TL;DR Every week estimate how much work is left on the project. If the amount of work remaining flat-lines instead of going down, stop what you're doing and keep asking why until the root problem is uncovered and resolved.

There are many many methodologies out there for tracking a project. And tools. I even built one (GamePlan). They all have their place and solve the project planning, scheduling and tracking problem in different ways. Especially GamePlan, because it's freakin' awesome.

But sometimes it is really useful to get back to basics, at least from a reporting and accountability point of view.

Sophisticated project management tools and task tracking tools are amazing at the amount of data and reports they can generate. They can give you an incredible insight into what is going on and why.

The emphasis there I think should be the why.

When you have a project manager overseeing a body of work, they are accountable to a operational or general manager. It is the project manager's job to report to their boss on the progress on the project. There's only three possible things to report:

  • the project is delivering more value than expected
  • the project is delivering the value as expected
  • the project is delivering less value than expected.

Those are intentionally broad terms, because value is a customer focused metric, and that changes depending on what you're producing and how you are delivering it to the customer. The value could be % profit increased for the customer, or number of features of a software product, or number of deliveries/week.

If you are running a fixed price project, or a deadline driven project, then delivery of value is very much tied to budget or a timeline.

The simplest thing to do is ask your project managers every single monday to give you a weekly report/spreadsheet/document that looks like this:

Date Goal Days Remaining Estimated Days Remaining
1 Jun 40 40
8 Jun 35 32
15 Jun 30 25
22 Jun 25 24
29 Jun 20 23
6 Jul 15 20
13 Jul 10 21
20 Jul 5 17
27 Jul 0 16

And include a chart like this:

Any time you see that green line creep above the blue line, that is the point to pull out your sophisticated task tracking tools you've been doing and ask WHY.

Why is our estimated time left so much more than the goal? How much have we spent? Can we afford to finish?

The solutions are endless, ranging from restructuring the team, to changing scope, to renegotiating with the customer.

At this point it is really easy to wave away such a simple metric as estimated time left, because it is so grossly inaccurate. But as a broad indicator of "is this project going okay, or is it not okay", it is really really useful.

The other reason it works so well is that in order for the project manager to come up with their estimates, they need to review the work remaining, talk with their team on how things are going, discuss road blocks, resource allocation and all the other detailed work that goes with project management.  

Just going back to basics and choosing a seemingly simple metric to report can make a really huge difference.