What is a baseline in project management?
Every journey begins with a single step. In project management, that step should be establishing a project baseline.
In this guide, we will define a project baseline and identify types of baseline in project management.
We will also explain its importance and highlight some problems that can happen due to not establishing a clear project baseline.
Furthermore, you will learn how to set a project baseline, followed by an example to illustrate the matter and help you gain a better understanding of this project management concept.
Table of Contents
What is a baseline in project management, in simple terms?
The Association for Project Management (APM) defines a project baseline as “the reference levels against which a project, program or portfolio is monitored and controlled.”
In simple words, a project baseline is a clearly defined point in a project plan that project managers use as a reference point to measure performance and progress.
It enables project managers to determine the project’s overall health.
There are several types of project baselines.
Types of baseline in project management
A project baseline actually consists of three types of baselines.
We use them to evaluate different project aspects, and they are identified as:
- Scope baseline,
- Cost baseline, and
- Schedule baseline.
Let’s define each one and explain them briefly.
In a nutshell, a scope baseline is an approved version of a scope statement, WBS, and its associated WBS dictionary, which we use as a reference point to monitor project progress and compare actual to planned results.
In plain language, a scope baseline also:
- Defines settled goals, deliverables, and a project work scope,
- Documents agreement between the stakeholders relevant to the project,
- Provides a project with a work structure, and
- Provides guidance in daily work.
It is a component of the project management plan and consists of the following elements:
- Project scope statement — describes the project scope, assumptions, major deliverables, and constraints.
- Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) — a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work that the project team must do to accomplish the project objectives and create the required deliverables.
- Work package — the lowest level of a WBS.
- Planning package — a component below the control account (the component of WBS that we use for the project cost accounting) and above the work package, which has known work content, but without detailed schedule activities.
- WBS dictionary — supports the WBS and provides details about each components’ deliverables, activity, and scheduling information.
The PMI defines a cost baseline as “the approved version of the time-phased project budget, excluding any management reserves, which can only be changed through formal change control procedures.”
A cost baseline also plays a significant role in a project, as it serves as a point of reference for project costs.
But, it is not the same as a project budget. Instead, it’s a sum of cost estimates for all tasks in a project schedule.
In an ideal situation, the cost estimates match or are lower than the actual project costs.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Cost estimates may vary through the project stages, and a forecasting technique known as estimate at completion (EAC) may help you keep your estimates in check. Read about it here:
Before starting any project, you should consider the time required to complete it. Therefore, you need a project schedule.
And, a schedule baseline is the approved project schedule.
Its primary purpose is to provide start and finish dates against which we can measure project performance and compare our project progress.
The schedule baseline components depend on your project. However, the essential ones usually include:
- A sequence of project activities,
- Activity durations,
- Dependencies between activities,
- Start and finish dates for every activity,
- Resource requirements,
- Underlying constraints or assumptions, and
- Other components vital for project schedule planning.
Without a schedule baseline, we cannot identify whether we are doing well or falling behind the predicted schedule.
What is the importance of a baseline in project management?
As previously stated, all projects need a baseline against which project managers can monitor project performance.
Actual performance is compared to scope, cost, and schedule baselines to identify variances.
Scope, schedule, and cost baselines serve as a map in a treasure hunt — they help us navigate a project, as our points of reference.
They help us identify how far the project has strayed from the initial baselines — and whether or not it is an acceptable level for us.
If there is only a minor variance from our baseline, we can say that our project is going well.
If variances from baselines are huge, the baselines are unrealistic — or the project hasn’t been executed well.
For example, say your budget for a website development project is $100,000. You go into week two of work and realize you have already spent almost half of this sum — this is a clear indication that something isn’t right.
For this reason, you should use the project baseline to review the project’s actual costs and identify what went wrong and when.
What are the problems caused by not having a project baseline?
As we have already learned, having a project baseline helps us keep our project on the right track.
But what happens if we don’t establish it?
The most common problems related to not having a project baseline include:
- Schedule delays,
- Lack of adequate or insufficient resources,
- Problems related to quality management,
- Issues with monitoring project progress, and
- Improper change management.
Let’s briefly explain each one.
Without a project baseline, you are at risk of experiencing schedule delays.
When does this happen?
Well, for instance, you may underestimate the number of people you need at a certain point in a project — and, you may have difficulty finding new team members when you need them.
Not being able to find people to work on your project will undoubtedly cause schedule delays.
You may also underestimate the time required to complete tasks.
According to the Project Management Institute’s 2018 survey, inaccurate time estimates cause 25% of project failures.
Let’s illustrate this by providing a concrete example.
Suppose your company decides to launch a new website while working on projects for various clients.
Without a project baseline, you may underestimate how many developers and designers you need for that specific project.
As a consequence, your team will have to work long hours — but may still fail to meet deadlines.
Lack of adequate or insufficient resources
Not setting a schedule baseline may contribute to experiencing a lack of adequate resourcing or poor resource forecasting.
That can happen because you may not know which resources you need and when you need them.
For instance, if you work on a construction project, timing for material procurement can make a difference between finishing a project on time or making it a never-ending failure.
After all, procurement delays may slow down the project or even stop it for some time. Consequently, your company may lose not only money but also damage its reputation.
Unfortunately, such poor resource management is not a rare thing. The Project Management Institute’s survey reveals that inadequate resource forecasting is the reason for 18% of project failures — while resource dependency causes 26% of project failures.
Problems related to quality management
Without a clearly defined scope baseline, you can face quality management problems, as project deliverables may be less than what you or your clients intended.
After all, a scope baseline sets out the approved deliverables of a project and the work needed to create them.
Let’s provide an example.
Suppose your company is hired to develop an e-commerce website for a client. Without having every detail specified, you may end up delivering a functional website — but the client may not be satisfied with the result.
Maybe the client wanted the website to have category-specific filters — but didn’t specify whether the filters should include price, product category, color, material, or something else.
As a result, your team developed a completely functional website the client doesn’t like because it doesn’t incorporate all the needed or desired filters.
Issues with monitoring project progress
Without a schedule baseline, you won’t be able to monitor project progress — as you won’t have a point of reference.
So, you should set a time for all project activities and try to stick to it.
For tracking project progress, a project management software comes in handy. It helps you monitor the project progress and react timely if any problems arise.
For example, Plaky project management software offers labels for task statuses in different colors, so you always know whether your team is doing well — or if someone is stuck on a task.
Improper change management
If you don’t have project baselines, it’s not easy to track and manage changes. They serve as another benchmark, and without having them, you won’t be able to know if your outcome is different from your prediction.
The Project Management Institute reports that 28% of projects fail due to poor change management. Well-determined project baselines can help you minimize the chances you’ll fall under these disheartening statistics.
How do you set a project baseline?
Now, when you know the basics related to scope, cost, and schedule baselines, it’s time to explain how we can develop each one and set an efficient project baseline.
Don’t worry — it is not that complicated.
You should take the following steps:
- Set a scope baseline,
- Create a Work Breakdown Structure,
- Create a cost baseline,
- Organize a meeting with project stakeholders, and
- Document and control the project baseline.
Set a scope baseline
First, you have to define a scope statement, including key deliverables.
As stated by the sixth edition of PMBOK Guide, a project scope statement is a description of:
- A project scope,
- Major deliverables,
- Assumptions, and
Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Once you have developed the project scope statement, you need to create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).
As previously mentioned, by using a Work Breakdown Structure, you subdivide project work and deliverables into smaller components that are more manageable. Creating WBS is beneficial as it provides a framework of what has to be delivered.
Then you need to develop a project schedule baseline.
Develop a project schedule baseline
Many project managers use a Gantt chart as it is an efficient way to visualize the project schedule baseline.
After setting the project schedule baseline, the following step is related to establishing a cost baseline.
Create a cost baseline
Take time to plan project costs and create a cost baseline that will serve as a reference point to determine whether your project is on track — or if you are spending too much.
In this step, you have to estimate the total project costs. When doing that, keep in mind all the tasks and resources you need to accomplish them.
Some costs you should plan may include:
- Labor costs,
Then, connect the budget plan to your schedule to ensure these two are aligned. Track the project budget against the cost baseline, to ensure no problems occur during project development.
Organize a meeting with project stakeholders
After taking all these steps, you will need stakeholder buy-in. In other words, you want project stakeholders to approve what you’re doing.
So, set up a meeting to go into detail about the cost, schedule, and scope baselines.
During the meeting, make sure you explain how baselines are used to determine whether or not the project is on track.
Also, this is the moment to address any stakeholder concerns and make any necessary changes they require.
Document and control the project baseline
A project baseline should be documented and controlled. It may change if a significant change happens. In that case, we have to issue a new, updated version. Still, we should save the previous version to avoid losing all historical data.
You should not change a project baseline without following formal change control procedures, such as a change request form and approval process.
Now you know how to set a project baseline.
But, maybe you struggle to picture these steps in action.
Let’s explain how to set a project baseline by providing an example.
Example of a project baseline
Suppose your company is launching a new app.
Your task is to create a paid ads campaign using Google Ads and paid ads on LinkedIn and Facebook to:
- Promote the launch,
- Build awareness, and
- Generate leads.
You are assigned a project budget, and your goal is to encourage subscriptions for early access on a dedicated landing page.
In this case, your project baseline could look like this:
|Scope baseline||Schedule baseline||Cost baseline|
|1500 subscriptions for early access||One month||€9,000|
The first task is to outline all you need to achieve your goal of 1500 subscriptions in one month.
You should ask yourself the following questions:
- How can I improve the conversion rate?
- What kind of copy and design do I need to attract the right people who need our software?
Then, you need to prepare a schedule containing dates when each ad will be lunch and how long it will be active.
Finally, you have to determine and divide costs for Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn ads.
In this particular case, having scope, cost, and schedule baselines determined helps us to:
- Understand what we want to achieve with our campaign — So we can compare actual results to the estimated ones.
- Know how long our campaign will last — Enables us to plan promotional activities on different platforms.
- Know how much money we can spend — If we don’t know the limit and don’t track expenses dedicated to the campaign, we may spend more than predicted.
Wrapping up: A project baseline acts as a project navigation system
As sailors need GPS, project managers need a project baseline.
After all, a baseline in project management is the outlined starting point for your project plan.
Scope, cost, and schedule baselines are used as reference points and help keep our projects on track.
So, take your time to create, optimize, manage, and track them.
📖 Properly defining your project baselines is the first step in making sure your project is headed in the right direction. But, project baselines are only one aspect of effective project management. To learn more about project management terms and processes, visit our Project Management Glossary of Terms.
- Association for Project Management. (n.d.). APM glossary of project management terms. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from https://www.apm.org.uk/resources/glossary/#b
- Project Management Institute. (2017). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)–Sixth Edition (English Edition). https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35477553-a-guide-to-the-project-management-body-of-knowledge-pmbok-r-guide-ag
- Project Management Institute. (2021). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Seventh Edition and The Standard for Project Management by Project Management Institute. https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/58474625-a-guide-to-the-project-management-body-of-knowledge-pmbok-guide-sev
- Project Management Institute. (2018). Pulse of the Profession 2018: Success in Disruptive Times. Project Management Institute. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pulse-of-the-profession-2018.pdf
- Project Management Institute. (n.d.). PMI Lexicon of Project Management Terms. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/lexicon
- Project-Management.info. (n.d.). Scope Baseline: Definition | Example | 4-Step Guide | Uses. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://project-management.info/project-scope-baseline/
- Project-Management.info. (n.d.). Project Schedule Baseline: Definition | Purpose | Example. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://project-management.info/project-schedule-baseline/