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The importance of project control in project management

Written 15 October, 2018, 4 minutes to read

Know your project onions – “project management” and “project control” are not the same thing. And without knowing the difference, you can’t improve the effectiveness of your work. At its simplest, project control is an essential component of project management and it needs to be implemented at every stage – from initiation to closeout. This article breaks down how project control fits into each stage of project management, as well as the tools you can use to repeatedly deliver successful, valuable projects.

What is project control?

Before we dive in, let’s get to grips with our terms (all definitions courtesy of the Association for Project Management):

  • Project – “The process by which projects are defined, planned, monitored, controlled and delivered so that agreed benefits are realised.”

  • Project management – “The management of a combination of numerous individual processes, many of which relate to the subsidiary discipline of project control.”

  • Project control – “The application of processes to measure project performance against the project plan, to enable variances to be identified and corrected, so that project objectives are achieved.”

Simply put, project management ensures the successful completion of a number of different processes, while project control makes sure those processes actually head in the right direction (to be classed as “successful”). It ensures projects are done correctly and the “right” projects are chosen in the first place.

Project control exists to answer three vital questions:

  • how much the project will cost
  • how long the project will take
  • what value or quality the project will deliver

In practical project management terms, these translate into controlling project scope, meeting quality requirements, keeping projects to schedule and budget, managing risks, identifying issues, and ensuring projects benefit the company.

A lot of that comes down to collecting and managing data, finding trends, forecasting outcomes, reporting on progress and actually actively putting learnings into practice. Without controlling for these, projects quickly become wildly ineffective and expensive.

How project control fits into project management

Now we know what we’re dealing with, let’s see how to practically apply project control throughout the project management cycle.

The planning phase

The first stage of project management is planning and outlining your fundamentals: the issues you need to solve, the people who need to be involved, the actual work you’ll do. You need to identify stakeholders and define project objectives that set the boundaries for project success.

Part of that success depends on providing realistic cost and time estimations, both of which form part of project control. So many projects fail simply because they underestimate time or money constraints, so you need to forecast these variables as tightly as possible. And the best way to do that is by analyzing performance data from similar past projects. In particular, take note of:

  • All the tasks involved in the project
  • How long each project phase took
  • Budget spend per individual task
  • How project activity was spread across your team
  • The billable to non-billable ratio of project work

We’ve written a walk-through on exactly how to create watertight project estimates. Just know that the whole endeavor doesn’t have to mean a load of extra work – project time tracking tools can now automatically collect and digest your project data for you.

The development phase

The build-up or development phase of project management is all about getting the ball rolling. This is where the team assembles, stakeholders meet and assignments are planned. And once again, project control is key to success. Your cost estimates become budgets and time estimates become schedules, and project control is responsible for four important aspects:

Planning/Scheduling: the beginning of a project plan and schedule, the accurate monitoring and reporting of scheduled work, and the rapid detection and correction of any “deviations” to bring your schedule back on-course.

Cost Control: monitoring expenses and performance, monitoring budget spend, and taking action to hit minimum costs

Cost Estimation: the foundation of cost control and cost management, predicting the quantities and prices for the resources required.

Cost and schedule risk analysis: an assessment of risk on the project’s schedule and cost. Analysis takes into account the predicted delivery date, the likelihood of meeting deadlines, and the recognition of risks to the project’s cost.

The implementation phase

On to putting your plan into action! While super rewarding, this stage comes with a lot of frustrations. You need to keep your team focused with clear agendas to make sure no one gets sidetracked. A lot of that depends on being able to accurately diagnose your team’s progress and activity.

Invest in a team management tool that lets you quickly identify time drains, quality issues and team allocation problems. In particular, make sure it shows you:

  • Individual and total employee capacity
  • Activity breakdown per employee
  • How long employees spend on each task
  • Hours worked per employee
  • Budget spend per employee

This information can help you pinpoint broken processes, overloaded employees and disruptive tasks. By monitoring this data, you can balance workloads, allocate project resources effectively and keep your team aligned with project priorities.

The closeout phase

You’ve finished the project! Surely that means the project control element is over? Not quite. You need to be able to review its total performance, understanding trends and processes that led to success so you can repeat them for future projects.

Did your team meet their objectives? Did they progress at the expected rate? Did you deliver a quality product and still stick to budget? Is there still work to do? Good project control allows you to appraise these points. So do a thorough debrief – compile performance data and break it down to the project task level to uncover new learnings.

You should charter exactly how your project transpired – where time was spent, where activity veered off course, and what limited productivity – and build effective measures into your new projects to control for them further.

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