Level up your project schedules: 5 advanced techniques

For many projects, basic scheduling techniques are fine. You can’t go too far wrong with a task list and start and finish dates.

Throw in some start-to-finish dependencies, make a Gantt chart, and that’s a pretty good plan.

There’s no point in making your schedule more complicated than it needs to be, especially if your project is straightforward with secured resources and a degree of flexibility.

However, some projects do need more than that, and when you have to lead one that needs more than a simple Gantt chart or a straightforward work breakdown structure, it’s good to have some advanced techniques for project scheduling in your toolkit.

Beyond the basics

Projects need to be managed in ways that are more structured and controlled when they have:

  • Multiple workstreams
  • A varied resource pool, perhaps including third parties/suppliers
  • Tight dates to hit with no flexibility
  • Uncertain outcomes that need contingency or alternative plans
  • Significant budgets that need to be phased over the lifecycle.

When you want to move beyond the basics, here are five techniques to take your schedules to the next level.

1. Critical path method

Do you really know the critical path of your projects? For simple schedules, you might not. Perhaps your work is very linear so it’s so obvious you don’t need to go through the exercise of working it out. Perhaps the work is straightforward, or the project timeline has a lot of flexibility.

However, project managers should know about their project’s critical path, especially if there are lots of dependent tasks and the dates are a challenge.

Critical path method (CPM) has its roots in the US Navy back in the 1950s. It is a process whereby you calculate the early start, early finish, late start and late finish of each task.

By default, tasks that have early start/late start or early finish/late finish as the same calendar date will be on the critical path. In other words, there is no wiggle room. There is no float. If a task does not start on time or finish on time, the project’s end date will slip. Hit the dates or there’s no chance of completing the project on time.

Back in the day when people calculated all this by hand, working out the critical path took some effort and if task durations changed, it all had to be done again. These days, I can hit the right button in Microsoft Project, critical path analysis happens behind the scenes and the key tasks are highlighted for me.

The right project scheduling software will speed up finding the answer, but you still need to be able to act on what it is telling you.

An experienced project manager will protect critical path activities so the overall project duration is preserved.

2. Precedence diagram method

A precedence diagram identifies dependencies for each task. The easier way to identify dependencies is to sit in a meeting and ask your team. They’ll tell you how the project activities are linked and you enter the data into the planning software. Great – that works fine for simple projects.

How much better would that be if you could see how the whole project scope looked with the links in place? How many more dependencies would you find before you hit issues delivering the project requirements? The precedence diagram lets you map it all out so there are no surprises (and identifies the critical path while you are at it).

This level of task analysis and mapping can also identify tasks that can be done in parallel (assuming no resource constraints) so that you can complete the project in a shorter overall timescale.

I recommend finding the right tools to help with this, and then using automated reports and views as part of your project scheduling process. Life is too short to try to work this stuff out by hand.

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3. Contingency planning

Complex and long projects are often made up of several component parts. These may or may not come to fruition on the specified dates, and there may also be fixed deadlines. If the deadline is not reached, there could be contract penalties or an impact on another part of the business.

That’s why contingency plans are useful: they allow you to switch seamlessly(-ish) to a Plan B.

A common scheduling mistake is not thinking ahead about what might block your ability to deliver the plan.

Contingency plans form part of your overall project risk management. A full contingency plan that helps manage uncertainty is not easy to do, especially on a complex project.

It often results in doing work that is then thrown away if your original plans are achieved. For that reason, your sponsor may not be a fan. However, if you don’t have them and need them, it’s very easy to become unstuck.

Avoid delays and disruption to your project by thinking about which elements of the work need a contingency plan and then putting that into place.

Be prepared for the sunk costs of doing work that might not be needed because it is part of risk mitigation. Therefore the effort should be commensurate with the level of uncertainty and potential risk.

Contingency planning could involve:

  • Being ready to crash the schedule if needed. Identify additional resources with the relevant skills who can step in if you need the work to go faster.
  • Being ready to fast-track the schedule if needed. Identify where tasks could be done in parallel instead of sequence, even though this may mean taking a risk with potential rework being required.

You can also look at corrective actions to take after the event.

4. Resource leveling

One of the common problems with a basic approach to scheduling is that you assume the resources are available all the time to do whatever task you want them to do. But in reality, we all have access to limited resources and have to schedule around people’s availability.

That may not cause any issues on a simple project where most of the work happens sequentially and a single resource finishes one task before starting another. Where the activity duration is relatively long, an individual contributor or subject matter expert can fit their work in around their other commitments.

On more complicated programs of work with multiple strands of activity it’s easy to accidentally allocate more work than can be realistically done in a day to a single resource type, which may be a single person.

Resource leveling might not be thought of as a ‘true’ project scheduling method. However, it is a way to balance the resource constraints on the project over the lifecycle so you don’t find that one person has 67 hours of work to do in a week and then nothing the following week.

Read next: What’s the difference between leveling and resource smoothing?

You’ll need to use your software to create resource profiles for each individual resource and then add a named resource (or more than one) to each task. A resource allocation report will show the load per resource per project week or similar.

You’ll see where team members have too much to realistically complete in a week so you can adjust their workload. Note that this might also affect the project completion time. Resource management reports will also show you who will be sitting around twiddling their thumbs!

Pro Tip: Don’t set anyone’s resource utilization targets or availability at 100% of their working time. Even if they are assigned to your project full-time it is more realistic to set resource availability at 80% to allow for lunch breaks, meetings and so on.

5. Time-phased distribution of cost

Time-phased project budgets allow you to work out exactly when your project budget will be spent.

This goes beyond saying you’ve got £10,000 over a 10-month project so you’ll be spending £1,000 a month. It uses the contractual agreements and workload estimates to accurately work out how much money you’ll need on the project in any given month.

Plot spend across the timeline and you’ll get an idea of when bills need to be paid. In my experience, a lot of the cost falls into the early stages of the project, and then there’s another big set of expenses towards the end when contractors expect their final stage payment.

Why does a phased budget matter? It helps you manage costs more effectively as you will have better data for your forecasted expenditure and it will let you see if you are at the right level of spending for this point in the project plan.

For your senior managers, it’s useful to manage corporate cash flow as well, so they’ll appreciate you doing it alongside the detailed project schedule.

Connecting your project budget and schedule is one of the building blocks of Earned Value Management (EVM). It’s a smart way of tracking project progress over the entire project, while also paying enough attention to performance management and trends that are evolving right now.

Again, put your project management tools to work and use them for the heavy lifting. While you can create a time-phased budget in Excel, if you want (or need, because it’s mandated by your contract) EVM, you’ll have to upgrade to something that can do the job. You don’t see many construction projects being managed in a spreadsheet.

level up your project schedules

Other advanced project management scheduling techniques

If these 5 techniques don’t take you far enough, there are others that are worth researching, including:

  • Monte Carlo simulations: Similar to above, a Monte Carlo simulation gives you a bell curve of probability relating to date and can factor in a number of variables that will influence the activity duration.
  • Program Evaluation and Review Technique: A PERT chart is a network diagram that shows the logical relationship between individual tasks and allows you to schedule for uncertainty. It uses optimistic time for task completion (optimistic finish), pessimistic finish and most likely finish to build uncertainty and variation into your schedule.
  • Critical chain: Uses the slack in task time to act as a buffer at the end of a chain of tasks or at the end of a project. Useful when you need to recognize the fact that humans are fallible and it’s useful to have some extra time. By putting the ‘extra’ time in smart places, you don’t have to impact the timelines too much (if at all).
  • Time tracking: OK, not a pure scheduling technique, but if you don’t track projects with regards to time spent, you can’t manage progress so easily.

Validate your schedule

Regardless of what scheduling techniques you use, you should validate your schedule with the rest of the project team. In my experience, a surprising amount of project managers don’t do this!

They may gather the data for estimates with the entire team, and rely on their input for task-level durations and effort information, but they don’t then share what they have put together with everyone before it is finally approved.

Get your estimates. On large programs that might mean working with several project management teams from in-house departments and external suppliers. Determine task dependencies and create lists and mind maps together.

Then go away and type up your notes to create the project schedule. When it’s done, don’t tell your sponsor the end date and be done with it.

Go back to the team with the whole picture and validate it together.

Typically project managers only get schedule approval for the baseline from the sponsor. How many tasks on the plan is the sponsor actually going to work on? I’d guess not many.

Ask your team to review the plan in its entirety, even the bits that they aren’t working on before you take it to the sponsor. They may be able to spot issues that you haven’t seen yourself.

The great thing about bringing in some different project scheduling tools and techniques (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) is that you can adopt them to the level that makes sense for your project.

As with all project management techniques, think about how you can apply them to your project with the right level of scale and governance.