The baseline project management technique explained
Without a baseline or benchmark, a doctor taking your blood pressure or heart rate would be meaningless.
With nothing to compare your numbers to, how could they know if you were healthy or not? They might as well measure your wrist’s circumference for all the good it would do.
Luckily, we live in a timeline where benchmarks exist.
In project management, a baseline schedule or budget holds your team accountable and makes it easy to see when things are going well and when they aren’t.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about baselines in project management, what they are, why they’re essential, and how to start using them yourself.
Baseline project management basics: what it is and why it matters
Let’s start with answering the first question on your mind, what is a baseline in project management?
In project management, a baseline is a realistic prediction of how a project will play out during implementation. Setting concrete milestones and baselining a project can help you keep your project on track. It makes it easy to evaluate the performance of different project teams and activities.
Think of it like the par score on a hole in golf — if you’re not a golfer, that’s the number of shots it should take a professional player to get the ball in the hole.
Translated to PM terms, the baseline is how much time, money, and other resources a professional team should need to get the project done.
What is the purpose of a baseline?
The purpose of the baseline is to keep the project team focused and hold them accountable if they deviate heavily from the expected project plan. It’s a reference point for how well your project is coming along at any given time.
And if you think you don’t need one, think again. The majority of projects go over their budgets and expected timelines.
According to a 2020 study by Wellingtone, only 29% of companies completed most projects on time, and 43% within budget.
Without a baseline and clear project milestones, it’ll be hard to pinpoint where things started to go wrong.
Your expectations could have been unrealistic, sure. But that’s a problem in itself that you must fix before your next project.
Is baselining projects common practice?
Yes, most established companies that handle a large volume of projects take advantage of baselining.
According to a recent study by Wellingtone, 50% of companies mostly or always baseline every project schedule.
If you’re new to project management, it might sound like a lot of unnecessary upfront work, but the effort is well worth it.
Discovering a weak link as quickly as possible can mean the difference between project success within budget and complete and utter failure.
Plus, creating a baseline doesn’t involve too much effort beyond the initial planning. All you have to do is adapt the initial schedules and cost estimates.
Adding clear-cut milestones and maybe even dates for baseline comparisons is enough.
When to create a baseline for your project, and when to start using it
If you rush into it, there’s no way you can create an accurate timeline for your project. That’s why experts recommend doing it towards the end of your planning stage.
You need to finish the following planning phases first:
- Project vision and objectives
- Overall scope
- Definition of deliverables
- Requirements gathering
- Basic high-level project schedule
- Initial project plan
If you don’t have all this information, there’s just no way you can create an accurate project baseline. Trying to do so preemptively will make a lot of extra effort for your managers and core project team.
This graphic from PMI shows where they recommend creating your baseline. Right as you’re starting to do the real project work after all the planning is done.
The typical project baseline schedule is mostly just the initial project planning documents. The difference is that you will keep them unchanged to compare the plan to later as the project evolves.
Start benchmarking your project when you enter the execution phase.You want to start benchmarking your project as soon as you enter the execution phase. It’s the best way to discover issues in your research, planning, and day-to-day management.
For example, comparing the live project schedule to the schedule baseline will highlight where delays took place. You’ll have a visual testimony of what went wrong and exactly when it did.
You can also compare updated scope documents with your scope baseline. It’ll give you a reliable overview of just how much the project changed.
All too often, lacking project research leads to ballooning project scope. For example, you might suddenly notice water damage in the office building you’re supposed to renovate.
Implementation-stage discoveries and additions will be clear as day when you refer to the scope baseline. That can help you adjust course, change locations, or even cancel the project if necessary.
How to baseline a project more accurately (with monday.com)
Ready to put what you just learned into practice? monday.com makes it easy to create and utilize schedule and cost baselines.
With templates, integrations, and smart automations, it’s a far cry from spreadsheets or printouts. Our Work OS gives you all the features you need to optimize your unique workflow.
Finalize your project plan with objectives, deliverables, and more.
There can be no baseline without a project plan. So the first step is to finish it: objectives, deliverables, schedule, budget, and all.
Note: make sure that you collaborate with stakeholders and prospective team members during this process. Unilateral decisions rarely lead to anything good.
Our project management plan template is a great starting point if you’ve been winging it so far.
Work with your team and stakeholders to fill out the scope, deliverables, and schedule. You can easily adapt it to suit your unique project management process.
Flesh out the baseline schedule, and add a column for live dates.
Put the finishing touches to your timeline, and add a finish date column to the table.
That way, you can immediately see if your project is going along with the schedule. Leave the baseline alone, and you’ll notice whenever a phase exceeds the timeline.
If you don’t want to rely on manual updates, you can use automations to connect the date to statuses in a separate activity board.
For example, when the item for a deliverable changes to “delivered” or “accepted,” you can set the date finished.
If you want to go more in-depth, you can also add date-started fields and automatically calculate a delay based on the timeline using a custom formula.
Use a Gantt chart to visualize the schedule and make intuitive changes.
Planning out an entire project schedule manually with just dates is a pain. Our interactive Gantt chart view can help you with that.
Another way to compare real-time progress to the baseline plan is to duplicate the schedule group. Then, switch the color and title of the baseline, and make sure you leave it untouched.
Just update the timeline to show your project progress, and you can compare the two at all times.
It’s a great trick to pinpoint exactly where and when things went wrong.
Estimate costs based on previous projects or industry benchmarks.
When setting your baseline budget, you must consider all possible expenses. It’s not enough to include basic costs like materials and rental equipment.
Factor in insurance, delays, management costs, software, and then give your project a healthy contingency buffer on top of that. After all, you won’t get any funding you don’t ask for.
You could use our high-level project budget overview template. Or better, create a custom template that represents your company to a T.
Once again, keeping the baseline is a matter of either duplicating the group or adding extra columns for adding the real costs for each expense group.
Automatically estimate performance using our dashboards and reports.
There’s no need to manually calculate the earned value or embrace other complex ways to map out your cost and schedule efficiency.
You don’t need to painstakingly create a graph using Excel or other clunky, old software.
With monday.com, you can track delays and other performance issues in real time. With a 100% customizable dashboard, you can highlight the data points and milestones that matter the most to your company.
Get a better overview of project performance
Without a baseline or benchmark for how you expect to do, it can be hard to judge whether your project implementation was efficient or not.
By estimating the scope, budget, and project schedule ahead of time and setting key milestones, you can immediately see how well your project is progressing at any time.
Use our project planning template to create a thorough plan, including milestones and a baseline schedule and budget.