Scheduling has a big impact on project management. Done well, it is the magic formula that gently guides a project to completion. Done badly, it can become the dirty little secret of project management. Let’s look at what makes the difference. 

 

What is scheduling? 

 

When it comes to project management, scheduling is about more than putting tasks on a calendar. Scheduling is, arguably, where the magic happens. Project scheduling involves creating a system to communicate not only the tasks that need to get done, but also the resources that will be needed to complete them and the timeframe allocated to them. A project schedule holds pretty much all the information needed to deliver the entire project successfully and on time.

 

When does scheduling happen in the project life cycle?

 

In layman’s terms, planning and scheduling are similar concepts, but when it comes to project management, you won’t be scheduling until after the planning phase is complete. This is because planning is about looking at the big picture and defining fundamentals. Planning looks at the real problem that needs solving, identifies the stakeholders, and defines objectives. Planning also determines what resources will be needed and what major tasks need to be done. However, we’re talking broad scope here. There is no fine detail at this stage.

 

Scheduling starts once you enter the second stage of the project life cycle. This is the build-up phase, and it’s where you start getting into the real nitty-gritty details of managing your project. Most projects will come with a predefined start date and deadline, and the schedule is what defines everything that happens in between.

 

Scheduling tends to involve working backwards. You take the end deadline, and any other hard deadlines, and work out when your deliverables need to be ready.  You then schedule in the details, looking at the tasks to be completed, the resources needed, and the team members involved. Creating the project schedule accurately is vital to the success of the project, which is why it has to wait until the build-up phase. Try to schedule a project while it’s still at the big-picture, planning stage and you won’t have enough information. There’s nothing vague about project schedules. There needs to be a lot of attention to detail.

 

The challenges of scheduling

 

Scheduling can be one of the most challenging aspects of project management. As mentioned, it’s a fine-detail process, but some types of project have a lot more variables than others. If you’re working on a project that has a lot of “unknowns” to deal with, then schedule management can become one of the most challenging parts of the entire project.

 

If you are managing a building or engineering project, then it’s likely that you’ll have complete specifications up front. With less tangible projects, such as a media campaign or a change management project, there will be a lot more variables to factor in. This means that with some projects, you can use proven, easily replicated techniques to calculate detailed timeframes and accurate resource allocation. With other projects, it’s a case of starting out with rough estimates, and constantly refining details as you progress and more information about the project emerges. Either way, project scheduling is never a case of “set it and forget it”. Active schedule management is required throughout the project life cycle.

 

Why the schedule can be the dirty little secret of project management 

 

If the schedule is this important, then it must be highly reliable, right? You must be able to look at it at any point in the project and immediately see where you are, what you’ve achieved, and whether you’ll be finishing on time and according to the resource allocation you originally scheduled, right? Wrong. That’s not always the case. At least not with all projects. There’s a dirty little secret that some project managers will acknowledge.

 

Some project managers will tell you that the schedule is irrelevant. They’ll cite the challenges already mentioned: there are so many unknowns, so many variables. We make the schedule, but we don’t expect to stick to it. The project will be finished when it’s finished. Scheduling doesn’t work, except when it does.

 

Scheduling does work. It works like a dream for some project managers, but not for others. Why is this? How come scheduling works perfectly on some projects, but not on every one? The key, as is often the case in project management, is in the systems. Scheduling only works if you can accurately track those important variables, update accordingly, keep your entire team informed, adjust everything else to fit with your new information, and communicate those adjustments to your stakeholders.

 

All this may sound like a big ask, but what it actually boils down to is the right system. Good project management software can provide an all-in-one solution to integrate all of the above and ensure that the schedule is managed and updated to give you a consistently clear picture of exactly where you are, and how far you have to go.

 

Key tips for effective scheduling 

 

There are several ways that you can ensure that your schedule guides your project safely to completion.

 

  • Start the scheduling process after the planning phase is complete.
  • Understand exactly what the deliverables are.
  • Build the schedule around deliverables, not tasks.
  • Work backwards from those hard deadlines.
  • Break down big deliverables to the lowest estimable deliverable (work packages).
  • Make work packages as small as possible for accurate time estimations.
  • Use milestones as targets and at regular intervals.
  • Keep track of team members’ availability.
  • Don’t assign everyone on the team a 100% workload.

 

An effective schedule needs to be flexible and responsive, regardless of the type of project. There will always be variables, and the only way to plan for that is to have a solid system in place to track those variables and respond quickly when needed.

 

To see what Verto can do to help you manage your project schedules, contact us for a demo!