Monitoring key to managing projects

A group of attendees, of which I was included, met at a recent Project Management Institute (PMI) conference and were engaged in an informal discussion to identify the number one problem encountered while managing medium to large projects in a typical corporate environment.

Many lamented that, in their organizations, the effort required to manage “projects to plan” and ensure projects remain on track is deemed as undesirable overhead by many senior business executives. The danger of not tracking to plan, however, is that a project loses focus, fails to meet its objectives, may not be completed on time, and/or might not be conducted in the most effective and efficient manner.

So important is the need to track projects to plan that many in the group admitted they often steal and sneak the time they find to do this vital project monitoring using covert tactics more appropriate to masked night burglars than IT professionals. It seemed obvious to all that tracking actual project progress to plan is absolutely essential. The obvious question is: Why isn’t the time budgeted for such an important task?

Project management is comprised of three key components. These include: planning, execution, and comparing and assessing what’s been achieved against a project plan. Highly effective project management requires sufficient time be allocated to all three tasks.

Planning and execution are complex, especially when you considering the multitude of tasks required — many of which run concurrent to one another. A project is scoped by estimating how much effort is necessary to complete a task, then allocating the appropriate resources to deliver that effort, deploying those resources into multiple parallel processes to meet a fixed deadline, balancing the project budget as things move along, and, last but by no means least, handling those infernal issues that arise whenever people and egos come within close proximity to one other. Juggling feral cats and nitroglycerine cocktails, while balancing sanity on the tip of your nose, may be an easier task.

All of the above mentioned activities are recognized as common and necessary to effective project management. It explains why the time needed for these tasks is formally factored into most project plans.

What doesn’t get allocated is the time needed to continually track the progress and status of a project to the actual outlined plan. In truth, the effort required to do so is minimal and involves a continual assessment of a project’s status at a regular intervals or key milestone points.

Because tracking to plan doesn’t require all that much time or skill, and doesn’t advance the project in an obvious way, the task of monitoring may seem unimportant to some senior executive managers. But, it’s as much a part of project success as any other task.

Tracking to plan is an essential means to achieving high efficiency in project execution and assessing measured benefit or wasted effort. Think of it as similar to checking items off a to-do list created at the start of a workday. The list identifies what needs to be accomplished, when it needs to be done, and the importance of each item.

As I progress throughout the day and complete each task, I cross items off my list. A quick glance at the list shows what’s to be done next, and what total tasks remain outstanding. Crossing off each item produces a sense of accomplishment.

Each time an item is stroked from the to-do list, I’m in fact comparing “actuals” to plan. Such monitoring is critical in determining how quickly must I work in order to complete everything by the close of day — or push off until the next day. Monitoring ensures that every important task I add to my list in the morning gets done.

Not factoring in the time needed to manage a project to plan and to regularly track and report on the progress of that project against the plan runs the risk of poor execution, high inefficiency and possibly failure. In the ultimate success of any project, a little thing like continually tracking to plan means a lot.

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de Jager is a management consultant who sometimes substitutes project tracking for project planning. Read more of his work at or e-mail him at [email protected].

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