Making the most out of your project management timeline tools is not about plugging everything in and hoping for the best. Your project timeline should be the control center and knowledge hub for everything related to project deliverables and due dates.
Without an optimized process for tracking work, expectations get derailed, bottlenecks stifle productivity, and your fancy, new project timeline becomes obsolete. Discover everything you need to know about managing your project timeline, including what they are, how to create one, and common mistakes you can easily avoid using our tips.
What is a project timeline?
A project timeline is a defined period that marks the beginning and the end of a project. Project timelines are divided into phases, tasks, and subtasks that must be completed between these two dates.
What are the benefits of project management timelines?
The main benefits of project management timelines include:
- Keeping everyone both inside and outside the organization in the loop at every stage of the project
- Holding team members accountable for their assigned tasks
- Clearly communicating task due dates, project details, supplementary assets, and approvals
- Having more accurate estimations for hourly employees and time and materials billing
- Improving resource management of personnel, time, and budget
Who creates and manages project timelines?
Project managers are responsible for creating project timelines and overseeing progress through a shared project management platform. Team members manage their tasks by updating individual statuses, making it easy to view their projects at a glance. It is every team member's responsibility to share roadblocks with the project manager as they come up but just in case something is missed, project managers have to stay vigilant.
Project timeline vs. Gantt charts: What are the differences?
Project timelines and Gantt charts can look exactly the same and often serve a similar purpose. That is why the names are often used interchangeably. Both provide a visual representation of the project timeline, tasks, dependencies, and resources.
How to create a project timeline
So you’ve successfully onboarded your team to a new project management software (hopefully, Wrike), and you’re ready to start planning your first project. Before you begin assigning due dates and deliverables, do you know how you’re going to visualize your project management timeline? Who’s going to be responsible for making sure the timeline is up to date? And how are you going to share this timeline across your team, or even across multiple teams?
Best practices for using a timeline in project management software
Here’s how to make the most of your timeline project management software:
1. Make sure it’s always up to date
Plans get derailed. Your productivity shouldn’t have to. If you’re spending time adjusting every single deliverable and due date in your timeline when something changes, it might be time to get better project management software. Not to mention, the accuracy and distribution of your timeline is compromised when you move dates manually. What if you left something out? How do you notify everyone, so they’re aware of the new deadlines?
Your timeline should be interactive, so the timeline automatically shifts to reflect the new due dates when plans change. Wrike Gantt Charts automatically adjust everything around your changes. Drag and drop tasks right into their due date, and all adjustments are automatically shared with your team.
2. Communicate constantly
And no, we don’t mean through meetings. In fact, cancel those excruciating status meetings you schedule with your team every week. It’s a huge time suck, and it’s difficult to establish accountability over next steps. But how do you communicate regularly sans meetings?
With the right project management timeline tool, action items are clear from the start, and red flags are instantly visible. The timeline is shared so everyone can clearly see what tasks they’re responsible for, and there’s no confusion around who’s doing what. If something doesn’t look right, simply @mention the owner of that task and instantly inquire about the status inside the tool.
Trust me, you won’t miss those meetings — plus, you’ll be a hero for giving your team that hour back.
3. Identify the critical path
When looking at a project timeline, it’s hard to know exactly how a delay in one task will affect the others. Even if a small delay won’t have any impact on the final deadline, what are the limitations? What can be shifted, and how do you know when you’ve reached the limit? How late can one deliverable be before the whole project deadline is compromised?
Workamajig gives a great example of this in the form of making an omelet. There are three core steps to making an omelet:
- Beat the eggs
- Heat the pan
- Cook the eggs in the pan
There are other steps to make a delicious omelet that aren’t listed, such as seasoning the eggs, oiling the pan, and adding desired ingredients. However, those steps are in addition to the three core steps above. If you skip one of those three, you won’t have an omelet at all.
This method is critical when your project management timeline falls behind schedule. Identifying which tasks can be deprioritized and which ones absolutely have to happen keeps your team focused on the right objectives and your project moving in the right direction.
4. Set up dependencies
Some tasks can’t even be performed until another task is completed. How can you possibly capture that in a timeline? By using dependencies!
Dependencies specify the relationship between tasks. Using the omelet example again, you can’t cook the eggs unless you heat the pan first. Each of those tasks depends on one another and the objective is obtained only when completed in a specific order.
In Wrike’s project management timeline tool, there are four types of dependencies you can create:
When you move the due dates of one task, the others move with it.
Having dependencies on hand makes it clear to other teams and stakeholders why certain tasks need to be completed first so you can prioritize effectively.
Why your project timeline is inaccurate (and how to fix it)
Let’s cover some frequent mistakes that project managers make when scheduling and how to fix them.
1. You’re working backward
Whenever you have a new project on your team’s plate, here’s what your current timeline process looks like: You determine what the project entails (for example, drafting and launching a new eBook) and then you set a deadline.
What happens after that? You work back from that deadline, doing your best to cram in all of the tasks and milestones ahead of that arbitrary date.
It’s a common way of doing things, but it’s also counterproductive. You’re likely setting your team up for failure right from the outset.
Here’s the good news: There’s a better approach, and it involves creating a work breakdown structure. Start by taking a look at the overall project, and then break it down into its smaller deliverables. With our eBook example, that could include:
- Draft of the written content
- Fully designed eBook draft
- Landing page
- Launch email announcing the eBook
With those determined, you can now begin to break out what tasks are involved with each of the deliverables so that you can estimate the time required for them. For instance, maybe the content team needs two weeks to write the draft and another week to edit it.
Once you’ve done that for all of the tasks, you can add up those estimates to get a more realistic grasp on how long your entire project will take and use that to set a deadline that’s attainable but still motivating.
2. You’re not including enough milestones
Imagine that you were planning out an itinerary for an upcoming conference. Would you consider the below a complete schedule for the day’s events?
- 8:00 a.m.: Attendees arrive
- 5:00 p.m.: Conference sessions end
Uhh ... probably not, right? It seems obvious in that context, but far too many simple project timelines fall into this trap. Teams determine a start date and a deadline and then assume that’s enough to call it a true timeline.
A helpful project timeline needs to include far more than just a kickoff and a go-live date. After all, it’s all of the stuff in the middle that can derail you.
Those milestones or deliverables that you identified when creating your work breakdown structure should be plotted on your timeline with deadlines tied to them.
These dates serve as check-in points to assess your progress and make necessary adjustments — before the final deadline is breathing down your neck. That’s far better than the alternative of guesstimating where you should be at this point in the project.
3. You’re being overly optimistic with time estimates
Sticking to your project timeline is easy if everything goes exactly according to plan. But when’s the last time that’s actually happened?
That’s where project managers really get into trouble with inaccurate timelines — when they let the planning fallacy and the optimism bias creep in and make them seriously underestimate the time required to complete certain tasks.
Sure, setting aggressive deadlines can be motivating. But if you’re setting unrealistic end dates, that means you’re setting your team up for failure right from the beginning.
Time estimates are hard, especially if you’re not the one actually in the weeds doing the work. If you’re feeling uncertain about how long a task will take, connect with the person or team responsible to get their take on how much time they’ve needed to complete something similar.
Or you can add a time tracking tool to your team’s arsenal to log the time spent on different activities. That gives you valuable data you can review and implement to make more accurate predictions for the next project.
It’s also smart to use the critical path method (CPM) to identify the longest stretch of dependent activities and measure them from start to finish. Not only does this give you a greater sense of how long the entire project will take to complete, but it also allows you to discern what activities can be delayed without making the whole project take longer.
4. You’re forgetting about dependencies
Project management would be a breeze if your project were always linear, wouldn’t it? But that’s hardly ever the way it works.
Certain tasks are dependent on each other. Teams are waiting on one another to finish different pieces. Resources are stretched and need to be allocated strategically.
It’s when project managers fail to identify these dependencies and complexities that the wheels really fall off. You should know how preceding tasks impact succeeding tasks or how much bandwidth team members have to tackle their assigned work.
List out all of the individual tasks and teams (or individual team members) related to your project and then highlight or circle any that are dependent on each other. For example, the design team can’t do much with that eBook until they have the draft from that content team. Or that content writer can’t be writing the eBook draft and the landing page copy at the exact same time.
Knowing where these overlaps or roadblocks might occur allows you to account for them when mapping out your project timeline and, as a result, create something that’s far more accurate.
5. You’re oversimplifying project handoffs
As you’re mapping out your timeline, the whole project process seems seamless. Tasks flow back and forth between different teams. Your content team will wrap up and the design team will step in and pick things up without missing a beat.
In reality, handoffs are often another major bottleneck in cross-functional projects. For your timeline to be as realistic as possible, it needs to account for the lag time often associated with these transfers.
That means these transitions should actually be plotted on your timeline (even one day is sufficient). This gives your team the wiggle room they need to provide context, answer questions, and get other teams up to speed on what’s been done — without inevitably falling behind on other tasks or steps.
Of course, these handoffs become even simpler and more streamlined if your team is communicating and emphasizing transparency throughout the project. That’s why project management software is such a benefit because communication stays centralized and everybody has visibility into project progress — whether they’re currently up to bat or not.
6. You’re starting from scratch every time
Yes, every project is different. But if you’re reinventing the wheel each time you start a new one, you’re not only wasting precious time, but you’re also increasing your chances of inaccuracies or missed steps.
Once you land on something that works for you and your team, create and store a project timeline template that you can return to whenever you’re planning another project. That way you can streamline the process and achieve repeatable quality and success.
Project management software makes it easy to create your project timeline online, as well as save templates so that you can start with the skeleton in place for future projects.
Another benefit of creating your timeline through a project management platform rather than manually? When something inevitably changes with your project, your timeline will automatically adjust to account for those shifts or delays.
That means you’ll always have an accurate depiction of what’s actually happening with your project, rather than a brutal reminder of your initial intentions.
Avoid these mistakes and create a more accurate timeline for your project
Your project delivery timeline should be a helpful resource for you and your project team — not something that discourages or confuses you. But project timelines are only a benefit when they’re accurate, and that doesn’t always feel so easy.
Fortunately, you have more control in this situation than you think. You might be making some common errors that are sabotaging your well-intentioned timeline, and fixing them can make all the difference.
Use these project timeline ideas and avoid these mistakes, and you’ll have a schedule that keeps you and your team moving in the right direction. Let's review those tips one more time:
- Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) to identify key objectives
- Include milestones in your project timeline
- Avoid setting unreasonable deadlines
- Define any task dependencies inside your project timeline
- Include time for transitions, project reviews, and handoffs
- Templatize work wherever possible
Maintaining an accurate project timeline may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Try a free trial with Wrike to start building a single source of reliable and responsive project plans, timelines, and everything in between.
Introducing Wrike’s project management template
Wrike’s project scheduling template helps teams nail project delivery timelines. Based on tried and true workflows honed over time, this done-for-you solution cuts down on guesswork while saving time in the process.
- Flexibility. Agile solutions are best since they allow teams to stay flexible and on schedule even when things come up.
- Visual elements. The key is to find a solution like Wrike that offers at-a-glance project dashboards that make it easy for you, your team, and your clients to gain full visibility into progress at any stage.
- Collaborative features. Make communication more transparent and more straightforward with features such as @mentions that instantly loop new participants into ongoing discussions and asset storage so teams can quickly find shared documents.
Make the most out of your project timeline
Now that you know how to create a successful project timeline it’s time to think about what tools you’ll use to get the job done. Trade multiple tabs for an all-in-one solution like Wrike which allows users to communicate, collaborate, and complete timelines faster than ever. Test out our two-week free trial to begin mastering project timelines.