From the instant it starts til the moment it wraps, managing a project can be an unpredictable affair. To keep everything on-track, you need to have a solid project schedule in place before you kick off. This is one of the very first tasks to tackle – and one of the most important. It goes well beyond timings, to consider risks, communication and resources. But to be truly useful, it needs to actually apply learnings from your previous projects. Ready to get stuck in? Here’s how to create an intelligent project schedule.
What is an intelligent project schedule?
Intelligence is the ability to adapt. Just as an intelligent person learns from their mistakes and alters their behavior to improve an outcome, so does an intelligent project schedule. An intelligent schedule uses insights from previous projects to be more accurate. It applies these learnings to make sure each project phase is properly scoped, resources are distributed fairly and within capacity, and risks are accounted for. In a phrase, intelligent project scheudles are data-driven.
Failing to use past project data makes it almost impossible to draw up a useful schedule. You won’t know how long individual tasks will take. You may underestimate the amount of people you need, or the slack required to buffer potential risks. And without a clear idea of how a project will pan out, it’s exceedingly difficult to honor client agreements, and keep workloads balanced and manageable.
What project data should you analyze?
Before sitting down to scheudle, you’ll want to review performance for similar past projects. The easiest way to do this is by investing in an robust project tracking tool: these capture all the work that goes into your projects, down to tasks, their duration and the total “manhours” requried. In particular, you’ll want to analyze these key four areas:
1. Project phase duration
Look at how long different project tasks took and use them to create benchmark averages. You can then use these to estimate the length of each project phase and set project milestones. Milestones help inform the overall project timeframe and help to keep things intentional. Each milestone should be linked to a specific task, so you’ll instanty know if you’re on track.
2. Project risks
Identify past activities that were delayed or interrupted (protracted client iterations and scope creep are common culprits), then calculate how much time they involved. You’ll want to build this excess time as a buffer into your project scheudle. Obviously, no matter how well you plan, no project is entirely risk-free, but the data returned from project trackers is one of the best ways to make yourself aware of possible risks and factor in time to handle them.
3. Project communication
Calculate the cumulative time you need to spend on project communication. This means looking at the total time you spent on emails, meetings and calls with clients, as well as all the internal project communication that takes place on Slack and task management tools like Jira and Asana. Consider all your variables: does your client want to be kept updated about absolutely everything? Do they reply to your update emails with a list of their own ideas? Factor that in!
4. Project resources
Look at past projects and work out how many people and how much of their time you required to complete different project phases. Consider where resources were over-stretched, or conversly too plentiful. It’s super important to be able to accurately gauge what resource you will need when. Remember, you need to be able to sync team schedules and allocate work in advance to ensure deadlines are met.
Qualify data with human knowledge
Once you’ve calculated averages and requirements from your tracking tool, it’s good to then talk to your team and see if their experiences tally with the data. Human knowledge is still irreplaceable; while your tracked data might indicate that a task was completed on time, only people will be able to say whether it all felt too rushed, or whether you’d benefit from an extra day or two.
Pooling your knowledge and aligning it against the insights helps you be as accurate as possible. The more precise you are, the more intelligent your schedule will be, and the more likely you’ll be not only to hit your milestones, but to do it without stress, too… a sometimes elusive dream of project management!
Put your schedule together
By this point, you’ve essentially done all the hard work! You’re just on to the manual bit – alloting time and resources against the averages you signed-off in the previous step. To map your project schedule effortlessly and assign tasks directly to colleagues, enlist the help of a project scheduling tool. They let you coordinate team schedules and plan work in seconds, and visualize your entire project so everyone gets a clear picture of deadlines and expectations.