Quickly Communicating Project Progress
In today's busy organizations, project and program managers need to know exactly how the projects they're responsible for are doing. But they also rarely have the time to read through detailed status reports covering all aspects of the project.
Perhaps Project A is on time and on budget, but is it going to deliver all of the functionality that your sponsor needs? Or maybe engineers have been working overtime to ensure that every last bug has been ironed out. But how can you find out what this overtime has done to the budget?
From this "time versus information" dilemma grew the concept of the Project Dashboard. Just as a car's dashboard provides immediate and up-to-date information about the speed of the vehicle, the amount of gas in the tank and the temperature of the engine, a Project Dashboard provides immediate and up-to-date information about the status of a project. A common and easily understood approach to using the dashboard is to use red, yellow or green symbols that quickly identify whether the thing being measured is in good shape (green), requires attention (yellow), or is in critical condition (red).
With a Project Dashboard you no longer have to wade through three different reports to determine whether the production department received the widgets it needed, and got permission to hire its new employees. Instead, if the widgets had arrived but a decision on staffing was pending, you would see that the Materials gauge was in the optimum zone and that the Human Resources gauge was registering in the warning zone:
With the overall simplicity of a dashboard, you need to remember that dashboards are not, in and of themselves, a panacea. The end product is only as good as the inputs. A dashboard is only an effective tool if firstly the right things are being tracked and secondly, the classifications being made are well-judged.
It's easy to descend into a quantitative and analytical mess with Project Dashboards. At root, managers want a simple, quick way of seeing whether there are problems they need to address. Reliance on a quantitative approach gives people a way of "wriggling out" of their accountability for reporting this. As a "client" of the Project Dashboard, you need to insist that the people reporting to you are personally accountable for their Project Dashboard judgment calls.
If you're a client, beware false positives. Make sure you allocate time to go into detail on individual cases, so that you can confirm to yourself that classifications are fair and reliable. Otherwise you risk being disastrously hoodwinked! On the other hand, make sure that people don't waste your time by flagging up trivial issues as needing attention. Make sure people take responsibility for solving these themselves!
How to Use the Tool
Follow these steps to use the Project Dashboard:
Step One: Assess your goals and expectations for the dashboard. Why are you using it? What should it tell you? Here are some examples:
- How far off my budget am I?
- Are we on schedule in meeting project milestones?
- Do we have the resources we need in place?
- What is the status of the various ongoing tasks?
- Are the project risks controlled?
Step Two: With the person reporting to you, agree what should be shown on the Project Dashboard, and how this should be represented. If you're monitoring a business, perhaps there are key indicators that you watch that show you what's going on? Or if you're responsible for a project, perhaps you want to monitor individual streams of activity within the project, keep a sharp eye on the critical path, or monitor other aspects of it?
Also, agree how information will be represented, and the sensitivity with which information is represented. For example, you may not be at all worried if people slip a couple of days behind on a task, just as long as they catch up. And just seeing a list of twenty items monitored may be enough, rather than having to scan a 30 page dashboard.
Whatever you decide, keep it as simple as possible, and make sure that the people reporting to you remember the purpose of the dashboard – to keep you informed, and alert you to issues you need to resolve.
Step Three: Make sure that people are held personally accountable for their Project Dashboard judgment calls. You need to know:
- Who, precisely, is responsible for making the judgment call?
- Who can override this judgment call?
Step Four: Work with the Dashboard. Get experience with it. Add or eliminate measures as you find you do or do not need them. Increase or reduce the sensitivity of reporting. Get people used to making good judgment calls. And make sure you leave enough time to validate the information being reported.
The Project Dashboard is a useful technique for quickly communicating the status of projects that you're responsible for. It quickly shows you whether individual parts of the project are on course, are worrying, or are in serious trouble.
As with any simplification of reality, it's vulnerable to confusion and misreporting. It's therefore essential that you avoid excessive complexity, and insist that people reporting information to you are accountable for their reporting, and that you regularly allocate time to assure the accuracy of people's reporting.