How do you take a project from a big idea to completion?
When you’re at the very beginning of the planning process for a project, seeing how to get from A to Z can sometimes feel downright impossible.
That’s where a project planning timeline can come in handy.
Project planning timelines can show you (and the rest of your team) exactly when and how each and every step from brainstorming to the finish line will be completed. They’re a must-have road map that will help you stay on course and on time.
You don’t have to be a project manager to benefit from creating a project planning timeline. No matter what industry you’re in or how large or small the project you’re managing is, we can just about guarantee that creating a timeline to visualize your goals will help.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating a project planning timeline that will help you take charge of your work and see your project through successfully.
Step 1: Create a project brief
Before embarking on any project, it’s important to start with a brief. This doesn’t have to be an in-depth document — it can be as simple as answering the following questions:
- What are the goals for this project?
- What will success look like?
- What is the timeframe that this needs to be completed by?
- Who are the key stakeholders, both internal and external, and what are their roles?
It’s always important to define these key points — especially defining your goals and what success will look like — so that you have a clear vision of what you’re aiming for. We all know that change happens and the unexpected can come up at any time, but if your goals are clearly and specifically defined from the get-go, you’ll have a guiding light that will help you to adjust as needed on the go, while still keeping your destination in mind.
At this stage, especially if this type of project is new to you or your team, it might be helpful to do some research. Look up other people who have successfully achieved similar goals and how they did it, identify best practices that you can keep in mind as you’re working, and create a list of resources that you can refer back to throughout the duration of your project.
We love the Ink+Volt Research Pad to keep track of this type of sleuthing! It outlines a simple and streamlined research process so you can explore different topics, learn new things, and draw conclusions.
Now that you have a good idea of the parameters that you’ll be working in, it’s time for the next phase — laying out all of the steps of your project.
Step 2: Make a really big to-do list
We love to-do lists at Ink+Volt, and they are *crucial* to creating a helpful and accurate project planning timeline.
This is the stage of the process where it’s time to pull out your favorite notebook and start writing. What is every single step that needs to happen for this project to be complete? And when we say that, we mean *every* *single* step.
If your goal is to build a website, one large milestone might be creating content. But this is the time to be super specific and break that down even further: For example, do you need to have a photoshoot to ensure you have the right imagery for your site? If so, you might need to contact photographers, compare rates, sign a contract, schedule a shoot, gather the products that will be photographed, review and select the top images, etc. Another part of the content is the copy itself. Do you need to hire a copywriter? Or brief your in-house team on the project and build in time for review and edits?
The more detailed and specific you can be in this phase, the more accurate (and therefore helpful!) your project planning timeline will be in the end.
Step 3: Estimate time needed
Now that you’ve identified every step that needs to happen to make this project a reality, it’s time to start estimating how much time each item on your project to-do list will take.
It’s really important that you’re honest here — and that you even consider building in *more* time than you think necessary — because once you fall behind in one area, it’s a slippery slope until your whole project is off-schedule.
Maybe you know your web team is a little slow to implement changes, or that your boss needs at least two days to provide feedback and approvals. Make note of those things and build them into your schedule at this point so that your timeline can reflect those necessities.
Here’s an example of what a portion of this might look like for our goal of building and launching a website:
- Brief the developers - 1 hour
- Receive wireframe from developers - 5 days
- Manager review - 2 days
- Wireframe round 2 - 5 days
- Manager review - 2 days
- Lay out the page - 3 days
As you can tell from this short list, at this stage of our project planning, the timeline is getting closer and closer to completion.
Step 4: Put your steps in sequence
You now have a great sense of how long each and every step in your project is going to take. Now it’s time to start putting things in order.
What steps are dependent on each other? What steps can be happening simultaneously?
In our website example, we can probably be setting up our photoshoot and having our copywriters work on the website copy at the same time, but both of those steps will need to be totally finalized by the time the developers are ready to lay out the page with our content.
A helpful way to visualize this is to write your project steps on sticky notes and actually lay them out on your desk or on a conference room wall. Take note of which steps are dependent on each other, and which steps might hold up forward progress should they fall behind. This exercise will not only start to give you a visual sense of your final project planning timeline, but will also help you identify the areas that may need extra attention from you or the project manager to ensure that they aren’t holding up other tasks down the line.
Step 5: Create your timeline
After all that, you’re finally ready to create your project planning timeline!
Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper, use a dedicated project planning notepad, or fire up a digital tool like Asana or Trello, and start working backwards. First put in your final deadline. Then, using the work you did in steps 2 through 4, start assigning actual dates to each step of the project.
This part of the planning process is so crucial, which is why we created the Ink+Volt Planning Pad. By seeing key dates and dependencies in one view, you can set milestones and lay out the steps that need to happen along the way. Plus, there’s also dedicated space to identify key milestones, next steps, and room for notetaking.
Share your finalized timeline with your team and all project stakeholders so everyone is on the same page and understands what’s expected of them and what their deadlines are.
Once the project is underway, don’t forget to keep coming back to your timeline and making adjustments as needed. Things don’t always go as planned, and that’s okay! Your timeline is meant to be a guiding light, not a mandatory set of instructions. If things go off the rails, just take some time to figure out the impact and make changes accordingly. As long as you keep the big picture goals in mind, we’re confident that you’ll end up with a project that’s a big success.