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When I started as a project coordinator many years ago, project managers fervently discussed strategies for getting teams to complete their timesheets.

The agency I worked for at that time would confiscate your laptop if you fell too far behind. Another agency woubesld revoke your beer and wine cart access.Still others would resort to all-agency call-outs. The wildest was withholding paychecks (this one may be urban legend.)

Luckily we’ve solved the problem since those dark dark days of project management, right? LMAO. (Can I say that?)

Let me backup and explain: Why even am I talking about this? The ground is littered with dead horses on this subject. And yet, the death of innocent horses continues. Can we stop the madness? To stop this carelessness, we have to understand the why, or the WHY EVEN?

To squeeze out success from any project, project managers must understand the cornucopia of vectors which could lead to its failure. Once this is understood, a risk management plan can be established, of which time tracking needs to be mission critical.

Where Do Risk Management & Time Tracking Connect?

Here’s a risk management baseline, according to ChatGPT 3.5:

“The principle of project risk involves systematically addressing uncertainties and potential disruptions to a project by identifying, assessing, planning for, and monitoring risks throughout its life cycle. Effective risk management can improve a project's chances of success and minimize the negative impacts of unforeseen events.”

OK cool. But, how does time tracking fit into the risk management process? Let’s define time tracking. Chat GPT3.5, please grace us again:

“Project time tracking is the process of monitoring and recording the amount of time spent on various tasks, activities, or phases within a project. It is a crucial aspect of project management that helps project managers, teams, and stakeholders gain insights into how time is allocated, identify potential bottlenecks or inefficiencies, and ensure that the project stays on schedule.”

Again, cool cool cool. But...

Here we are going to focus specifically on how time tracking needs to be a critical component in your risk management solutions strategy.

To this day, accurate time tracking continues to be a hot topic of conversation. The nut of this simple data entry conundrum has yet to be cracked. Teams I’ve worked with prioritize time tracking to varying degrees:

  • Ongoing, daily, by the hour time tracking, done fastidiously, like washing and putting away the dishes after eating. High priority! Almost automation level of real-time data entry and implementation. This person is your risk management hero.
  • Recurring end of day 15 min time-blocking to enter time. Like washing dishes from breakfast, lunch and dinner in the evening. This person’s time tracking, browser based software dashboard is likely pinned amongst 20 other tabs. Not quite real-time reporting, but not a huge threat to your specific risk identification strategy.
  • Recurring end of week time-blocking to enter time. Ugh, leaving Monday’s dishes in the sink until Friday. Way harder to clean. What is even on here? Risk analysis is now informed by shoddy data, increasing the potential impact of unidentified risks and increasing the likelihood of failing to implement mitigation plans. On a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the worst. This is a 3. No good.
  • Last and most egregious on this list, finance makes a month-end all-agency request to get time in before logging off. 

I won’t describe this in terms of dishwashing. It’s too gross and has an equally gross impact on accurate understanding. If everyone were to wait for this prompt to track time, risk exposure would be through the roof, and mitigation plans may as well be in the toilet, as all potential threats would be walking around like they own the place. 

This is equivalent to navigating blind-folded: there’s no way to monitor risk, mitigate risk, tell risk to go home, you’re drunk. Projects in this camp are unfolding like the science experiment wherein your “friend” said add water and then ran away covering their head.  

4 Time Tracking Tips To Help You Better Manage Risk

1. Set Up Your Project For Success: Conduct Historical Project Forensics

When scoping and project planning, I like to reference the outcomes of similar projects that were previously completed. Was it over budget? Under budget? How many hours were needed? Who used the most time? The least? Who had enough, or not enough? Do we know the reason behind any discrepancies? 

Basically this provides insight into potential risks, vulnerabilities, and helps guide risk mitigation strategies. In developing your overall risk management strategy this is step 1. The risk register you begin creating here will drive your risk response.

This forensic effort gives me a better idea of how to proceed and is my secret weapon in risk assessment. Knowledge is power. I use it to inform my project plan, timeline, my time tracking strategy (as mentioned, time tracking can help with future project planning), and almost most importantly, basic project configuration with regard to job-numbers. 

How you set up job numbers can be tricky. Why? I guess because we’re all people, being people, doing busy people things.

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Regarding Job Numbers: Two Approaches for Set-Up

1. Master Job Number

This approach captures the cumulative efforts under one job number. 

Pro: Teams have less to keep track of. If they are working on the project, this is their job number. Finance, in my experience, has preferred this approach. Invoices, POs, time—everything is tracked to one place, leaving less room for confusion.

Con: It’s harder to distill time needed for specific efforts, which is always useful for estimating similar projects in the future. Frequently, clients want line-item costs for specific efforts. Pulling a report of the previous job won’t have this number ready-made for reference, and will require the distillation by way of checking dates and hours entered by discipline. Can be a painful, labor intensive work-back, especially when teams are overlapping efforts. 

2. Umbrella Job with Sub-Jobs

This approach captures specific efforts for specific budgets. 

Pro: This allows for targeted time tracking for specific efforts, which creates better reference data for future scoping efforts needing line-item documentation.

Con: The possibility for teams to track time incorrectly increases with every additional sub-job number.

2. Disseminate Clear Expectations 

Do all teams share a common understanding of how to track, what to track, and when to track? Make sure everyone is on the same page regarding what constitutes client billable action and what does not. 

Do you track in increments of .25? Which cloud based project management software is everyone using to capture these metrics? Do teams get reminder notifications to track time? How is idle time identified and discarded?

Here are some examples of billable project management or digital project management time:

  • General
    • Project set-up
    • Vendor communications, resource management
    • Budget and expense Reporting
    • Preparing for status meetings
      • Consolidating feedback 
      • Distilling action items 
      • Summarizing next steps
    • Quality assurance (QA)

Here are some examples of non-billable time:

  • General
    • Software trial run experimentation
    • Vendor capabilities review meetings that are not for specific project work
    • Internal lunch and learns or cross department intel sharing
    • General process updates (again, not project specific)
    • Repeated onboarding of new staff (this reads as high turnover and instability)

3. Establish a Reporting Cadence for Accountability 

At the outset of the project, establish a predictable cadence of check-ins and reporting, allowing teams to anticipate and plan for having their time entered. This can be driven by status meetings needing burn reports. Build in your review time to properly assess whether all time is in. Have a contingency ready in case it is not.

4. Review Time by Date & Discipline, Cross-Check Against the Plan

Before decisions and actions can be taken, it’s important to understand a few things about tracked time. Many times, regularly in fact, teams are working on multiple projects with a variety of deliverables. 

This effort is intended to be captured under either a master job number or an umbrella job with specific sub-jobs, for specific efforts. It can easily happen that Monday’s effort, tracked the following week, is accidentally tracked to the wrong job number or sub-job numbers. This can be hard to catch and correct towards the end of a job. Therefore I advise establishing a routine for checking tracked time. 

Depending on your project parameters, regular check-ins on progress will help you manage risk. And by check-in, I mean taking a look with a critical eye.

Review who is booking time to which jobs and whether the amount is logical given current project workflows. How is the time tracking against the overall project plan? Are vendors up to date on submitting time? How are they tracking against their budget of time?

Make sure to flag and follow up on any detected issues and make corrections and adjustments as necessary. Should you discover irregularities, work with your team and finance department to correct the time tracking so accuracy is maintained. 

Find more time tracking best practices here.

How Does All Of This Help Manage Risk?

To recap, the project plan and project set-up need to be properly disseminated and a logical job number strategy utilized. Time tracking workflow, methods, and cadence should be clear across teams, creating a shared understanding of expectations. 

Once those ground rules are in place, regular burn reports will flag issues. Any unexpected over or under use of time should be immediately inspected as that can represent trouble. 

  • Are specs unclear? 
  • Is there a bottleneck preventing a team from starting? 
  • Was unexpected complexity introduced into the system? 

A regular cadence of check-ins can illuminate all manner of potential pitfalls and may allow you a second chance at getting ahead of problems.   

What Risks Are Associated With Time Tracking?

My first studio production lead told me once: Garbage in. Garbage out. It applies to everything except maybe the recycling of aluminum? Inaccurate time tracking can wreak long term havoc, undermining everything from profitability to utilization, revenue, team growth, team retention, bonuses, and even raises. 

You can think of time tracking like trying to pop a giant soap bubble. The longer you look at it, without taking action, the higher your risk of missing your chance. The longer the wait between the work and the tracked time, the higher the risk for inaccurate data. Invest in good time tracking tools.

By using time tracking punitively or as a form of micromanagement, you'll push your team into the opinion that time tracking is bad, putting your future time data at risk.

How Can Time Tracking Software Assist With Risk Management?

Implementing a universally accepted time tracking software will increase the probability that the variation in accuracy between team members decreases.

If everyone is working in the same way, tracking consistently, using the same tools, following the same protocols, some of the noise will be removed from the system data and therefore greater accuracy is achieved. 

This leads to better decisions and better solutions. Two software solutions I like are Harvest and Toggl Track. I’m sure there are a million other options; I’ve used these two.

Toggl has a nice notification feature that reminds users to track time, as well as an auto idle time tracker. On those merits it wins in my book, though the invoicing features in Harvest are nice. Choose your own adventure.

Time Tracking, No Longer Friend Zoned

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Thako Harris
By Thako Harris

Thako Harris is a seasoned operations and resourcing veteran, with over 11 years of experience within the discipline of project management. His client roster includes recognizable brands such as: Subaru, Noom, GNC, Comcast. Most recently Thako led a department of eight senior project managers, focusing on process implementation, resource management, utilization and profitability, as well as managing his own portfolio of clients. With a broad range of career experiences, Thako brings a fresh, human perspective to agency operations.