Building the Perfect Project Dashboard
I have seen (and built) a lot of project reports and dashboards throughout my career. Each one tailored specifically for the project/organization/customer I was working for. But when someone asks me on a generic level, what makes up a good project dashboard, here is what I tell them – you need to address three key areas – budget, schedule and client satisfaction. How do you do that? Read on.
Ok, this one is a bit of a slam dunk but it’s one of the most often looked at measurable of a project (and rightfully so). So what makes a good “budget” dashboard? The first thing I tell users of my dashboard is that dashboards are meant to view the past to predict the future. Looking at your budget you need to focus on project budget (i.e. what are you authorized to spend), the budget burned so far (aka the “actual”) and your forecasted effort remaining (aka your “ETC”). Combined, those three numbers will allow you to do all the slicing and dicing and predicting that your BI tool will allow for. Obviously want to know what you’ve spent so far but you also need to know what value you have earned with that spend. This leads into the earned-value approach of budget monitoring (which I won’t get into this week) but essentially you can use your current pace (your actual) to compare where your project is going to land in terms of budget spend. Looking at the effort remaining to complete your scoped deliverables combined with your spend to-date gives you your estimate at completion (EAC). If this number exceeds your approved budget, this is cause for further investigation and mitigation. If your EAC is less than your approved budget then you are (currently) on track to come in under budget – although this does not excuse you from not remaining vigilant for threats against your project.
Some project managers are a fan of SPI or Schedule Performance Index which is an earned value measure of how you are doing on your schedule but looking at the planned schedule and comparing that with progress made to-date to get a sense of whether or not your project will come in on time. I find this is (used by itself) can be a misleading metric. SPI does not take into account resource changes, differing commitment allocations, or even the planned difficulty of some tasks. Managing schedule needs to be done on a holistic level with the project manager defining milestones with the customer, building a project plan for the team to reasonably achieve those milestones and ensuring that schedule is maintained that way. While SPI can contribute to a larger conversation, a project dashboard needs to make mention of milestones and how the project team is tracking towards them (green/yellow/red indicators are always a big hit when tracking milestones). Remember, your dashboard is not a detailed project report but a gauge to allow the reader to see if there is a problem that needs to be investigated deeper with more detailed reporting and analysis.
This one is much more difficult to measure as the metrics are not nearly as objective as schedule or budget, although I would argue it is more important than any. Keeping your customer happy throughout the project (for the right reasons) is vital to not only your project’s success but also the ability to secure future work from that customer. So how do you measure something this subjective? Often I’ve found that simply reaching out to the customer at various points in the project to bluntly ask them to assess your performance is often the best method, for two reasons. Number one – it gives you an honest assessment of your performance to-date. The customer should always be giving you honest feedback on how you and your team have been doing in their eyes. Number two – it shows the customer that you care about not only what they think, but about improving your delivery for this project and others down the road. Adding a simple indicator to a dashboard to provide the reader a sense of the customer feelings (again, green/yellow/red) is a great way to flag to the reader if things are going along smoothly or if there is something deeper that needs to be checked into.
Dashboards are nothing new and every organization does theirs a little differently – and I’m not here to tell you exactly how to structure your dashboard or what specific metrics to focus on however if you can give your reader a quick state-of-the-union on these three key areas of your project you are well on your way to ensuring proper vigilance to all key aspects of your project.