Planning and managing a project can be complicated. With so many moving parts, it’s often a challenge to keep tasks, deadlines, and responsibilities straight. The ability to accurately manage time and resources in a project is critical to its success. Without a clear roadmap, project managers can be left guessing what steps to take next and who is accountable—creating confusion, miscommunication, and frustrating delays that can put your project in jeopardy.
Project timelines are a simple but effective way to keep people and projects on track—from start to finish. Detailed project timelines can help teams and project leaders:
- Brainstorm more effectively during project planning.
- Keep stakeholders informed along the way.
- Quickly gain context for where the project stands and what comes next.
In this article, we’ll cover how to create a project timeline that drives alignment, transparency, and success.
What is a project timeline?
A project timeline provides a simple, visual overview of a project’s key events or milestones in sequential order. It outlines important deadlines, goals, and responsibilities and maps out what tasks need to be completed before the next step can be taken—giving project managers and teams a point of reference to keep work on track.
Project timeline vs. Gantt chart
Both project timelines and Gantt charts provide a project overview, but they serve different purposes.
A project timeline is a simple, visual map of your project from start to finish. It provides managers and teams with quick, at-a-glance context for where the project stands and what is coming up next.
A timeline includes four key elements:
- All project tasks
- Key milestones
- Start and end dates of each task
- Task owners and assignments
A Gantt chart is more detailed and takes timelines a step further to include task dependencies, priorities, and time estimates.
Both are effective tools for project managers, but timelines are best for getting a quick overview of a project’s progress—especially useful for sharing with stakeholders and leaders who aren’t in the weeds. Gantt charts, on the other hand, offer more in-depth detail for day-to-day management.
Benefits of a project timeline
A project timeline is an important tool in a manager’s tool belt. Teams should use project timelines to:
- Improve project planning. A timeline provides a map of your project’s milestones and key tasks, laying the foundation for a successful project. When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, you have a greater chance of success.
- Prevent bottlenecks. Mapping out your timeline of tasks and events helps you visualize potential conflicts, key dependencies, and time constraints. As your project progresses, you can rely on the timeline to identify issues and intervene before work piles up and causes costly delays.
- Increase visibility across teams. Timelines give everyone a bird’s-eye view of ongoing work, clarifying task ownerships and deadline expectations. This can help employees collaborate more effectively, especially across teams or departments, by providing shared context.
- Compare two or more projects side by side. Mapping your project timelines gives you current and historical context for your project plans, helping you see what worked, what didn’t, and find opportunities to improve in the future.
How to make a project timeline
A project timeline provides the most benefit to a team when built at the beginning of a project. Creating a project timeline early will help you brainstorm, plan, and execute your project with clarity and alignment.
Here’s how to get started.
Clarify your project scope
Before you can put tasks and assignments on a timeline, you first need to outline your project’s scope. The scope describes the boundaries of the project, detailing what work is required, when it needs to get done, and who will do it.
Sit down with stakeholders and team members to identify the project’s purpose, goals, key deliverables, and expected timeframe. This sets the foundation for a clear vision to align your efforts and ensure everyone is on the same page.
Pro tip: For larger projects, consider using a work breakdown structure (WBS) to better define deliverables and outline the pieces of the project more clearly. This will make it easier to map milestones and break the project into specific tasks on a timeline later.
Divide the project into milestones
Once your project is successfully scoped out, you can start organizing it into milestones. Milestones are progress markers that indicate what stage the project is in. A milestone can be a specific deliverable, like “wireframe design” or a more general step, such as “client review” or “final approval.”
Some common milestones include:
- Handoffs from one project stage to the next
- Key decision points that require stakeholder input
- Completion of high-priority deliverables
- Completion of project phases (such as percent done).
Work with your stakeholders to establish milestones.
List all tasks required
Next, list out all the tasks and activities required to meet your deliverables. Your project timeline should provide a thorough outline of deliverables for reference. Evaluate each deliverable and identify all tasks needed to complete it. How many tasks you list will depend on the scope of each deliverable.
Note: If a deliverable is broad enough, you may want to treat it as a sub-project and create another separate timeline under your main project timeline.
Estimate the time for each task
With your tasks outlined, the next step is to estimate how much time it will take your team to complete each assignment. Building project estimations can be tricky, especially if you’re managing larger tasks.
There are a few ways to do this successfully:
- Break down tasks into smaller parts that are more easily estimable (such as meetings or research)
- Review past projects to see how long it took to create similar deliverables
- Consult with team members and other domain experts to get a realistic timeframe for each task
Assign tasks to your teams
Start making assignments. Review the breakdown of tasks and deliverables to see what skills and knowledge are required for each. Make assignments based on who is best qualified and available.
Plot everything on your timeline
By this point, you should have a clear picture of your project scope, deliverables, tasks, and expectations. So, all that’s left is to plot it on your timeline. You can outline the timeline manually on paper or a whiteboard, use spreadsheets, or use online collaboration tools.
Whatever method you use, the basic steps remain the same:
- Map the project timeframe—your starting date and end date
- Plot milestones and tasks along the timeline in chronological order
- Include task descriptions, dates, duration, and assigned team members
That’s it! Share it with your team and stakeholders as a reference point throughout the project to keep everyone on the same page.
Level up your project timeline
Get the most out of your project timeline and set your project up for success with these tips:
Use the critical path method to accurately estimate your project timeframe
As you prepare to make your project timeline, consider using the critical path method to identify the key activities that determine the duration of your project. The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks required to complete a project. If any of those critical tasks are delayed, the whole project can be thrown off.
Understanding the critical path from the start can help you correctly estimate project timelines and map out tasks based on key dependencies.
Take advantage of shared collaboration tools
You can map out your timeline manually or in a spreadsheet, but the easiest way to make a project timeline is through a solution like Lucidspark.
Lucidspark’s dynamic project timeline template helps you quickly visualize your timeline, collaborate with your team, and share progress updates with stakeholders—all from a single source of truth.
Review and revise your timeline regularly
Your project will evolve over time as new factors or constraints arise. Your timeline must adapt with it in order to stay relevant. Regularly review your project timeline to identify where changes need to be made. For example, this might include adjusting task assignments as workloads shift or team members move or leave.
This is where housing your timeline on cloud-based visual collaboration software like Lucidspark comes in handy. Anytime your project changes, you can easily modify your timeline in Lucidspark, and the changes will be visible to the whole team in real time.
Get your projects to the finish line
Project timelines are a simple but essential step to leading a successful project. Get your project off on the right foot with clear timelines that keep your teams aligned and stakeholders happy.
Learn more about creating project timelines in Lucidspark.Go now