C. Myblog

Project Management: 180,000 Definitions of On Track

April 5, 2017

Have you ever noticed how projects start out Domino Effectso well with everything on track until suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, there’s a giant problem? The project is unexpectedly off track and you’re scrambling to slow the resulting domino effect.

What happened? It’s likely that things weren’t nearly as on track as you were led to believe. Wouldn’t it have been great to know all this earlier?

Good project management dictates that project communication includes regular updates on status – for tasks as well as projects as a whole. As long as you open the email update and it says “on track” you’re good to go, right? If you, like many others, find it’s not that easy, read on.

What’s on track to one person is rarely the same as what’s on track to another. There are approximately 180,000 definitions of on track (which may be a slight exaggeration). Here are 5 of them:

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Like unexploded mines, if these inaccurate status assessments aren’t ferreted out early, they can blow a project up.

Status updates aren’t enough to increase a project’s chance for success – they must be quality updates. How do you get quality updates? Foster these organizational skills and habits:

  • Overcome the fear of hurting people’s feelings or making someone look bad
  • Ask challenging/probing questions – don’t go on autopilot
  • Talk about it – it’s ineffective to ask challenging/probing questions via email
  • If something doesn’t seem right, keep digging

It’s a shared responsibility. The commitment to reveal hidden issues must be supported at all levels; task owners, project managers, business owners, and other stakeholders.

The truth is that many people lack the proper mindset to accurately assess whether their own—or others’—tasks, milestones, and projects are on or off track. The mindset needs to be one of truly thinking through what is happening, identifying concerns, and discussing roadblocks. If you’re really firing on all cylinders, people will actually think through and voice their forward-looking concerns, not just the ones they’re facing at the moment.

This mindset can be cultivated by asking open-ended questions that are devised to reveal potential problems. When you’re asking about critical tasks and milestones, especially complex ones, the answers should be suitably detailed. A project update should not be a simple “Yep, all good!” Much like asking a youngster what happened in school today and hearing the answer, “nothing,” is a cue to dig deeper. For example:

  • Can you walk me through it?
  • What can you envision that might go wrong?
  • I’m not sure I understand.  Can you explain?
  • How many hours do you think are still left on this task?
  • What could get in the way?
  • Where are we most vulnerable on this project?
  • Can you show me where we stand with the vendor?
  • How likely is it that this milestone will be completed on schedule?

Brainstorm your own questions to draw out the details and make a practice of handling the off track items in a positive, solutions-oriented way.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in getting quality status updates is the reluctance to hurt people’s feelings or make someone look bad by asking questions that reveal something that is off track. In fact, asking challenging questions in a matter-of-fact way without alienating team members is a crucial skill. This is part of the art of project management.

Even if you have the most organized project planning process, the best project plan, and perfectly structured project meetings, inaccurate status assessments can still jeopardize projects. Building the organizational skills and habits to support quality project updates is an important key to keeping projects truly on track.

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