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Administrative Reporting

I'm just finishing my first round facilitating an intensive project management program with a local university. If there is one thing to distill out as a common challenge among the teams is that there isn't nearly enough depth of reflection as we move through the project phases. There is a lot of administrative reporting.

This is a program that throws a lot of information at the group over a 3 month period, on a full-time basis. There is certainly a lot to cover, to be sure, and the intent is to give the students a practical grounding in project management principles (as opposed to how to pass a 4-hour multiple guess exam) in the context of group work around a case-study that was provided. The teams evolve through all the project phases from chartering to close-out, and we get to throw some fun curves at them along the way as we track their project schedules to partial completion (so they have to figure out what is going on and decide what to do about it).

What we see is very much like a reflection of the real world. Actually, a bit more mature than many real-world projects where there isn't even a credible idea of how the project will get to closure, other than that time marches on and the project will hopefully ship sometime. The groups have a strong handle on the construction of a reasonable project schedule from a WBS, and can credibly talk to the progress of the project using Earned Value terminology. With so much emphasis and effort going into the mechanics of MS Project and Earned Value, it appears difficult to take the insights to the next level.

That next level is what real project management is all about. It is one thing to be able to tell me what the numbers say from Project, that's something I can do myself should I choose to crack open the MPP file. What excellent project managers do well is to take that data and translate it into information. Why is the project progressing in this manner? What are the options we have at our disposal to remedy any concerns? Which elements of our project are moving along nicely, and is there anything we can reinforce to be sure things stay that way?

No project scheduling software gives us these insights. This is why we have project leaders.

If we recognize the limitations of project scheduling tools (whether they be software-based or post-its on the wall), we can focus on how our gray matter can improve our ability to bring more projects through to completion successfully. With a well-developed schedule and reasonable tracking practices, we can understand why some things are falling behind (or why things are going surprisingly well), distill this down to root causes, and make adjustments quickly to keep things on track. We need to go beyond stating that the project will be late or cost more than expected, then simply asking for more time or budget.

Our insight into the critical path is a critical source of flexibility in how we wrangle our project to completion. Beyond going back to the trough for more resources, the team should be able to adjust their practices to meet overall expectations without any sacrifices. For any reasonably sized project, there can by upwards of 50% or more of adjustments that can be made beyond the original expectation of timelines. Most projects never take advantage of these opportunities.

Another neglected component of most projects is the human element. With the emphasis on which tasks blew their expectations and how much later we expect to be (as reported from the raw schedule data), we often overlook the fact that many of these delays are a result of breakdowns in communication between team members. How well we work together, how effectively we communicate, how engaged we are in the success of the project are critical factors to manage, not just results of how lucky we were in getting things done. Again, no scheduling approach can deal with this at all.

We need to recognize that the value we can add to projects goes well beyond what any tool can provide. We need to leverage our ability to provide insight, based on clear and current data, to make adjustments as required to bring our projects home. The gray matter is what sets us apart.

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