Why you Should Baseline Your Plan
Looking through recipe books gives me great ideas about the kind of dinners I will cook during the following week. But when I try to make the recipes, they never turn out just like the picture in the book. That’s probably because I rarely have the right ingredients, so I make changes to the recipe as I go along! The end result tastes fine, but it doesn’t look like the picture of the food made by the professional chef.
The professional chef’s starting point – the recipe and the photo – is the baseline. That’s what you think you will achieve when you start to cook. What you get at the end is often very different! Not necessarily wrong, but just not what you thought you would get because of the changes you made along the way.
Project plans are no exception. At the beginning of the project you put together a project schedule with your team, using online project management software or other tools. Then you work towards completing that plan. Changes are approved, risks appear, people leave and others join the team, and over the course of the project the plan adapts and ends up looking different to how it did at the beginning.
Experienced project managers will have taken a baseline of their plan once they first put it together. A baseline definition is a snapshot of the plan at a fixed moment in time. It is the original approved version of what you set out to deliver.
You might be wondering why it is worth bothering to keep a copy of this plan – after all, if everything is likely to change, surely it is more valuable to refer to the most up to date version? Well, yes, it is. You do need to manage the project using the most recent plan. But it is useful to have a copy of the original baseline for comparison. Here are some baseline scenario uses that offer reasons why.
Five Benefits of a Baseline Plan
1. You Can Monitor Progress
A baseline plan can show you progress. You can compare the actual progress made (as recorded in your up to date plan) against the forecast progress from your baseline plan. This will give you an idea about whether the project is on track or not. You can compare task slippage, changes to milestones and see how much the end date has moved. These are all good things to include on your project status reports.
2. You Can Allocate Resources
Your original resource allocation will have been done on the basis of the original plan. If that changes, you will need to go back to your schedule of resources and make changes. Perhaps you need one team to start work earlier. Or you will have to spend a bit of your budget later in the year, and that needs approval from the finance team. Comparing your current requirements to the original baseline will remind you of what has changed and by how much, making it easier to move resources around to suit the new dates.
3. You Can Review Your Estimates
When you put the original plan together you used the best possible estimates at the time. You probably worked with the whole project team to gather accurate forecasts for the work and put these task durations into the plan. If things start to slip, and dates change, it is normally a sign that the estimates were not that good in the first place.
If you have kept a copy of your baseline, original plan, you can compare the original estimates to the time it actually takes to do the work. While that’s not necessarily going to help you do anything better on this project, it is really good information to have. You can record the differences and let your Project Management Office know, along with any other project teams who are currently estimating for their projects. When you come to estimate similar tasks on future projects you will have a much better idea of how long things will take in reality, based on your experience of this project. You’ll produce better estimates with your team because of what you learned from this project and your comparison back to the baseline.
4. You Can Track Changes
As a project manager, you should be tracking changes through the change management process anyway. Including the changes on your plan is another way of making sure that everyone on the team knows about the changes. Simply make the change to the task duration or resource, and your online project management software will do the rest, informing the team that the change has happened and making sure that the people who are affected receive notification that something is different.
Your baseline plan should not include any of these changes, so you can see what impact approved changes had when you get to the end of the project. That brings us to the final reason why you should baseline your plan.
5. You Can Use it for a Post-Project Review
A baseline plan is essential for a successful post-project review. It is a really useful piece of documentation to have available at the point where you are assessing how the project went. You can see all the changes and how they impacted the task durations and the resources involved. You can see how the estimates evolved over time, and what the impact of your estimating techniques was.
Of course, you may find that your baseline plan was scheduled for longer than your actual plan – don’t automatically assume that your estimates will be too short! Sometimes you may uncover interesting information about how you can shave time off a project plan when you do a comparison of your baseline against your actual schedule.
Baseline systems and plans are very useful for a number of reasons. You can take more than one baseline snapshot of your project schedule during your project. It is definitely helpful to have one at the beginning, but if your project includes different stages or phases you could take another baseline at the start of every stage. Once you start using baselines, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them!