One of the more difficult aspects of managing projects is to find the right balance between spending time on accountability, reporting and control or spending time on getting things done (progress).

Spending time on planning and reporting activities means that you and your team have less time available for ‘normal’ work. The problem is that you just can not ignore the need for control from your projects sponsor (or project board), but also can not fully give in to their needs because nothing would get done. It gets even more difficult when issues arise and the projects progress is stalled. The more uncertainties arise, the greater the need for control, the less time is available for getting work done.

The chart to the left shows the relation between time/effort spend on keeping control (horizontal) en time spend on production/progress (vertical).  The more time is spend on control, the less time becomes available for getting things done. (With ‘time spend’ I mean time spend by both project manager and team members).

The problem is that there is no fixed formula to determine the sweet spot between control and progress. It all depends on the projects environment and also has a relationship with the project managers personality.

Some action-oriented junior project managers tend to focus on getting things done and ignore the project board’s needs (point 1). If the project is small and predictable this shouldn’t have to be a problem. It becomes a matter of trust (a believe that things are going to be alright even though the progress isn’t made visible by plans and reports).
When the project becomes more complex, when the time between conception and delivery becomes too long, trust doesn’t cut it anymore and more reporting is demanded. This even might result in a killed project even though real progress was made.

Sometimes a junior project manager is more focused on methods and less on results (point 2). I’ve seen this happen on a project where PRINCE2 was followed to the letter, creating elaborate progress reports, while the actual project’s progress was severely constrained.

In my personal opinion there is no sweet spot in the middle (point 3). I believe that the project manager should continuously work on the projects effectiveness towards point 4,  reducing overhead and increasing the amount of time spend on creating solutions, while still meeting the project board’s demand for control.

Though there is no fixed formula I have a couple of tips.

Fit for purpose

The projects control/progress balance isn’t fixed. It’s normal that the need for control is higher at the project start, end and during phase transitions. Also it’s quite normal for projects to have easy and difficult times. It is wise to alter the amount of reporting when needed. Do not stick to the initial communication plan but discuss the reporting needs and change when necessary.

Delegate tasks

The number of teams and team leads should not only be determined by ‘span of control’. It is wise to determine the amount of attention the project board needs and determine the amount of time the project manager has left for operational project management. If there isn’t enough time to manage the project properly, hire an additional team lead or delegate more tasks without adding additional management.

Build trust

The greater the trust, the less need for reporting and accountability. An excellent manner to create trust is to deliver the project results in increments (Scrum) to demonstrate actual progress and keep progress transparent (lessons learned, burndown charts, velocity).

Synchronize operational and strategic controls

It is smart to synchronize the need for operational control (by the project management team) and strategic control (by the project board) so that both needs are based on the same data. I’ve often seen that the project board reporting demands are difficult to implement because these demands need additional administration. It is wise to discuss the reporting needs with the project board and decide on a common definition of status and progress that suits both needs. Also here I’ve some excellent experiences with some of the Scrum reports (especially project process based on velocity).

Informal progress reports

Another smart thing to do is to discuss the project status and progress informally and on a regular basis. In my experience the project board has much more questions than can be answered within a document or even during a project board meeting. This also works two ways, it reduces the need for an elaborate progress report (thus saves time) but also increases the project ownership. That is very important because an involved project board increases the chance on success substantially.