As a marketing consultant, you know that timing is everything. To keep your consulting engagements on track, you need a good project management strategy centered around a solid project timeline. But as many marketing consultants know from experience, developing and adhering to a timeline can be tough. Many marketing consulting engagements seem to have multiple moving parts – from overbooked team members to shifting marketplace priorities to technology limitations – that can create complications and delays.
Nevertheless, project timelines constitute an important first step in time management planning. More than that, they’re an excellent project management tool you can use to educate your client about how you’re working to keep the engagement on-time and on-budget.
Whatever elements a marketing consulting project may involve, a step-by-step project timeline enables marketing consultants to:
- Accurately report to your client on completed tasks, as well as those that are delayed or coming due;
- Track progress toward the goals of the consulting project, and ensure you’re being paid accordingly
- Pinpoint and resolve potential setbacks before they cause project delays;
- Educate your client early about potential delays, reducing your liability as a marketing consultant;
- Know when to invoice your client as you achieve project milestones; and
- Track the time required to complete the various components of your project, building a baseline that will help you better estimate future projects.
Creating reliable timelines gets easier over time. At first, many marketing consultants spend hours developing schedules for their consulting projects, only to have unexpected setbacks push the project off-track.
Even if your timeline feels like it’s only a rough estimate, remember that it will still be useful for time management planning. Project timelines give your client a clear picture of how the project should flow, and shows the client that you have a strong grasp on the process required to achieve specific project milestones. Your timeline can also help protect you against marketing consulting liability because you can use it to visually explain to your client the impact of potential project delays caused by factors beyond your control.
Developing a timeline begins with talking to your client. First, establish the major project milestones that must be achieved during the project. These milestones will serve as your timeline’s primary building blocks. Next, analyze what steps must take place to achieve each milestone. Organize these steps in sequential order. For example, to accomplish step 2, the team must first accomplish step 1.
If steps can be completed at the same time by various team members, chart them in parallel. Break down complex steps into sub-tasks, and create sub-timelines for the most complex tasks if you need to.
Perhaps the hardest part of developing a timeline is estimating the amount of time needed to accomplish the various project components. Start by talking to the people who will do the work – whether they’re your own team members or your client’s. Find out how much time they can realistically commit to the project, and ask them to help you set deadlines for these tasks. Be sure to gain their commitment to meeting those deadlines.
Sticking to timelines
With a timeline in hand, you’re almost ready to begin work. Then, the big challenge becomes staying on track with the timeline you’ve created. So before you present your timeline to the project team, here are a few project management methods to keep in mind that can help compensate for unexpected delays and the guesswork involved in estimating.
- Build some extra wiggle room into the schedule. A great way to do this is to actually develop two timelines: one for yourself, with more aggressive deadlines, and one for your client. Meet your own internal deadlines, and you’ll come out ahead of schedule.
- Take a close look at your project timeline. What areas make you nervous? Pinpoint the areas that tend to give you trouble and add a little extra buffer time.
- Even with extra time built in, outside factors can still push your project behind schedule. If it happens, look at the tasks that need to be accomplished in the future. Is there any way to get the jump on those by committing time and resources to them now? Doing so can help make up for time you expect to lose later in the project.
In the end, you may have a schedule that’s practical, but doesn’t get the project done in the timeframe the client would like. If you’ve squeezed as much as you can into your schedule and are still missing the mark, be sure the client understands that your timeline is a more realistic approach, that you’re committed to it, and that it takes into account everything necessary to get the job done right.
After all the hard work you put into your timeline, and all the buffers you’ve built in to compensate for setbacks, there may still be situations when a timeline will need to change once a project is under way.
Technical glitches, operational restructuring, budget cuts, personnel turnover – all of these are factors beyond your control that can have a huge impact on your consulting project. Or, your client may simply realize mid-project that marketing priorities have shifted, resulting in a sudden change of direction.
If it happens, everyone involved in the project must be willing to change their expectations and commitments. As the marketing consultant, it’s your job to determine the impact that any changes will have on the steps required to accomplish the project’s goals. When you make changes to the project timeline, be sure to involve and inform all project stakeholders of what needs to change, and why.
The more experience you gain in working with timelines, the easier it will become to develop them. Be sure to continually track your progress against your timelines, and note the cause of any project delays. You can review the resulting historical project management data when estimating time for future marketing consulting projects, making your project management system more accurate and efficient with every project.
Writtten by Brenna Lemieux - check her out at Google+ or Twitter