Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

Metrics Mania is a new monthly feature dedicated to examining best practices for scheduling, budgeting, and tracking documentation and training projects. This month starts with the crucial discipline required to gather the metrics that will be examined in future newsletters—project management.

The key to delivering a project on time and on budget is excellent project management. Starting with initial project setup through the final project wrap-up activities, project management defines, tracks, and controls the day-to-day activities of a project. Nevertheless, many companies limit time spent on project management because it has no visible, concrete deliverable in and of itself—arguing that time on the project should be spent producing tangible, end deliverables. There is no time tomanage, only to do.

However, the reality is that companies cannot afford to adopt such a mantra. Doingwithout good project management results in poorly defined and executed projects that go out of scope, miss deadlines, and exceed budgets. Successful projects include a budget for project management, and best practices suggest that this budget fall between 10 and 20 percent of the total project budget.

What to Include

One reason that project management is not allocated sufficient time in an overall project budget is a lack of understanding of what tasks fall to the project manager. Common project management tasks include a variety of one-time, regularly scheduled (monthly, weekly, and daily), and as-needed activities. Any time spent on these activities should be recorded as project management.

One-time tasks

The first person who should take action on a new project is the project manager. Before anyone starts doing, the project manager sets the expectations from the project in a project management plan. Although the content of this plan may vary, it should

  1. summarize the project scope and document how changes in scope will be addressed.
  2. clarify roles, responsibilities, and assignments for each team member.
  3. set a preliminary (baseline) schedule.
  4. explain how project information will be communicated among the team.
  5. define project-specific workflow processes and standards.
  6. review file management practices for the project.
  7. establish how team members will track their time.

Similarly, the project manager should be the last person taking action on a project as well. At the conclusion of a project, the project manager records what actually happened on the project and compares it to the expectations. The wrap-up, or post mortem, report provides a record of

  1. projected vs. actual hours and budget
  2. baseline vs. actual schedule
  3. risks realized
  4. lessons learned

These one-time activities account for approximately 30% of the overall project management budget.

Regularly scheduled tasks

Surprisingly, only about 50% of the project management budget goes toward the daily, weekly, and monthly tasks that keep a project on track:

  1. Scheduling. After establishing the preliminary baseline schedule, regular updating of that schedule to adjust for tasks that complete early or late keeps the team and stakeholders informed of progress toward the promised completion date. Although the baseline never changes, the project manager needs to regularly update the schedule to reflect actual progress and predict whether the deadline is still obtainable.
  2. Hours monitoring and tracking. Although companies might carefully monitor project schedules, frequently the hours of exempt employees are of no concern; these people are paid a salary and therefore the project budget is not affected if they work overtime to meet the schedule. However, monitoring and tracking hours more accurately predicts progress toward project completion and calls attention to areas of concern that might impact the overall schedule or that indicate a change in scope. Further, accurate timekeeping, even of non-paid overtime hours, provides more realistic budgets and schedules for future projects, making happier employees who don’t burn out as quickly.
  3. Risk and issues evaluation and mitigation. All projects have inherent risks, and a good project manager will identify those risks up front and as they occur, and take the appropriate steps to manage and mitigate risk before it becomes an issue. Should risks manifest into issues, project managers implement recovery plans to minimize the impact to schedule and budget. In short, project managers must be optimists on the outside, encouraging the team, but pessimists on paper, anticipating and preparing for the worst.
  4. Reporting and communication. The best planning and tracking doesn’t mean a thing if it’s not communicated. One of the most common complaints on project teams is that they are not kept well informed. Regular progress reports, team meetings, and informative emails go a long way in making sure everyone is on the same page.
  5. Team morale. The project manager is team coach, cheerleader, and oftentimes, psychologist, encouraging the team toward the goal. The project manager needs to have the pulse not only of the project, but also of each individual team member, making sure each person gets the resources, encouragement, and time needed to complete the given task.

As-needed tasks

The remaining 20% of the total allotted project management time should be reserved to handle unexpected, but almost inevitable events.

  1. Firefighting. The best laid plans and risk management might still not predict the issues that arise on a project. The project manager’s job includes clearing paths for the project team members, putting out fires, solving problems as they arise, so that the team members can stay focused on their primary tasks.
  2. Scope changes. One of the most difficult jobs a project manager faces is identifying and managing scope creep and recognizing when that scope creep is a legitimate scope change that needs to be negotiated. The importance of a well-defined project is clear as the project manager must weigh what exactly has changed—is the team doing more than they were asked, or has something about the project definition actually changed?

Dependency Factors

Industry standards indicate that project management be allocated between 10 and 20% of the total project budget. Factors that influence the exact percentage include:

  1. Size of the project team. In the case of project management, “the more, the merrier” adage does not apply. Large teams require more coordination and more team building. Large teams can burn through hours in a short time, so a step in the wrong direction is more difficult to recover from.
  2. Experience of project team. Less experienced team members require more attention to ensure they stay on the right path. A mixed team might require unequal distribution of hours so that schedules become more challenging to create and maintain. An experienced team, especially a group that has worked together often, becomes to a certain extent self-managed, requiring less day-to-day attention.
  3. Experience of project manager. Less experienced project managers might take longer to complete their tasks or tend toward micromanagement, over managing the team in an effort to keep up. On the flip side, less experienced managers might also be content to let more experienced team members run with the project, hesitating to contradict team opinion even if it is contrary to keeping the project on track.
  4. Project schedule. The shorter the project, the less time available to bring a project back on track if it strays. Thus a rapid turnaround requires more frequent or constant monitoring, while a longer project might accommodate an “in-and-out” style of management, with longer periods between status, schedule, and budget checks.
  5. Project size. Projects with many deliverables require more coordination, which is compounded if each deliverable is essentially its own project with different production processes, time schedules, and team members. Some project managers might assign team leads to assist with project management duties; for example, assigning one person to be responsible for each deliverable. This obviously increases the overall project management burden on the project as the leads consume the average project management time themselves, and the overall project manager coordinates their efforts.

When determining your budgeted project management time for a project, look at your average project management time across projects and then compare the specific project to your “typical” project in these areas, making adjustments up or down according to these factors.

Interpreting Your PM Metrics

Once you have determined your expected project management percentage, monitoring your project against that average can reveal much about the overall health of a specific project.

A low percentage of project management time compared to overall project time could indicate all is well with the project—the project is running as planned with no hiccups requiring the attention of the project manager. On the other hand, a low project management percentage could reveal that no one is actually managing the project. If you find you are spending less time in project management than expected

  1. Talk with team members. Find out if they feel they are receiving enough project communication.
  2. Check that the schedule has been updated and reflects current status.
  3. Check that actual hours and budget are up-to-date and that they reveal that the project is on track.

A high percentage of project management likely indicates many of the project risks have materialized, requiring more attention from the project manager. If you notice a trend in increasing project management time, isolate the reasons by analyzing what the project manager is spending that extra time on. For example, if the schedule must be adjusted regularly because interim dates are being missed, the issue is not in project management, but somewhere in the development process. However, if the time is spent creating status reports, the project manager might need coaching to improve productivity.

A high percentage of project management hours could also indicate the project is being micromanaged. For example, if the disciplines themselves are tracking on or under budget, but project management is high, the project is likely being over managed. Typically, a quick survey of the team can reveal whether this is the case. Most people dislike micromanagement, feeling it reflects a level of distrust from the project manager. A good project manager strikes a balance between maintaining overall control and allowing team member independence.

In addition to comparing project management percentage of the project, look also at the hours spent compared to projections. The percentage could indicate you are spending the right proportion of hours compared to other disciplines, but the overall project could still be tracking over budget, indicative of scope creep, or even under budget, perhaps indicating all aspects of the project are not being addressed.

Project Management Tracking Pitfalls

When tracking project management hours and percentages, misleading numbers might arise from a number of areas:

  • When the project manager is also an individual contributor on the team, hours can easily be mis-categorized. The most common tendency is to record more hours for project management, in effect, hiding hours from the other disciplines that might otherwise be trending high. The result is that more hours are spent in production and less in project management, but the reported hours show the exact opposite. However, the opposite case is possible as well when the project manager spends more time in production than management and lumps all the hours for the day into the primary activity.
  • If documentation or training is a part of a larger project, for example, a software development project, the project management of the overall project is meant to include management of the documentation and training. However, typically the primary deliverable gets all the attention of the project manager, both because it is the revenue-generator and because the project manager likely knows very little about the publishing process, being instead an expert in software project management. This overarching project manager does not typically perform the responsibilities covered in this article, and in fact, documentation and training are lucky to get one line in the project schedule to track to. In these cases, it is important to have a person working on the documentation and training deliverables designated as project manager of that effort, if not in title, in responsibility.
  • Some people also choose to include project meetings in the project management metric. Certainly, the project manager plays an important role in coordinating and conducting team meetings, and the meetings fall under the category of project communication. Making this choice drives up the percentage of project management time, so ensure that this practice is applied consistently across all projects when comparing project management trends for your group as a whole.

Dawn Stevens is a Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, Inc.