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Using project controls for effect

Lynda Bourne
April 3, 2013

Describing scheduling, earned value and financial management as ‘project controls’ is, I would suggest, dangerous! The steering mechanism on a car is a control system, you move the steering wheel and the front wheels turn; if the car is in motion its direction of travel is altered. Control systems cause a change.

Altering the duration of a task in a schedule, or calculating the current cost performance index (CPI) and estimate at completion (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. First, the data needs to be communicated to the right people. They need to receive, understand and believe the data, which changes the data into information. They then need to use this new information to change their future behaviours.

This is a communication process. The challenge facing schedulers and other ‘controls staff’ is recognising their primary role is communication not controls. Certainly they need to be able to gather and process information effectively but this is wasted effort without equally effective communication.

Their challenges include identifying the right people to communicate with (the project manger is only one), formatting the data in a way that can be easily understood by the receiver (without understanding there will be no action) and focusing the information on what matters in the future.

No one can change the past and it is always too late to change the present. The only value a ‘project control tool’ can offer is influence future actions and decisions. This requires schedules, cost plans and the like that are as simple as possible to improve communication and facilitate understanding by the project team. Only after the project team fully understand the information can you expect them to use the information to make wise decisions about future actions. Project plans are only useful if they are being used!

Project controls as communication

Designing a project communication system that works is difficult. To quote from Peter Taylor’s book The Lazy Project Manager, reporting is not communicating! No one important has time to read fantastically accurate and detailed reports: they are too busy doing useful things. But at least some of the detail is important.

The ways to resolve this conundrum are:

  • Separate push and pull communications: Make the detail available in a repository (e.g. a project portal) where people who need the detail can easily retrieve it (pull). Anything you send out (push) should focus on the important highlights and information that needs actioning by the receiver.
  • Separate history from future: Reporting what happened last week is of no value to the project unless it contains information that can usefully influence future decisions. Historical data is needed by accountants and business administrators. The information project leaders and team members need is forward-looking, focusing on what’s predicted to happen in the future and what needs to be done to improve the situation.
  • Focus on the needs of the receiver: Make sure they get the information they needed to help make the project successful. Team members need to know what work to do in the next week or two.  Managers need to know what they have to decide.

Achieving this type of communication requires planning and information design. Each element of the overall ‘controls’ system needs to be elegantly designed to support both management decision making and the work of the project: avoid unnecessary complication and duplication.

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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