On paper, a project manager’s job might sound straightforward: assign tasks, monitor the team and deliver excellent results to clients. In reality, projects can easily run late, go over budget or fail to deliver the intended results.
While unforeseen issues can derail your projects, creating a project baseline can improve your chances of keeping things on track and on time.
In this article, you’ll learn what a project baseline is, why they’re so useful and how to create one for your next project so you can meet deadlines and deliver projects to a high standard.
What is a project baseline?
A project baseline is a documented breakdown of a project and its key components, established before the project begins. With a project baseline in place, you have a fixed reference that you can use to measure performance as your project progress.
Just as you might plan a physical journey by checking the route, making sure you have enough fuel and estimating your arrival time, a project baseline is the journey plan for your project. As the project progresses, you can check how close you are to the originally intended route.
As well as tracking progress, project managers can use a project baseline to see how unexpected factors affect the project and then come up with a strategy to get back on track.
Why do you need a project baseline?
Along with a high-level view of a project and its progress, baseline project management has other benefits that make it worthwhile.
Improved performance assessments
Accurately assessing a project’s performance becomes much easier with a baseline in place. Rather than relying on vague feedback or intuition, you can see exactly how you’re progressing in key areas and how that compares to your initial plan.
For example, if you’re running late, you’ll be able to assess which tasks you are responsible for and how many days that’s added to the deadline. If you’re going over budget, you’ll be able to see why that’s happened and how it will affect the scope of the entire project.
With accurate performance assessments, you can make better decisions to keep the project moving forward.
Early warning of potential issues
By looking at early trends in a project, managers can predict budget and timeline issues and take the necessary action to prevent these from becoming a serious problem.
This ties in with earned value management, another important project management concept that involves monitoring three elements:
Planned value. The approved budget for work due to be completed by the specified date.
Earned value. The approved budget for work actually completed by the specified date.
Actual costs. The costs actually incurred for the work completed by the specified date.
A project baseline establishes the planned value, allowing project managers to better understand whether or not a project is on track and make any needed adjustments.
Poor resource management is one of the biggest challenges facing project managers. Whether it’s the number of people working on a project, necessary tools or additional financing, insufficient resources result in unexpected extra costs and delays.
Establishing a project baseline before you get started forces you to think about all the different resources you’ll need for each phase, meaning a smoother project for everyone involved.
Good change management
A project baseline isn’t just about managing productivity or efficiency. It also helps you see how any new changes affect the overall goal.
As a result of gauging a project baseline, you can quantify the impact of any changes to the process. For example, if you adopt a new piece of software for a new project, you can see exactly how that affects the budget, timeline and scope from baselines for previous similar projects.
Making changes during a project requires strict change control over the project baseline itself. You should only revise the baseline while a project is in motion if absolutely necessary. If you do so, you should save the original baseline, record the reason for the change and then ensure the baseline is fully updated.
Meeting quality standards and customer requirements
A key part of a project baseline is a clearly defined scope, specifying the project’s boundaries, goals and objectives.
By documenting the scope and how it aligns with the other project elements, the baseline reduces the likelihood of scope creep or substandard output. With the proper planning in place, it’s less likely that anyone will cut corners to hit a deadline or come in under budget.
As well as helping assess current projects, project managers can use a baseline to better understand the planning process.
By tracking how the different project components come together and observing the end result, you’ll gain valuable insights that you can use to make more accurate estimates for future projects.
The four components of a project baseline
There are a lot of factors to consider when planning a project and creating a baseline. These are commonly divided into four main components.
Scope: The project’s expected outcome, including deliverables.
Budget: How much you plan to spend on the project.
Timeline: How long you expect the project to last, with start and end dates.
Milestones: Key steps in the project and when you intend to reach them by.
Each of these can reveal useful trends about your projects as it progresses.
To illustrate how this works, imagine you’re tasked with hiring copywriters to write up successful case studies for sales enablement material.
A basic project baseline might look like the following.
With the first three components in place, you could then determine the project milestones to complete your baseline.
|Customer interviews||$1500||2.5 weeks|
|Initial drafts||$3000||2.5 weeks|
|Finished drafts approved||$500||1 week|
How to create a project baseline
Project baselines can be relatively simple, but they still need to be carefully prepared if you’re going to benefit from them.
The following step-by-step process will help you create a realistic and reliable project baseline.
1. Create an initial project plan and define the scope
The first step is to create an initial plan, confirming what you want to achieve. You can do this with a scope statement that details the problem you’re trying to solve, your objectives and the project deliverables.
While you can do this with a basic document or spreadsheet, project management software will come with features and templates to simplify the process.
2. Align all project phases, goals and flow with a detailed breakdown
Start by capturing the high-level project phases. These will vary depending on your project but will typically include things like research, design, testing and deployment.
Once you have a broad idea of the phases involved in meeting your scope, create a basic work breakdown structure (WBS) that details the specific tasks and actions you’ll need to complete for each phase.
A WBS for planning a trade show could look like this:
Review the tasks to ensure you’ve included all the necessary tasks to fulfill the project scope and that they’re in a logical order. This is also a good time to list all the resources for each phase and task.
3. Assign roles and responsibilities to your team
Review your tasks and consider what roles you’ll need to get your desired outcome. This will help you confirm whether your team has all the necessary skills and capacity for the project or if you’ll need to outsource certain tasks.
Carry this step out with your team so they can ask any questions, clarify their responsibilities and see how their tasks will contribute to the project’s overall success.
4. Create a project timeline
Deadlines are often dreaded but they’re an essential part of a project, helping you and your team maintain a sense of urgency and motivation. A schedule baseline requires you to go beyond an overall deadline and establish milestones to track progress throughout the project.
Go through each task you’ve identified and work out how long it’s likely to take, then use that information to create your deadlines and choose realistic milestones.
Gantt charts are a popular way of visualizing your timeline, as they can give you a high-level view of your project while also seeing how individual tasks relate to each other. You can use project management tools such as Asana and Trello to easily create Gantt charts for your timeline.
5. Anticipate delays and add buffers
Some people tend to imagine the best-case scenario when planning a project. They plan their projects around an ideal-world situation where nobody is ever off sick, materials don’t run out of stock and complications never come up.
While that’s a nice idea, it’s far more useful to take a realistic approach to your project baseline. Consider what kind of issues could realistically occur and how they would impact your project.
By including buffers between tasks, you can ensure that any minor delays won’t completely derail your project. A Gantt chart comes in useful again here, letting you see at a glance if you’ve grouped your tasks and milestones too tightly or if there’s enough room to handle any issues.
6. Forecast the required project budget
Baseline project budgets are derived from a combination of all the different costs associated with the project, from one-off purchases to your team’s hourly rate.
Some project costs are obvious, such as purchasing machinery or hiring a consultant, but some of the associated costs may not be so apparent.
For example, will you need to pay for training on how to use that machinery? What about tax, insurance and delivery charges? Will the consultant incur additional costs for accommodation or travel?
Just as you should add time buffers for unexpected delays, it’s good practice to account for potential extra costs in your budget.
For example, if you require a commodity that varies in price or a preferred supplier is suddenly unable to fulfill an order, how much could that affect the budget?
7. Seek approval from stakeholders
Once you have an initial draft for your project baseline, share it with everyone who will be involved or affected by the project.
Go into detail about the cost, schedule, scope baselines and milestones. Explain your reasoning and show how you’ll use the baseline to track the project’s progress. Getting additional input will help ensure your project baseline is realistic and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
After talking with the different stakeholders and team members, you might conclude that the budget and timeline aren’t sufficient to deliver the scope. If so, now is the time to revisit those components. It’s far better to address any concerns and make necessary changes now rather than after the project starts.
This is also a good opportunity to discuss how you’ll proceed if things don’t go according to plan. Discuss what level of change will require a new baseline, who will need to be notified and who’s authorized to make changes to the baseline.
Potential challenges of project baselines
A project baseline is a strong asset but it can also lead to issues if you don’t use it correctly. Here are some of the more common challenges you might encounter.
You may feel tempted to change the baseline
Once a project starts, no matter how well you’ve planned it and how many buffers you’ve put in place, it’s inevitable that some issues will come up.
At this point, it’s tempting to pop in and tinker with the baseline to reflect your new reality, but such changes could easily defeat the objective of the project baseline. If you’re constantly adjusting the baseline to match the finished project, it would be impossible to track progress or gain any other benefits.
That doesn’t mean you can never change the project baseline. Significant events (such as the loss of a critical resource or extensive additional requests from stakeholders or clients) could make the original baseline completely unrealistic and require changes.
If changes to the baseline do become necessary, they should be tightly controlled. Ensure all changes are approved and then documented with the reason for the change.
If you find yourself making frequent changes to the baseline, that’s an indication that the initial planning and analysis were insufficient. Review your planning procedure, check that you followed all the key steps and use what you’ve learned to improve future project baselines.
You neglect to monitor the baseline throughout the project
A project baseline isn’t a paper exercise that you can file away once it’s finished. Make time to review your project baseline regularly and see how it compares to the actual project.
Each week, check whether you’re on track to complete the current tasks and hit your next milestone. If there have been any changes to the scope, budget or timeline, what are the consequences?
You can expect some minor differences between the baseline and your actual project, but if those differences could significantly impact your project outcome, then you’ll be able to take prompt action.
You don’t map out what you want to measure
Every project should start with a clear objective. If you can’t measure whether or not you’re reaching that objective, then your project baseline can’t achieve its purpose. Projects can affect a wide range of variables and quality measurements, so use your baseline to take a data-driven approach to your analysis.
Your baseline should specify the KPIs and success criteria you’ll use to measure progress. This will ensure you and your team can focus on getting the most meaningful results rather than wasting time collecting and calculating data for unnecessary metrics.
Projects may not always go as smoothly as you’d like, but you can improve the odds by clearly defining the scope, timeline, budget and milestones before you get started.
By working with your team and other stakeholders to document the different components involved, a project baseline enables you to measure your progress, respond to issues and increase the chance of a successful outcome.