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Project Insight: What It Is and How to Get It

Everyone with a stake in a project wants to know what’s going on.

Depending on who they are, they want to know the reason for the project, how it relates to other projects, what progress has been made, what issues or barriers have come up, estimates and the level of confidence to place in them, when the project will be done, how much it has and will cost, what the product will be like, and more.

Project managers need even more than knowledge. They need project insight.

Insight is seeing into or understanding the inner nature of something including the cause and effect relationships that drive it. Insight is associated with intuition and wisdom. Insight often appears in a flash, though it is the result of a synthesis of information and experience. With insight, there is a felt sense of physical sensations. There is an awareness that cannot be completely expressed intellectually.

For example, after reading a status report and finding that project tasks are running late a project manager goes home worried about the project’s success. He or she has dinner, watches some TV, talks to friends and/or spouse about politics, movies or personal finance, and goes to bed. The next morning, in the shower, there is an AHA moment that gives the manager the insight into the cause of the delays and the clear understanding of what to do about it. Worry disappears and is replaced by a sense of confidence. There is still a need to analyze the situation to make sure the insight is real and practical, but there has been a breakthrough.

How do we get the insight needed to manage and perform?

The process that leads to insight relies on structure and hard and soft data. The data is transformed into useful information which is interpreted through the filter of experience to gain insight or deep understanding. Insight can arise when hard and soft data are synthesized into a total picture of the project.

Soft Data

Along with the hard data of dates, deliverables, and dollars, the project manager uses input that comes from observing and listening to project stakeholders and their relationships and knowing his/her own biases and conditioned responses. This requires mindfulness, emotional and social intelligence. It is the ability of a PM to process this data that makes the difference between the adequate and the great performers.

However, subjective evaluations and impressions are not enough. Recognizing that intuition is not always right, we need the hard data that will “prove” its validity.

Hard Data

The plan provides the structure. The tasks, organized hierarchically in a work breakdown structure, are the framework that is fleshed out with duration, effort and cost estimates and associated with resources. The baseline is established. The hard data are the actual results – costs, effort expended, deliverables accomplished, dates, client and stakeholder satisfaction, etc. – that can be reflected against the baseline to get a sense of the way the project is meeting expectations.

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As work is performed, actuals are compared to estimates. The result – early, late, over or under budget – is assessed in the context of task dependencies and resource availability to determine its impact on the project itself and on other projects using common resources.

Trends are analyzed. Are delays, defects and overruns isolated or chronically continuing to increase? Do they indicate that estimates are seriously flawed and that the project baseline needs to be changed? Are delays caused by poor estimates or poor performance?

Understanding the need to measure earned value, the PM compares the value of interim accomplishments to scheduled completion and budgeted cost. This requires estimating and tracking effort and cost. Without such tracking, insight is limited, relying on inference and subjective opinion rather than hard data.

However, the experienced PM will be able to gain insight into project health based on the information at hand. He/she will know that things are going right or wrong based on whether there are concrete deliverables, the nature of relationships and communications and the general “vibe”, among other cues.

As a rule of thumb, if a task slips for two or more reporting periods, it is likely that there is something that requires reassessing the estimate and performance. Chronic, increasing variance between estimates and actual results is a bad sign.

Determine if delays are on the critical path and therefore likely to delay overall project completion or on other paths and therefore less impactful. How do delays on noncritical tasks effect resource allocations? What risks have been identified and how likely to impact your project, with what intensity? How many scope changes are coming up? Are defects being discovered late in the project? Will a non-critical path become critical?

To enhance control and predictability define relatively short tasks (a week or two in duration) identified with well-defined concrete, measurable deliverables. When tasks have long durations with poorly defined deliverables, opinion rather than fact is the basis for saying how much of the task has been accomplished ad when it will be finished.

Well defined deliverables include clear understandings of acceptance criteria. Don’t be misled by performance characterized by on time deliverables that satisfy schedule expectations but are of poor quality. For example, delivering product components that are full of defects so that testing and acceptance activities are long and overly costly.

Beware of percentage completion reporting, particularly when the percentage completion is based on subjective opinion rather than comparing amount completed vs. total amount to be completed. It is common that the last ten percent can take longer to accomplish than the first ninety percent.

While you can’t rely on the numbers alone, without them you are navigating your project without a compass or access to the stars.

Insightfully Going Forward

Processing the hard data in any complex project requires project tools and the skill and discipline to effectively use them create and maintain the plan, capture actual performance data, summarize, assess trends and report. If the tool is part of a wider project portfolio management tool set, so much the better. Then there can be portfolio insight as well as project insight.

Processing the soft data means taking the time and effort to communicate with stakeholders at all levels to get multiple perspectives. Take the pulse of the project using your mindfulness fueled emotional and social intelligences.

Reconcile and merge your knowledge into a unified whole. Relax and let insight appear.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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