Why Your Project Timeline Is Inaccurate (and How to Fix It)

You’ve heard everybody talk about how crucial a project timeline is, but if you’re being brutally honest, that’s hardly ever been your personal experience.

Sure, you start each project by sketching out a rough schedule — mostly because you feel like you have to. But so far that step has felt like an unnecessary formality and even a colossal waste of time.

Why? Well, because you’ve learned that the timeline for your project is hardly ever accurate. You set dates with the best intentions, but it never takes long for things to run off the rails and render that calendar not only useless but a discouraging reminder of your slower-than-predicted progress.

Your frustrations are understandable (and, honestly, quite common). But before you point the finger at your timeline, it’s worth considering how you could be contributing to these frustrations and inaccuracies.

Let’s cover some frequent mistakes that project managers make when scheduling and how you can fix them (and learn to love that project plan timeline after all).

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. So maybe the content team needs 2 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 actually be plotted on your timeline with deadlines tied to them.

These dates serve as check-in points where you can 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 end dates that are totally unrealistic, 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 help you 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 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 entire project take longer.

4. You’re forgetting about dependencies

Project management would be a breeze if your project was 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. In order 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 1 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:

  1. Create a work breakdown structure (WBS) to identify key objectives
  2. Include milestones in your project timeline
  3. Avoid setting unreasonable deadlines 
  4. Define any task dependencies inside your project timeline
  5. Include time for transitions, project reviews, and handoffs
  6. 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.  

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