One of the lessons learned that I have gained throughout my project management career is that executives can only be effective when they have line of sight into their organization.  What I mean by line of sight is the ability to look through the layers of management below and decipher the exact status on progress within the organization.  This is indeed true for both the operational as well as the project side of the house.

There are several examples I can think of where the executives responsible were unable to make the right decisions because information was kept from them or worse they were given the wrong data.  One status report I saw submitted to an executive by a project manager was a 10 page detailed status update on activities. This was a document that was written with few bullet points, no graphs/charts, and little formatting.  One could only imagine the type of nightmare that awaited the project if the PM expected that the executive was going to read the detailed report and take action based on unorganized data.

Some project managers unfortunately do not understand that executives do not have the time to review detailed reports.  They are generally wired differently from project management practitioners.  The difference in approach is often seen by the project manager as either a lack of discipline on the part of the executive or a lack of commitment to the project.  However, what is really needed is to build a bridge of common understanding and effective communication between the executives responsible for making decisions and the project team members who are responsible for executing them.

The hard reality of what we do in project management is that so much of it is subjective.  This is not necessarily bad because if it were all objective, you could probably buy a cheap computer to do the job of a high-priced project manager.  So it is important to embrace the fact that this subjectivity is the reason for our existence in the profession.  More importantly, it is critical that project management practitioners develop a mechanism to control and monitor the execution that blends the objective and subjective nature of the projects.

While the traditional status report format that I mentioned may be useful for the project management practitioner, it is not useful for executives.  A better approach is to develop a dashboard report that can be shared with the executives. A dashboard is a graphical display of project status.  It typically contains information that outlines how the project is doing overall, along with progress on time and cost against baseline, issues that need to be resolved, and risks to be addressed.

A dashboard can be generated manually or using technology products.  It can be fed data via a manual process or it can be integrated with other enterprise systems. While this process of setting up the dashboard and deciding what goes in it is fairly important, I want to focus on a couple of core concepts to help outline the philosophy or stance that the project management practitioner needs to zoom in on.

Using an example to illustrate my points will allow me to explain myself better. Imagine for instance that you’re driving from your house to a meeting.  The location you’re going to is new to you, you’re leaving your house at an unusual time, and you’re not sure if your car is ready for the drive.  You start your car and off you go.  The first thing that you would do once you are on your way is to keep a close eye on the automobile’s dashboard to ensure that you factor in basic information about your drive.

First you look at the gas gauge to determine how much gas is in your tank.  If you know how far your meeting location is, then you can use an educated guess based on your knowledge of your car, or if you have newer technology, you can press a button to figure out whether you have enough gas for the journey.  This is certainly no different than trying to report on project costs against budget.  In this case, the project dashboard should be able to report not only how much money is left in the bank but also how much money was spent and how much is needed to complete the journey.

Another point of reference is the speedometer which will tell you how fast you’re going and by implication help you figure out how long the journey is based on certain basic assumptions such as traffic and the sort.  Again, in a project dashboard, the timeline progress should not simply reflect how fast you’ve been going but rather how long it will take you to get to your destination.  By factoring in the time, you can decide if additional speed is needed to get to your destination.  Keep in mind that the faster you go the more gas you burn.  This is exactly how the relationship between time and cost work on projects.

Another element is the various sensors that are installed in the dashboard such as the check engine light, oil change light, and other warning lights.  These act the same was as an issue identification process.  When the light comes on you have to determine if the issue is big enough to cause a change of plan such as stopping the journey, making a detour, or continuing along in the same manner.

The RPM gauge on the other hand, provides details on how hard your engine is working.  This acts like a risk register that helps you determine if something is about to happen to cause you a future issue.

Finally, for those who might have a GPS built into the dashboard, the system should tell you how well you’re doing as related to achieving reaching your destination.  This is very similar to reporting on your project scope along with your business objective.

The point of this extended example is to help provide a visual of how the dashboard needs to be set up and how the information generated out of the dashboard should be used.  While it is certainly nice to provide information of events that have occurred in the past, the true power of the dashboard is to help layout a tactical approach to monitoring and controlling the project. Additionally, it should be a fairly straightforward approach to explaining the status to the project executives.

It is worthwhile mentioning that dashboards come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  Dashboards can be developed for projects, operations, or the overall business strategy.  One of the most popular approaches to measuring progress against corporate strategy is the balanced scorecard (BSC) approach.  The BSC is effectively a strategic map along a dashboard that reports on progress related to the goals and objectives set by the organization.

On a closing note I want to emphasize the importance of standardization and consistency of approach across the enterprise.  It is critical that executives receive the same type of information, in the same format across projects, programs, or portfolios.  Otherwise they will have a very difficult time attempting to decipher project status.

If you have experience with dashboards I welcome your thoughts and input.