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The 4 Primary Steps to Effective Project Performance Management
”That which gets measured gets improved” —Peter Drucker
The TL;DR Key Takeaways:
The What: Performance Management is the key function of a project manager during the Execution Phase of a project. It involves overseeing and controlling the direction of the project to ensure efficient development of the project deliverables.
The Why: Without a logical and systematic approach to Performance Management, a project can quickly spiral out of control, forcing the project manager to react to issues rather than proactively getting out ahead of them. A project can and will fail without efficient and effective project oversight.
The How: Every project is different, so will require different levels of Performance Management formality and rigor. In general, however, the project manager should create a logical, systematic, and effective means of directing the work (i.e., prioritizing and tasking team activities), monitoring the status and trajectory of the work (both qualitatively and quantitatively), making changes to the baseline and/or implementation plans as required to ensure the project stays on track, and documenting and reporting status, trajectory, and risks & issues.
An Introduction to Performance Management:
It goes by various names: Project Controls, Project Oversight, Integration Management, Implementation Management, Execution Management, Planning/Doing/Checking/Adjusting (PDCA), Directing-Monitoring-Controlling-Reporting (DMC-R), or just plain “Performance Management.” Regardless of nomenclature, however, the goal is always the same: keep your project on track and out of trouble.
As the project manager, your job during the execution phase is to ensure that the project team is focused on the right tasks in the correct order. Yes, you have a schedule of planned activities, but those are generally items that are 1-3 weeks in duration. On a day-to-day basis, you need to ensure all the sub-tasks and activities are properly prioritized and assigned, either directly by yourself or by your team leads.
Your job as PM is also to fully understand how that current work in progress is proceeding, where the project is headed overall, risks that are coming, and issues that have arisen. And of course, you need to make all necessary changes to ensure the project stays on track. Oh, and don’t forget that you need to keep everyone aware of the project status and prevent any misunderstanding and surprises with your stakeholders.
In other words, to properly manage the day-to-day execution of your project, you need a systematic approach to directing, monitoring, controlling, and reporting. Approaching project execution in a logical and structured manner like this can greatly increase your likelihood of success.
Look, a project manager is accountable for managing the project's resources (including people), time, and budget. This involves making sure that people and money are allocated appropriately, and that project activities are carried out efficiently and effectively. The project manager must also monitor progress and identify any issues or potential threats that could impact the project's success; the PM may need to make changes to the project plan depending on a variety of factors. This may involve revising the project schedule, adjusting resource allocations, or even changing project scope (usually as a last resort). The project manager must also communicate any changes to project stakeholders and document all changes to ensure that everyone is on the same page and aware of not only the current status of the project, but also it’s trajectory, known problems, and planned corrective actions.
Overall, Performance Management is a critical function that enables project managers to successfully execute projects. By providing direction, monitoring progress, controlling and changing the project, and reporting and documenting project status, the project manager can ensure that the project stays on track and meets its goals and objectives.
How to Perform Effective Performance Management:
Okay, that’s the need for systematic performance management. How do we actually do it in practice? Typically, there are four primary steps that are undertaken continuously during the execution of the project. As shown in the diagram above, we describe them as sequential in nature, but the truth is you do them in a parallel, overlapping fashion, over and over. These steps are:
Direct Project Activities. If we’ve created our baseline properly, we’ll have a solid integrated master schedule to work from. That schedule, however, won’t include every single task and low-level action required. For instance, a 2-week-long activity in the master schedule might be “paint the fence,” but the actual tasks of of that painting activity might include things like stripping off the old paint, buying new paint, sanding and applying primer, applying 2-3 coats of paint, and clean-up. The short-term identification, prioritization, preparation, logistics, and assignment of these tasks are key responsibilities of yourself and your team leads. A schedule may describe the big-picture roadmap to get from A to B, but this “Direct” step is how you steer the project bus around every corner of the road on the way to successful conclusion.
Monitor Project Status. Good project managers direct the work. Great project managers constantly follow up. We’re not talking about micromanagement, but you must ensure the work is being performed correctly, progress is being made per plan, and that issues are being identified. As a colleague of mine, Bill McVeigh, likes to say, “Inspect what you expect, or you’ll lose respect.” This “inspection” is typically done two ways: qualitatively and quantitatively. The former is done by meeting with your team members regularly, as well as physically getting out and seeing the work yourself. The latter is done more formally, including measuring progress against schedule and budget, collecting test data & signing off on completed deliverables, and performing macro analyses like earned value management to ensure the project’s trajectory is sound. We also identify and assess new and existing project risks formally during this “Monitor” step.
Control Project Trajectory. The third step of Performance Management is “controlling” the work, which really just means making any and all changes to the Baseline or Implementation/Execution Plans as required to ensure the project stays on track to a successful outcome. Some of these changes may be minor and informal (e.g., day-to-day taskings), but others will be significant enough to require formal change control. The goal of this step is ensure small problems and issues identified in the previous Monitoring step are addressed before they grow into big, costly, and sometimes insurmountable issues later on.
Report on Project Status. The fourth primary step of Performance Management is about documenting and reporting on the project. This includes capturing recent progress and achieved milestones in writing, determining the current baseline state of the project, forecasting the future trajectory of the project, and documenting the current risk and issue state of the project. The goal is complete, open, and transparent communication with both your team and key stakeholders about the state of the project. Accomplishment of the objective measures of project success are the primary goal of any project, but you must also address the subjective measures as well or you will not succeed as a project. And the first step to this is ensuring no surprises with your key stakeholders.
Depending on the duration and complexity of your project, you may cycle through these four steps just a few times and complete the project, or, like we did on my last project, continue this 4-step process regularly for years as you design, build, and test your project’s deliverables. You may also scale down or up the requirements and methods of each step, again depending upon the current needs and stage of your project. But the key takeaway is this: every project, small or large, will require you, the PM, to perform some type of of Performance Management. This in fact is your key responsibility during the Execution phase of a project; you need to apply and provide systematic and proactive Performance Management, meaning Directing, Monitoring, Controlling, and Reporting on the work.
A Real-World Example of Performance Management:
On my last big project, we embraced this 4-step process and found it highly effective. Sure, we encountered problems during the course of the project (every project will have challenges), but employing a regular and systematic approach to overseeing the execution of the project plan was one of our secrets to success. Further, we employed this process in various ways on the project, from the informal low level (i.e., day-to-day) up to a very formal macro level (i.e., month-to-month):
Day-to-Day Performance Management. On a day-to-day basis during construction, we held informal stand-up-type “plan of the day,” or POD, meetings to ensure the entire team was on the same page and marching in lockstep with each other; we did quick verbal recaps of that day’s planned tasks, talked about how the work was progressing and identified potential risks to the work, made last-minute changes to the plan as required, and, at the end of the day, documented the work in log books.
Week-to-Week Performance Management. On a week-to-week basis, we conducted semi-formal status meetings with individual team members and groups on the project. These meetings focused on that week’s progress, what was upcoming, issues that were cropping up, what needed to be changed in real-time, and so on. To facilitate these discussions, we required all the participants, from technicians to engineers and scientists, to fill out a short online report on their respective areas at the end of every week. These reports were then read by project management and discussed with team members at the start of the next week.
Month-to-Month Performance Management. Finally, we performed a more formal version of the four steps of Performance Management on a month-to-month basis. Early every month, myself and my project controls manager would meet with each senior technical lead. We called these “CAM” meetings, for control account manager, as each technical lead was also responsible for hers or his area’s budgets, schedules, personnel, and risk management. We used a formal agenda for these 1-2 hour long meetings, and we covered everything from recent progress and technical status, to formal plans for upcoming work, to evaluating earned value management metrics, identifying risks, and so forth. These individual meeting notes were then used as the basis for creating a formal report that was delivered to our key stakeholders every month; by way of these CAM meetings, we literally and formally Directed, Monitored, Controlled, and Reported on the Project every month.
The Bottom Line:
Every project will be different and necessarily require different levels of rigor, formality, and frequency of Performance Management. But all projects require a proactive Project Manager at the helm, Directing the work, Monitoring the work, Controlling the work, and Reporting on the work. Doing this systematically and proactively will keep your project on a path toward success. Failing to do this, however, means that you will forever be in a “catch-up” reactive mode, which means you’re not truly in control of your project. And if you’re not in control, who exactly is?