A Simple Project Scheduling Technique That Can
Boost Your Chances of Finishing On Time
by Adele Sommers
Must scheduling a project be a complex conundrum? Certainly, there’s a science to the process and a method to the madness, particularly for large endeavors. But for smaller efforts, it needn’t be a scary exercise that requires sophisticated software.
Planning a project schedule can involve a fun, down-to-earth, low-tech approach that anyone can do. You start by identifying activities and milestones that your project will require. Then you put the activities and milestones into some kind of sequence.
This article describes a team-oriented technique that will help you plan out your schedule requirements. By working with basic materials, you and your team can roll up your sleeves and create a timeline mural that shows exactly where your project activities and milestones will occur. And by creating this timeline both backwards and forwards, you’ll be “meeting yourselves in the middle” with a realistic plan.
A Few Definitions Before We Get Started...
Activities are components of work performed during the project to produce and deliver the products, services, or results. They usually include the tasks associated with planning, analyzing requirements, designing, developing, testing, implementation, rollout, and so forth. Those activities might occur in a serial fashion, but more than likely, some will overlap and run in parallel with others.
Activities are typically derived from a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS can organize and define the scope of a project by subdividing the project deliverables and effort into smaller, more manageable chunks. Even if your project won’t be using a WBS, your team can brainstorm the activities that should occur using the exercises below.
Milestones have no time duration themselves, but they symbolically synchronize the events on the project. Milestones can serve as gates to ensure that all of the required activities occur before moving to the next stage. Milestones that you might want to recognize on the schedule include contractual dates, events, meetings, reviews, the completion of deliverables, decision points, vendor deliveries, approval dates, project deliveries, and so on.
Planning a Schedule with Activities, Milestones, and Dates
Use this fun and fruitful exercise to get everyone’s input on scheduling, and ensure that there’s complete consensus and buy-in!
Step 1: Brainstorm activities and milestones
Instructions: Invite the project team, management, and anyone else who’s involved in the planning process to participate. To get the ball rolling, start by taping a long piece of butcher paper (or several flip chart sheets) to the wall. Then...
1) Brainstorm the activities to be performed, followed by the related milestones, as explained in the definitions above. (You could do this in multiple passes, if desired).
2) Record these ideas on sticky notes using two different colors, one for activities and the other for milestones.
3) Place them randomly on the paper in two unsorted groups to begin with.
Step 2: Sequence the activities
Instructions: As a group, gather around the sticky-note collection and:
1) Begin to place the activities in some kind of logical sequence. In the first pass, you could do this quickly and silently, or discuss the process as you go. Keep looking for and filling in any gaps in the activity sequence.
2) In subsequent passes, you can move the activities into more specific workflows, some of which will logically run in parallel with others. For example, parallel activities appear below in an example of preparing for a trade show.
3) Determine where the activity dependencies exist in the workflows, also depicted in the example below. (A dependency is a logical relationship between two or more activities, where one activity must start or finish before another activity can start or finish.) For instance:
- You’ll need to design the packaging for the product in parallel with developing the product, so the packaging will be ready in time.
- You’ll need to complete the advertising campaign and design the exhibit before you can set everything up at the trade show.
Step 3: Add milestones and fine-tune the sequence
Instructions: As a group, continue working with the sticky-note collection, and:
1) Begin to place milestones in appropriate places, refining the flow as needed. The milestones in the example below might include internal review meetings and trade show application deadlines, for instance.
2) In subsequent passes, begin identifying all the fixed and flexible milestone dates. For example, a trade show has a fixed date from which you would work backward. Defining the project’s duration should consider historical data, task estimates, and expert opinion; and potentially build in contingency buffers at strategic points to help ease any lead-time risks.
Step 4: Consider the schedule both backwards and forwards
Note that assigning milestone dates in the exercise above might occur because you are doing forward scheduling — which will give you some idea of how soon you can start various activities.
In contrast, backward scheduling determines the latest time that you must start activities to avoid pushing out the completion date.
With regard to backward scheduling, events such as trade shows are good examples of fixed points that require reverse preparation. As shown in the prior examples, a trade show could be the strategic venue for a new product unveiling, a customer feedback occasion, or a new marketing campaign.
In conclusion, this simple, hands-on exercise can help project teams look at forward and backward scheduling like two oncoming trains. At some point, an open-ended, forward schedule needs to brake and begin readying for the train speeding in from the opposite direction!
Copyright 2020 Adele Sommers