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Steps to Build a Schedule: Determining Priorities

written by: Joe Taylor Jr. • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 12/28/2008

Veteran project managers sometimes jokingly refer to their job descriptions as “making lists." In fact, making the right lists during the planning phase of the project cycle is one of the project manager’s most important responsibilities.

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    Between Preparation and Appraisal

    Most project managers build their first schedule during the second and third phases of the project cycle. This critical time allows team leaders to formulate plans based on stated goals and benefits from the identification phase of the cycle. During this period, project managers must break down project elements into as few parts as possible. After that process, team leaders can start putting the pieces together.

    Prioritizing tasks at an early stage helps project managers understand the urgency and the importance of project elements. Debating about priorities is an important part of the preparation phase, allowing contributors to make their case for or against project elements. In some situations, project managers may start to craft very basic schedules and timelines to help colleagues debate project priorities more effectively. Skeleton timelines allow participants to see how changes to project scope and methodology can impact launch dates or shipping schedules. Soon after introducing this tool, project leaders often lock down project elements to focus on trimming down resources.

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    Learning to Say No

    Even at this stage of project development, stakeholders and company leaders often try to insert new ideas or requests into the project process. Just as Scottish natives can think of twenty-eight different words to describe rain, Scott Berkun has identified at least five different versions of “no" that project managers can use to help teams stay focus on their overall goal. Sometimes, saying “no" means declaring that a potential feature gets shelved until the next revolution of the project cycle. Other times, saying “no" means that a requested feature won’t ever make it to release. Either way, setting clear boundaries early in the scheduling process can prevent the pain of having to remake schedules and reallocate resources multiple times throughout the cycle.

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    Finding Ideal Timelines

    At this stage of the project cycle, successful managers begin to compile a catalog of ideal completion times for tasks and other project requirements. For example, if an outsourced vendor requires a two week turnaround for printed materials, that information can remain static for the rest of the project. However, many projects involve making educated guesses about how a “typical" team member might perform a specific task. Until tasks are matched with specific participants, project managers can use the ideal time frame for a task in their preliminary schedules. Later in this series, we examine a commonly used method for making educated guesses about team member performance that lead to more accurate schedules.