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Once, I was asked by a prospective customer what I charge to build a project schedule. Before I could answer, however, this prospective customer suggested that he would pay me per activity in the project schedule. “Wow,” I thought, “That schedule will be 10,000 activities at $10 an activity. Duh!”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation lately and I remembered my (wrong) answer. Because every project is different, you can’t build your rates like that, because it would not be consistent across various projects. There are many factors that go into project size. The number of project tasks certainly plays an important role in determining a project schedule’s cost, but it’s more complex than simply counting the number of activities it contains.

Here are the five questions I ask to drill down project schedule needs:

First: Is the level of detail dictated by the breakdown (work breakdown structure). If the project requires a great number of breakdowns, then the project schedule will be very detailed. If a project does not have a large scope, then it is safe to assume that it will require fewer tasks. For example: Projects for government work, nuclear work, and outages have more depth and needs than a project for a simple apartment building. The more detailed the work breakdown, the more detailed the schedule.


The second (and often overlooked) question: How often the schedule will be statused. If the project schedule is going to be statused weekly or monthly, then it will not need as much detail. However, if the schedule is statused daily, then it requires a greater level of granularity.

The third question is: “What does management require?” It is important to know exactly what they require at the beginning of the scheduling process. If management’s needs are simple, you can create a less detailed plan. In many cases, project managers speculate on management’s requirements. This will save much time and frustration, if this issue is resolved immediately. There is absolutely no dishonor in asking. Although my old boss disagrees with me on this, and thinks it shows weakness, I believe it shows leadership.

Fourth: Is it a realistic expectation for the project manager to maintain a schedule with a very detailed breakdown? If not, then you should re-examine the level of detail. After all, the schedule does need maintenance. And if the schedule requires more work than the project itself, then it’s missed its aim. An example: My friend Gary built a 4,800-activity schedule. I suggested he modify about 1,000 activities, and cautioned him against having that many activities in his schedule, because he wouldn’t be able to update it. He disagreed at first, but then called 6 weeks later, going back to my original recommendation.

Finally, what method of statusing do you have in place? If team members electronically update the schedule, then it’s more manageable and accurate. If the project manager is required to do all the statusing alone, this becomes too much of a burden. Some projects have a team member whose sole responsibility is just collecting statuses. This makes it much easier for the project manager, and allows for a greater level of schedule detail.

What questions do you ask to determine project detail?