Body of Knowledge

How a Dashboard Transformed Technical Leads

Alpha Corporation is an influential, complex regulatory organization where technical leads have been turned into effective project managers using a simple data-driven dashboard.  The corporation now consistently and quickly delivers value-added, low-risk software in support of its business mission.

On a daily basis, the senior Vice President (VP) of Technology meets with key project managers (PMs) to ensure that technical and other risks are actively mitigated, and appropriate trade-offs and decisions are made.  In addition, the VP regularly reminds his PMs to get their weekly status reports to his administrative assistant, using a designated format, and reporting risk and progress details following his guidance.  The frequent format changes for the weekly status reports has become a given among the managers.

The manual effort involved in collating the individual statuses, and making sure that appropriate categories of risks and accomplishments are consistently reported, is non-trivial.  To create an enterprise view of project status that includes not only the status of new development projects, but also that of maintenance projects and non-software initiatives, adds additional complexity to the weekly fire drill of status reporting in this organization.  The enterprise view is intended for the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and is used in his weekly project oversight meeting with senior managers. Due to time constraints, low risk projects are often excluded from the enterprise view, giving these projects low visibility.

Many PMs in this organization are talented technologists who have been promoted to management positions.  Most have not been trained in industry project management best practices. Having consistent project management artifacts such as project charters, updated risk logs, staffing plans, status reports, and project schedules in a standard tracking tool, is of secondary importance.  Many PMs believe that their projects are small enough that they can keep details in their heads, and still deliver software products on schedule.

How then can a simple dashboard to report status be transformational in the life of this organization?

Drive for Consistency and Predictability were Impetus for Positive Change

Getting project managers to consistently report their weekly status, finding a more effective way to give stakeholders the visibility they wanted into projects, and paving the way for a project oversight process that was better distributed, were high priority issues to be tackled at Alpha Corp.  This was my first assignment upon arrival as a change consultant there.

I gathered useful intelligence through discussions with key stakeholders including several project managers, the senior VP of Technology, and those who prepared the weekly reports. With the help of a colleague, I then surveyed available tools on the market that could meet the status reporting business objectives of this organization.  These business objectives included:

  • Reduce effort of project managers to update status information and give them control on what to report.
  • Standardize six key project management artifacts and leverage them in status reporting.
  • Standardize the status reporting itself.
  • Leverage existing systems and tools
  • Minimize custom software development, or modifications to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, for future maintainability.

New Status Reporting Tool was in Alpha Test within Six Weeks

Our research led us to decide to build the functionality we wanted using Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration platform, recently approved by senior management at Alpha Corp.

Within six weeks, our team of one full-time developer, one technical PM (allocated 10% to this project) and one part-time product manager had Release 1 of our Status Reporting Tool (SRT) in Alpha Test.  This first release offered a summary and detailed project dashboard that used four standard project artifacts as input (project charter, schedule, risk log, and status report).

The summary dashboard listed 1 line per development project, along with status indicators, expected release date, status of iterations, and date of last status update.  The detailed project dashboard included project sponsorship and leadership information, scope, expected benefits, release dates, key iterations, milestones, deliverables, accomplishments, goals for next week, key risks and actions.  Project requirements and quality control metrics were also accessible and viewable from the dashboard.

The dashboard project team worked with Alpha Corp. PMs and other stakeholders to load their project data into this tool.  Within 4 weeks, key project and initiative statuses reported to the Senior VP of Technology could be viewed using the dashboard.  The CTO of the organization saw a demonstration of this new capability and requested that all active projects and initiatives in his area of responsibility start reporting their status using the dashboard.

Enterprise Status Reporting now Took Hours Instead of Days

Release 2 and 3 of the dashboard followed Release 1, adding financial and staffing status to the dashboard. Task order tracking for contractors also became part of this tool, and PMs were automatically notified by the dashboard via email when a task order was about to expire. Staffing reports and metrics along multiple dimensions became available to management. Generating project and departmental organization charts could be accomplished at the push of a button.

Weekly enterprise status reporting now took a couple of hours instead of days.

The dashboard project created wins for stakeholders across the organization:

Win #1: Every project is now managed using at least six (6) standard, regularly updated artifacts: project charter, schedule, risk/issue log, staffing plan, financials, and weekly status report.

Win #2: Project managers are able to update their project status within minutes on a weekly basis.  The dashboard scrapes the six standard project artifacts to provide status updates on the dashboard.

Win #3: There is transparency, consistency, and predictability for projects across the organization.  Visibility encourages PMs to pay attention to sound project management practices.

Win #4: There has been no format change for weekly status reports for 2 years.  The dashboard provides a multi-layered and component view of project status.  The summary dashboard offers an at-a-glance view of schedule, budget, and risk indicators for new development and sustaining projects and non-software initiatives.  Each project dashboard provides details about key planned vs actual releases, milestones, deliverables, accomplishment this week vs goals for next week, and key risks/issues and dependencies.  Readers who are interested in additional drill-downs can view the full project schedule and risk log, look at detailed project metrics, staff and task order information.

Win #5: There is now a single repository of project information with real-time updates for management reporting and informed decision-making.

Win #6: The development of the dashboard minimizes custom coding by leveraging the out-of-the-box features of SharePoint.  This dashboard system is fully documented from a user’s and operational point of view, and is highly maintainable.

Win #7: The dashboard was created at a fraction of the typical cost of purchasing, implementing, and rolling out a comprehensive project portfolio management tool. The total cost of ownership was between 1/5 to 1/10th of the estimated cost quoted by market tool vendors. Because the dashboard took advantage of existing systems and tools in Alpha Corp, its adoption was relatively painless and quick.

Win #8: Best of all, the Alpha Corp dashboard enables PMs to focus their time and energy on what really matters: early delivery of low-risk software to their stakeholders, while offering transparency on the status of their weekly challenges, accomplishments, and goals for the next week.

Creating the dashboard is itself a Best Practice

The creation of the dashboard is in itself a best practice.  By “best practice”, we mean that the practice is high-leverage and is directly coupled to the bottom line performance of the organization, such as increasing customer satisfaction, reducing effort, and saving time.  And best practices can often be immediately implemented, independent of the process maturity level or infrastructure of a software organization.  By providing transparency on project progress and obstacles, the Alpha Corp dashboard enables stakeholders to take early corrective action, minimize rework, and improve the successful and timely execution of projects.

In this organization, the dashboard also paves the way for distributing the responsibility of project oversight from a single senior manager to a group of senior subject matter experts, who now participate in project reviews using information from the dashboard.  These project reviews serve as mentoring sessions to ensure that project risks are not overlooked and trade-off decisions are made appropriately.

Effective project oversight minimizes the key reasons for preventable project failure. By project failure we mean that a project has not met the user’s minimum requirements, is implemented too late, or has exceeded its budget by an unacceptable amount.  Effective project oversight addresses the following most frequent reasons for project failure at Alpha Corp:

  1. Unrealistic goals
  2. Unmanaged scope creep
  3. Inadequate domain knowledge
  4. Wrong skills set or inappropriate technology
  5. Poor project and stakeholder communications
  6. Untimely and ineffective decision-making
  7. Poor risk and dependency management
  8. Inadequate project planning
  9. Excessive defects and rework
  10. No defined acceptance criteria
  11. Unclear roles and responsibilities
  12. Inadequate resources to complete the project
  13. Poor focus.

The dashboard enables the Project Review Team in this organization to help PMs to focus on the six best practices for any projects, the same practices used in developing the dashboard itself:

BEST PRACTICE #1: get stakeholder buy-in with prototypes, and develop specific strategies to address key concerns early.

BEST PRACTICE #2: develop iteratively, delivering value-added functionality quickly, and get feedback promptly.

BEST PRACTICE #3: prioritize requirements where the priority order is the implementation order. Perform change control for non-trivial requirement changes and enhancements.

BEST PRACTICE #4: track progress and take early corrective actions.  Resolve issues, external dependencies, and risks to closure, escalating proactively.

BEST PRACTICE #5: continuously verify quality and perform architecture, design and code reviews as appropriate.

BEST PRACTICE #6: manage configuration items throughout the project lifecycle.

The Alpha Corp dashboard was accepted with enthusiasm after a smooth pilot, and went into full production on schedule.  No significant defects have been identified following the rollout.  A key finding from an outside strategy assessment of this organization was that “this dashboard was a world class tool” to provide transparency into projects and encourage consistency.

The dashboard promoted sound project management practices and provided effective status reporting and predictability as by-products.  This dashboard changed the culture of the technology department at Alpha Corp. 


R
ita Hadden Retains Copyright

Rita Hadden specializes in culture change, software best practices, process improvement, and project management.  She has provided leadership, coordination, and mentoring for over 150 complex projects for more than 45 organizations in the private and public sectors.  Her experience includes over 35 years working worldwide with software professionals at all levels.

 

Contact her at rhadden@gmail.com

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