The most effective project scheduling techniques in project management

The most effective project scheduling techniques in project management
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Project managers juggle expectations from stakeholders with the resources available to complete the project. Scheduling is one of the most important things a project manager needs to navigate. A project schedule clearly defines project activities, milestones, deliverables, and objectives. 

Read on to learn why schedule management is so important, some of the best project scheduling techniques, and how to effectively implement a project schedule for successful project completion.

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Challenges in project management

Project management involves many moving parts and mission-critical decisions. Stakeholders often provide tight deadlines, and large projects involve certain unknown variables and risk factors that project managers need to take into account.  

Not having a clearly defined project scope is a big challenge in project management. Without knowing the scope of the project, it can be difficult for project managers to allocate the appropriate resources for the project. Another challenge is when the project scope changes (usually increasing), as the project goes on. Scope creep can cause costly project delays and interrupt the workflow of a project. 

Working with a tight budget can also present a challenge for project managers. A conservative budget often means fewer developers and less resources, which can make it nearly impossible to deliver a quality product in a short amount of time. 

Risk assessments add another dimension to project management. A risk assessment is an analysis of how project outcomes might be affected by surprises. Surprises like budget reduction, sick employees, or even market changes can all affect the likelihood of timely project completion. A high-risk project is a project where success relies on perfect execution and zero surprises. The takeaway advice here? Anticipate bumps in the road. And, plan in a way that surprises have as little impact on the project’s completion as possible.

Why are project scheduling techniques important?

Project scheduling techniques are useful in managing all of the challenges a project can face. Committing to a project scheduling technique can provide transparency to a project, and keep everyone on the same page.

Here are some reasons why you need a project scheduling technique: 

  • Improve time estimation: A good project scheduling technique can help you provide a more accurate start date and end date for the project, which leads into our next point.
  • Avoid missing deadlines: By taking the time to provide an accurate time estimate, you can greatly reduce the chances of missing deadlines. Creating a project schedule also provides proof for stakeholders as to why a project takes the amount of time you allot to it. 
  • Compensate for a lack of resources: Using a project scheduling technique can help show a path for delivering a product on time despite a lack of resources. By taking the time to schedule everything out, you can maximize the resources you do have available. 
  • Plan around the unknown: A project schedule can help you plan around any unknown variables in a project. You can create “if, then” scenarios in your project schedule that help forecast how different factors will affect the completion of the project. 
  • Optimize resources: Mapping out a project schedule can help you identify what resources aren’t being used optimally, and where silos are occurring in the process. 

6 scheduling techniques in project management

There are many different scheduling techniques in project management. Choosing the right one depends on a number of things (like what information you have at-hand, what kinds of resources are available, etc.). 

Before starting the scheduling process, every project schedule should start with a WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). A WBS is a comprehensive breakdown of every deliverable that needs to be completed for the entire project. Then, you add activity durations and costs to each task. When creating a WBS, it’s often helpful to start with big items, then create sub-tasks as you go along.

At its core, a WBS is a task list of all the project tasks. While task lists are sufficient for personal planning and small projects, complex projects involve too many components to keep track of in one large list. Project scheduling tools take the WBS and organize every single deliverable onto a timeline.

These are the top scheduling techniques in project management, including the pros and cons of each methodology:

CPM: Critical Path Method 

The Critical Path Method (CPM) is common in construction, an industry with projects that have many moving pieces. The critical path in project management organizes a project according to the longest path of task dependencies. Tasks that have no dependencies are called floating tasks and don’t affect the time frame for delivery. For example, if you are developing an app, one part of the project is to develop the user interface. CPM helps you understand what smaller tasks your project team must complete in order to tackle the user interface. This can help a reader immediately understand the order of operations. 

Pros: 

  • A clear understanding of task dependencies
  • Makes it obvious which steps need to be completed first
  • Floating tasks provide some opportunity for flexibility

Cons: 

  • A linear approach 
  • Makes it hard to conceptualize what tasks your team can do in parallel 
  • Little flexibility built in for delays 

Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT)

PERT is a risk analysis technique that takes into account different timelines. A PERT analysis starts with a WPS, and calculates three possible outcomes from there: 

  1. Optimistic timing (O): The fastest time possible to complete the project
  2. Most likely timing (M): A realistic estimate for completion if nothing goes wrong
  3. Pessimistic timing (P): The longest time possible to complete the project, if everything that can go wrong does

A final time estimate is given by creating a weighted average of the three timelines, using the following formula: (O+4M+P)/6. PERT charts have the flexibility to account for all outcomes built in. 

Pros: 

  • A mathematical approach to planning for project delays
  • You can share all three outcomes with shareholders, for increased transparency and managing expectations
  • The pessimistic outcome provides a starting point for a revised timeline in the case of delays

Cons: 

  • Not all possible delays are known for an accurate pessimistic timeline
  • Easy to underestimate the effect of delays
  • Doesn’t provide a solution for avoiding delays

Gantt chart

A Gantt chart is a handy tool that you can use in conjunction with PERT or CPM. This chart is a way of organizing a project such that you receive real-time data on how the project is progressing. A Gantt chart includes lines for specific tasks, blocks for stages, and a plan for the resources you’ll need. What’s more, it’s super accessible. You can easily pull up a ready-to-use template in Excel or Google Sheets. Project management tools like Asana also use variations of the Gantt chart.

Pros

  • Real-time information on project progress
  • A common tool that has many free templates available
  • Acts as a single source of truth for all team members to reference

Cons: 

  • Doesn’t provide a way to adjust the project timeline 
  • Spreadsheet format can be difficult to use

Duration compression 

Duration compression is a way to complete projects quicker. There are two methods available to you — fast tracking and crashing. Fast tracking in project management is a method of identifying overlapping tasks you can do simultaneously. For example, if your CPM analysis identified that the backend team needs to provide code before front-end development begins, fast tracking would identify that the design of the application’s interface can at least start without waiting for the backend team to finish. 

Crashing in project management is another method of duration compression that involves devoting more resources to a particular task to get it done quicker. One way of doing this is to temporarily hire more developers. 

Pros: 

  • A practical way to hasten the project timeline
  • Easy to integrate for agile teams

Cons: 

  • Crashing involves adding extra cost to the project
  • Too much fast tracking can lead to double work

Simulation 

Simulation scheduling is a technique that’s best to use when there are unknown variables that will likely affect the finish dates. This scheduling technique involves making assumptions about the resources needed to complete a task, and providing a timeline based on those assumptions. 

For example, if you are a startup and you’re developing your first project, you may not know how many developers you will have to devote to a project. You can provide simulations for how long the project will take to complete with three, five, and ten developers. 

Pros: 

  • Provides the flexibility to create detailed timelines without knowing all the details
  • Allows for the anticipation of unknown variables
  • Can provide justification for adding or removing resources from a project to alter the timeline

Cons: 

  • Not all unknown variables can be accounted for
  • It’s not always known how a variable will affect the project

Resource leveling

Resource leveling is a method of resource allocation in which you’re consistently using all of the project’s resources. Dependencies can create situations where teams are waiting for one part of the project to be complete before working on another. Resource leveling identifies these moments and finds opportunities for all teams to be fully engaged at all times. 

Pros: 

  • Maximum utilization of project resources
  • Speeds up the project timeline

Cons: 

  • Not always possible for projects with many dependencies
  • Teams may burn out
  • Might not be possible depending on resource availability

Implementing scheduling methods in software engineering

Creating the project schedule is the first step to successful project management. Implementing and sharing the schedule with teams and stakeholders, however, is equally important. This can easily be done with a project management software and/or a project scheduling software. 

Providing a detailed project calendar can help bring visibility and transparency to the project by sharing the timeline with everyone involved. A good project calendar should clearly show any dependencies, so teams know their role in the timely completion of the project. 

In addition to choosing the right project scheduling techniques and calendar, implementing the right time management tools for your team can help keep a project moving along. 

With Clockwise, developers can spend less time organizing their schedules, and more time working on critical tasks. Team members can block off uninterrupted Focus Time in their work schedule for less context-switching and interruptions due to meetings. 

With Flexible Meetings, meeting times are automatically adjusted to fit everyone’s schedules, without the back-and-forth email scheduling. 

Going forward

There are many project scheduling techniques, each with their own pros and cons. Project scheduling techniques are an important part of creating realistic timelines and keeping stakeholders happy. 

Read next: What is a time orchestration platform?

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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