Use dashboards to define and communicate project status

Project managers, are you looking for a more concise way of conveying mission-critical information than long project status reports? Dashboards offer an easy and accurate way to share essential information with stakeholders.

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By Pat Tucci

A health care executive wanted to give his staff some mission-critical information. In lieu of a long written report, he drew on a whiteboard pictures that represented the current state of the hospital. He then covered them up and had his staff come into the meeting room. He said, “I’m going to show you something for five minutes, and I want each of you to give me an assessment of the hospital afterwards.” He then showed them the drawings with a few brief explanatory comments.

Within three minutes, everyone in the room understood the situation and could identify areas that needed improvement. They were able to see things that they had not been able to see in the paper reports. It was so simple, it worked.

What the executive was doing was creating a “dashboard,” a simple graphical presentation of diverse data that can be used to drill down on underlying information. The name comes from the dashboard in a car. However, unlike the speedometer and water temperature gauges you’ll find there, these elements can be rearranged, modified, and customized. Many are color coded for highlighting performance either above or below expectations.

Dashboards for project managers
Like our health care executive, project managers could also benefit from dashboards. Busy stakeholders and enterprise executives want to be able to fish for essential information and not have to troll among the details. They want to know whether a project is on schedule, not details such as delays on completing database specs, a time loss offset by faster UI design.

A dashboard offers a standard format for project status that everyone can understand and access on their own. An at-a-glance project status tool only presents the major milestones and main resource buckets and does so in an easy-to-understand format.

Know when to use a dashboard
Of course, dashboards are not always the best solution to all project status reporting. They’re usually aimed at communicating the big picture upstream and across the organization, such as the on-time and under-budget statuses of the project. On the other hand, most other project management tools give the task detail and functionality in order to monitor, manage, and predict crucial project elements and can be aimed downstream from the project manager/leader. If your goal is to communicate the big picture, however, dashboards are the way to go.

A sample dashboard
Recently, I found that I had no place to track and monitor the actual deliverables of a project. What about defining each deliverable item and setting up quantifiable metrics for each, so everyone understands the scope of the project? I wanted to track and display the results of these measures. To me, deliverables are not “create an internal sales system,” but rather “create an internal sales system that reduces administrative time by 10 percent, 20 percent, or 30 percent." Dashboards gave me a natural place to track and disseminate this crucial project element. Figure A is an example of a dashboard I created for this project.

Figure A
Dashboard diagram

With dashboards, the text beneath the symbols represents the manager's explanation of the project performance. The graphics show projected, quantifiable performance levels for deliverables (quality), resources (cost), and milestones (time). The direction of the arrows indicates whether the project will deliver what was expected within budget and on time.

A red arrow pointing down flags performance that is below what was expected at that particular point in the project. A green arrow pointing up indicates performance has surpassed expectations. A yellow arrow pointing left to right shows performance that has not met some goals but is close to doing so.

So, for example, in this graphic, the green Up arrow indicates that quality is above what was expected, the yellow resources arrow shows that goals have not yet been met but are close, and the red arrow indicates that milestones or deadlines have been missed. The use of red, yellow, and green as color indicators of performance is standard to all dashboard presentations.

Features to look for
Ease of use is a critical attribute of dashboard software. It must be easy to enter data into your dashboard and easy to view it once it’s there. You should also have integration with your current project management tools. Another feature to look for is an Internet/intranet solution that allows everyone to access the system from multiple locations, without having to load any custom software on his or her computer.

Here are links to some of the dashboard products currently available:

As I look back at my 10-plus years of doing IT projects, I wonder how much time I would have saved using a dashboard for project status reporting, let alone how much more effective I could have been by better defining, tracking, and possibly killing those no-win projects.

Web-based project dashboards are a compelling solution for disseminating project status information.