may be able to pull additional resources to help streamline production. With your workback schedule, you’ll be able to coordinate with fellow PMs and department heads to show them precisely what you need, when you’ll need it, and how long it will take.
Finally, a workback schedule is beneficial to your project team because it lets everyone know exactly what they need to do and when they need to have it done in order to achieve on-time delivery.
What are the challenges of a workback schedule?
Perhaps the biggest challenge of a workback calendar is trying to schedule all the project’s necessary components and tasks for completion by the deadline when you are severely pressed for time. If you feel that meeting the proposed deadline while upholding your team or organization’s standards is simply unattainable, you need to have an honest conversation with the client or project stakeholder to discuss either pushing the deadline back or modifying the project so that it meets both the expected outcomes as well as the desired delivery date.
Another challenge in developing a workback schedule is anticipating how long certain project phases or tasks will take. Maybe you are completely new to this particular project, or maybe this is the first time you’ve had to manage a project under these particular parameters and constraints. In these situations, you should seek guidance from senior PMs and upper management who can help you determine viable workarounds and solutions for expedited delivery. Chances are good that they’ve been in similar situations and have hard-earned insight into getting the project done on time and to standard.
How to create a workback schedule
To create a workback schedule, you first need a due date or deadline from which you’ll work backward. Once you know precisely when the project must be delivered, you can begin mapping out the rest of the production and task schedule.
If you’re creating a workback schedule for a project that you routinely execute, you’ll have a very good idea of how long each individual phase and task will take. For instance, if the project consists of three major phases that each take two weeks to complete, you know that you’ll need to launch the project no later than six weeks out from the deadline. Of course, even projects that you regularly manage can run into unexpected hiccups, so it’s always a good idea to give yourself some leeway in your workback schedule to accommodate any unforeseen roadblocks or hangups.
On the other hand, if you’re tackling a particular project type for the very first time, creating a workback schedule may be a bit more challenging. Here again, consulting with more experienced PMs in your organization as well as upper management will give you insight into how long the different project phases and tasks typically take. In these situations, you’ll definitely want to plan as much extra time as you possibly can to account for unexpected issues along the way.
One of the best ways to easily create a workback schedule with less time and headache is to use a workback schedule template. With Wrike, you can create custom templates and timelines for projects that you routinely manage, which will save you loads of time in the planning phase and help you get the project up and running as quickly as possible. Wrike's project time tracking tools will also show you exactly how long individual tasks should take.