How Baselining a Project Sets You Up for Success

Macgill Davis

Have you ever struggled to complete a project because you ran out of time or money or some other critical resource? Maybe you underestimated how long the project would take or how much it would cost. 

Sometimes you think you'll achieve your project milestones quickly but once you begin, you realize that things are more complicated than expected. This happens when you don't have a project baseline. Working by ear and hoping to succeed often leads to failure. To have successful projects, you should be methodical about project management and set baselines to track both your resources and your progress.

This article details all you need to know about baselining a project. We'll explain what a project baseline is, why it's important, and how baselining your projects makes success more likely. 

What Is a Project Baseline?

Let's begin by defining the term: A project baseline is a clearly defined benchmark or starting point that helps you track project performance and assess any deviations from your project plan. It is a reference point for critical factors (like cost, scope, and schedule) to ensure you’re making progress and still on track to complete your project with the available time and resources.

Let's look at an example.

Say you're chosen to prepare a presentation to present to your senior management team and stakeholders a month from today. Let’s imagine it typically takes you a week to research and write a presentation plan and another week to design a slide deck and prepare to present. So you set a project schedule baseline to finish working on and preparing for the presentation in two weeks. That still gives you the remaining two weeks to handle any issues and receive feedback from your team members before the big day.

Having a project baseline (in this case, a project schedule baseline) allows you to define a realistic timeline for the entire project — when to start writing, when to start preparing, when to ask for feedback, and when to present. You can set clear end dates for all these tasks and discover if you need to work faster than usual or can work leisurely and still achieve your goal.

Components of a Project Baseline

Baselining a project: manager checking graphs and charts using a laptop

You can set project baselines using one or all of the following three components: cost, scope, and schedule. Some teams and individuals also set what is known as a quality baseline, but this is not as commonly used as the other three.

Let's define each one:

  • Scope baseline: The scope baseline covers the expected outcome, project deliverables, goals, and requirements. It helps to define the problem you're solving and answers the question: What are your deliverables?
  • Cost baseline: The cost baseline, also called the budget baseline, defines how much you have to spend to complete a project. It answers the question: What's your budget?
  • Schedule baseline: The schedule baseline is your project's planned timeline. It helps you stay on track to complete a project and typically depends on the scope and cost baselines. It answers the question: How long will the entire project take? 
  • Quality baseline: The quality baseline helps to manage your quality of work and conform to project requirements. It answers the question: What standards must the project and individual deliverables meet to be successful?

You can set and monitor the three baselines of scope, cost, and schedule separately or together. When all three baselines are combined, it's called a performance measurement baseline (PMB). With a PMB, you can monitor how a change in one component affects others, e.g., how a schedule delay would affect the project cost or scope.

Why Is Baselining a Project Important?

Without project baselines, you're more likely to struggle with schedule conflicts, scope creep, and inadequate budgets. You're also more likely to fail.

Setting a project baseline helps you track your progress and performance and manage change as you execute. You can easily see when you have drifted from your initial plan and track any deviations. If a project moves far from your original plan, you have time to decide how to proceed to complete it on time.

Project baselines also help you determine if a project plan is realistic and if you're executing it effectively. When a project is in sync with your baseline project plan, you can assume everything is okay. Having a baseline makes it easy to compare your initial plan with your actual performance.

How to Set Project Baselines

Baselining a project doesn't have to be complicated. To begin, follow the steps below:

1. Determine Your Project Scope

Start by developing a scope statement with a work breakdown structure (WBS) to clarify all you need for a successful project. Your project scope statement should state your goals and objectives, requirements, milestones, deliverables, and acceptance criteria.

This is the first step in defining and communicating the purpose and expectations of a project. If you're collaborating with team members, this document guides everyone on how to complete the project and measure success.

2. Calculate the Project Cost

Baselining a project: employees discussing graphs and charts

Next, build on your project scope by calculating project costs. Determine how much you'll spend on each task and deliverable in the project scope, and also consider any tangential costs to make sure they're included.

Try to round up your costs as realistically as possible to develop a solid estimate. You may not actually incur all the costs when you begin executing, but it’s important to include all the possibilities when planning. This way, you can handle any emergencies that come up during project execution.

3. Create a Project Schedule

Now that you have your scope and costs, you can plan your project schedule to create a timeline for the entire project. This serves as a benchmark to help measure your progress and address any changes in the project scope.

Estimate how long each task will take and allow margins for adjustment when the project begins. Define end dates for the project deliverables and tasks. You can use a Gantt chart to illustrate and communicate your timeline and track progress. This makes it easy for collaborators to understand and complete their deliverables on schedule.

4. Assign Tasks and Allocate Resources 

Use project management software to document your project plan and assign tasks and resources to yourself and collaborators. Project management tools make tracking and communicating project progress easy by providing access and visibility for team members and stakeholders.

Everyone can stay in the loop, contribute, and update the project without constant back-and-forth communication. These tools show you what to do next and remind you when it's time to move on to a new task. You can see and assess all that has been done and what is left to tackle.

5. Establish a Change Management Process

There's always a chance you may need to make changes and adjust certain parameters when you begin executing a project. The last step when baselining a project is to establish a change management process to implement changes to your project’s budget, scope, or schedule.

Your change control procedures should help assess variances to the original baseline and how to decide on the next steps. Avoid setting a new baseline. Instead, do what's needed to deliver a successful project, and then review your actual performance against the initial baseline. This helps you to be better prepared for future projects.

Get Better at Estimating Schedule Baselines With Rize 

Baselining a project can set you up for success: You’ll have a benchmark that helps you track your progress and performance and decide how to handle necessary deviations and changes.

One of the most crucial baselines you need is a project schedule baseline, which helps you create a timeline for all the tasks and project deliverables you must complete. Start monitoring how long it takes to complete each task, and you’ll get better at estimating task duration and project timelines.

The Rize time tracking app does this automatically. You'll receive daily and weekly reports on how long you work on specific tasks, websites, and apps when you download and install the app. These reports will help you forecast more realistic schedule baselines and deliver more successful projects. 

Are you ready to get better at establishing project baselines for improved performance? Download the Rize app today and begin tracking your time with a two-week free trial.