Developing a project timeline is a cornerstone of any project management strategy. But as many IT project managers have learned, developing and adhering to a timeline isn't easy. From technical glitches to human resource problems, unexpected complications can pop-up at any time, quickly throwing an IT project off-track.
Regardless, a project timeline is an important component of time management planning and a useful project management tool for keeping your client informed and your project on target. A project timeline allows an IT project manager to:
- Identify potential problems before they delay your project;
- Give customers earlier notice of potential delays or scope changes - before you go over your estimate;
- Provide immediate, on-demand status reports regarding which aspects of the project are complete, due or running behind;
- Always know where you stand in regard to each project, and whether you're coming out ahead or behind financially;
- Bill your client as project milestones are attained; and
- Track the actual time spent on all aspects of the project, so you can better develop future estimates and timelines.
Developing a Timeline
At first, developing accurate timelines may be tough. After all, what IT project manager hasn't committed to a specific timeframe for a consulting project, only to encounter obstacles that set the project back?
Even if it feels like you're guessing at how the project will go, a timeline is still a useful tool for time management planning and keeping your client informed. Creating one demonstrates that you are committed to achieving specific project milestones and to tracking progress toward them.
Where to start? First, talk to your client about the major project milestones that need to be achieved over the course of the project. Those milestones can become the building blocks of your project timeline. Fill in the space between them with the sequential steps that must be performed to move from one milestone to the next.
When estimating the time required to accomplish each task, consider which team members must be involved, as well as the amount of time each individual can commit to the project. If your client is to be responsible for any aspect of the project, clearly define those tasks and set deadlines for accomplishing them. Involve the responsible team members in defining those deadlines, and ask for their commitment.
The more you track your progress against timelines, the easier it will be to develop them for future projects. Each timeline represents historical project management data you can later use to estimate the actual time needed for similar IT projects in the future.
According to project management process expert Karl Wiegers, some IT project managers prefer to set internal target deadlines that are more optimistic than the dates you commit to in the timeline you give to your client. This project management method is a good way to offset any unexpected delays that may arise.
Another project management technique is to build in a little extra time to deal with any possible wrong assumptions, estimation mistakes, risks and scope creep, Wiegers says. Check out the free downloads at the end of this article for more information about these and other project management best practices.
Even if the delivery dates you commit to are farther in the future than your client would prefer, keeping your project timeline realistic helps you fulfil your commitments and shows your clients they can trust you to be honest about what it will take to get the job done.
Adapt When Necessary
Sometimes, due to circumstances beyond your control, a timeline must change. According to Wiegers, it often happens when the requirements for an IT project turn out to be technically impossible or exceedingly difficult, when customers change their minds in the middle of a project, or when the initial project requirements turn out to be just a small part of a larger issue that must be resolved.
In cases such as these, all project stakeholders must adjust their expectations and commitments. As the IT project manager, that means adjusting your timeline, and being sure to advise all participants of the changes immediately. For helpful project management tools to evaluate and address potential IT project scope changes, see the free downloads below.
By carefully drafting and tracking progress against a project timeline as part of your overall IT project management strategy, you'll be more likely to keep your IT project on-time and on-budget. Your customers will respect the fact that you can keep them informed, even when a project falls behind schedule. And that means they'll be more likely to value the services you provide and recommend you to their peers.
Jim Cochran is the President of TechInsurance, a company devoted to providing risk management solutions for IT companies. Jim has over a decade in the online liability insurance business and can help your company find a perfect risk management solution.