Mastering the Workback Schedule: 5 Essential Tips

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Have you ever gotten stuck trying to schedule a project? If you’re like most of us, the answer is yes. It’s the project management equivalent of writer’s block, and it can majorly slow down your planning.

The good news is, there is no shortage of methods designed for tricky scheduling situations—whether it’s a lack of information, inspiration or anything else. One such solution is the workback schedule.

What Is a Workback Schedule?

A workback schedule is a method of scheduling in which the planner assigns resources to tasks in reverse order, starting from the last task and going to the first. This is best executed with the help of project scheduling software.

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When to Use a Workback Schedule

Using a workback schedule is especially advantageous when there aren’t many specific details about the project. In fact, sometimes there are only deliverables and a due date to go by. In this case, planning from beginning to end can be a real challenge, and a workback plan is the answer.

Additionally, if the project has an immovable deadline, using a workback schedule ensures that everything is scheduled to take place within the project’s life cycle. The project is planned specifically so that it doesn’t go over schedule.

When meeting a deadline is not the most important aspect of a project, using a different method of scheduling might be more appropriate. That being said, a workback schedule can be used as often or as seldom as the project manager likes.

The Benefits of a Workback Schedule

A workback schedule operates by way of bookends: the project start date and the project due date. Between these dates, the project manager has the freedom to schedule tasks and allocate resources as they see fit—so long as these tasks are accomplished within the set timeline.

The chief benefit of using a workback schedule is the assurance that your projects won’t go past critical due dates. For many clients and teams, this is the most important thing, and the project cannot be a success if things run over. When meeting a deadline is just as important as the deliverables themselves, workback schedules make it possible to structure the entire project accordingly.

The Risks of a Workback Schedule

A workback schedule comes with its share of risks. Even the most skilled project managers have experienced the challenges of this method, and understanding these challenges can make the difference between accurate and inaccurate scheduling.

Everything looks simpler on paper. When creating a workback schedule, we’re scheduling from a due date backward and assigning resources to tasks in reverse order. This opens the door to the possibility of not spreading resources evenly enough. For example, it’s possible to assign so many resources to the tail end of the schedule that there’s no resource availability left at the beginning. When this happens, the entire schedule needs to be adjusted.

Related: Free Project Scheduling Templates

A workback schedule can also be thrown off by “hiccups” projects face along the way. Because this type of schedule is best for projects with a firm due date, it also means the entire schedule is extremely sensitive to delays. If, for example, a task at the beginning of the project takes a week longer than anticipated, the rest of the schedule must adapt while maintaining the firm due date.

How to Create a Workback Schedule

Depending on the size and scope of the project, schedules vary in complexity. That said, there are steps project managers can use to create any workback schedule. Start by completing each of these steps and flesh out your schedule from there.

1. Set Due Dates and Dependencies

In order to create a workback plan, you must take the tasks from your task list and get them on the calendar. But, what order should they come in and how close together should they be? Keep in mind, these factors may change as you go along, but the best place to dive in is setting due dates and determining which tasks are dependent on one another. With this information, putting the tasks on a workback calendar is much simpler.

2. Allocate Resources

Now that there’s a general idea of task order and dependencies, it’s time to decide which resources it will take to complete these tasks. This might include how many team members each task will require, how much money and hours of work they will take, etc. Some tasks will demand more resources than others, and allocating them task-by-task is a great way to ensure each has enough resources without “starving” other tasks. Keep in mind these resources are subject to tweaks and changes as the workback schedule continues to take shape.

3. Schedule and Assign Tasks

At this point, it’s time to plot tasks on your workback plan, with each task’s resources and dependencies in mind. Having this information on hand makes scheduling the tasks themselves much easier, as you now know the constraints and details for each. It also informs decisions about how much manpower each task requires. Some tasks may only take one team member, while others need three or four. These team members are then less available for other tasks. As with resources, tasks should be assigned as evenly as possible to prevent burnout.

kanban board with workback schedule and team assignments
A kanban board tracks delays, resources and progress in one place. Make one for free with ProjectManager

Five Essential Tips for Creating a Workback Schedule

So you understand the concept of a workback plan and how to get started. But there’s still more to learn. Creating a workback schedule is a nuanced process that often requires trial and error. That said, these five essential tips will set you on the path to success.

1. Remember Task Due Dates

Because of the emphasis on the project’s final due date, it can be easy to take task due dates for granted or not set them at all. After all, why does it matter, so long as the entire project is finished on time? This line of thinking can lead to disaster.

Creating tasks with firm trajectories and due dates is the foundation for finishing the project as a whole on track. And, if a task does run over, knowing its original due date shows exactly how to adjust upcoming tasks in order to compensate.

2. Distribute Resources Smartly

When working backward to forward, there is a risk of allocating resources too heavily at the end of the project and not leaving enough for the beginning. When this happens, the beginning of the project suffers and can present many challenges for the rest of the project.

Instead, start by breaking up resources evenly and allocate them as equally as possible. If there are remaining resources at the end of tasks, they can always be reallocated to other tasks down the road.

3. Create Contingency Plans

Consider the worst-case scenario. Things have gone awry, and there’s a risk of going past the due date. Just like that, a few failed or overdue tasks can sink the entire project. The trick to avoiding this is creating several contingency plans that react to certain things going wrong.

If X happens, then Y must as well. In a workback schedule, this means having a plan to adapt the schedule while maintaining the same due date. Imagine the start date and due date are bookends. Everything between them must be adaptable.

4. Try Different Versions of the Workback Schedule

One of the biggest mistakes a project manager can make when creating a workback schedule is treating it as if it’s set in stone. The first draft is just that, and the best project managers consider many different options before solidifying a schedule. In a workback schedule, this means spreading tasks out and allocating resources in different ways until you find the perfect solution.

Without this “play” period, it’s too easy to go with a less than perfect schedule. Instead, create an array of mock-ups and compare them. This process is made easy with modern scheduling tools.

5. Use Scheduling Software Tools

As we said, it’s crucial to “play” with a schedule until it is the best it can be. Unfortunately, antiquated scheduling tools make this a hassle and turn users off from creating different versions of a schedule. It’s as if users are writing in permanent marker, rather than in pencil, and this lack of creative freedom leads to easy-to-prevent mistakes.

Instead, choose a project management software with scheduling tools made for creativity and flexibility. The best tools save every change and tweak you make in the cloud, automatically so there’s no fear of losing important data while making changes. Look for features like Gantt charts, timelines and calendars to make sure you can build a robust workback plan.

How ProjectManager Makes Scheduling Easy

ProjectManager is just the software that you need to accommodate any method of scheduling. As you begin to work backwards, use the task list to create tasks and assign team members, make comments, attach documents, set priority, create to-do lists and more. Having all this information at your fingertips makes it easier to determine where to plot tasks on the workback plan.

A screenshot of the Task List in ProjectManager, which shows a list of tasks on the left, and the details of the selected task on the right

Build Dynamic Timelines in Multiple Views

When you’re happy with your tasks, use a variety of scheduling tools to begin working back. Don’t get pigeon-holed by only one scheduling tool. Instead, choose from the Gantt chart, calendar view and kanban board to construct your schedule your way.

ProjectManager.com's Gantt chart showing a construction project

ProjectManager is an award-winning tool that helps you create workback schedules and gives you the tools needed to keep it on track. From compiling a list of your tasks to placing them on a Gantt chart, you have total control over all your work. Organize tasks, assign resources and monitor it all in real time by trying ProjectManager free for 30 days.

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