A key component of a project is the project timeline. Having understanding and visibility into what needs to happen, when, and by whom is the driving force of implementing a project successfully. There are multiple documents and artifacts that can provide that information. This information will be found in a project management plan, the project schedule, and the project timeline.
While the project management plan and project schedule are great detailed documents, these documents can be much larger, complex, and time-consuming to create. The project timeline; however, is a useful artifact that can be easily created earlier on in the project that can evolve during the planning process, and it will be a useful communication tool to both your project team and your executive sponsors and stakeholders.
What is a Project Timeline?
The project timeline is a timeline that displays the key project tasks and milestones in chronological order, detailing the associated dates, duration, and dependencies, and some may include the high-level owner or owner group. The project timeline is essentially an overview of the entire project from start to finish, typically in a simple one-page form.
Project timelines vs. project schedules
While there are some instances where there are different names for the same or similar tools, project schedules and project timelines are not the same thing. They are separate tools with different uses and benefits.
A project schedule is a very detailed schedule often using software like Smartsheet or MS Project that includes not just the key activities and tasks but all of the activities that need to be performed to complete the project. The project schedule also includes resource allocation, task names for each task, detailed percent completion information, predecessor and successor requirements, and details on constraints.
When compared to project schedules, project timelines:
- Provide a simpler communications tool that meets that level of detail and information key stakeholders are concerned about.
- Act as a better visualization of the project path to completion and the dependencies involved. It essentially acts as a tool to show what’s up next.
- Provide a simple view for the project team in terms of understanding the high-level roadmap. For those who are not familiar with reading a project schedule, project timelines uncomplicate the work, seem less intimidating, and provide a line of sight to the team’s next key task or milestone.
Project Timeline Value Proposition
Project managers (PMs) often have a lengthy daily to-do list, so it may seem counterintuitive to spend more time on creating a project timeline if there is a project schedule. However, project timelines provide great value to the PM, the project team, and stakeholders. It is a very effective communication and reporting tool. Specifically, the project timeline provides:
High-level early project roadmap visibility
When projects start, everyone, especially stakeholders, want a sense of the plan to meet the milestones. Oftentimes, this can be overwhelming for the PM who is working to get all of the detailed work from historical content, team members, and workstream leads.
Rather than try to rush to provide a project schedule that is not conclusive or accurate, a project timeline can be an effective tool to start sharing a high-level timeline of tasks, activities, and milestones based on the key validated information, with the understanding that the timeline will evolve as the planning continues.
High-level executive/stakeholder-level reporting
Project sponsors and stakeholders rarely desire the level of detail in a project schedule. The project timeline offers a quick reference that provides the comfort that the project is on track or the awareness that it is not.
Clear line of sight to the project team, partnering organizations, and vendors
The project timeline provides a simple, effective, easy, at-a-glance tool for all members of the project team to quickly assess where the project is and see where they have an upcoming delivery or dependency.
The project timeline is great for keeping the entire team aligned and moving in the right direction in lock-step. Consider not only creating this but sending this out weekly to the collective project team (internal, partners, and vendors) to keep all on the same page.
Best Practices for Creating a Project Timeline
To create a project timeline, consider the following guiding principles.
Start early with known information, and continue to build
Start with using the initial details provided by the sponsor and key players via the project initiation phase. At this early phase you should have enough information to define the project goals, start time and project deadline, key tasks, milestones, and dependencies.
Continue to build on this throughout the planning phase through the baseline schedule alignment. During the planning phase, you will obtain more details surrounding additional tasks, dependencies, and durations to add to your timeline.
Start with quarter views until all input is clear
Once you have the clearer details, move to the month level. By starting with quarter views, you don’t overcommit without having the right information, but you can still provide insight to stakeholders.
Use the right level of detail
Depending on the timeframe of the engagement, the complexity of the tasks and dependencies, and the audience, use the appropriate level of detail. For example, a project team may find value in a calendar week-level timeline with key activities and tasks; yet, stakeholders may appreciate more of a month view showing only milestones.
During stakeholder planning, obtain information on stakeholder preferences. Many timeline tools (like MS Project or Think-cell) will allow you to create the different views desired.
Use a simple tool/template with good visual appeal
The goal of the project timeline is to be simple, so keep the template simple and meaningful. Use organizational colors and ensure there is good contrast between bars/lines and text. Also, ensure the size of the content is readable and the content is organized. Try to keep the timeline to a one-page view.
You can always start with an existing template and change it to make it fit your needs, audience, and organization. Here are a few suggestions to get you going.