A project timeline is a central component in any good project management strategy. But as many management consultants have learned the hard way, creating and sticking to a timeline is not as easy as it sounds. Depending on the type of consulting engagement, many project elements – from people to technology to operational and market factors — can generate unexpected complications and delays, quickly throwing a project off-track.
Regardless, a project timeline is an important early step in time management planning and a necessary project management tool for educating your client and keeping your project on schedule and on budget. Whatever your consulting project entails, a detailed timeline enables a management consultant to:
• Give your client prompt, accurate status reports regarding what tasks are completed, due or behind schedule;
• Track your progress toward project goals, and determine whether you’re coming out on-target or behind in terms of payment;
• Identify potential setbacks and resolve them before they cause delays;
• Alert your client earlier to any potential delays – before they put the project behind and create liability for you as a management consultant;
• Invoice your client as project milestones are attained; and
• Monitor how long project components actually take, so you can better estimate time required for future projects.
At first, developing reliable timelines can be a challenge. If you’ve ever started a consulting project with a schedule in hand, only to encounter setbacks that push your project off-schedule, committing to a timeline may feel like an exercise in futility.
But even if your timeline is just a rough estimate, it is still a useful tool for time management planning. It gives your client a visual aid for understanding how the project will flow, and demonstrates that you have a clear vision of the steps that need to happen to achieve specific project milestones. And, it can protect you against management consulting liability by helping you educate your client about the impact of potential project delays that are beyond your control.
To begin, talk to your client to define the major project milestones that must be accomplished during the course of the project. Use these milestones as the building blocks of your project timeline. Then, consider the steps that must take place to get from point A to point B, C, D and so on – and the logical order in which each step must be completed.
Think about what task must be accomplished in order to begin the next. If multiple tasks can be accomplished at the same time, chart them in parallel. If completing one task involves multiple sub-tasks, it may need a small timeline of its own.
When estimating the necessary time to accomplish each step, talk to the people who will be involved, and realistically consider the amount of time each person can commit to the project. Clearly define any project components for which the client’s team members are responsible, and set deadlines for accomplishing those tasks. Involve the stakeholders in setting these dates, and gain their commitment that they can meet the deadlines.
As you continue to employ timelines to track your projects, it will become easier to create future project timelines. Continually tracking your progress against your timelines gives you historical project management data that will help you estimate the time required for future management consulting projects.