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Project Control – Is it just an illusion?

In my last blog I was talking about earned value and my impression that it is not being used very much. I got some good responses to it and it seems like most of you agree. So, when going through the bloggers normal pain of finding the next topic to blog about, I got to thinking. What else in project management sounds good and right in theory, but is not always as pretty in real life? And project control jumped to my mind. One of those terms that sounds clear and scientific, but when you look behind the processes, it is not always pretty. I have been on many projects in my career, and I cannot say that I ever felt totally in control of one.

Now, I agree with the techniques that PMI uses to control projects. Variance analysis, corrective actions, earned value etc., are all ways to help us understand the project. But at the same time there is no doubt in my mind that the most important technique is informal communication with customers, team members, and other stakeholders. And yes, I know that PMI recognizes this communication as well, but since it is hard to clearly define and sometimes is more art than science, it tends to not get the attention it should.

Very few project managers will say in their lessons learned that the project failed because they did not spend enough time updating Microsoft Project, or calculating earned value, or even reviewing trend analysis. The most common cause of failure that I hear people talk about is a lack of communication; communication between organizations, between team members and especially between the project team and the customer.

For me the most important project control technique is the old “MBWA”. Management By Walking Around. In other words, Informal communication, being visible, being accessible. The project manager who sits in the office looking at network diagrams will not have the same feel for the pulse of the project as the project manager who talks to the stakeholders on a regular basis. When you build a personal relationship with the team, the customer and others, you are much more likely to get honest feedback and early warnings. People may not want to tell you in a formal status report that there are some issues on the project, but one on one, once you have built trust they are much more likely to open up.

So project control has a lot of aspects to it, formal metrics are a part of it, but don’t underestimate the value of just walking up to the customer, sitting down and asking; “How are things going?”

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