Project Monitoring, Analytics, and Control

This chapter provides a detailed overview of the processes involved in monitoring and reporting project performance.

Monitoring for Active Control

The best project managers succeed through an artful combination of leadership and teamwork, focusing on people, and using their emotional intelligence to keep everyone on task and moving forward. But successful project managers also know how to gather data on the health of their projects, analyze that data, and then, based on that analysis, make adjustments to keep their projects on track. In other words, they practice project monitoring, analytics, and control.

Note that most project management publications emphasize the term monitoring and control to refer to this important phase of project management, with no mention of the analysis that allows a project manager to use monitoring data to make decisions. But of course, there's no point in collecting data on a project unless you plan to analyze it for trends that tell you about the current state of the project. For simple, brief projects, that analysis can be a simple matter – you're clearly on schedule, you're clearly under budget – but for complex projects you'll need to take advantage of finely calibrated data analytics tools. In this lesson, we'll focus on tasks related to monitoring and control, and also investigate the kind of thinking required to properly analyze and act on monitoring data.

Generally speaking, project monitoring and control involves reconciling "projected performance stated in your planning documentation with your team's actual performance" and making changes where necessary to get your project back on track. It occurs simultaneously with project execution, because the whole point of monitoring and controlling is making changes as team members perform their tasks. The monitoring part of the equation consists of collecting progress data and sharing it with the people who need to see it in a way that allows them to understand and respond to it. The controlling part consists of making changes in response to that data to avoid missing major milestones. If done right, monitoring and controlling enables project managers to translate information gleaned by monitoring into the action required to control the project's outcome. A good monitoring and control system is like a neural network that sends signals from the senses to the brain about what's going on in the world. The same neural network allows the brain to send signals to the muscles, allowing the body to respond to changing conditions.

Because monitoring and controlling is inextricably tied to accountability, government web sites are a good source of suggestions for best practices. According to the state of California, monitoring and controlling involves overseeing

all the tasks and metrics necessary to ensure that the approved and authorized project is within scope, on time, and on budget so that the project proceeds with minimal risk. This process involves comparing actual performance with planned performance and taking corrective action to yield the desired outcome when significant differences exist. The monitoring and controlling process is continuously performed throughout the life of the project.

In other words, monitoring is about collecting data. Controlling is about analyzing that data and making decisions about corrective action. Taken as a whole, monitoring and controlling is about gathering intelligence and using it in an effective manner to make changes as necessary. Precise data are worthless unless they are analyzed intelligently and used to improve project execution. At the same time, project execution uninformed by the latest data on changing currents in the project can lead to disaster.

Cannon Balls Versus Guided Missiles

Launching a project with no expectation of having to make changes to the plan as it unfolds is like firing a cannonball. Before you do, you make ballistic calculations, using assumptions about cross winds and other conditions. After the cannonball leaves the cannon, you can monitor its progress, but not control for changes. The cannonball might hit its target if your assumptions are correct and the target doesn't move. But if any of your assumptions turn out to be incorrect, you will miss your target.

In contrast, you can correct the course of a guided missile during flight to account for changing conditions, such as a gust of wind or a moving target. A guided missile requires sophisticated monitoring and control capabilities, but is more likely to hit the target, especially under dynamic conditions.

Successful project managers take the guided missile approach, correcting course as a project unfolds to account for the unexpected.

Earned Value Management (EVM) is an effective method of measuring past project performance and predicting future performance by calculating variances between the planned value of a project at a particular point and the actual value. If you aren't familiar with EVM, you should take some time to learn about it.

The geometric order approach to monitoring and controlling focuses on gathering data about the past, and then using that information to estimate the future. This approach can be very helpful in some situations, but it is most effective when combined with a living order monitoring and controlling system, which does the following:

  • Looks at today and the immediate future.
  • Uses reliable promises to ensure that stakeholders commit to what needs to happen next.
  • Focuses on the project's target value, modifying the path ahead as necessary to achieve the agreed-on target value.
  • Assumes a collaborative approach, in which stakeholders work together to decide how to adjust the project to deliver it at the target value.

A living order monitoring and controlling system provides team members with the information they need to make changes in time to affect the project's outcome. Such a system is forward-facing, looking toward the future, always scanning for potential hazards, making it an essential component of any risk management strategy. While it is essential to hold team members accountable for their performance, a monitoring and controlling system should focus on the past only insofar as understanding the past makes it possible to forecast the future and adjust course as necessary. Ideally, it should allow for rapid processing of information, which can in turn enable quick adjustments to the project plan. In other words, the best monitoring and controlling system encourages active control.

Active control takes a two-pronged approach:

  • Controlling what you can by making sure you understand what's important, taking meaningful measurements, and building an effective team focused on project success.
  • Adapting to what you can't control through early detection and proactive intervention.

The first step in active control is ensuring that the monitoring information is distributed in the proper form and to the right people so that they can respond as necessary. In this way, you need to function as the project's nervous system, sending the right signals to the project's muscles (activity managers, senior managers, clients, and other stakeholders), so they can take action. These actions can take the form of minor adjustments to day-to-day tasks, or of major adjustments, such as changes to project resources, budget, schedule, or scope.

Notes from an Expert: Gary Whited

Gary Whited, an engineer with 35 years of experience providing technical oversight of engineering projects for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and currently the program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Construction and Materials Support Center, has thought a lot about project management throughout his career. The following, which is adapted from a lecture of his in 2014, summarizes his ideas on the four main steps involved in monitoring and control:

  1. Measuring and tracking progress: This is the major step, one that requires a significant investment of time. Everything that follows depends on gathering accurate data.
  2. Identifying areas where changes are required: This is where we put the information we've gathered into the context in which it is needed.
  3. Initiating the needed changes: Here we take action, making any necessary changes in response to the monitoring data.
  4. Closing the loop: In this step, we go back and evaluate any changes to verify that they had the intended effect, and to check for any unintended consequences. For example, if you made a change to one component (say the schedule), you need to ask what effect that change might have had on other components (such as the budget).

These four steps look deceptively simple. But they add real complexity to any project. This is especially true of the last three steps, which involve things like change management and document control. Everyone takes measurements at the end of a project, but that's not all that helpful, except to serve as lessons learned for future projects. By contrast, a well-implemented monitoring and control process gives stakeholders the power to make essential changes as a project unfolds.