Project Controls Simplified: How To Manage And Control Your Projects

Mark Stettner

Being a digital project manager, you might wonder why you’d have to concern yourself with project controls. You’re thinking: Last time you checked in, everyone seemed confident…

The truth is, projects rarely go as planned. Things change on a constant basis, whether it’s your team members, client expectations or unanticipated complexities that affect your planning. While it’s important to have a detailed Statement of Work, an accurate Budget Estimate, and a Project Plan to keep everyone on the same page, as priorities shift during the project, you need project controls to manage the changes to the working guidelines you initially laid out.

Effectively setting up a project control process will enable you to keep an eye on cost and schedule as things shift and evolve throughout the project. It’s the key to navigating your project through rough waters—and it will save your project from going off the rails.

A project control system aims to minimize the gap between project planning and project execution in order to achieve project aims, i.e., cost, time, and content.

In the project lifecycle that acts as a high-level framework for all projects, project controls are a critical component of the Monitoring & Controlling phase.

The biggest misconception about project controls is probably that you, as the DPM, need to control (a.k.a. micromanage) your team at all times in order to get the right results. However, controlling in the form of micromanaging doesn’t leverage your team’s strengths and risks taking the project off track.

In fact, project controls are often invisible to the team. Project controls aren’t about directly controlling the work or the people who do it; it’s about maintaining control over the structure and flow of the project itself.  Project controls are a basic element of any project that can help anticipate problems and opportunities.

In practice, project controls focus on monitoring relevant project KPIs such as cost and schedule, which ultimately tie in with scope and delivery. For example, if you are ahead of schedule and/or below cost, you can spend budget on more polish for a project to enhance the quality. If the budget is looking tight, the info from your project controls will inform the adjustments you make.

As a digital project manager, chances are you don’t work with a Project Controller—you are the Project Controller. You are responsible for cost, schedule, and scope.

This famous conundrum of “you can’t have all three, so pick two” can get you into sticky situations. You’ve undoubtedly had conversations like these:

– “Surely the client would be much happier, if we could have just two more days to finesse this…”

This balancing act is one of the hardest tasks for us as project managers. On the one hand, we have to deliver a product that makes the client happy. On the other hand, we should always be behind the team and allow them to put their best work forward.

Project controls allow you to go into these conversations well-prepared. When done right, you will have the perfect tools to make informed decisions on the project for an optimal balance between cost, schedule, and quality. Instead of making the cost and time constraints the team’s problem, as a DPM, we are the facilitators that need to use these levers and constraints as a tool to get the project to the finish line.

As project managers, we follow a daily routine to ensure the project stays on track. This requires that we know what’s going on. Sounds simple—in reality it is a constant cycle of processing information, planning, and making decisions.

To proceed, following these four essential phases in a project controlling process:

Know where your project is at with regard to the project plan, anticipated output, and overall trajectory. Get under the hood. Ask questions to ensure you understand the current status. When you evaluate, use project Status Reports and metrics as a basis for decisions.

Once you have a plan, implement your changes. This includes letting the client know what’s changing and making sure the team is fully informed and onboard. Know the impact to budget and timeline, and make the appropriate adjustments.

As a PM you’re the glue that holds the team together. Ensure that you distribute your knowledge to the team so that everyone gets the full picture. Ensure the client is in the loop and that information flows to where it is needed. Set reminders and do follow-ups both internally and externally to avoid slippage.

From the beginning of a project, you should be thinking about how you need to approach reporting. Try and utilize any of your existing project management software. This could include time-tracking tools, as much as possible for your report generation. Ideally, report generation becomes a routine for you (not a tedious task that might fall through the cracks).

Choosing the correct level of reporting will making confident decision-making possible.

As PM, it’s up to us to decide if we want to to expose budgets and give full transparency on the numbers. It is usually better to keep at least a slight buffer as opposed to exposing the full picture.

A Status Report contains all relevant metrics of an ongoing project and ensures all involved parties have a clear understanding of where the project is at.

Setting up a project management Status Report is an invaluable step to ensure clients are informed on important project metrics such as costs, timing, risks, and blockers. Exposing the right amount of information regularly will ensure clients feel involved in the project and make tough conversations easier.

Some clients expect to see detailed hourly reports, while others are ok with a higher level picture. If it’s unclear, start at a high level with what’s easy for you to manage while still detailed enough to be useful to you and the client. You can always add more detail, if requested.

To establish a proper reporting cadence, aim for weekly project Status Reports. They don’t need to be long—30 minutes might be plenty—but it’s an important aspect of the client relationship and establishes trust and transparency. Being consistent with Status Reports is key for transparency and effective management. It’s essential to have an updated Status Report ready in each weekly meeting. Make sure your client understands the content of the report—walk them through the information so they can explain it to their colleagues down the line.

Status meetings are the perfect opportunity for some face time with your client. If possible, have these meetings in person: go for a coffee, and develop a relationship. Don’t just talk about the project; instead, show an interest in the other things happening with your client’s company, and share some highlights of yours. It might open business opportunities that you haven’t even thought of.

A Change Request (CR) outlines and defines a change in scope that occurred in the project, as compared to the initial Statement of Work or estimate that was provided. For example: additional revisions, more design work, or new features that need to be completed to ensure project success.

A Change Request should always be formalized and acknowledged by both parties to ensure everyone’s on the same page. Once identified, map out the description, impacts on budget, impacts on timeline, and send to the client.

While it’s a common misconception that Change Requests are negative, they are simply a part of effective project management for communicating that the anticipated scope has changed. Especially when this happens later on in projects, these scope change decisions can be made with confidence and will result in better outcome. It’s essential to educate the client on the Change Request process early on so everyone’s familiar with it.

A big part of project controls has to do with controlling scope, and Change Requests are essential to this process. In order to educate everyone on the process, don’t shy away from issuing Change Requests, even for seemingly simple items with minor impacts. Change requests with no budget impact help enforce the process and keep everyone aligned on decisions.

A RAID log is a tool for capturing and managing risks. It’s a risk management document where you record risks, assumptions, issues, and dependencies.

General Status Reports usually have a high-level focus, while RAID logs takes things a step further, focusing specifically on risk management. It’s a document that holds the team and stakeholders accountable by accurately tracking risks along with assigned actions.

You should start a RAID log at the beginning of the project and update it in regular meetings with the client’s input. It’s important that decisions are also documented in this document. It should include:

RAID logs are particularly helpful for projects in complex environments with many stakeholders, such as third parties, steering committees, IT departments, or contractors.

In my experience, a well-established and consistent project control process is the backbone for delivering projects on time and on budget. It also gives the team peace of mind that you, as their project manager, have got their back.

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