Digital project managers (and all project managers!) like it when things run on time, when what we’ve planned goes as planned.
In some ideal universe, that happens all the time. Here on Earth, unforeseen obstacles cause stumbles, businesses change priorities, and we must adjust our ideal timeline. Sometimes, project teams are lucky enough to run ahead of schedule, and hooray for that. But even good news forces timeline adjustments.
Creating (or adjusting) project timelines isn’t easy. It takes critical thinking, thoughtful negotiation, and an intimate knowledge of the calendar. You need to understand who is doing what task, what task depends on timely completion of another task, and even when holidays fall and who’s on vacation or family leave. Timelines have lots of moving parts.
So, where’s the best place to start when building a successful project timeline?
Start with the End in Mind
The best rule of thumb is to always start at the end.
- When do you want the project to be completed? Understanding, from the beginning, when you want to go live with your website or other digital project (these points apply to any type of project or business) is critical. Be specific; “whenever we can” or “as soon as possible” isn’t good enough. Vague deadlines confuse project teams and cause projects to drag.
- What tasks must be done to reach your end date? You have communications to create, code to develop, teams to train, etc. Identify everything you need to do prior to your completion date and determine how much time you’ll need to do it all by asking the people who will do the work. Yours is probably not their only project. They know their other responsibilities best, so it’s important not to guess at another person’s workload.
- Determine task interdependencies. On website projects, for example, you can’t test until you have something to test. You can’t develop code until you have agreed upon a design. Make those dependencies explicit on your timeline so the team can see them.
- Set a realistic project start date. If you worked backwards from your launch or completion date, the realistic start date will be right in front of you. Sometimes, the date has already passed. If that’s the case, now you know your “Go Live” date needs to be adjusted. Answers to the above questions and points will give you enough momentum and information to start a draft timeline.
The next critical, often-overlooked step: Confirm the availability of your resources, especially people (both internal team members and any external partner resources). I speak from experience.
I recently built out a beautiful project plan. Everything was perfectly laid out, tasks in the right order, the dates perfectly matched the desired launch date – so perfectly that we scheduled delivery meetings with the client before we were deep into the work. Shortly after we’d sent invitations for a crucial meeting, we realized a key team member due to present at the meeting would instead be on vacation. Because our tasks were so tied to the go-live date, we decided to move forward with the presentation. Another team member stepped in, got up to speed, and presented. It worked out just fine, but we would’ve avoided the stress if I had just checked the vacation schedule first.
So, let’s add one more bullet item to the list:
- Gather your team’s availability. Create a centralized vacation calendar where everyone’s time off is logged, or list it in a status report for wider visibility. If you’re the project manager, take time to learn what’s going on in your team’s lives; anticipate their issues. For example, if you have a lot of parents on your team, it’s best not to schedule anything major during the first and last weeks of school.
Now, you’ve gathered all your information, mapped it out, and you know if the project launch date is realistic – and, if not, what adjustments need to be made. You have clear channels to communicate all of this to your team. That’s what a reasonable timeline is all about.
Tips for Handling Timeline Adjustments
If you find yourself in a situation where your project timeline needs to be adjusted, where do you start?
If your project timeline changes, it’s important to share the change as soon as possible with your broader team, including any external partners. Follow these tips:
- Share the updated timeline and walk everyone through it.
- Understanding what went into altering due dates can help everyone understand the “why” behind the decisions.
- Encourage feedback and input from your internal team and external partners. If necessary, be willing to adjust the timeline based on external resource availability. Most vendors will do everything they can to accommodate you!
- Create a regular status report that provides updates on tasks and indicate if something is running ahead, behind, or right on schedule. (Traffic light colors work well.)
- Projects ebb and flow so the timeline may not always need to be adjusted, but a status report can be a great way to show where risks may occur.
- Make the timeline accessible in a place where everyone – both internal and external team members – can access it.
- Keep it up to date.
- Revisit it regularly so adjustments aren’t surprises. Status meetings are a great time to review it with the larger team.
Even with the most ideal circumstances going into your project, you’re unlikely to finish with the original timeline intact. But with great preparation and a little luck, adjustments will be minor and order will subdue chaos, even down here on messy Project Earth.
Northwoods account directors are masters at project management. If you’re considering any type of digital project, we’ll work closely with you to set reasonable timelines with your goals and objectives in mind. If you’ve got an upcoming project, reach out to us! We’d love to help.