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What is a baseline project and why does it matter?

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If you’re new to project management, you probably feel overwhelmed enough with all the elements that go into building a basic project plan.

Requirements, deliverables, risks, and more, getting it all together is a challenge. And then you find out — after the plan is ready — that experts recommend you prepare something called a project baseline.

It’s easy to get frustrated and think, “ugh more project documents?” But really, it just repurposes your existing research.

It’s a crucial element to judge the performance of your project. It’s your measuring stick for how well or poorly you did.

So in this article, we’ll answer everything you want to know about baseline project scope, schedule, cost, and more.

What is the baseline project scope, schedule, or budget and why should I care?

A baseline in projects can refer to 3 different elements, the baseline scope, schedule, and cost estimation of a project.

Essentially, they are benchmarks or goals for the final scope, timeline, and costs for a project that can help you evaluate your performance.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

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What is the project scope baseline?

The scope baseline is a collection of project documents that highlight the scope of the project.

For a building project, the scope might be to lay the foundation and establish a new building that meets specific standards.

After starting, you don’t want to discover that the terrain is unstable. If you need to include a 300-feet deep excavation project to establish safer ground, that’s a massive change.

If you follow traditional project management methods, you’re probably familiar with the work breakdown structure (WBS). It’s a document where you break down your scope into concrete activities centered around deliverables.

Most companies use the WBS, along with the scope statement as their final scope baseline, rather than developing a separate document.

Project WBS in monday.com

If you’re not familiar with the WBS, you can easily use a monday.com template to follow along and create your own in minutes.

What is the project schedule baseline?

The schedule baseline is a project planning document that lays out the ideal schedule for your project.

It’s often just a slightly-edited version of the project schedule — the last version before you start executing the project plan.

Rather than getting granular with activities and labor assignments, it makes sense to highlight larger stages and milestones.

If you’re wondering why a baseline schedule is necessary, you probably haven’t been in project management for a very long time. It’s no secret that most companies struggle to keep their timeline.

According to a Wellingtone study in 2020, only 29% of companies complete projects on time.

Projects completed on time study

(Image Source)

The problem is that it’s often hard to pinpoint the real issues after the fact. In the heat of the moment, everyone adapts to the changing requirements, including editing the plan and schedule.

When looking back, nobody has a clear view of what went wrong, why, and where.

The baseline schedule exists to help you identify and fix issues with any project team, individual, or process during or after the project.

What is the project cost baseline?

The project cost baseline is the final untouched version of the project budget before project launch. As changes happen to the real budget, the baseline will show you how accurate or inaccurate your research was.

When you’re considering the project costs, it’s not enough to eyeball the materials and labor required. Dramatically underestimating costs is a big flaw as a project team or manager.

You need to make a realistic estimate that factors in everything related to the work you’ll do. Consider rental equipment, internal payroll, contractors, insurance, management costs, and contingency reserves.

Project budget diagram

(Image Source)

The cost baseline typically doesn’t include the management reserve, but it depends from company to company.

But why go to all the effort? Isn’t the original budget enough?

Again, the cost baseline is essential because only 43% of companies often or always complete their projects on budget. Improving your ability to forecast costs will help you make better project management decisions in the future.

What is the difference between a project baseline and a project plan?

During project planning, the baseline project schedule and actual project schedule may be identical. As your team executes the project, the live plan should adapt to the changes while the baseline stays the same.

The same goes for project budget or cost estimation.

Also, rather than assigning or detailing activities, many teams keep the baseline simple. By only outlines essential milestones, it’s easier to gauge progress at every stage in the project.

As a result, it takes place towards the end of the planning stage, after you’ve finished your charter, scope, and actual project plan.

Project documents diagram

(Image Source)

You can use these documents and boards to create a baseline quickly. If you use management software, you can add the baseline to evaluate your project in real time.

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How do you prepare a project baseline?

The best way to prepare a project baseline is to work with your original project plan and adapt your schedule and budget.

Let’s take a closer look.

Visualize and perfect the project schedule.

A Gantt chart is the perfect tool for the job. It will help you get a feel for your project schedule and any changes you should make.

For example, adding a buffer to some phases might make sense before starting the execution phase.

Gantt chart in monday.com

In monday.com, you can easily create a Gantt chart view for every board, including your overall project plan.

With a drag-and-drop interface, you can easily make the last touch-ups before finalizing the baseline schedule. Remove any unnecessary details like minor tasks or work assignments.

Add the baseline schedule and budget to live plans so you can compare in real time.

The best way to keep track of the baseline is to include it in your live plans. One approach is to create extra columns that show the expected timeline versus real start and finish dates.

But for an even clearer picture, you can keep 2 complete versions of the schedule on your planning board. In monday.com, it’s as easy as duplicating the whole project schedule group at the start of a project.

Duplicate group monday.com

Then you can change the group name and the color and compare the differences in a Gantt chart.

Baseline vs. live schedule Gantt chart side-by-side

You’ll be able to pinpoint positive and negative changes at a glance. Keep your eye on the ball with monday.com’s smart features.

Finalize your budget.

Once you’ve baselined the schedule, it’s time to move on to the project costs. Finalize the budget with all potential costs, including labor, materials, equipment, insurance, and risk buffers.

monday.com makes controlling your budget easy. You can instantly review your history of project budgets to help you gauge the costs of your newest one.

Project budget in monday.com

Add extra fields, or copy the document in its entirety to create a complete budget baseline.

To leave them untouched, copy or export your boards or documents.

If you use a modern solution —- like monday.com — you probably create the plans and boards with the intention of using them.

But for it to be a baseline, it needs to remain unchanged. So copy the project plan for a single person to manage and keep up to date.

Duplicate board

You can then change the baseline board to private so no one will make any unnecessary changes.

Can a project baseline be changed?

Yes, you can change it, but typically, the baseline will only be changed through your change management process, based on a change request.

For example, if the client or project sponsor wants tons of added features — AKA scope — out of the blue, they’d submit a change request. Then, you’d evaluate it for impacts, approve it, and re-baseline to incorporate the change.

With enough change to the project scope, the original baseline will lose its value as a reference point. That’s why there’s a process for managing it in place.

But for smaller projects, you may want to leave the baseline untouched. Even if the estimate was 99% wrong, the baseline is a powerful reminder to do better research in the future.

Of course, you should never leave your schedule alone and wing it. Leaving the baseline alone doesn’t mean leaving your schedule or budget alone.

Update the schedule, budget, and scope to reflect reality so you can continue to be proactive and create realistic forecasts for the rest of the project.

Use the project baseline to keep your next project in line

Without a baseline, it can be hard to tell when things start to go in the wrong direction. Since digital plans and schedules are constantly changing, it’s hard to retrace the steps.

By keeping a separate project baseline, you can keep your schedule and budget in check by pinpointing exactly when things go awry and adjusting the course accordingly.

It’s also great for avoiding repeating identical mistakes in the future.

Use our project planning template to create a thorough plan, including milestones and a baseline schedule and budget.

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