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Project Controls Simplified: How To Manage And Control Your Projects

Being a digital project manager, you might wonder why you’d have to concern yourself with project controls. You’re thinking:

  • Don’t we already have that covered in the project brief?
  • Doesn’t the team know exactly what needs to be done?
  • Everyone knows that the budget is tight and that there’s only four weeks left, right?

Last time you checked in, everyone seemed confident…

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 planning. While it’s important to have a detailed Statement of Work, an accurate Budget Estimate, and a Project Plan to keep everyone on the same page, as priorities shift during the project, you need project controls to manage the changes to the working guidelines you initially laid out.

Effectively setting up a project control process will enable you to keep an eye on cost and schedule as things shift and evolve throughout the project. It’s the key to navigating your project through rough waters—and it will save your project from going off the rails.

What Are Project Controls?

What is 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 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.

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.

The biggest misconception about project controls is probably that you, as the DPM, 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. 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.  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 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.

Why Are Project Controls Important?

As a digital project manager, chances are you don’t work with a Project Controller—you are the Project Controller. You are responsible for cost, schedule, and scope.

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:

With your team:

– “Surely the client would be much happier, if we could have just two more days to finesse this…”

And your client:

– “I like the approach here, but can you sharpen your pencil and work out with your team 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.

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.

To proceed, following these four essential phases in a project controlling process:

Evaluate

Know where your project is at with regard to the project plan, anticipated output, and overall trajectory. Get under the hood. Ask questions to ensure you understand the current status. When you evaluate, use project Status Reports and metrics as a basis for decisions.

Plan

Based on the 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? What about planned events like presentations? 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?

React

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.

Connect

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.

How Much Reporting Is Enough?

We’ve talked about the project controls process for making decisions—but how do you get the right metrics? This is where reporting comes in.

From the beginning of a project, you should be thinking about how you need to approach reporting. Try and utilize any of your existing project management software. This could include time-tracking tools, as much as possible for your report generation. Ideally, report generation becomes a routine for you (not a tedious task that might fall through the cracks).

At the beginning of the project, make sure to check:

  1. Are there any reporting requirements set out in the contract?
  2. How can you use the data that you already have?
  3. What metrics do you need for determining where the project is at?

Choosing the correct level of reporting will making confident decision-making possible.

Internal vs. External Reporting

Here’s a question that I get a lot: Are internal and external reporting the same? In my experience, it’s essential to expose the team to overall reporting and project control efforts on a high level. The team usually needs to know how things are going from a budget perspective so they can manage their time and output effectively.

As PM, it’s up to us to decide if we want to to expose budgets and give full transparency on the numbers. It is usually better to keep at least a slight buffer as opposed to exposing the full picture.

With internal reporting, ensure the team is sufficiently informed make sure to:

  1. Set budget and timing expectations early
  2. Update the team if things change
  3. Make it a habit to loop back with the team after Status Reports
  4. Use detailed reporting metrics to mitigate shortfalls within the project
  5. Create transparency when it comes to deadlines

Leveraging Existing Tools

Does your company use standardized project management tools such as Microsoft Project (or perhaps one of the many MS alternatives)? Utilizing existing tools reduces the extra effort and allows you to tie it into daily team routines as well. It is really effective to tie the budget into your timesheet software, so the team is aware how much hours they have spent.

3 Reports You Need To Control Your Projects Better

project controls simplified - change request, status report, raid log

 

1. Project Control Type: Status Report

What is it?

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.

weekly project status report example

Weekly project status report example.

 

Why is it important?

Setting up a project management Status Report is an invaluable step to ensure clients are informed on important project metrics such as costs, timing, risks, and blockers. Exposing the right amount of information regularly will ensure clients feel involved in the project and make tough conversations easier.

How do I use it?

Some clients expect to see detailed hourly reports, while others are ok with a higher level picture. If it’s unclear, start at a high level with what’s easy for you to manage while still detailed enough to be useful to you and the client. You can always add more detail, if requested.

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
Get started with a free Status Report template:

 

When do I need it?

To establish a proper reporting cadence, aim for weekly project Status Reports. They don’t need to be long—30 minutes might be plenty—but it’s an important aspect of the client relationship and establishes trust and transparency. 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. 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.

2. Project Control Type: Change Request

What is it?

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. For example: additional revisions, more design work, or new features that need to be completed to ensure project success.

Change request example - the digital project manager

Change request example

 

Why is it important?

A Change Request should always be formalized and acknowledged by both parties to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Once identified, map out the description, impacts on budget, impacts on timeline, and send to the client.

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 outcome. 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 acknowledgement (signature or confirmation of acceptance)
Get started with a free Change Request template:

When do I need it?

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.

3. Project Control Type: RAID log

What is it?

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.

General Status Reports usually have a high-level focus, while RAID logs takes 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.

Project Management: RAID log example

RAID log example

 

Why is it important?

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 do I use it?

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.

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.

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.

Maik Stettner

Maik Stettner

Leading FCV’s team of project managers and business analysts, Maik ensures that all initiatives are delivered on time and on budget, with a strong focus on quality and client satisfaction. His diverse background in project management has allowed him to gain valuable insights, delivering projects across a variety of digital platforms including websites, mobile apps, healthcare, video game platforms, and software solutions. With international experience, Maik previously led the full project lifecycle for major global clients such as Volkswagen, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. He is known for his dedication to excellence; consistently providing sound direction and aligning our internal team to exceed client expectations. At FCV, Maik has overseen the delivery of digital transformation projects for clients such as BC Pension Corporation, Sound Transit, BC Assessment, Fraser Health and the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC).

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