How Do You Know If Your Project Is on Track?

In my recent speech to a project management special interest group in Silicon Valley, a few participants raised some intriguing questions about how to ensure your project is on track. As it’s a timeless topic yet vital to success, it seemed appropriate to discuss a few key strategies to tracking project progress.

There’s no doubt that those companies who successfully execute projects will be in a dramatically superior position to their competitors. In today’s new normal business environment, there is no margin for error; you must deliver project results on time, on budget and with exceptional customer service. So, what are the keys to success? 1) Rigorously track the critical path. 2) Track objectives AND milestone metrics. 3) Ask questions.

1. Rigorously track the critical path – Undoubtedly, the best and most common way to ensure success is to track progress on the critical path. Not all tasks are created equal. So long as the critical path remains on track, the project will remain on course. In my experience, if you spend the 80/20 of your time tracking the critical path, you’ll deliver results.

Once you’ve identified the critical path, it isn’t important to be a project software tracking guru. I’ve found that simple “works”. Check in with critical path task owners ahead of schedule. Remind them of the importance. Remove roadblocks. Follow up. Protect the critical path as your prized possession.

2. Track objectives AND milestone metrics – It’s quite common and relatively simple to track project objectives/ outcomes; however, it is not enough. By the time the project team figures out there is a problem in achieving the objective, it is often too late to resolve. Instead, focus attention on determining milestone metrics.

Now the challenge – often, it is not easy to determine how to set milestone metrics. For example, in many of my clients’ projects, the objectives are crystal clear: launch a new product, reduce inventory by 50%, implement organizational change without customer impact, etc. And, once progress begins, it is obvious as to how to track progress – if we’ve reduced inventory by 10%, we are 1/5 of our way to our goal. The issue arises in the timeframe prior to tangible progress.

For example, in inventory projects, there can be 4-12 weeks prior to tangible progress. So, how do you know whether you’re on track? Typically, I’ve found that asking the folks involved in the day-to-day process and/or tracking of the project outcome yields milestone metrics. They might not realize they have the answer but they do! And, if they still are unsure, provide guidelines and/or categories based on best practices related to the project topic, and it will spur ideas. Milestone metrics will emerge.

3. Ask questions – If you manage the critical path with rigor and develop milestone metrics, you’ll almost ensure success. The only missing link is to ask questions of the subject matter experts.

For example, half way between milestone metrics, ask the subject matter experts about progress. It is amazing how accurate their perceptions can be about progress. If a subject matter expert is uncomfortable with progress or thinks there might be a better path, listen! Even if they are not correct 100% of the time, the worst case scenario is that you’ve minimized risk by taking notice. I’ve found that once they see that you value their opinion and are listening to their concerns, you’ll not only get more feedback but you’ll also make quicker and smoother progress.

Too many projects fail to deliver the intended results. For example, merger and acquisition integration projects typically succeed 20% of the time. Thus, it makes sense for us to not only become a metric fanatic but to also be smart in tracking the “right” metrics to ensure we’re part of the 20%!

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