Project dashboards reflect the health of a project through graphic indicators such as; the status, schedule, cost, health, etc. These are intended to quickly and easily provide visibility into the project for business owners and be aggregated across multiple projects to reflect program and portfolio health. The indicators reflect the alignment between planned and actual efforts. Unfortunately, with many project managers and, in many cases these indicators are more qualitative in nature than directly reflective of the quantitative performance metrics.
Business stakeholders can be trying when provided with real-time metrics and overreact to the normal ebb and flow of projects but will also be reasonably upset when projects have been green and suddenly turn red without warning. The point of a project dashboard is to provide a true and accurate picture of the status and progress of the project, not the opinion or, worse, what the business stakeholders want to hear. They do not have to be 100% real-time and are an output from the project process but should always accurately reflect the project status and be supported through tangible project performance metrics.
Projects fall behind; they run over budget, they experience risks unexpectedly, or hit hurdles in the creation of the product, service, or result. Project management is both a science and an art form and is not an easy process that executes without flaw or issue. It is not an easy job, and there is rarely a project that has enough time, resources and constrained scope to facilitate a perfect performance. This is where the mastery of project management comes into play. Truly effective project managers proactively manage their efforts adjusting tactics and approaches, responding to risks, and managing change. Their metrics reflect those ebbs and tides of the project and will result in fluctuations in the status indicators.
The fluctuation of status may require training and supporting information to be interpreted by stakeholders and should not be evaluated on a single time slice with no supporting information. There are also arguments to be made to avoid real-time dashboards rather than dashboarding out on a timed basis where information is sure to be updated and corrected. Real-time dashboards can reflect a disconnect between real and outdated data and can misrepresent the actual status of the project.
Regardless of the timing of the dashboard, it should always be based on real, tangible, and accurate statistics calculated on planned versus actual (schedule, cost, risk, scope, etc.) and not be reflective of the risk comfort of the organization, project manager’s perception, or on the comfort level of executives. Tailoring project dashboards to deliver political messaging or to lighten the negativity is a minefield that has destroyed many a project managers when the inevitable project adjustments are necessary.
The focus on dashboards is and must be, transparency as a mechanism for building trust between the PM and stakeholders. However, this assumes, and requires, project managers to have true and accurate data both from the planning as well as the actual side. Managers who failed to plan appropriately will face the consequences when actuals reflect large variances. More so, when the metrics have remained skewed for some period of time.
An effective PM needs to build a relationship of trust, expertise, and honesty with their stakeholders. There will invariably come a time in a project when trust is necessary to implement a strategy, modify the approach or make a decision to move forward on an initiative. Daily interactions and relationship building are critical, but data is the basis of belief. If PM’s shape information and are proven inaccurate, the trust will be lost. The information provided by a PM is taken at face value, initially, after that, stakeholders either build trust that the PM is accurate and honest or start to lose belief, and PMs become thought of as less than honest. The more accurate and honest a project manager is, the more trust is built up, and the greater willingness stakeholders will have to invest further in project efforts when things inevitably go awry.
Actuals will always show variance; the project dashboard will reflect some level of variance and managers need to include supporting information with the metrics, so they are not evaluated in a vacuum. Risks, mitigation strategies, projections, and forecasts contain more useful information for stakeholders. A delay, that will not be repeated and may be overcome over time, has a one-time impact on a project that can be overcome in subsequent time periods or with alternative strategies can be communicated as a realized (known or unknown) risk and projections/forecasts used to tell the story of how that delay will be overcome. The delay should not be glossed over, manipulated, or diluted with slanted performance values.
Project managers spend 60-80% of their time communicating. Dashboards are a tool to extend communication and, when accurate, can assist in visualizing the progress of the project, building trust, and discussing risks/obstacles to objectives. Dashboards are an output, an effective planning, and management, process that project managers leverage to achieve objectives. If the plans are incorrect, or actuals are not being documented, the dashboard will reflect opinion rather than fact and runs the risk of ruining trust when the status changes. As long as there are actual values to back up a dashboard, the PM can openly discuss the progress of the initiative, hidden or incorrect data is simply not supportable and will eventually work against the PM creating a sense of mistrust and disbelief.