Imagine that you were going to build a house. Would you jump right in and dig a hole for the basement, crossing your fingers that you’d figure things out as you went along? Probably not. Before so much as picking up a single tool, you’d form a plan.

You’d get an understanding of all of the different steps and teams that would be involved. You’d figure out the order that tasks needed to be accomplished in (after all, you can’t put on a roof before you have walls). And, most importantly, you’d create a timeline to keep all of these moving pieces on track.

The importance of planning seems obvious in this context, doesn’t it?

While you might not be constructing houses, as a project manager, you’re still responsible for getting projects accomplished in an effective and efficient way. The planning process is crucial for removing roadblocks, making effective use of your resources, and delivering projects on time and in budget.

This is exactly where your project delivery timeline comes in. Let’s talk about what this is and how you can create one so you can avoid building a house (err...project) on a shaky foundation.  

What exactly is a project delivery timeline?

This timeline (often in the form of a Gantt chart) details all of the steps needed to finish a project, from the kickoff all the way to the project delivery process.

That delivery endpoint is important to note. You shouldn’t end your timeline when the pieces of the project are completed and it’s all compiled.

So, for example, a marketing agency shouldn’t consider a client’s eBook project complete once they have a designed PDF in hand. It’s only finished when it’s been delivered — meaning the client has provided feedback, signed off on it, and it’s officially launched on their website.

Delivery is an important (arguably, the most important) final step. In fact, numerous organizations actually have a project delivery manager responsible for seeing the project through to the end, in addition to a project manager who coordinates and oversees progress.

What if you don’t have both of these roles? Not to worry. Your project delivery timeline helps you keep an overarching view of the entire project so that you can make sure you actually get it over the finish line (as opposed to somewhere near it).

6 steps to ace your project delivery timeline

The timeline is important, but it’s really only effective when it’s done correctly.

What do you need to know to create your own and ace the critical project management delivery process? Here are 6 steps to follow.

1. Determine your scope of work

Before you can begin mapping out any sort of schedule for your project, you need to know how to define a project vision and have a solid grasp on what deliverables it encompasses. This helps you plan accordingly, while also getting everyone on your project team on the same page about what’s involved.

Start by writing a short project scope statement. These can range from simple to complex (depending on the intricacies of the project). However, at a very basic level, your project scope statement should include:

  • Objective: Provide some context for why this project is happening and what it’s supposed to accomplish
  • Deliverables: Explain what which key deliverables you'd like to include in your project delivery timeline 
  • Acceptance Criteria: Describe the criteria that need to be met in order for deliverables to be considered complete

Many scope statements also include things like budget, stakeholders, constraints or limitations, exclusions, and assumptions. But let’s keep things straightforward for now.

Sticking with our example of a marketing agency producing an eBook for a client, here’s an example of what a simple product scope statement could look like:

We will produce and launch a 12-page eBook for Client XYZ that details tips and strategies for an inclusive hiring process, with the goal of increasing the client’s list of email subscribers.

Do you see those core components in that product scope statement? Here they are:

  • Objective: Increase the client’s list of email subscribers
  • Deliverable: An eBook focused on inclusive hiring processes
  • Acceptance Criteria: eBook must be 12 pages in length

Particularly when you’re eager to get rolling on your project, this step might seem like an unnecessary formality. But it’s incredibly helpful for ensuring everyone is operating with shared expectations and instructions.

Think of it as deciding what type of house you’re going to build before you begin mapping out blueprints. Ranch? 2-story? Craftsman? Colonial? That’s important context to have before moving forward with anything else.

2. Create your work breakdown structure (WBS)

Now that you’ve identified your main deliverable, it’s time to break that down into even smaller deliverables. A work breakdown structure might sound fancy or intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.

During this process, you just need to think about what milestones eventually lead up to your completed project. Don’t confuse these with individual tasks or responsibilities — they should be actual, tangible deliverables related to your project.

So for our eBook example, we know that the core deliverable is a completed 12-page eBook. But throughout the project process, we’ll have several smaller deliverables, including:

  • Draft of the written content
  • Fully designed eBook draft
  • Landing page
  • Launch email announcing the eBook

Those 4 deliverables need to be completed in order for the entire project to come together. Break your own project down into similar buckets of work.

3. List out your tasks

Now instead of just your large project, you have those 4 milestones that you’re working with (your content draft, designed draft, landing page, and launch email).

With that more manageable structure in place, you’ll have an easier time identifying any and all tasks that are related to your project. Think about what tasks are involved with each of those smaller deliverables. What steps need to be taken in order for each of those to be completed?

For example, in order to complete the draft of the eBook content, that team will need to:

  • Conduct research
  • Schedule interviews with expert sources
  • Complete interviews
  • Produce an outline
  • Create a draft
  • Edit the draft

Repeat this same process for each of the deliverables that you identified. You’ll end up with a comprehensive list of tasks that all come together to create your project.

4. Identify any task dependencies

On their own, tasks might seem simple enough. But all project managers know that they’re actually heavily interconnected, which makes the entire project far more complex.

This speaks to the importance of spotting any project dependencies early in these planning stages — before you even map out your project delivery timeline. By understanding what tasks are dependent on each other, you can lay out a project order that’s far more sensical and efficient.

Armed with your list of tasks, take a look at how they’re connected to each other. The design team needs to create charts and infographics for the eBook. But can they start those before they have the text and statistics from the content team? Probably not.

Make note of these types of dependencies now, so that you can keep them in mind during the following steps.

5. Estimate time required for tasks

In order to create a project timeline that’s as accurate as possible, you need to have at least a rough understanding of how long each of these tasks will take. By doing so, you can be more realistic about your schedule and your deadlines.

Let’s face it — estimating the time required to complete a task can be challenging, particularly when culprits like the planning fallacy and the optimism bias are at play. To help you combat this innate idealism that inspires you to set unachievable deadlines, involve your project players in this process.

6. Map out your Gantt chart

You’re armed with your project objectives, your deliverables, your tasks, your dependencies, and your time estimates. That means you have everything you need to create your project delivery timeline — in the form of a Gantt chart.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, a Gantt chart displays project-related tasks compared to time. On the chart, tasks are represented by horizontal bars. The length of those bars indicates the estimated amount of time that task should require to complete. This chart is a helpful visual for understanding (and tracking!) your timeline, as well as understanding the overall flow of your project.

During the project life cycle, a project manager can utilize a Gantt chart to adjust durations, deadlines, and dependencies to align with changing priorities and avoid potential delays.

For maximum impact, your Gantt chart should be shared with all project team members at the very start of the project (rather than when their individual pieces come into play). This employs a more integrated project delivery method, which is a highly collaborative approach where all project members are involved from the outset, as opposed to being brought in at different phases. This improves transparency and increases accountability across your team

Don’t neglect delivery

Your project technically isn’t completed until it’s been delivered, which is likely why project delivery management is a totally separate function within numerous organizations. This final step matters — a lot.

However, rest assured, you don’t necessarily need a separate team member dedicated to delivery in order to ace this important step.

Your project delivery timeline can help you create a helpful plan, oversee your entire project’s progress, and ensure that you actually get it over the finish line. For more on project timelines, check out Why Your Project Timeline Is Inaccurate (and How to Fix It).