Software

Gantt Chart vs. Timeline: What Are They & How To Use Them

Jonathan Friedman
April 8, 2021
Gantt Chart vs. Timeline: What Are They & How To Use Them

Want to know the differences between Gantt chart vs. timeline?

According to the Project Management Institute, 42% of the past year's projects were considered highly problematic. If you are neck-deep in the world of projects, you know how fast technology is changing the game.

So why take the time to compare the Gantt chart vs. timeline? You've already passed your PMI certification. Timelines and Gantt charts are commonplace, aren't they?

Not necessarily. These two tools, though usually well-known, are often undervalued and underused. Less than 40% of departments use a standard project management tool or system (thanks again, PMI).

So take a look at the tools below. We'll show you how to use these tools to make your projects more organized and easier to manage. And we'll give you tips on which software programs might work best for you.

Below is everything we will cover. Feel free to skip ahead.

What is a Gantt chart?

Gantt Chart

First off, you may not have heard of a Gantt chart. So what even is it? We're glad you asked.

A Gantt chart is a robust tool covering most of the details you'll need to track in a project. So let's break down its key components.

A visual aid

A Gantt chart is essentially a bar chart that tracks your project's progress. You input tasks, team assignments, start and end dates, and task dependencies. Then your Gantt chart shows you a visual representation of your project timeline. 

Your Gantt chart can be color-coded to group like tasks with one another depending on your software. It can be clean and streamlined or have a more technical feel.

In-depth capabilities

Gantt charts are ideal for larger companies because they can handle a hefty task list. Have an eight-month project? A two-year rollout?

What about a lot of inter-connecting tasks? Use your Gantt chart to track all that. You can even switch between a bar chart view and a calendar view to get a sense of how tasks overlap.

Why use a Gantt chart?

Some project managers can list every detail of a project into a spreadsheet with no issue. They don't mind looking at much text. Others, not so much!

If the thought of column after column of black and white text makes you cringe, you've got to try a Gantt chart. Gantt charts tug all those details out of the proverbial black hole. Then they present you with a zoomed-out view of your project.

See the big picture

Gantt charts just let you see everything that's going on. You're not looking at a road map here. You're gazing out the window of a space shuttle.

Big projects mean lots of details and lengthy task lists. You can't afford to get disorganized. Having a visual aid for your entire project lets you see all of the moving pieces all at once.

Track progress

And having that space-view of your project means you're going to be better able to track its progress. You'll see a horizontal row with daily columns at the top of every Gantt chart.

A vertical bar will run down your rows to mark the current day. This is a quick visual reminder of where your project is at.

Was your team supposed to finish a big task yesterday? Its bar will end right before that vertical line. That's an easy reminder to you to mark it as complete or follow-up with your team members.

Link task dependencies

And as you track each taskbar, you can see whether a delay in one task will delay others.

Task dependencies are one of the more critical parts of project management. And that's all because they have a positive or negative domino effect on your timeline.

Do you need to confirm distributors before you determine the number of deliverables? Does getting started on the next set of deliverables depend on a critical stakeholder meeting?

These are the kinds of visual connections that make a Gantt chart shine.

How to use a Gantt chart

You know the five phases of project management. Now we want to introduce you to the six phases of Gantt charting. Don't worry; this will be fun.

1. Gather information

As with any project, the first step is gathering information. As a result, you ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Who are your stakeholders?
  2. Who's on your team?
  3. What are your deadlines and deliverables?

You likely already have this information if the initiation phase is already underway. If not, pause and get that information asap!

Once you have it, it will be crucial for your success as project manager. But maybe you've already written your project charter and had it approved. If you're sitting, project charter in hand, at your computer, then you're ready for phase two.

2. Input details

This phase coincides with the planning phase of project management. You're making your project plan and figuring out all those timelines. You're connecting tasks and making sure your team has enough time to complete them.

Once you're at a place where you've finalized your project plan, you can start your Gantt chart. We suggest going task-by-task and putting in every detail about that task. Then you'll need to loop back afterward to add in those dependencies.

3. Present your work

As with your project plan, you want to make sure your supervisors, stakeholders, and team members are all on the same page. Run through the chart with them. Print it out and create a full-sized visual aid in your next update meeting.

Whatever your means, make sure everyone is up to speed on reading and understanding your chart.

4. Connect your team

The great thing about most Gantt chart software is that you can add team members to the program itself. This means they can access and view the chart on their own! And the system can notify them when you make changes to deadlines or task requirements.

Usually, you input your teammate's email when assigning them a task. That adds them to the system. Then they'll get an email where they can set up an account.

Your teammates can send messages, leave comments, and offer status updates. This streamlines your follow-up process. It also gives your team a chance to take more responsibility for their tasks.

5. Navigate changes

Alright, so one critical task has taken longer than you expected, and now you need to update your timeline. Is there ever a project where this doesn't happen?

On your own, you'd have to manually adjust every end date for every task, making sure you did your math correctly. That takes up a considerable chunk of your time!

Using a Gantt chart, you've already inputted your dependencies. Change the end date on one task. Then watch as it automatically changes the end dates of every other task that's affected.

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All you have to do is double-check it.

6. Complete the project

Ah, now this is quite possibly the best part of any project. Who doesn't love the satisfaction that comes from seeing every task labeled "completed"?

When you're finished with your project, your Gantt chart provides a final look at how things ended. Compare it to your original project plan. Did you expect the bulk of your project to take two months, and it took three?

Save your final Gantt chart or print it out as a reference for your debrief meetings. It's also a handy reminder when you're prepping for a similar project in the future.

What is a project management timeline? 

Timeline

So what's the real difference between a Gantt chart vs. a timeline? Why use one over the other? Mostly, it comes down to the details and visual presentation.

Keep in mind: Gantt charts are for denser projects. Timelines are simpler and cleaner.

Tracking tasks

This is where a project timeline shines. You can easily see which tasks are completed, progress, and upcoming. Timelines keep things simple by sticking strictly to start and end dates.

A quick reminder

Timelines are typically easier to digest than Gantt charts. Why? They hold fewer details.

A timeline is meant to be a visual reminder of all your project's deadlines. But it's not necessarily tracking connections or team assignments. It's a tool to gauge whether you're going to finish on time.

Why use a project timeline?

So why use a project timeline? Well, your team may have struggled in the past with staying on track. Or you may need a more straightforward tool to manage your smaller projects.

Consider the following possibilities. You may find that you don't need all of what a Gantt chart offers.

Simple to use

Timelines are more comfortable to use. There's not as much going on with them. Gantt charts dive into the details; timelines keep things surface-level.

Well, you may be thinking, isn't that a con? Not necessarily.

If your projects are linear or deal with only a few deliverables, timelines are for you. If your projects are mostly short-term, you may also find timelines to a better tool.

Easy to translate

Gantt charts take some onboarding. This is especially true for those who are not project managers or detail-oriented.

Timelines are better to view the big-picture. They show an overview that's easy to grasp. All your team will need to understand are the start and end dates of each task.

Helpful visual aid

A timeline's simplicity also makes it a more effective visual aid. Not to mention, having a basic timeline is a vital part of presenting your project plan.

Moreso than a calendar, a timeline represents deadlines over a span of months. It can show overlap between tasks, too. So if team members are working on multiple deliverables, they'll know what to complete simultaneously.

How to use a project management timeline

An excellent timeline can save your project. A poor one can send it spiraling off track. Though it may seem like a straightforward tool, let's break down how to set one up. 

What every timeline needs

First, you've got to get your details in order. Every timeline needs the following: tasks, start dates, and end dates.

Notice something different? Unlike Gantt charts, project timelines don't delve into the world of tracking dependencies. Nor do they manage who is in charge of each task.

Depending on the software you're using, you may be able to add these to your timeline. Just know that it may make clutter its look and functionality.

Creating the timeline

If you've been in the project game for a while, then you know that timelines can take time to make. Thankfully, you can use a timeline template or a timeline maker to help you speed up the process.

But the key to creating a healthy timeline has a solid work breakdown structure made ahead of time. Make sure you know what that final deliverable entails.

Then input one task at a time, making sure you include extra information in a section at the end of your rows. Make sure your timeline stays organized and easy to read, as your team needs to be able to track their progress, too.

Presenting your work

Speaking of teams, you'll want to run your timeline by your supervisors and your stakeholders. Make sure everyone knows the ins and outs of this project. If your team doesn't understand the timeline, tasks will be late (almost guaranteed).

So what pieces are they responsible for? When are those due? It should be easy for them to access all this information in your timeline. 

Using the timeline

Your timeline is your point of reference, so refer to it often. Every day you need to know what your team is working on, what they're finishing up, and coming next.

Check-in with your team and cross-reference their progress with your timeline. As we know well, the one constant of project management is updating the timeline.

Managing changes

And that brings us to managing changes as the project goes along. Having a well-organized timeline means you can quickly go in and update deadlines. A useful timeline tool will help you stay on top of all those changes.

Then, at the end of your project, you can compare timelines. This is a massive asset to your closing process. It allows you to analyze where things changed and better prepare for future projects.

Completing the project

Ah, here you are again, at the end of another project. It didn't go entirely to plan, but what project does?

A reasonable timeline is like a good map: stick to it, and you'll get to where you need to be when you need to be there. Leave it in the backseat, and you'll spend days wandering blocks away from your destination, arriving late every time.

Gantt chart vs. timeline: choosing the best tool

Okay, so where does that leave us with our question: Gantt chart vs. Timeline? Gantt Charts offer detail and bulk; timelines are streamlined and straightforward. How do you know what to use for your team?

Consider the four categories below and determine where your team fits. Are you in a smaller company with fewer stakeholders? Timelines may be for you.

Part of a larger corporation with hundreds of deliverables each year? You may want to opt for a more robust Gantt chart.

Project scope and timelines

Some projects are small enough that a simple timeline will suffice. If all you need to track are your deadlines, opt for a timeline. Or, if visually-appealing software is your thing, try a task management tool (more on that below).

But if you're dealing with many large-scope projects, think carefully about your tool. Choose a system that incorporates a Gantt chart. And don't sacrifice usability for functionality.

Stakeholders and communication

If you need to involve your stakeholders every step of the way, you need a robust communication tool. Opt for a tool to add users to the system if the tool includes a messaging component (think Slack, only built-in), even better!

Team size and collaboration

How big is your team? If you're working with 2-10 people within the same department, then a timeline will likely meet all your needs.

Are you working with 15+ stakeholders from the same department? Then it would help if you opted for a Gantt chart. 


Collaboration should also be top of mind. If you're going to be sending emails back and forth with all your stakeholders, consider a Gantt chart where people can make comments. Get them plugged into the system to keep everything organized in one place.

Reporting and sharing

Tools that make it easier to report and share information are project managers' best friends. When a project picks up speed, the last thing on your to-do list is working on a report.

So choose a tool that helps you keep your stakeholders involved and aware. And pick one that meets your company's needs. For example, software for non-profits may need to include sections for fundraising targets.

Project management tools

Not all project management software will be the right fit for your team. Some software is intuitive to learn but focuses more on task management.

Other software boasts a steep learning curve. Those may include applications that you'll never use for your projects.

Consider each phase of the project life cycle when determining whether you use a Gantt chart vs. a timeline. Do you need a tool that covers all five? Or are you looking for something that zooms in on one phase in particular?


Below are three tools that vary in usability, breadth, and value. Take a look and see what works for your team.

Microsoft Project

Microsoft Project is a tool that has been around since the 1980s. It's come a long way since those days, but it remains one of the clunkier tools to use. Additionally, it can sport a hefty price tag.

Even so, Microsoft Project specializes in reports and charts. You can manage all your resources with this tool. Plan your projects, assign tasks to your team, and communicate with your stakeholders.

Microsoft Project does take time to learn.

Trello

Trello is a task management tool that uses Kanban-style boards for tracking projects. Think of it like categorizing columns of sticky notes on a corkboard. Except, instead of a corkboard, you're using Trello!

It's an excellent option for someone who isn't responsible for full-blown project management. Why? Because Trello is better suited to manage tasks, not projects.

You won't be able to get a clear overview of your project's full scope with Trello. But you will be able to communicate easily with your team members. You can also attach documents to each of your task cards and keep track of deadlines.

TrueNxus

TrueNxus: Gantt Chart & Timeline Hybrid

52% of managers have said that communication had the most significant impact on their projects. But you likely have to use a separate communication tool alongside your file-sharing and project tools. Quickly, the whole process feels laborious.

TrueNxus is a cloud-based project management tool that bridges Gantt chart vs. timeline benefits. TrueNxus has created a hybrid approach to displaying a project plan across time. Additionally, it has all of the features you need in a project management software-interactive project timelines, dependency tracking, task lists, real-time notifications, and chat. All of these features combined saves you all that time you'd spend switching from apps, spreadsheets, slide decks.

TrueNxus strives to be intuitive and easy to learn. Its interface is clean and easy to digest. Small teams have a low monthly fee; larger corporations, a pay-per-user option.

Conclusion: Gantt chart vs. timeline

Project management becomes a lot easier when you have the right tools in your toolbelt. The benefits of using tools like a Gantt chart vs. timeline are invaluable. The next step to take is branching out into full-on project management software.

If your managing cross-functional teams, take a stab at using the best project management software out there: TrueNxus.


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