Applying control in project management

Applying control in project management is really important and this may be achieved in various ways.

There is no point in monitoring without control. This is done through the reporting cycle. Monitoring processes identify shortfalls in the progress of the project, that is variances between what has been planned and what has actually happened. See monitoring and controlling in project management.

To remedy variances, control needs to be applied to the project to bring it back on course. For example, staff might be transferred from non-critical work to critical activities that have fallen behind. The reporting cycle defined in the project management plan (as part of the project life cycle) identifies who should be producing progress reports, with what frequency and to whom they are sent.

Remember that reporting is an overhead. Reports should therefore be concise, relevant and circulated only to those who need them. However, more concise reports require greater effort by the writer in order to save the time of the readers. As someone once apologised: ‘I am sorry this report is so long; I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.’

The reporting structure refers to the people involved in a project at various management levels. Generally, progress reporting starts at the level at which work is actually done and progresses up through a hierarchy.

In an IT context, team leaders gather progress information from their team and report up to their project manager. This may be done directly or through a project support office or other intermediary. The project manager then reports to the person or group that has been entrusted with overall responsibility for the project. This might be a project sponsor or executive supported by a project board, project management board or steering committee. This group could include representatives of the managers of the development team and the users as well as the project sponsor, who, as the provider of finance, inevitably has a decisive influence.

They, not the project manager, have the authority to change the objectives of the project. They could allocate more resources to the project or reduce the scope of deliverables.

The report to the project board or steering committee is sometimes referred to as a highlight report. The intervals at which the reports are produced and the topics they report should meet the needs of the recipients and the importance of the information conveyed. It is important to obtain formal agreement with the reporting procedures laid down in the project management plan from all the major parties involved.

PURPOSE AND TYPES OF REPORTING

As far as the project manager is concerned, there are two aspects of reporting: the reports they receive from those who actually do the work, and the reports they write conveying progress information to higher management, including, most importantly, project sponsors. Reporting does not have to involve physical meetings, especially where projects are geographically dispersed.

Team meetings

The team leader might be able to obtain the progress information they need from team members without having a group meeting. However, meetings are not just about a team leader communicating with individual team members, but team members talking to one another. Where obstacles to progress have to be removed, a meeting can be a very efficient tool.These are usually attended by team members, the team leader and possibly the project manager. On small projects with a single team, the project manager and team leader roles may be merged. A weekly frequency is usually appropriate (in some Agile projects there may even be daily ‘stand-up’ meetings). A report from the team leader to the project manager will be prepared. A typical agenda would include the following:

  • each individual team member’s progress against their plans;
  • reasons for variances;
  • expected progress – which looks forward to what each team member is going to do;
  • current problems or issues;
  • possible future problems – which may involve reviewing the risks recorded in the project risk register (see Chapter 7) that could affect this part of the project.

It is important that all those attending have a reason for attending and a contribution to make. These meetings are often referred to as checkpoint meetings and the progress report produced in this case is a checkpoint report. (In an Agile project, a backlog list identifying tasks completed and those still to be done would be updated. Remember we are talking about waterfall project management practices) As issues are identified, they may be recorded in an issues log, which will be updated as they are resolved.The project manager receives the reports from team leaders and produces a summary report (sometimes called a highlight report) for the sponsors of the project. Where there are a number of teams, each with its own leader working in parallel on a project, the project manager may well hold project coordination meetings with the team leaders to review and remove obstacles to project progress.

The summary report typically includes the following information:

  • details of the progress of the project against the plan;
  • current milestones achieved;
  • deliverables completed;
  • resource usage;
  • reasons for any deviation from the plan;
  • new issues and unresolved issues;
  • changes to risk assessments;
  • plans for the next period and products to be delivered;
  • graphical representations of progress information.

Project sponsor meetings

You will recall from Chapter 1 that the project sponsor is the individual responsible for safeguarding the interests of the client. The project sponsor might work through meetings of a steering committee or project management board. These meetings will be attended by designated representatives of users, suppliers and other stakeholders, with the project manager in attendance and with secretarial support perhaps provided by a project support office or project management office. The structure and responsibilities of the various roles in this structure are covered in Chapter 8.

The frequency of meetings will have been agreed and recorded in the project management plan. The exact timing depends on the project size: larger projects may have fewer and less frequent top-level meetings, but more meetings of managers at intermediate levels. Meetings can be timed to coincide with significant project events such as the completion of a particular project phase or stage (that is, a milestone) or other, external, triggers such as requirements for financial approvals.

Items for the agenda are similar to those for team meetings. The summary report described above, from the project manager to the board, is circulated prior to the meeting. The board is authorised to decide upon any necessary corrective action arising from progress information. This is fed back down the reporting chain and thus completes the reporting cycle.

Programme board/steering committee meetings

Organisations sometimes group projects into programmes, where a number of projects all contribute to a set of over-arching objectives (see Chapter 8). In these cases a programme board may be set up, to which individual project boards would report. These boards would have less frequent, less detailed meetings related to programme management, but with essentially a similar agenda to those of the project boards. These would have more of a business focus than a project focus.

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