Why do we track our projects?

Many people confuse “project management” with “schedule maintenance,” and treat project managers as if they were just bean counters. I suspect that one reason for this is the emphasis that many project managers on tracking projects. The project manager needs to control the project, but a big part of that is keeping track of every single aspect of the project… right?

Well, not exactly. The two most important reasons we track our projects are to see where we are with respect to the project plan and to have historical data so that we can estimate when building future project plans. The tracking itself has its uses — making each individual team member more aware of his or her contribution, for example — but these are subordinate to the impact of tracking on current and future project plans.

When looked at from that perspective, the question of how to track progress and exactly what to track becomes easier to answer: take whatever system we used to create the project plan and make that the baseline. Then have a periodic (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.) meeting to compare the progress done so far against the plan and update it to reflect the actual work done. By the end of the project, the PM should have a series of deltas: the baseline project plan, then how that plan changed over time.

At the end of each project phase, hold a phase-end review to look at how accurate the plan was. Which estimates were accurate? For ones that were not accurate, what happened? Write these reasons down. At the end of the project, hold a post-mortem meeting (or, ideally, have your QA manager hold it, since that really ought to be a QA function!) to analyze the data and come up with a final report that summarizes all of that. Then next time the team gets together to build a project plan, make sure everyone goes back and reads the post-mortem reports from previous projects.

When project managers think about tracking information as a way to gain insight into how well the project was carried out, they can turn tracking from a dull bean-counting Lose Weight Exercise into a useful and important project activity.

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