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The truth about project controls

Lynda Bourne
September 18, 2012

Describing scheduling, Earned Value and financial management as ‘project controls’ is dangerous. The steering mechanism on a car is a control system, you move the steering wheel the front wheels turn and if the car is in motion, its direction of travel alters. Control systems cause a change.

Altering the duration of a task in a schedule, or calculating the current CPI and EAC for an Earned Value report changes nothing. All you have is new data. If the data is going to cause a change, three things must occur:

  1. The data needs to be communicated to the right people.
  2. They need to receive, understand and believe the data; this changes the data into information.
  3. They need to use this new information to change their future behaviours.

This is a communication process, not a control process so how did we manage to confuse communication with control? The answer is rooted in history.

Scheduling was developed as a scientific computer based modelling process at a time when ‘command and control’ was the dominant management paradigm supported by the ideas of ‘scientific management’. The artefacts created by schedulers generated the impression that the mathematical certainties calculated by their leading edge computer tools somehow translated into certain project outcomes.

Fast forward 60 years and these historical certainties are no longer so apparent; many project run late, knowledge workers cannot be effectively managed using ‘command and control’ paradigms and uncertainty and complexity are starting to take centre stage.

Unfortunately the most common response to these challenges has been to build ever greater sophistication and detail into the project controls process in a vain attempt to control the future, which is of course impossible! It is time to accept that writing data into a project tool cannot control the future and every guess about the likely duration or cost of an activity, or sequence of a series of activities is potentially wrong.

Project management is transitioning from a focus on the ‘iron triangle’ of time, cost and output (scope + quality) defined in the late 1960s towards a future that focuses on maximising stakeholder value through the effective application of ‘soft skills’ in an environment that increasingly recognises risk, uncertainty and complexity as key challenges facing the project team. In this new environment we need to recognise that a radically different approach is needed to make project controls relevant and useful.

This means that for the tools that defined project management in the second half of the 20th century to remain relevant in the 21st century, a new paradigm is needed with changes in skills, attitudes and practices to keep scheduling, cost control and EV relevant.

Influence not control

This change starts by recognising it is impossible to ‘control’ the thousands of individual thought processes and decisions that define what is actually going to happen on the project each day—but also recognising we can make a serious attempt to influence them.

The role of effective project management, supported by useful processes and tools, is to motivate, coordinate and lead the team towards the common objective of a successful project outcome. The value of project controls lies in communicating the best agreed objective for the project at this point in time to the team and providing a vehicle to proactively manage the inevitable changes as they occur.

These objectives can only be achieved through effective communication, and the project control tools fulfil two key communication functions, firstly as a tool to develop a collective understanding of the optimum approach for achieving the project objectives, then as a flexible tool to measure the inevitable deviations from the plan and re-assess the best way forward.

But to be effective in a collaborative communication mode, the project controls information has to be easily understood by the project team so they can use the information to inform their future actions. This requires the simple presentation of useful information in a relevant and timely way that is both believable and believed; all viewed from the perspective of the project team members, not the controls experts.

Large volumes of complex, detailed data are useless: no one has the time or inclination to bother to try to understand hundreds of lines of data, as is tracking information about yesterday, for example timesheet data. No one can influence yesterday, the sole purpose of the schedule and other control tools, or at least their primary purpose, should be to positively influence decisions about future actions by everyone on the project team.

Similarly, the primary purpose of collecting historical information through EV and cost systems should be to help inform future decisions. If the plans are too complex to be regularly used by almost everyone in the project team I would suggest they are largely a waste of time; retrospectively measuring failure does not help anyone! Remember, your project plans are only useful if they are being used.

The most interesting paradox in 21st century is that by actively embracing the uncertainty that is inherent in the project controls process, and managing accordingly by developing simple, elegant models that can be easily understood, the project has the best chance of achieving its overall time and cost objectives.

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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One thought on “The truth about project controls

  1. Well presented article Lynda, focusing on the usefulness, and actually making use of, information to drive actions, I would say the PC landscape is still very similar 8 years on and thus still in need of progressing itself!

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