The project timeline is a cornerstone of project management. But as most system integrators and computer/software programmers know, developing and sticking to a timeline can be easier said than done. From technical issues to personnel problems, unexpected complications can arise at any time, throwing an IT project team off-schedule.
Even so, a project timeline is critical to time management planning and is a necessary project management tool for keeping your client informed and your project on track and on budget. Whether your consulting project involves system integration or computer/software programming, a detailed timeline enables an IT project manager to:
- Give your client immediate, accurate, on-demand status reports on what’s done, due or behind schedule;
- Always know where you are in each project, and whether you’re ahead of the game or losing money;
- Identify potential delays and resolve glitches before they set your project back;
- Alert customers earlier to potential delays or scope changes, before you find out you’ve gone over your estimate;
- Bill your client as project milestones.
- Keep track of how long all aspects of the project actually take, so that you can better estimate future projects and develop future timelines.
At first, you may find developing accurate timelines a difficult challenge. After all, who hasn’t started a consulting project with clear expectations of how long it will take, only to encounter hidden factors that push the project behind schedule?
Even if your timeline starts out as a rough estimate, it’s still a useful tool for time management planning and keeping your client informed. It also demonstrates that you are organized and willing to commit in writing to achieving specific project milestones.
First, talk to the client about major project milestones you both expect to accomplish during the course of the project. Use those as the building blocks of your project timeline. Then, consider the sequential steps that must take place to get from milestone A to milestone B, C, D and beyond.
When estimating time to accomplish each step, think about who will need to be involved and the amount of time each person can commit to the project. Be sure to clearly define any project components for which the client is responsible, and set deadlines for accomplishing those tasks. Involve the stakeholders in setting these dates, and ask for a confidence level that these commitments can be met.
The more you use timelines to track your projects, the easier it will be to create future project timelines. As you continually track your progress against your timelines, you are developing historical project management data you can later use to estimate actual required time when planning future system integration or custom programming projects.
Sticking to Timelines
According to project management process expert Karl Wiegers, it may make sense for IT project managers to set internal target delivery dates that are more optimistic than the delivery dates you commit to in the timeline you share with your client. This project management method helps compensate for less-than-perfect estimates and unexpected events.
Another project management technique is to pad your timeline with a contingency buffer to protect against erroneous assumptions, estimation errors, potential risks and scope creep, Wiegers suggests. See the free downloads below for more information about these and other project management best practices.
Even if your committed delivery dates are farther out than your client would like, a realistic project timeline means you’re more likely to fulfill your commitments and shows your clients they can count on you.
It’s important to remember that even when you have the best of intentions, sometimes a timeline might need to change. According to Wiegers, this can happen when:
Requirements turn out to be technically impossible or especially challenging.
Requirements your clients say they need turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
In these cases, project stakeholders must alter their expectations and commitments. As the IT project manager, you will need to adapt your timeline and inform all participants promptly. See the free downloads below for helpful project management tools you can use to evaluate and address potential IT project scope changes.
By creating and carefully monitoring your project timeline as part of your overall IT project management strategy, you can keep your programming or system integration project on-time and on-budget – or at least keep customers informed when there’s a reason you can’t. And that makes for a more satisfied customer who values and recommends your services.