A simple guide to creating a project management timeline

A simple guide to creating a project management timeline

Whether you’re climbing Kilimanjaro or rebranding a company — breaking a mammoth task down into smaller parts makes it much, much less terrifying. The same goes for tackling tasks in the workplace: Approaching a big project one step at a time is way less overwhelming than trying to deal with it in one go.

This is essentially what a project management timeline is for: It helps PMs break big jobs down into bite-sized pieces, then organize those pieces in a logical order.

It’s a key part of the project charter, and essential for creating schedules and keeping the project on track. To help you get started, we’ve put together some tips to guide you from beginning to end. Read on to learn more!

What is a project management timeline?

Simply put, it’s a timeline that spans the entire length of your project, from start to finish — including the dates of every deliverable and project milestone in chronological order. It lets the project manager see every single task in one place, which makes it easier to plan.

What does a project management timeline look like?

A project management timeline usually appears as a horizontal bar chart (like a Gantt chart), which contains the start and end date of every activity.

Displaying the information like this makes it easier for PMs to see what’s happening at a glance, including activities that are in play, task dependencies, and start and finish dates.

Top Tip: PM timelines can be really hard to make and manage in Excel. Your best bet? Project management software. You can create your diagram in a few clicks (templates are a big timesaver), then let the tool tracking progress automatically.

Why you need a project management timeline

Knowing what’s going on and when things are due are pretty important to the project manager — and that’s exactly what a project management timeline does. It shows you (and the team) when and how tasks need to be completed and in which order. It also shows how long tasks will take and what your progress is, making it easier to work out whether you’re running on time and budget.

Project timelines help project managers do the following:

  • Designate when the project begins and ends
  • See when tasks should start and finish
  • See the order of tasks
  • List task dependencies
  • She which team members are assigned to a task
  • Break the project down into phases

Techniques for creating project management timeline

First of all, let’s run through a list of tools and techniques you’re going to need before you begin.

Gantt charts

These vertical bar charts are ideal for displaying task durations and dependencies. Save time and use a template to create yours.

PERT technique

The Program, Evaluation, and Review technique is a method for helping you work out how long each task will take.

Find out everything you need to know with our guide to creating a PERT chart.

Triple Constraint

Triple constraint refers to the interrelation between time-cost-scope. Knowing how each affects the other is important for planning how resources are used.

Critical path

Critical path shows you the longest overall duration of your project, as determined by your critical tasks (i.e., the ones you absolutely have to do).

A project scope statement

Your project scope is a document that outlines all your deliverables for the project. It should contain all the information you need to create your timeline.

A work breakdown structure (WBS)

The WBS is a tool for breaking down the project’s tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. It’s helpful for working out key milestones, as well as for establishing a chronological order.

How to create a project management timeline

Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to creating your first project management timeline.

1. Set out your project scope

Before you create your timeline, you need to create your project scope. This is a document that outlines every deliverable that goes into completing your project. If you were running a bakery, your scope might read something along the lines of — “We want to bake buns, loaves, and cinnamon swirls.” That would be your scope.

2. Create a work breakdown structure

Once you’ve created your scope, you need to break those deliverables down into smaller chunks. We’re not quite at the task level yet — but this is one step closer. To go back to our bakery analogy, your WBS might read as follows:

  • 100 buns
  • 200 loaves
  • 300 cinnamon swirls

Check out our in-depth guide to creating your first work breakdown structure.

3. List your tasks

Now it’s time to go really granular. Think about each deliverable: what needs to happen to reach that goal? Make a list of each task and set them out in a table, like the one below.

100 buns 200 loaves 300 cinnamon swirls
Measure flour Buy yeast Weigh sugar
Mix dough… etc Line tins…etc Make frosting…etc

4. Work out your project dependencies

Dependences indicate which tasks can’t be started until others have been finished. For example, if you were making a cinnamon swirl, you won’t be able to add frosting until the swirl has been baked. Sometimes project dependencies are obvious, like this example — at other times, they’re a bit more complex.

Take a look at our in-depth guide to project dependencies if you’re after a helping hand.

5. Work out timings and resources

Every project is bound to three interrelated elements: time, cost, and scope — more commonly known as ‘triple constraint.’ As the project manager, you’ll need to estimate how long it’ll take to complete each task while taking resources and budget into account. First, assume a best-case scenario: Everyone is working at full speed, and no one is off sick. Then build in some buffer time — because hiccups inevitably happen.

Top Tip: The critical path method can help you work out the fastest route through your project.

6. Work out your milestones

Milestones are helpful for tracking progress and making sure your project’s running on time. If you fall behind, you’ll know sooner — which means you can take steps to catch up and stay on target.

7. Create your project management timeline

This is where all your hard work turns into something tangible — your project management timeline! Add all your tasks and subtasks to your Gantt chart, then add your start and finish dates, dependencies, and milestones. Finally, assign team members or groups to work on each task — and away you go!

Tip Tip: Add every single task to your timeline — no matter how small it seems. Never assume someone knows what they’re doing. Colors can help you distinguish different tasks and phases from each other if things are looking chaotic.

Project management timeline best practice

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your timeline.

Tip 1: Keep your timeline up to date

Your timeline is there as a guide — but it’s also a flexible, living thing that evolves with the project. Your timeline should reflect any changes as the project progresses.

Tip 2: Communicate

From team members to stakeholders — every interested party needs to know what’s going on, progress-wise. Let everyone know when tasks have been ticked off, waht milestones have been reacheand as if there are problems or delays.

Tip 3: Use the right tools

Project management timelines can take several forms. They can be drawings on whiteboards (messy and hard to share), scribbles on bits of paper (lost in the blink of an eye), Excel spreadsheets (clunky and hard to edit), or charts in a project management tool (bingo).

By far and away, the best option here is the last one: With project management software, you can create your diagram in a few clicks, assign tasks, and let the software do the bulk of the admin bits — sending out notifications, updating charts, and so on. And because online project management software acts as a repository where all relevant information is stored and accessible in one place, it means teams, managers, and stakeholders can log in and see progress in real-time, without having to hunt through spreadsheet versions or rely on updates from the project manager. The bottom line? When you’ve got a huge project ahead of you, the more collaborative and efficient you can make the admin and tracking side of things, the better.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).