Is your Project Management Timeline Inaccurate?

How crucial is a project timeline, and how much time is spent on composing one. It is normal to commence a project by sketching out a rough schedule, primarily because it is considered mandatory. At times it may be felt that this step is an unnecessary formality and possibly a waste of time.

This is because we have learned that project timelines are hardly ever accurate. Dates are set 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 slower than anticipated progress.

When this occurs frustrations are understandable, and to some extent common. But before you point the finger at your timeline, it’s worth considering how you could be contributing to these frustrations and inaccuracies.

Some frequent mistakes that project managers make when scheduling and how they can be fixed.

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.

A better approach 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 this 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 the below tasks be considered as a complete schedule for the day’s events?

  • 8:00 a.m.: Attendees arrive
  • 5:00 p.m.: Conference sessions end

This is not likely to happen, 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 kick off and a go-live date, as this would derail all the tasks in between.

Those milestones or deliverables that were identified when creating the work breakdown structure should actually be plotted on a timeline with deadlines tied to them.

These dates serve as check-in points where an assessment can be made on progress and necessary adjustments made before the final deadline. That’s far better approach than the alternative of guessing the current point of the project.

3. You’re being overly optimistic with time estimates

Sticking to the 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 the planning fallacy and the optimism bias creep in and time is seriously underestimated to complete certain tasks.

Setting aggressive deadlines provides a goal, however if it is unrealistic from the outset, then the project and the team are set 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 is 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 which can be reviewed and implemented to help 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 provide 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 projects were always linear, 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. It is very important to 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 a 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. The 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 timelines to be realistic, 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 day is sufficient). This will ensure the team have sufficient wiggle room needed 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.

6. You’re starting from scratch every time

Granted 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.

There are benefits in creating timelines using a project management platform rather than manually. When something inevitably changes with the 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 Project Timeline

Your project delivery timeline should be a helpful resource for you and your project team — not something that discourages or confuses. 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.

Maintaining an accurate project timeline may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Try a free trial with project tool to start building a single source of reliable and responsive project plans, timelines, and everything in between.  

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