Planning and Scheduling: Definitions and Differences
Updated July 7, 2023
Planning and scheduling are two important steps in project development that allow managers to achieve a project's goals and deliver quality results. While the two share similarities, each serves an important, unique purpose in the project process. Understanding these concepts can help you better use each of them for more efficient and productive projects.
In this article, we discuss how planning and scheduling are different, why they're important and how you can optimize them to achieve success in your projects.
What is planning?
Planning is one of the first stages of project development, in which companies and businesses determine how to achieve a specific goal or set of goals. During the planning phase, project managers create an action plan that helps them determine what steps are necessary to complete before they can achieve the project's goal. Companies use this time to develop a structure by which they can enact an initiative, such as a product update, campaign, policy change or partnership.
For example, imagine a company starts a new marketing campaign with the goal of adding 10 new clients within the year. It might use the planning stage to determine the best way to reach that objective and plan for the necessary resources and labor to achieve that goal. During this stage, the team determines the scope of the project, identifies key risks and creates a systematic approach for the project's execution. They also determine the appropriate budget and assess the project's feasibility and projected value or return on investment (ROI) to ensure it's a worthwhile venture.
What is scheduling?
Scheduling is the act of determining who might accomplish certain steps of a project's action plan and when they might do so. They create a time-based sequence to complete the project. During the scheduling phase, companies examine their resources and determine which ones are necessary to complete the project's goal. Project leaders may reference the budget determined in the planning stage and allocate resources, including equipment, team members and time.
As they create a schedule, team leaders also examine when the project's schedule demands that the team reach specific milestones. This can help them create crucial scheduling checkpoints. Using those checkpoints, the project's team determines if the project is ever behind schedule and if they need to make adjustments to meet their goal.
Differences between planning and scheduling
scope, objectives, components, activities, resources, policies, procedures and potential risks of the project
task owners, timeline, order of events, progress benchmarks and risk management measures.
occurs before project begins
occurs soon after project begins
Relies on information from
refers to long-term initiatives
refers to short-term targets
Though planning and scheduling are both important for a project's completion, they serve different purposes to help the project achieve its goals. Here are some key differences to consider:
Timing of planning vs. scheduling
The planning phase takes place before the project begins. Scheduling is one of the first steps to completing the project after the project begins. Once the schedule is complete, the project officially starts as the team focuses on completing the first step of the action plan. Team leads might include a time for scheduling in their original planning phase.
Permanence of plans vs. schedules
The plans determined during the planning stage typically stay consistent throughout the project's life, unless unexpected circumstances or errors require changes to the approach, activities or budget. Schedules, by contrast, can be more fluid. Teams may alter and update schedules on a day-to-day basis according to their latest priorities, constraints and needs.
Uses of planning vs. uses of scheduling
Project managers then use the project plan to present or pitch an idea to company executives and managers. This can be a great way of gaining support for a project. During planning, a project team also explores the optimal timing of and approach to the project in relation to other business conditions and needs. For example, if a competing priority requires more resources and attention in March, it may be best to schedule the bulk of the project for April and May.
The scheduling phase allows the team to organize itself, as leaders determine their resources and assign specific roles. By addressing risks, allocating the budget and determining each party's individual responsibilities during scheduling, you can increase the chances of success.
Relationship between planning vs. scheduling
During scheduling, companies often rely on the information from the planning stage to create the schedule and delegate resources efficiently. For example, if a company knows that its action plan requires more marketing specialists than it currently has, it might schedule the help of marketing consultants at different points in the project.
If managers discover during the scheduling process they require more time to complete a project, it might be necessary to revisit the planning stage entirely to determine if they need to extend the deadline or revise the project.
Benefits of planning and scheduling
Planning and scheduling projects properly provide a range of benefits. Here are some examples:
Better time management
Defining what you plan to achieve, what resources you can use to achieve it and when to complete each component helps you save time and work efficiently. With a streamlined plan and schedule, team members can autonomously begin their tasks according to the process you've already determined.
Planning and scheduling both require you to thoughtfully consider where each team member can be most effective. During planning, the team defines every contributor's individual skills and strengths, allowing them to dedicate their time and efforts where they may be most productive. Scheduling helps you apply your efforts and resources productively, too, as people can help one another once they accomplish their primary tasks.
It's also key to assess each team member's responsibilities outside of the project when determining both the plan and schedule. Establish realistic deadlines and benchmarks that account for other priorities and ongoing duties to ensure team members have ample time to complete their project-related tasks without sacrificing other important responsibilities.
Proper planning and scheduling empower team members to be responsible for specific parts of the project. By defining who owns each task, component or process, project managers and supervisors know who to check in with to evaluate progress. Different parts may rely on one another, too, so team members are accountable to one another to facilitate other portions.
Planning and scheduling isolate each portion of a project so each team member can focus exclusively on the current stage. For example, an app update might begin with determining specifications and confirming requirements with the client before moving into the design phase. The team can devote their time and energy to specifications and requirements before considering design elements, which may improve the quality of the final product.
Planning and scheduling a project at the beginning of the process may make the experience less stressful. Knowing how you can meet deadlines, what resources are available and who's responsible for each component may reduce the risk of last-minute changes or rushed work. You can revisit your plans and schedules regularly throughout the project's life cycle to ensure you're progressing at a comfortable pace, which can also minimize anxiety.
Effective project planning and scheduling techniques
Below are some techniques you could implement when establishing project plans:
The Eisenhower matrix
The Eisenhower matrix is an approach to project planning in which you complete tasks in order of priority. On one axis of the matrix is urgency, and on the other is importance. This leaves you with four categories of tasks:
Urgent and important (Do): Assign these tasks to the people most capable of performing them quickly and successfully.
Urgent but unimportant (Delegate): Delegate these tasks to people who have the time to do them, as they rarely require specialized skills.
Not urgent but important (Schedule): Schedule these tasks where they make sense in the project's timeline and assign them to people with relevant skills.
Not urgent or important (Delete): Remove these tasks if they're unnecessary or consider them optional to the project's success.
The Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a useful way to structure work sessions. When using this approach, you focus intently and work for 25 minutes. When a 25-minute timer goes off, take a five-minute break. Repeat with another 25-minute work session and a five-minute break. After four intervals, take a 15- to 30-minute break. You can use this method for short-term scheduling, like a team sprint.
The rule of three
The rule of three is an effective way to manage your time when beginning a long-term project. This approach encourages you to set three goals each for year, month, week and day. You can adjust the method according to your project timeline. For example, if your deadline is three months away, you might set three goals for the project overall, three goals for the month, three goals for the week and three goals for the day. This method allows you to balance short-term needs with broader goals to ensure you prioritize effectively.
The 80-20 rule
The 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, asserts that 80% of the project outcomes result from 20% of inputs. You can use this approach to determine what the most efficient aspects of the projects are, and you can focus your efforts accordingly. It also aids in planning, as it can help you optimize your use of resources, talent and time.
4 steps for planning and scheduling a project
Here are some of the key steps that companies take when initially starting a new project:
1. Establish project scope
The first step to planning a project is to determine the scope. The scope of the project is everything the company can effectively create or accomplish before the project's deadline. While brainstorming ideas or features for the project, managers and project executives evaluate all the ideas and decide if the company can develop those ideas without losing project quality.
Establish the scope of the project as soon as possible, and plan for scope creep. This occurs when the project falls outside of the originally determined scope because of resource, labor or requirement changes. Establish set dates in the project schedule by which you plan to revisit the scope to assess and account for any scope creep.
2. Develop the action plan
After establishing the project's primary goals, you can develop an action plan by identifying its major tasks. When developing the action plan, project managers often break the project up into smaller, more manageable goals to help them determine major roles and project checkpoints. Develop an action plan that shows how the team can achieve the project's primary goals, establishing milestones to help measure progress. Plan for contingencies, too, in case of any project challenges.
Read more: What Is an Action Plan and How To Make One
3. Determine resources
Before creating the schedule and starting the project, ensure you understand what resources the project requires. Resources can include team members, materials, machinery, office equipment and anything else the team might require to achieve the desired results. Determining what resources the project needs is important because it can help the project manager develop an accurate budget and create a schedule more easily. List each resource carefully for the project, describing why it's necessary and its cost for the project.
4. Create the schedule
When creating the schedule, most project managers combine the knowledge of the action plan with the list of necessary resources to determine the most effective budget and timeline. When creating a schedule, it's important for project managers to understand how many resources the team requires for each step of the action plan and roughly how much time each step might take. Understanding these two details can help project managers delegate plenty of time to each step of the action plan for the team to complete and also develop an effective project budget.
Tips for coordinating planning and scheduling
Here are some additional tips for best practices in coordinating planning and scheduling projects:
Prioritizing the project's efficiency during scheduling can help you minimize redundancies and improve productivity. For example, if you know that two company departments might require the use of a certain piece of equipment, it's beneficial to schedule their use for that equipment at different times, so each department has a turn and can accomplish their work in a timely manner.
It's also important to clearly define major roles and assign specific action plan steps to different departments. When each department knows exactly what it's doing, the company can mitigate the risk of overlaps and delays.
Foresee major challenges
When planning and scheduling, it's beneficial to predict any major obstacles the project might encounter. Foreseeing challenges can help project managers provide the right amount of resources and time for each task. When working on entirely new projects, it may be helpful to give that task extra time for completion in case any unexpected challenges occur.
A best practice for project management is to debrief projects upon completion to assess their success and note any key lessons learned, which can help you find solutions for future projects. You can also debrief milestones within projects to correct any process-related issues in later stages. When planning projects, reference previous projects' takeaways and incorporate them into your plan to manage potential risks and forecast challenges.
Use planning and scheduling tools
There are a wide variety of tools you could use to facilitate successful planning and scheduling. For example, manufacturing companies often choose to invest in advanced planning and scheduling (APS) software, which analyzes demand levels and helps allocate materials accordingly.
There are also many documents you can create that allow you to optimize particular aspects of your plans and schedules. Examples include:
Task breakdown structures
Critical path schedules
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