Have you ever created a project schedule and later realized that you should have approached it a little differently? Have you ever created a schedule and then found that the way the information is organized makes it hard to identify potential problems? Have you ever wondered whether there’s an easy way to start creating a good project schedule? If you answered yes to any of these questions, or if you’re just interested in learning a little more about the scheduling process, this article is for you!

I’ve been managing and scheduling projects for more than 14 years, and I’ve made every mistake in the book — and even a few more. It was through this “school of hard knocks” that I have identified five key factors, or “secrets,” that if followed, can help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls in project scheduling.

Secret #1. Create Deliverables-based Project Schedules

Project schedules can be divided into two types, activities-based and deliverables-based. Activities-based means the schedule is developed from the mindset, “What activities and tasks need to be completed during the course of this project?” While it’s important to carefully consider this question, it shouldn’t be the driving force behind the structure and organization of a schedule. Instead, a good project schedule should be organized and built around the deliverables the project is to produce. The tasks and activities are then identified and built out within the framework of the project deliverables, thus ensuring you’re covering all of the scope of the project and nothing more.

Secret #2. Determine and Apply the Appropriate Level of Detail

A good schedule contains all of the information required to manage the project — and only that information. Defining the level of detail appropriate for a specific project and ensuring a consistent level of detail throughout makes that schedule easier to understand, report on and maintain. For example, for many projects it makes sense to create tasks (work packages) no smaller than one reporting cycle and no larger than two reporting cycles. This ensures three things: 1) that the status of each task is easily measurable; 2) that tasks aren’t so large that it’s difficult to tell if they’re running behind until they’re nearly done; and 3) there’s not so much detail that the schedule becomes unmanageable.

Secret #3. Implement a Regular Status Update and Reporting Process

In order to produce status reports that are valuable to stakeholders, it’s important to identify up front exactly what information each group of stakeholders will need. This enables the scheduler to determine in advance what status data to capture, how frequently it needs to be updated and how it should be reported.

Secret #4. Review and Adjust the Schedule Regularly

A good schedule isn’t static. It must reflect the changing project environment. To ensure a schedule keeps up with these changes, it must be reviewed as a whole periodically and adjusted as needed. Defining a regular review process ensures that changes in the project are reflected in the schedule in a timely manner. This helps minimize “surprises” by enabling the project manager to identify potential problems in advance, thus reducing overall project risk and improving the chance for success.

Secret #5. Create and Follow Project Scheduling Standards

Scheduling standards — such as creating deliverables-based schedules, standardizing on a specific range of work packages (task hours and/or durations), status update and reporting processes — help schedulers consistently build better project schedules. Project management offices can leverage these secrets by developing templates and providing training and support to its schedulers, thereby improving the quality of its project schedules across the entire organization.

These secrets aren’t new concepts. They are presented here together to provide a context and methodology for creating good project schedules. The best way to use these secrets is to start small and build on your successes. Document your lessons learned and make them available to all schedulers in your organization. In this way, you’ll continue to benefit from these secrets well into the future. And who knows? Maybe you’ll come up with a few secrets of your own to share.