How to Create a Project Timeline in 5 Steps (+ Free Scope Template)
A project timeline is a visual representation that helps companies communicate milestones, required resources, and dependencies as part of a project management strategy. This timeline should be created as part of a larger project scope planning process, which also consists of developing a statement of work, team breakdown structure, and formal list of deliverables.
Once your timeline has been defined, you want to be able to manage your project with a tool that is easy to set up and highly visual, giving both the team and stakeholders the ability to see status at a glance. Monday offers intuitive project templates as well as customization options for all kinds of business projects. Sign up for a free, 30-day trial today.
Free Project Scope Document Template
Project timelines can vary widely depending on the complexity, resources, and time frame. However, most project scope documents can be created following the major steps outlined here, starting with the first: creating a project scope statement. This document will form the backbone of the project timeline. We’ve created a free, downloadable project scope template to help you build a foundation for your timeline that you can then customize based on your business needs.
Here are the five steps for creating a project timeline:
1. Create a Project Scope Statement
Creating an effective project timeline starts with defining the boundaries with a strong project scope statement. This document will help sell a project to stakeholders, keep scope creep away, and ensure the team is working together. The elements of the statement may vary by project or business, but generally include objectives, description, justification, deliverables, acceptance criteria, constraints, and assumptions.
To create this project statement, you will need to do the following:
Engage the Project Team
The team should meet to discuss the project overall, identifying and agreeing on its major deliverables. Then the team should brainstorm the subdeliverables, activities, and tasks using a whiteboard or sticky notes in the hierarchy. Finally, each team member should consider their own work in the project and what, if anything, might be missing.
Define Business & Project Objectives
The business and project objectives are brief, high-level statements related to goals. The business objective should tie into larger company goals defined as part of the overall business strategy. An example business objective might be: Reduce customer churn by 5% and increase new business by 15% in 2019.
The project objective is the goal the project is intended to achieve. It should tie back to the business objectives by helping move the company toward these goals. For example, you’ve determined you need a CRM to effectively sell and service customers, help reduce churn, and increase new business. Your project objective might be: “Implement a CRM with all staff trained by third quarter 2019.”
When thinking about objectives, it’s a good idea to use the SMART method. This stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. For guidance and inspiration, check out our article on the 20 best smart goals examples.
Write a Brief Description
The description provides an outline of the delivered project and defines the boundaries. In other words, what is “in scope” and what is “out of scope.” This ensures that all internal project team members understand the boundaries and all external (e.g., stakeholders) know if their requests fall outside the scope (and will, therefore, need to be approved). Using the CRM implementation example:
- Implement a CRM to manage contacts for service and sales
- Create basic product and service pipelines
- Train team members
Out of scope:
- This will not include email campaign content and setup
- It will not include internal communication automation (e.g., lead routing)
Define Acceptance Criteria
These are the requirements and conditions that must be met before the project can be accepted. It is a list of specific criteria that proves to the client (business owner, stakeholder, and so on) that the work has been completed. For an internal CRM implementation, these conditions might look like this:
- Quality assurance testing in both sandbox and “live” CRM environment has been completed and signed off by the project manager.
- All employees have passed their vendor CRM certification.
Identify the Constraints
A constraint is a limitation or risk that can affect a project. The primary constraints are time, scope, and cost. These are interrelated so that straining one area will impact the others—and result in a poorer outcome. If you are using only internal resources for your CRM project, your constraints could be your team resources: “The sales team is very busy selling and will have to fit the testing of the CRM into their schedules.”
2. Create a Work Breakdown Structure
A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a hierarchical map of all the things that need to be done, breaking a big project down into smaller, manageable sections. It’s typically represented in an organizational chart structure. It shows an objective view of the work, skills, and resources required for the completion of the project. Creating a WBS minimizes the chance that you forget a step in the project or add something that is outside the scope.
The goal of creating a WBS is to ensure that all work needed to reach the project’s goals are accurately planned for. To do this, you can take the list of deliverables and subdeliverables from the brainstorming session used to create your project scope statement and break down the work in into major deliverables, followed by main components and subdeliverables as the next level of work, and assign work percentages.
An example of a WBS looks like this:
|Final Delivered Project|
Definition of the Work
|Subdeliverables (Work Packages)|
Definition of the Work
To ensure you have properly accounted for subdeliverables, you will want to do the following:
Define Work Packages
According to projectmanagement.com, a work package “is the effort required to produce a deliverable within a project.” It is the smallest unit of work in a WBS. Work packages are usually owned by one person, include the definition of work, start and end dates, required resources, and estimated costs. Each work package will then be assigned a percentage based on its impact on project scope in terms of budget and time, and the total adds up to 100%.
For example, a main component of project might be to finish a plumbing job. However, this task relies on several subdeliverables. Therefore, the work packages would be things like roughing in the plumbing, setting fixtures and trim, and testing the system.
The work package owner will then be responsible for reporting on progress to the project manager once the project is underway, and it should have a specific outcome or deliverable. Work packages are further decomposed into tasks or activities. These are the actual “to-do’s” (e.g., Add users to CRM) that combine to complete the work packages.
Work packages are defined by following these steps:
Step 1: Create a List of Required Tasks
Tasks are single actions or units of work to accomplish in a project. They are the “to-do’s” in the work packages that help the project inch toward the finish line of completion. Each work package will have at least one task and likely multiple tasks. Each task should have defined start and end dates, budget, and resources.
Step 2: Identify Resources
Resources are people, money, equipment, facilities, or anything needed to complete a project. Each of your activities will have resources assigned to it. For people, determine the skills you need for each task. Once you’ve identified your team, check on their availability. It’s likely their project duties will have to be done on top of their normal job functions. If you’re hiring outside people, these resources will have to be scheduled in advance.
Step 3: Estimate Time for Tasks
As you list your tasks, you’ll need to know how long each one will take. Take into consideration the resources you have assigned to it and then work with your team to come up with an estimate. If you and your team are unsure about time estimates, enlist the help of someone from the outside who has done this kind of work.
For project management software company Monday, managing resources, like team workloads is as important as keeping track of tasks. Their software makes it easy to manage due to its highly visual, intuitive interface, features such as drag-and-drop project management, and plenty of customization options.
Assign a Project Percentage by Deliverable
Each WBS task should be given a percentage based on its impact on the total project in terms of time or resources, adding up to 100%. This is known as the 100% rule and lets the project manager know that all work is estimated and accounted for. Start with the major deliverables. For example, if the project is to build a house, the WBS project percentage breakdown might look like this:
Internal = 45.60% + Foundation = 24% + External = 30.40% = 100%
Then repeat this process for each major deliverable’s main components and subdeliverables using the same methodology. For example, under Foundation, you assign the main component, Excavate, 18.2%, with subdeliverables specified as 7.9% and 10.3%. These subdeliverables added together will equal Excavate’s 18.2%. This continues downward until all main components and subdeliverables are accounted for.
3. Determine Dependencies
Dependencies are tasks that cannot be started until another task has been completed. You likely relied on simple but crucial task dependencies this morning when you brewed coffee—you needed a grinder to get the beans in brewable form and a filter to dump your ground beans in. The beans were dependent on the grinder. The filter was dependent on the ground beans. And the final product was dependent on you adding water.
The most common dependency relationship is finish-to-start, where the first task must be completed before starting the second. However, there are four total task dependencies. They are as follows:
- Finish-to-start: The first task must be completed before starting the second
- Start-to-finish: The first task must start before the second task can finish
- Finish-to-finish: The second task can’t finish before the first task is finished
- Start-to-start: The second task doesn’t start until the first task starts
4. Identify Milestones & Critical Path
Milestones are points in time that symbolize key events showing a project’s progress towards its goal, and are a key component of your project timeline. They are the most important events of your project, but they do not have a duration. Think of them as a flashing light that says “you’ve reached a major point in your project journey.”
Some examples of milestones that may be included in your timeline:
- Key deliveries internally or to your client
- Approvals from stakeholders or client
- Reaching a key performance indicator (KPI)
- Important meetings
- Starting and ending dates for phases
The critical path is the sequence of tasks that, if delayed, will impact your ability to achieve milestones or provide deliverables per the defined project schedule. It is important to identify the critical path on your project timeline so that all stakeholders know which tasks allow for the least amount of slack and who is responsible for completing them so that work is prioritized.
Here are the basic steps for identifying critical path and how milestones can be used.
- List all tasks required to complete the project
- Estimate the time it will take to complete each task
- List all dependencies: which tasks need to happen before others can start
- List the milestones for the project
Look for the longest path your tasks will take to complete the project. This, combined with milestones, will also help you better understand how much slack, or allowance for missed due dates, you’ve included in your project timeline. Too much slack, and you risk your project being deprioritized by teammates. Too little, and you risk upsetting your customer or other stakeholders by missing key deliverables.
5. Display Your Project Timeline Graphically
After you have identified your project scope, deliverables, and work breakdown structure, it is time to put it all together in a graphical format. This ensures that information such as milestones and critical path are easily communicated to project stakeholders. This visual representation of the project timeline is usually separate from your project scope document, so it is easy to update and share once the project is underway.
The most popular way to displaying a project timeline is with a Gantt chart, which uses colored bars to show a project’s schedule. Tasks are displayed on the vertical axis and time is represented on the horizontal axis. The two applications used most often to create a project timeline template are Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. There are also other third-party software companies that offer templates.
Create an Excel Project Timeline
Microsoft Excel has long been the standard for business applications, and while it is a powerful tool, it can be complicated to use. Also, because it’s not online, it’s not as collaboration-friendly. Those disclaimers out of the way, the Gantt-style project timelines you can create are nearly unlimited. Whether you want to create one from scratch or download any number of free, customizable templates, there are dozens of options online.
Use Google Sheets for a Project Timeline
Fit Small Business uses the Google Workspace (formerly G suite) of online productivity apps because they are highly collaborative and a little less technically daunting than Microsoft’s offerings. A Gantt-style project timeline can also be created in the free Google Sheets.
Here are some additional advantages to using Google Sheets for your project timeline:
- Team members can update the timeline in real-time
- Everyone has access to the most recent version
- Changes are automatically saved and show a revision history
- Changes instantly update across the web and all devices
Utilize Project Timeline Templates
While every project is different in terms of the tasks needed to complete it, available resources, and overall schedule, it is possible to download templates for use in a tool like Excel, which will help you get started. However, the project management tool, Monday, also offers a project timeline template when you sign up and because it is cloud-based, it is easy for everyone involved in the project to see status in real-time without the need for constant email updates.
Bottom Line: How to Create a Project Timeline
Creating a project timeline is crucial for teams that are managing a project, especially for those projects that are spread out over weeks or months. A timeline consists of a thorough project scope statement and a detailed work breakdown structure to ensure that all of the required work is defined and accounted for. After identifying dependencies and milestones, you’ll be ready to select a project timeline template.
Selecting the right tool for creating a project timeline is as important as deciding which team member does which tasks. Monday’s project management software is highly visual and intuitive. They have dozens of premade project templates for a variety of business applications, and you can customize your own. Sign up for a free, 30-day trial today.