Project controls keep a project on track. They enable us to maintain control over the structure and flow of a project by providing checks and balances for the project to keep it on track.
And when things aren’t quite right, and a project begins to veer off track, the controls give us an early warning sign so we can adjust to get things back on track as quickly as possible.
So the benefit of project controls is that they allow us to anticipate and resolve all sorts of project problems.
But what are those problems—why do projects go off track? Here are a few common reasons for needing project controls:
- Responsibility and ownership
- Conflicting values or priorities
- Things not working
- Items not completed
- Expectations not met
- Scope creep
- Changes and pivots
- Unforseen costs
- Schedule changes and delays
- Shifts in priority
- Resourcing clashes
Having any of these problems in your projects?
Welcome to project controls.
In this article, I go over a handful of project control documents, templates, and checklists you can use to control your project and start handling these types of problems in a systematic manner.
I did not say that you’ll be able to eliminate these problems.
The truth is, projects rarely go as planned. Things change on a constant basis, whether it’s your team members, client expectations or unanticipated complexities that affect your plans.
It’s our job to minimize the chances of risks becoming issues, but it’s also our job to manage issues professionally and intelligently when they do occur.
A NOTE ABOUT TEMPLATES
You can get project control templates to help you roll out these controls right away—you’ll find them in DPM Membership, along with 50+ other project templates, documents, samples, ebooks, checklists, and workshops.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants a jump start on these project controls, plus a community of mentorship to help you figure out exactly how to use them in your day-to-day.
Project Controls Basics
What are project controls?
In short, project controls are the actions we take and the documentation we use to keep our projects on track. Basically, they are a set of tools that help us get to the deliverable successfully.
I like the following project control definition from the PMI:
A project control system aims to minimize the gap between project planning and project execution in order to achieve project aims, i.e., cost, time, and content.
Project controls are a basic element of any project that can help anticipate problems and opportunities. In practice, project controls focus on monitoring relevant project KPIs such as cost and schedule, which ultimately tie in with scope and delivery.
For example, if you are ahead of schedule and/or below cost, you can spend the budget on more polish for a project to enhance the quality. If the budget is looking tight, the info from your project controls will inform the adjustments you make.
Where do project controls fit into the project lifecycle?
In the project lifecycle that acts as a high-level framework for all projects, project controls are a critical component of the Monitoring & Controlling phase.
Where do controlling projects fit into my skill set as project manager?
Controlling projects is one of the hard skills of project management.
- Process management
- Project Initiation
- Project Planning
- Documentation Development
- Task management
- Project Control
- Risk Management
- PM Tools
- Technical skills
Click here to learn more about project management hard skills, soft skills, and traits of a successful project manager.
Is controlling the same as micromanaging my projects?
The biggest misconception about project controls is probably that you, as the project manager, need to control (a.k.a. micromanage) your team at all times in order to get the right results. However, controlling in the form of micromanaging doesn’t leverage your team’s strengths and risks taking the project off track.
In fact, project controls are often invisible to the team.
As I said earlier:
Project controls aren’t about directly controlling the work or the people who do it; it’s about maintaining control over the structure and flow of the project itself.
Is there a difference between project manager and project controller?
Yes. In some organizations, a project controller is like the right hand of the project manager. The project controller would be more focused on project metrics, tracking, controls, and analysis, while a project manager would be more focused on things like the team, tasks that bring the project through its phases, and meetings with clients and stakeholders.
As a PM in the wild west of digital, chances are you don’t work with a project controller—you are the project controller.
Why Project Controls Are Important—They’re Worth Your Time, And Your Client’s
This famous conundrum of “You can’t have all three, so pick two” can get you into sticky situations. You’ve undoubtedly had conversations like these:
“Surely the client would be much happier if we could have just two more days to finesse this…”
“I like the approach here, but can you sharpen your pencil and work out a way to do this with half the budget?”
This balancing act is one of the hardest tasks for us as project managers.
On the one hand, we have to deliver a product that makes the client happy. On the other hand, we should always be behind the team and allow them to put their best work forward.
Project controls allow you to go into these conversations well-prepared. When done right, you will have the perfect tools to make informed decisions on the project for an optimal balance between cost, schedule, and quality. Instead of making the cost and time constraints the team’s problem, as a DPM, we are the facilitators that need to use these levers and constraints as a tool to get the project to the finish line.
1. Project planning documents
Stop here. Go no further into this article if you don’t have some kind of essential project planning document yet. That’s the basis for your controls—it’s a record that shows what you intended for the project so you can see if it’s tracking according to plan.
I won’t go into deep detail about how to make and use these documents here since that’s outside the scope of the article. Below, I’ll simply cover off what they are and how to find more information.
Project planning documents include:
This covers off the Why, What, When, How, Who, and other essentials of your projects in this brief so you can build a solid foundation for the rest of your project.
PROJECT BRIEF TEMPLATE & SAMPLE
There’s a pre-made project brief template in the DPM Membership templates library, with prompts to help you think through how to fill out each section, and a sample showing you what a completed project brief looks like.
To track whether you’re on the budget, you need an original estimate. Here’s a project budget cost estimation guide to help you put together an estimate.
If you need hands-on practice for this, I’ll point you toward the DPM School, where we spend an entire week of the online course making and refining a project estimate for a mock project.
Timeline, Project Plan, Schedule and/or Gantt Chart
To track changes to your schedule using other types of project controls, you first need to have a schedule.
You may use one of these or all of these—but definitely use at least one! It’s your most basic tool for controlling your projects—and setting them to be controll-able in the first place.
Read a complete guide to creating a project plan here.
PROJECT TIMELINE EXAMPLES
You can find timeline examples in DPM Membership if you’re curious to see what some real projects look like:
Statement of Work
Your SOW contains a lot of information to help you set up controls for the rest of your project. If you’re new to the idea, you can start with my article on writing a Statement of Work.
To really nail this skill, you can get dedicated training to write a comprehensive SoW for a mock project in week 5 of the DPM School.
STATEMENT OF WORK TEMPLATE
Find a Statement of Work Template and filled-in sample in the DPM Membership template library, along with 50+ templates and samples.
2. RACI chart
RACI is an acronym for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. This type of chart is used for assigning the roles and responsibilities for every task or decision of a project.
When do I need it?
It can be difficult to master RACI charts but once you do you’ll find that it can help prevent pointing fingers later on. A RACI chart is useful because at a quick glance it will tell you who is responsible for the completion of a particular task and who needs to be informed of status. A RACI chart can be a solution for a probable delay in decision-making or an uneven distribution of workload.
The roles assigned can be defined as the following:
- Responsible: This is the person or people actually doing the task. This person will take the primary action and present the deliverables.
- Accountable: It’s this person’s job to ensure that the task or job is done. They are not the ones doing the task themselves but they will sign-off on the final product.
- Consulted: This role is about providing information, as asked or required. This will be a two-way communication, with the consulted individual offering advice or feedback.
- Informed: If assigned this role, a team member must be kept informed about critical deadlines and status on the task. They will be affected by the final outcome.
How do I use it?
A RACI brings together project tasks and team members on a chart, then determines whether the individual is assigned an R, A, C, or I.
- Before a project starts, outline a number of key tasks
- List all the team members who will be working on this project
- In each column and row of your chart, assign a RACI letter to signify their role
RACI CHART TEMPLATE & SAMPLES
There are multiple RACI resources for you to use in DPM Membership:
- RACI template
- Filled-in RACI samples
- Workshop: Master RACI Charts in 30 Minutes
- RACI checklist to help you do it right
- RACI cheatsheet
3. Communications plan
A communication plan is a source or document that lists all project stakeholders and defines communication channels by preference and priority level.
When do I need it?
You will need a communication plan if there are many individuals or groups that need to be kept in the loop through varying means across the lifecycle of a project.
A communication plan defines who should be connected, as well as when and how, to prevent missed information. Creating a communication plan can define communication goals, clearly, state stakeholder information, indicate communication frequency, and pinpoint what information to share. This document should be a guide to structure communication across a project.
Remember that the communication plan is for your own benefit as the PM just as much as it is for anyone else. It will determine how often you are to communicate with the client and let them know your intentions before the project even starts. You will most likely use different communication techniques, like daily emails for quick questions or weekly conference calls for updates.
How do I use it?
The Communication Plan will be designed before the project starts. There are several things that you will want to do:
- Note what your communication goals are
- Note all stakeholders and their preference/frequency of communication
- Plan key communication moments, including the who, how, and when
TEMPLATE & SAMPLE
You can get these and 50+ other templates, samples, checklists, agendas, and documents by becoming a Member:
- Communications plan template
- Filled-in communications plan sample
4. Contact Report
A contact report is a collection of documents and notes that is a record of communications like email, meeting minutes, phone calls, and even records of in-person conversations.
When do I need it?
A contact report keeps details needed by the project team and the client, details that may need to be recalled at any given time throughout the project. This is why a record is essential.
There’s a good chance that your project will use many different communication tools on top of the expected phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings. A contact report is a way to make sure that bits of important information, like insights, feedback, or key goals, are extracted from these various sources and circumstances and stored somewhere accessible.
A good contact report will be more than a cut-and-paste of different text and screenshot—they should be contextualized and important details should be highlighted in an easily readable way. In particular, any action items need to be collected and called out. The team will need these to know what the next steps should be.
How do I use it?
The very first thing you add to the Contact Report will probably be the project plan. Then, all items of communication can point back to key tasks and milestones.
- Note who was a part of the meeting
- Note the source of the meeting (email, phone, in-person, text, app)
- Add context, screenshots, and takeaways
5. Investment Authorization
An Investment Authorization is used when your project budget doesn’t cover the costs or planned costs as the project moves forward.
When do I need it?
Often, this happens when a client refuses to pay or when you do some internal gold-plating. For example, it happens when a creative director wants to make something amazing and award-winning, and the client couldn’t really care either way.
In a case like this, you authorize spending above and beyond the budget that your own company carries through an Investment Authorization.
How do I use it?
To use an Investment Authorization, you need to (A) know your budget and (B) know the scope and cost of the additional investment you need to authorize.
You’ll probably need to meet with the people who are accountable for the additional work, ask them about the key details like its purpose and benefits, come up with an estimate, fill out your Investment Authorization form, and get their approval.
Then, you’ll submit the Investment Authorization form to your internal project stakeholders to get approval on the new funds.
6. QA Checklist
A Quality Assurance (QA) checklist is a catalogue list of important not-to-be-missed items relating to a project’s process type, testing methodology, and/or product category.
When do I need it?
A PM will take the blame for errors or missed items. QA is an essential process to ensure that everything is working as it should and nothing important has been missed.
A project manager will have to take a top-down role in the QA process, ensuring that issues are properly prioritized and logged. The QA checklist will be used to do this and, according to the PM’s guidance, members of the team will then be assigned to each item on the list. They will test, retest, fix and record the end results.
The QA checklist will most likely be broken down into different areas or phases. Different areas of the project or different categories of tasks will require their own QA checks. The checklist will help to catalog the required testing steps for each product category, like Requirements or Security.
How do I use it?
A QA checklist starts by breaking your project down into categories of phases, each which may require their own testing by specialists on your team.
- Define project categories
- Itemize testing areas in each category
- Assign testing items to your team according to priority
In the DPM Membership template library, there’s a QA checklist you can download.
It’s a quick reference to make sure the people responsible for QA on your website projects have checked all of the content and functional elements required before getting sign off.
7. Risk Register/RAID log
A RAID log is a tool for capturing and managing risks. It’s a risk management document where you record risks, assumptions, issues, and dependencies.
We did a workshop on managing risk—DPM Members can access it here.
When do I need it?
RAID logs are particularly helpful for projects in complex environments with many stakeholders, such as third parties, steering committees, IT departments, or contractors.
General Status Reports usually have a high-level focus, while RAID logs take things a step further, focusing specifically on risk management. It’s a document that holds the team and stakeholders accountable by accurately tracking risks along with assigned actions.
Generally, a RAID log delivers a great deal of transparency both for the client and your team. Any risks or potential flags are logged, creating a culture of proactive openness. This is incredibly helpful in exposing multiple perspectives on the individual impacts in the project: Does the IT gating process take 4 weeks? Are the allocated number of revisions sufficient? If you anticipate a problem, log it and talk about it in your status meeting. Ensure to assign an owner of the risk so it can be mitigated.
How to use a RAID log
You should start a RAID log at the beginning of the project and update it in regular meetings with the client’s input. It’s important that decisions are also documented in this document. It should include:
- Risks: Project risks that are currently known, to ensure traceability and stakeholder exposure
- Actions: action items including assignees from meetings, ongoing tasks, etc.
- Issues: any risks that could threaten project success
- Dependencies: major dependencies you’ve identified throughout the project.
RAID LOG TEMPLATE & SAMPLE
Get a jumpstart with:
- RAID log template in a premade spreadsheet
- RAID log sample to show what a real RAID log looks when filled out for a website redesign project
- Risk management webinar
Access these by becoming a DPM Member.
8. Status report/cost report
A Status Report contains all relevant metrics of an ongoing project and ensures all involved parties have a clear understanding of where the project is at.
When do I need it?
Being consistent with Status Reports is key for transparency and effective management. It’s essential to have an updated Status Report ready in each weekly meeting.
To establish a proper reporting cadence, aim for weekly project Status Reports. They don’t need to belong—30 minutes might be plenty—but it’s an important aspect of the client relationship and establishes trust and transparency. Make sure your client understands the content of the report—walk them through the information so they can explain it to their colleagues down the line.
Status meetings are the perfect opportunity for some face time with your client. If possible, have these meetings in person: go for a coffee, and develop a relationship. Don’t just talk about the project; instead, show an interest in the other things happening with your client’s company, and share some highlights of yours. It might open business opportunities that you haven’t even thought of.
How do I use it?
Some clients expect to see detailed hourly reports, while others are ok with a higher level picture. At a minimum, a Status Report should include the following:
- Total Project Cost, budget overview, budget remaining
- Current monthly cost/burn rate
- What was achieved in the past month and what is planned next
- Updates on timeline
- Action items
- Risks, blockers, and decisions
STATUS REPORT TEMPLATE & SAMPLE
Present your project status with a clear, professional breakdown with a:
- Status report template
- Sample status report
Get these and 50+ other templates and samples in DPM Membership—use the sample as a guide and simply fill in the sections for your executive summary, financial summary, progress, RAID log, action items, and milestones.
9. Change Request/Change Management Register
A Change Request (CR) outlines and defines a change in scope that occurred in the project, as compared to the initial Statement of Work or estimate that was provided.
When do I need it?
A Change Request should always be formalized and acknowledged by both parties. Once identified, map out the description, impacts on budget and timeline, and send it to the client.
A big part of project controls has to do with controlling scope and Change Requests are essential to this process. In order to educate everyone on the process, don’t shy away from issuing Change Requests, even for seemingly simple items with minor impacts. Change requests with no budget impact help enforce the process and keep everyone aligned on decisions
While it’s a common misconception that Change Requests are negative, they are simply a part of effective project management for communicating that the anticipated scope has changed. Especially when this happens later on in projects, these scope change decisions can be made with confidence and will result in better outcomes. It’s essential to educate the client on the Change Request process early on so everyone’s familiar with it.
How do I use it?
Change requests typically map out the following:
- Description of scope change
- Reason for scope change
- Implications of scope change (budget, timeline)
- Official acknowledgment (signature or confirmation of acceptance)
CHANGE REQUEST TEMPLATE
Download a change request template by becoming a DPM Member. This document helps you record the background, approach, scope, deliverables, assumptions, budget, dependencies, billing, and approvals for changes.
The Day-To-Day Process Of Controlling Projects
As project managers, we follow a daily routine to ensure the project stays on track. This requires that we know what’s going on. Sounds simple—in reality, it is a constant cycle of processing information, planning, and making decisions.
I’ll lay out a simple project control process below, but really, the most important thing to remember is this:
Analysis and communication are your most powerful tools for controlling your projects.
To keep things on track we need to be like a radar, pinging to see what’s ahead, and discussing with everyone when things aren’t looking good.
Effectively setting up a project control process will enable you to keep an eye on cost and schedule as things evolve throughout the project. You will be expected to navigate your project through rough waters—being prepared will save your project from falling overboard.
To proceed, following these four essential phases in a project controlling process:
Keep an eye on the project plan, the anticipated output, and the overall trajectory of the work. You must always know where you stand when it comes to expectations versus reality. Ask questions to ensure you understand the current status. When you evaluate, use project Status Reports and metrics as a basis for decisions.
Based on the determined status, course corrections are often in order. Ensure they are planned appropriately—try to anticipate where things are headed. Will a change affect other workstreams? Will you have to involve the client? Is the entire team on board? Is this a one-off, or do you see it becoming a bigger problem? It’s your job to plan to make process change work.
Once you have a plan, implement your changes. This includes letting the client know what’s changing and making sure the team is fully informed and onboard. Know the impact to budget and timeline and make the appropriate adjustments.
As a PM you’re the glue that holds the team together. Ensure that you distribute your knowledge to the team so that everyone gets the full picture. Ensure the client is in the loop and that information flows to where it is needed. Set reminders and do follow-ups both internally and externally to avoid slippage.
We’ve got to make sure we’re following up with our team, clients, and stakeholders.
Follow up with your team:
We can’t assume that our team will remember every request or wise piece of advice that we give them. You will have to dispense a lot of friendly reminders like “hey, sorry to be a pain, but did you get to X yet?” or “don’t forget about Y.” This will give you some peace of mind that people are on track as well as giving a quick pulse check on how things are going overall. It’s often during those brief check-ins that you’ll discover something isn’t quite going to plan.
Follow up with your clients or stakeholders:
Finally, we need to think about following up with our clients or stakeholders. In part, this is simple communication giving them updates on the project status, what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and any issues. But also, the follow up is similar to how we do it with our team. It’s those friendly reminders of the timeline. Don’t forget to rely on your Communication Plan to determine how and who to contact when it comes to stakeholders and beyond.
What Do You Think?
In my experience, a well-established and consistent project control process is the backbone for delivering projects on time and on budget. It also gives the team peace of mind that you, as their project manager, have got their back.
What are your experiences with project controls? Are there other project metrics that you measure? Do you use RAID logs to supplement your overall reporting? Share your experience or questions below.
Related Read: What Are RAID Logs? Expert Template + Easy Example