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How to Create a Project Timeline: Essential Steps for Success

Joanna Marlow
November 15, 2021
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Without project management, successfully executing and completing projects would be a tall order. The practice helps project managers to break large, and/or complicated projects down into digestible chunks.

Managing projects with multiple batches of tasks and activities while keeping a team aligned can feel overwhelming. Having a visual overview in the form of a project timeline allows you to see how all the puzzle pieces should fit together as progress is made.

But what is a project timeline and how can you create one? We’ll guide you through.

What is a project timeline? 

Plain and simple, a project timeline is a chronological visualization of all the tasks that need to be carried out in order to complete a project. It clearly shows all the project’s deliverables, and which activities must be completed before work on the next task can start.

Displayed in a visual format, it can be shared with the team but also with upper management, clients, and other stakeholders. This way everybody has an overview of how the project is moving forward.

Even though all projects are unique, this crucial information must always be included in a project timeline:

  • All the tasks
  • Deadlines for each task
  • Estimated duration of each task
  • Dependencies
  • Employees assigned to each task

Also read: Product Manager vs. Project Manager: Understanding the Differences

Why should I use a project timeline?

Any experienced project manager knows having a project timeline is vital to keeping a project on track. With everything clearly mapped out, everybody can see exactly where the project stands.

Other advantages:

  • Offers a clear overview of everything that needs to be done to complete the project, in just one glance.
  • Shows the chronological order in which each task needs to be completed, even when there are multiple layers of tasks in very complex projects.
  • Keeps the project moving on schedule by revealing potential obstacles that might cause delays.
  • Provides complete transparency to all stakeholders involved in the project.
  • Shows all team members involved in the project what their responsibilities are.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Projects Effectively

Business woman thinking holding a pen in front of a laptop

Different types of project timelines

Timelines can be visualized in different ways. Which one works best for you really depends on the type of project, or project management methodology your team uses. 

For a very linear project, a simple historical timeline would do the trick. Those working in agile teams might need a more expansive visualization.

There is also an important difference between interactive and static timelines. The former is created digitally, giving you the opportunity to edit project info at any point in time. 

Static timelines, however, are printed or drawn by hand and therefore can’t be edited. Needless to say, a static timeline is useless for flexible projects during which changes are expected.

Related: How to Write a Persuasive Project Proposal 

Some of the most common types of project timelines include:

Historical timeline

A historical timeline is a very simple representation of events in chronological order. Usually in a vertical line, indicating each marker from left to right.

As already mentioned above, this method is ideal for straightforward projects that follow a linear step-by-step approach. It can also be used to visualize important milestones over a longer period of time, such as the development of Rodeo Software as a company, for example.

Illustration of Rodeo's historical timeline

Vertical chart

Some projects that involve a lot of data, such as development or finance, might benefit more from a vertical chart timeline. 

The multiple horizontal lines crossing the main vertical line offer more space to include data around the axis. But you can also use labels that refer to a list as shown below. All while maintaining a comprehensive overview of all the markers. 

Example of a vertical chart timeline

Vertical bar chart

If you want to measure the change in the amount of something, a chart timeline with vertical bars/columns is your best option.

Each vertical bar clearly indicates the decrease or increase in amount, along a horizontal line to indicate the time frame.

Man holding a pen looking at a bar graph.

Gantt chart

One of the most popular timelines used across widespread industries is the Gantt chart.

The Gantt chart shows a horizontal line along which labels can be given to different tasks and activities in various time periods.

This method of labeling events helps to distinguish between activities in the past, present, and future. Moreover, it gives a clear view of which tasks are dependent on each other.

Related: What is a Gantt Chart? Guide for Beginners

Building a project timeline

Whether drawn out by hand or built digitally with a planning tool, there are some factors to consider when mapping your timeline out. First, you need to truly understand the purpose of the project and what the goals and deliverables are. Then, you follow the next steps.

Define the project scope

You can’t start planning tasks before you fully understand the scope of your project. The first thing that should be clear is what the exact deliverables are. From here, you can start writing a project scope statement.

This statement should include:

  • Description of the tasks that need to be carried out to produce the deliverables
  • Resources needed to produce these deliverables
  • Expected duration of each task
  • Number of team members needed to complete these tasks

With this information, you will be able to create an overall timeline for your project already. 

For example, if you are working on a video production project for a brand, the scope statement could be: “We will produce 4 promotional videos with a length of 3 minutes each for [insert brand] by [insert deadline].”

Also read: How to Effectively Manage Marketing Campaigns

Create a work breakdown structure

A work breakdown structure (WBS) is sometimes referred to as a scope baseline. It’s used to break your deliverables into smaller, digestible pieces. 

This does not mean these pieces represent a specific task yet, that will come later. It’s all about breaking large deliverables into smaller ones first, with each sub-deliverable referred to as a work package.

For the video production project, the WBS could look like this:

  • Concept development
  • Pre-production
  • Video shoot
  • Post-production

Split the work into tasks

Now that you have a work breakdown structure, you can break each work package down into tasks. Start by making to-do lists with every single activity that needs to take place to produce the sub-deliverable. 

Once you have an overview of all the tasks per work package, you will see that some of them include similar activities. This allows you to efficiently plan tasks in a logical order and determine those that are interdependent. 

The to-do list for the pre-production work package might look like this:

  • Select and hire a production team 
  • Create a storyboard based on the video concept
  • Break down the script
  • Create a shot list
  • Buy/rent props and materials 
  • Scout and secure shooting location
  • Cast talent
  • Secure permits and insurance
  • Buy/rent gear

Related: Marketing Management Tasks to Prioritize for Successful Results

Estimate the duration of each task 

To make sure your project timeline is as accurate as possible you need to estimate how long each task will take. 

If you often work on similar projects, you’ll have a very good indication of the time frame based on past experience. However, if you have never planned a video shoot before, this part might be tricky. You can learn more about the fundamentals of estimating in this blog.

Once you have determined how long each task will take, it’s time to fit them into your overall timeline accordingly.

Identify dependencies and assign tasks

Of course, efficiency is key when working on a project. Using time, resources, materials, and team members efficiently will help keep your project on track, and within the budget and timeframe.

Thus, it’s important to map out which tasks can be worked on simultaneously, and which ones need to be completed before work on others can start. As for the pre-production process, you can’t create a shot list without creating the storyboard first. This really shows why having a timeline is so important. 

Now that you have an overview of everything that needs to be done and when you must determine which team member is responsible for each task. The availability and skill set of your team determines how many tasks can be completed at the same time. 

Related: 12 Free Project Budget Templates 

Identify milestones

It’s easier to track the progress of your project with indicative markers along your timeline. Identify the most important milestones within your project, so you can see in advance when you’re falling behind. This allows you to take corrective action in a timely manner and get your project back on track.

Use project management software

As we have explained before, drawing up a project timeline by hand is not very practical. Building one digitally is much easier, faster, and it gives you the opportunity to make adjustments at any time. 

With project management software like Rodeo Drive, you can create detailed planning and timeline for your project, divide it into tasks, and assign team members. The platform functions as a central point of truth that can be accessed by all team members, who will see exactly what their responsibilities are and what they should work on next.

Moreover, you can use the time tracking and reporting feature to stay on top of all developments, utilizing the data in many other ways.

With a clear overview of everything that’s happening, you are always able to switch gears on time, ensuring your project will be a success.

Want to find out more about how Rodeo Drive can help you map out and monitor your projects? Get started for free today.