Improve Project Intelligence: Know What You Need to Know

There are several unhealthy management scenarios that may befall a project when it decides to invest resources towards tracking cost, schedule, and performance. The catalyst for these situations arising is largely dependent on the maturity of the project’s management processes and the proficiency of the individuals responsible for implementing those processes.

Below are four of the most common contributors to ineffectual project behaviors:

Need to Know

Immature project teams recognize the need for collecting data, but often (and sometimes unknowingly) lack the expertise to identify the data needed and the processes required to generate information pertinent to understanding the progress made against the project objectives. When a project lacks a clear understanding of the information it needs to know, one of three scenarios plays out:

  1. Too little data is collected to gain an understanding and make informed decisions about future activities
  2. Too much data is collected and information becomes diluted, cumbersome or irrelevant
  3. The wrong data is collected and decisions are based on misinformation

Stakeholder Reporting

Often projects are part of a larger organization requiring its own information needs. The information needs of the organization tend to be dictated through prescribed formats that are a separate statusing function for the project team. The lack of integration between the information needs of external stakeholders and the internal project team result in :

  1. Unreliable reports varying in quality
  2. Inconsistencies due to the lack of standardized processes
  3. Devaluation of the project at the program or portfolio level

Misuse

Organizations with moderate project management maturity may achieve the hard earned success of planning and tracking the majority of their work using standardized methods. After this accomplishment, the organization’s leaders eagerly anticipate the flood of high quality project information. However, these types of organizations often do not have the right technical infrastructure to collect and analyze data at a portfolio level, making it difficult for project managers to accurately convey project risks. Furthermore, leadership can overestimate the usefulness of project tracking data, and attempt to make misguided organizational decisions using this information. For example, some leadership teams may think that a compilation of resource loaded project schedules can accurately predict workload estimates for an entire organization. The misuse and abuse of project information causes a constant cycle of leadership being disappointing by unrealistic expectations for tracking data, and project managers scrambling in attempts to ease leadership frustration.

Process Totalitarianism

Organizations with mature project management processes may have a robust tracking system in place with trained project managers who actively maintain high quality performance metrics, project schedules, and cost documents. These organizations may also have invested a large amount of resources into a technical solution that automates the analysis of project data at a portfolio level. Though every organization should strive for such success, it can sometimes lead to project tracking governance that is too restrictive. For example, suppose an organization’s project schedule governance dictates that a new project manager must use a specific schedule template along with an extraordinary amount of custom data fields, rules, and processes. The project manager may be intimidated or discouraged from learning the process and start tracking their schedule using ad-hoc methods or not at all; options that may be easier than following organization processes. Assertive project managers may want to add their own custom data elements to a project schedule to aid their own tracking, but are restricted by limiting factors in the schedule governance.

How does an organization harvest meaningful project data that provides consistent and accurate portfolio information while duly providing utility at the individual project level? Here are a few ideas:

Focus on Solid Project Management Foundations

This may seem like a simple concept, but all too often project managers lose sight of project management foundations, especially the definition of project goals and how the team will accomplish project goals. Activities should be deconstructed to a level appropriate enough to support a clear and logical understanding of the work goal(s) and allow for allocation to resources (cost, labor, services, products, time). This results in the development of foundational artifacts, such as Work Breakdown Structures (WBS), schedules, and resource plans when integrated make up the components of a project baseline. A solid project foundation is the stepping stone to more mature concepts such as resource demand and capacity planning and earned value management.

Emphasize Tool Flexibility

Project management tracking tools such as Microsoft Project are extremely powerful; use technology to its fullest capability. For example, let us suppose a small Project Management Organization (PMO) has approximately twenty projects each with their own established project schedule. However, the project schedules do not have a consistent structure in their outline code or summary task organization. This might cause an organization’s leadership to issue a standardized format and common task name taxonomy to which all project schedules must adhere. This may cause a lot of busy work for project managers as they try to conform their project schedules to a new format. To avoid such busy work, the organization should have developed an outline code or flagging mechanism utilizing custom fields and metadata. This would allow project managers to tag elements in their project schedule and sort to provide the organization the desired view. Understanding the power of tool flexibility can save time and money.

Focus on the Data that Matters and Expect Reasonable Results

Project management tracking tools are only as good as the processes used by an organization to maintain accurate and useful project information. Let us go back to the example used previously; a small PMO has twenty projects each with developed project schedules. These schedules follow a prescribed and highly detailed format, down to the hour of what needs to occur to execute the project for the next several fiscal years. The PMO desires to use this prescribed data to forecast the resource demands in order to make informed resourcing decisions. On the surface this may seem like a mature organization that understands what it wants. But let’s find out how well the information needs of both the project and the PMO are being satisfied by this process. During a QUARTERLY/YEARLY portfolio review, most of the projects are slipping far past their baseline milestone dates. With so much effort in planning, how can this be? The organization was so focused on managing resources that they deemphasized the importance of completing their project on time. Additionally, this inappropriate and mandated technique for resource planning distracted the project manager from the information most important in effectively executing and managing the project.

Appropriate project performance management requires a balance of cost, schedule, and performance information, updated regularly, with a reasonable expectation of accuracy.

While adventuring through the jungle of project performance management data, it is important not to lose sight of an important question for any organization. Are efforts to track projects providing value towards completion of the organization’s goals?

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