Project Tracking: Increase the probability you will achieve your goal

Graph of Actual versus Planned Progress
Graph of Actual versus Planned Progress

How are you getting on with your New Year resolutions? I’m doing pretty well with mine. I’ve been to the gym regularly week since the beginning of January, and several work projects are on track too. I have been “tracking” my achievements.

My question to you is:

“How do you know how well you are getting on?”

Why we need to track our projects

I said earlier that a New Year resolution should be SMART. Two of the letters are M for measurable and T for Time-bounded. If we are going to achieve our goal by the time we have set ourselves then we should be making progress towards it. If we are not making the progress we expect, then maybe we need to take action.
In order to monitor our progress we need to have some sort of tracking. We to be clear about our expectations (Plan) and we need to know what we have achieved (Actual). “Planned versus Actual” is what project tracking is all about, and it is one of the foundations of Project Management.

How do we track our project?

“Project tracking” sounds terribly formal but it doesn’t have to be complicated or bureaucratic. The key elements are “Plan”, “Actual” and periodic checking.

  • The Plan, or expectation of my New Year Resolution is to take “regular exercise, once or twice a week”.
  • The Actual is no more than a word in my (paper) diary.
  • The monitoring is looking at the “ticks” on the last weekend of the month. There is no formal report.

My advice is always to use “the simplest thing which could possibly work”, and to build it into whatever routine you have. Make monitoring and tracking what you do a habit.

Reap the benefits of tracking your work

Monitoring your work and your projects allows you to take control. Don’t assume that you will always be “behind”. Sometimes you will be ahead of where you expect to be and sometimes the problem will not be productivity but the plan.

Start today! A little self-monitoring can increase your feeling of control and allow you to work more effectively.

Project Goals: Improve your New Year Resolutions!

New Year Resolution and project goals
New Year Resolution

January is the month for New Year’s Resolutions. People commit themselves to goals for the coming year. Many resolutions are about becoming healthier, going to the gym and losing weight.

These resolutions are the project objectives of little projects. How effective are they, and how can we make them better?

Constructing our goals

Consultants and psychologists tell us that a good resolution or project objectives should be “SMART”:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action-Oriented
  • Realistic
  • Time-Bounded

People argue about whether resolutions are a good thing but continue to make them. As a Business Analyst I find myself involved in making project plans. People continue to make project plans, with varying degrees of success.

What is wrong with our resolutions?

One of the problems with objectives is the “Realistic” criterion. If we make it “reasonable” aren’t we just showing lack of imagination? But if we don’t make it “realistic” aren’t we simply setting ourselves up to fail.
I could easily make a resolution:

I will run a marathon by the end of the year.

I really have no way of knowing whether or not that is “realistic”, “reasonable” or even “completely unachievable”. And that brings us to a common problem: we are not very good at estimating how much effort things will take. We start out optimistically with what turn out to be unrealistic expectations. The going gets tough. We beat ourselves up. We give up.

How do we improve our resolutions and project objectives?

The first improvement is to recognise that the “marathon” resolution may not be what we want. Maybe what we want is “to get fitter”. The “marathon” resolution may be SMART, but it may demotivate us. Would we really be disappointed if we were only able to run a half-marathon at the end of the year?
The second improvement is to break the high-level “marathon” goal into smaller, more manageable goals, and then concentrate our energy on the next goal. We can have a goal like “go to the gym every week” and aim to achieve that by the end of January (or whenever).

How do we apply these lessons to our projects?

When we are deciding on our project goals, we can apply the SMART principles to the project as a whole. Make the goal as challenging as you like. I find it useful to break the project into smaller goals. The SMART approach can be applied to each one of these. These smaller goals are easier to manage and more motivating.

Day to day plans – Having a dynamic To-Do list

I’ve come to regard myself as being like Winnie-the-Pooh “a bear of little brain”. I like to give myself a task, settle down to it and get on with it without distractions. Sometimes the task itself can be quite complicated though.

In recent posts I’ve shared a view of “Strategic” and “Tactical” plans with you. I know you haven’t seen what is inside them but I find having them enormously useful. That brings me to the next level down: the day to day, dynamic To-Do list.

Having a dynamic list of the tasks I have to do is enormously useful. If I’m managing other people doing things, then I need to know what they are doing too. This is what the classic project plan is all about. Even a small team needs a shared plan. I used to create them using spreadsheets but now I use a special purpose tool.

The picture above shows screenshots from today’s dashboard. The tool I use is PBWorks Project Hub (http://www.pbworks.com/). I use the “Freemium” version, and I find it adequate for my needs. It does most of the things I would have been doing with a spreadsheet and it does some other things too.
It is very good at doing the boring Project Office things like bugging people (including me) when they are due to be doing something today. It is also good for collecting reports of progress made or problems encountered. All that has to happen is that people have to get into the habit of making one-line notes on the task they are working on each day.
I have a geographically dispersed team. The two of us exchange notes and have the occasional phone call, but the project dashboard gives us something that we can go back to for status information without a lot of cumbersome bureaucracy (which would usually devolve to me!). The only downside of this approach is that we are using a cloud service which requires internet connectivity and could be vulnerable. That means that I take what I think are appropriate steps to have the critical information stored in some other form elsewhere.

 

What do you do when things go well? Make a new plan!

A little while ago I shared my “Tactical Plan” with you. Things have gone well! So well that some of the projects have been completed much sooner than I expected. Some of this is down to good luck and having estimates which were not much better than guesses. The question is: what to do now?
I expect we are all (painfully) familiar with the situation where a project is slipping behind the intended schedule. Sometimes the reasons are the same as the reasons for my success: luck, inaccurate estimates and sometimes “force majeure”. After the inevitable struggle to get back on track by cracking the whip, the response is usually to re-plan. That is exactly what I have done in response to my recent success.
Here is the redacted version of my latest tactical plan. In structure it is identical to its predecessor. The changes are in the bits you cannot see.
Let me tell you about what is in the updated plan (without giving any secrets away):
  1. The objective was not achieved last time (but that would have been a miracle). So that has remained unchanged.
  2. The “New Product” development is still (more-or-less) on track, so that remains unchanged from last time. Basically it is – “Keep working away on the new product!”
  3. The “Marketing” project from last time has completed. It’s objective was to create something new. That has been done. Now I have a new project to use what was created by that project as part of a regular activity. I still call it a “project” because it certainly hasn’t become “business-as-usual” yet. I hope it will do eventually.
  4.  The “Administration” project from last time has been completed. It was necessary, and it is making things work more smoothly, but it is complete and there is no need for follow-up.
  5.  The completion of the “Administration” project has created an opportunity to start something new in the “Marketing”. That has already thrown up some interesting ideas, but the Tactical Plan is reminding me to focus on my current objectives. The new stuff can be considered for the next plan.   
The tactical plan is part of the project wiki (I may show you a little more of that in the future). It is visible to all the contributors and I have a printed copy above my desk, a little to my left, as I type. It is great as a means of reminding us all (especially me) what we have agreed we are concentrating on.