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If You’re Not Tracking, You’re Guessing: 4 Tips to Improve Project Tracking

brockmeierJan22The thrill of tracking is probably not what keeps most of us in the field of project management. Unfortunately for those of us not too fond of tracking, it’s not really an option if we want to be able to answer the question most project stakeholders are asking, that is, “How’s the project going?” We also need a baseline, of course, but that isn’t much use if you don’t have something to compare against it. You are really guessing if you try to answer that question in the absence of either a baseline or tracking.

It’s been my experience that people are often pretty good at tracking in the beginning of a project. Then at some point, just keeping up with the immediate task at hand leaves little time for reporting what has already happened. As a project manager, my need for the information doesn’t go away, however.

Four things can increase the likelihood that tracking will be done and done well enough to make use of the information for solid reporting and communications.

  1. Make it visible. One of the reasons people lose interest is that they don’t think they have anything to report. It’s pretty easy to ignore project reporting if all you have to say is “I don’t have anything to report.” It’s not that people really don’t have anything to report, but the reporting requirements are such that team members haven’t accomplished enough for something to show up on the report. Breaking deliverables and related work into smaller chunks means more opportunity to show work that is done. Increased visibility into progress will appeal to both the providers as well as the consumers of project reporting.
  2. Make it easy. If you don’t have reporting formats, templates, or processes prescribed for you, ask your team members for input on how they would like to provide the information needed. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet in a shared folder somewhere; maybe it’s a hardcopy log posted somewhere; maybe it’s an email at the end of the day (with a specified subject line). There’s nothing like getting input to promote ownership and compliance. Even if there are reporting constraints you have to work with, take advantage of any flexibility to get input from the team on how to make it work easiest for them.
  3. Make it meaningful. I remember a senior management group’s dismay when team members in their organization complained about the tracking they had to do because “no one ever does anything with the information.” In fact, management was using the information team members plugged into reports for all sorts of portfolio decision making. But this was a large company with lots of distance, physically and otherwise, between project team members and senior management, and those doing the work of reporting had no insight into how the numbers were being used. Make tracking more than just a data entry exercise. Show people how the information they are reporting is used. Where does it go? Who gets it? What decisions are made based on the information? How might it impact them? Tracking becomes a lot more palatable if you understand the value of your effort to do it.
  4. Make it safe. Once you’ve convinced team members that someone really is using the tracking information they provide, make sure that isn’t understood as a reason to make the numbers look good even if they aren’t. Valuable reporting means sharing news of the good and the bad. If the numbers don’t look good, team members should expect a constructive response along the line of “What can I do to help?” If reporting that things aren’t going well is likely to provoke a rash of blame storming or mad search for a scapegoat, then expect a good deal of effort to be invested in making the numbers something that will keep report consumers happy.

Tracking may not be anyone’s favorite project management activity, but hopefully these few things can inspire more interest and participation in good tracking practice.

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