4 Project Tracking Best Practices

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Without project tracking, you’re flying blind. Use these best practices to regain control.

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The older you get, the more you realize there’s a saying for just about everything, especially in project management.

For example, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” which has likely been cited in a million PowerPoint presentations and even graced the Twitter account of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

That quote is management thought leader Peter Drucker’s unambiguous endorsement for project tracking.

To phrase the message in a different (but far less catchy) way: How do you know how your projects are doing between kickoff and completion if you don’t track key metrics? You don’t.

So unless you’re content embarking on projects and then spending months and millions to find out whether they’re successful or not, you need to track your projects while they’re underway.

But what do you track, and how do you track it?

Project management software can provide oversight and transparency into project performance, but you have to be purposeful in how you use it. That means capturing baseline performance metrics to compare later performance to, identifying and communicating goals and how success will be measured, and tracking a limited number of key performance indicators (KPIs) to draw actionable insights from.

Project tracking basics

When it comes to project tracking, you should be concerned about three primary things:

  • Is this project going to finish on time?
  • Is this project going to finish within budget?
  • Is this project going to deliver a valuable end result?

The key is knowing what to look for during the life of the project to determine whether you’re on track to find satisfactory answers to those questions.

4 best practices to keep your projects on track

According to the 2018 PMI Pulse of the Profession report, almost 10% of every dollar spent by companies is wasted on poor project performance. Businesses that follow the four project tracking best practices outlined below will save money and improve project quality and on-time/on-budget delivery.

1. Use your project management software

Just as accounting software is a major help for business owners once they’ve entered all of their financial data, project management software can make project tracking a cinch once you’ve entered accurate data about your schedule and budget.

It may take some additional work up front, but it will ultimately save you significant time throughout the life of the project through project status dashboards.

For example, here’s a tutorial on how you can set up dashboard widgets to track almost anything in Wrike, the second most popular project management software solution according to our Top 20 report:

Dashboard Widgets in Wrike (Source)

Once you’ve laid the groundwork and entered the data—e.g., your project budget and costs—the dashboards will quickly let you know how you’re doing throughout the life of the project.

Here’s an example of a dashboard showing task status, issue status, timesheet summary, milestone status, budget status, and overdue items in Zoho Projects:

a dashboard showing task status, issue status, timesheet summary, milestone status, budget status, and overdue items in Zoho Projects.

A dashboard showing multiple statuses in Zoho Projects (Source)

This article takes a deeper look into tracking success metrics for scope, schedule, budget, business goals, and customer satisfaction.

2. Be selective with your KPIs

Unless you’re a massive enterprise with virtually limitless resources, you can’t afford to try to track every single KPI under the sun.

According to a Villanova University blog post:

“Each project manager typically has different objectives, and metrics that work well for one business might not work for another. For that reason, it’s important to tailor metrics and reporting to your business’s unique needs.”

While it may seem obvious, your KPIs need to be quantifiable. It would be nice to be able to track the precise impact that the lunar cycle has on customer sentiment of your business, but that’s probably not realistic in the year 2019 (maybe in 2025 it will be, though).

Selecting the right KPIs depends on your specific business goals, but here are some tips to guide you:

  • Interview all key stakeholders to determine the business benefits they hope to get out of the project. This will give you an idea of which KPIs will help measure your progress toward those goals (e.g., if a manager wants a project to increase profitability, you can track ROI).
  • Choose KPIs that you can actually measure. Eliminate KPIs right off the bat that you can’t actually track because of limited resources or unclear, undefined goals.
  • Pick KPIs that can be combined with other indicators to paint a picture of your overall business trajectory (e.g., if you track time-to-market, resource utilization, and issue resolution time, you’ll come away with a three-dimensional diagnosis of the overall efficiency of your team).
  • Distribute your shortlist of proposed KPIs to key stakeholders to get their feedback and final validation.

3. Determine baseline and target goals

Choosing the right KPIs to track is a great start, but how do you know whether the numbers are good or bad? By determining a baseline and targets.

Start with the three pillars of scope, budget, and schedule, and be specific. The more projects your team has under your belt the better off you are, because you can use historical data to come up with accurate expectations for this project.

  • Scope. Interview all stakeholders and have a project kickoff meeting to determine and document the project scope. Depending on the formality of your project and the organizations involved, you may even have a statement of work from the customer that explicitly details the scope for you.
  • Budget. A clear project scope will lead to a realistic project budget. Use the budget management feature in your project management software to make sure that everything is accounted for. In this video, PMP Jennifer Bridges offers seven tips on establishing a project budget.

How to Create a Project Budget (Source)

  • Schedule. Historical data will help you create a realistic schedule. If, in a previous project, you estimated two weeks for market research and it took a month, don’t keep expecting things to change by estimating two weeks again. Also, don’t forget to build slack into the system. Plan at 80% utilization to get 100% of the planned work done on time.

Once you have these specific numbers and they’ve been approved by all key stakeholders, put them under change control (ensure that these numbers can’t be changed without appropriate reasoning and proper approval).

4. Establish a plan to rein in troubled projects

You could have a supercomputer tracking your projects, but it won’t make a difference if you don’t do something with the information you’re getting.

If you select a few good KPIs to track and establish realistic baselines, your project management software will let you know when things are veering off track.

But your project management software can’t rein in the budget or give your team a pep talk. Perhaps the most important piece of project tracking is acting on the numbers that you’ve worked hard to track.

If you’re on track or even ahead of target, that’s great. You can reallocate resources to other projects or expand the current project to add value. But if you’re exceeding scope, going over budget, falling behind schedule, or otherwise not on track to achieve the KPIs you’re tracking, action is necessary.

Gartner recommends the following three-pronged approach for managing troubled projects (full article available to Gartner clients):

  1. Encourage early problem identification and escalation. In other words, communicate with necessary stakeholders as soon as you identify signs of trouble so that a recovery plan can be initiated, rather than sitting quietly hoping things get better on their own.
  2. Address project trouble systematically. Just as you would plan a fresh project, establish a recovery plan and regularly check the recovery status against a revised project schedule.
  3. Enable effective project termination. Know when to say that a project has gone from troubled to hopeless, rather than continuing to burn time, money, and resources on a losing cause. Consult all stakeholders to determine thresholds for project termination.

What are your project tracking troubles?

What are your biggest project tracking problems? Share them in the comments or find me on Twitter (@AndrewJosConrad) so we can work on finding solutions together.

And follow our project management blog to keep all of your project management skills sharp, from dealing with scope creep to improving collaboration. Here are a few project tracking articles to get you started:


Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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