Part 2: Are your projects tracked instead of managed?

by Jan Schiller

This is the second in a series of articles designed to help you determine how well projects in your portfolio are being managed. Part one of this series provided three indicators related to process, people, and results. This article is designed to help you ascertain the quality of a project’s work plan so you can ensure your project portfolio delivers its intended contribution to your organization’s strategic plan.

Over the years, I have fine-tuned my ability to pick up a project manager’s work plan and determine if it is a good one or not. While I have been complimented many times as a ‘power user’ of Microsoft Project*, this article is intended to be tool-agnostic.

Incorrect tool

Using a tool designed for something other than project management to plan, manage, and control project portfolios is remarkably common. A lot of tracking (and likely, not a lot of managing) is going on if the work plan exists in a:

Tabular data management tool

Spreadsheets are wonderful for capturing and understanding your data. When I see Microsoft Excel* or similar tools used to create work plans, it is usually in organizations prioritizing budget and cost over scope and schedule or prioritizing something else over training their portfolio and project managers.

Typically, a work plan in spreadsheet form has calendar weeks as columns and resource names as rows, with hours per week for each resource designated accordingly. Totals based on resources and by weeks are included, along with subtotals and grand totals. Hours are readily converted to costs by applying an hourly rate.

Or, portfolio management can be simulated with the resources as columns, projects as rows, and percent allocation reflected for each resource. Percentages are totaled to ensure each resource is fully allocated. But over-allocations abound when ‘projects’ like vacations, volunteering, and training are not reflected and when basic rules of thumb are not considered (for example, productivity decreases by when a third project is assigned to one resource).

In both scenarios, cost and resource information is disconnected from the work, leaving little or no ability to understand the implications of changes or variances.

Workflow management tool

These tools may be leveraged to either reveal or improve a process, track ongoing work, and may lack the structure necessary to support a project manager’s responsibility to effectively guide the team towards a result.

Collaboration tool

There is no denying that collaboration and communication are keys to successful project portfolio management. Using a tool designed only for collaboration focuses primarily on the current activity of the team and tracking related communication and documentation for ease of reference.

Ticket management tool.

Tools are designed to track anything from defects and tasks to issues, and risks do just that: track. While capturing estimates and resource assignments may be possible, few are designed to effectively support large, complex projects with durations longer than three weeks or to create interdependencies that help structure and predict the path to the result.

Right tool incorrect use

Even when the project portfolio’s work plan is created in a tool that best supports the complex nature of delivering an organization’s strategy, there is more to discover. A lot of tracking is going on if you have ever seen a work plan that:

Was updated more than two weeks ago. Pretty Gantt charts gathering digital dust are not being used to manage and control progress.

Was abandoned because the portfolio or project manager could not make the tool act like it should. Enterprise-level project portfolio management tools are not easy to learn on the fly. Support them by planning for precise training, followed with close mentoring, can help them apply their training.

Established estimates incorrectly. All resources contributing to the work should be assigned to the work with the correct allocation. Have that fun discussion with your teams to understand when they will be out of the office for more than one day, and reflect what you learned in the plan. Use duration- and effort-based estimates appropriately, and understand which estimate is the driver. Resist the temptation to manually enter start and finish dates.

Relies on percent complete. Projects can be 99 percent complete for a very long time. Reflect actuals, obtain estimates to complete, and assess variances in a timely manner.

Was incomplete. A good rule of thumb: 40 percent of the work is not in the initial draft of the work plan. Review your plan with your stakeholders and your team with the intent of finding that missing work.  

Simply tracking your project portfolio is not enough. Those who have invested in the portfolio are expecting it to create value and provide insights that help them make informed decisions. Managing and controlling the portfolio helps meet those expectations.   

*This article is an independent publication and is neither affiliated with nor authorized, sponsored, or approved by, Microsoft Corporation.


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