Do Project Managers Need KPIs

Key Performance Indicators, they’re not something a project manager needs to worry about right? They’re just a buzzy term used by senior management to “get things done”?

Wrong.

KPI’s can be the project manager’s best friend and enable you to show delivery success, give team credit and allow you to investigate areas where support is needed most even at the last minute.

In other words the right collection of KPIs and the ability to interpret them correctly can give project managers the opportunity to change a downward trend into an upward one.

In Bernard Marr’s book “25 Need to Know Key Performance Indicators” he postulates the term “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and this rings true at every level of a business.

Don’t Over Do It

One of the downsides of having every conceivable piece of data at your fingertips is overdoing it. I’ve seen colleagues who take this to the next level. They produce reams of paperwork and spreadsheets – rather than having the right information to make the right decisions.

In the first instance this looks great to managers. “Look, Nikki is staying late again to go through those numbers, she must be working really hard”.

The reality is Nikki is slowing dying of “Death by Metrics”, drowning in sea of numbers when just a couple of key metrics would do. The output from too much information in these situations cloud the issues rather than highlight them, often lead to a burnt-out individual and are nearly always subject to the law of diminishing return.

Keep it Together

Having the right KPI’s is the first step. Remember to ensure you keep the KPIs together in one place. This will help you find them quickly, present them easily, interpret them rapidly and worst case if you’re off sick, allow a team member or colleague to pick them up without having to look in multiple locations.

Normally the best way to keep metrics together is creating a dashboard. I’ve used both Confluence and Google Docs for this, though there’s plenty of other options out there. I prefer the Google Docs interface, but Confluence allows smoother integration to the business with the adoption of JIRA.

The key feature of both these systems is their collaborative nature. Essentially anything which isn’t collaborative (like Excel or Word Documents) needs to be discounted because…

Own The Process, Free the Numbers

If you’re heading up a department make sure you own the process but let people own their departmental statistics.

This has a three-fold benefit. First off it reduces the amount of work you have to do, secondly it allows you to concentrate on looking after the KPI action points (and all the housekeeping associated with making those actions happen), and thirdly it gives team members ownership of their part of the business.

As discussed in the “Getting Team Buy In” article (aka the command and conquer article) this is a really good way of allowing staff to be masters of their own destiny and contribute to the success of the company as a whole.

What to Measure?

Although Death by Metrics is a risk, having too much information for your KPIs is better than having none.

KPI’s have to measure what matters. Do not retro-fit specific KPIs to your business. You risk implementing someone else’s vision as a goal for your business. Instead put together a business strategy and define what that success looks like on paper (remember though “success” to a finance director may look quite different to that of a programming director).

The KPIs should then use that strategy as a baseline to measure against. Ideally the strategy needs to be driven holistically or chaired by an active managing director or even an external consultant to avoid those with the biggest axe to grind or loudest voice dominating the roadmap.

While KPIs specific to the digital sphere will be handled in a separate article, KPIs are like a tailored suit, they’re all unique in their own way but equally they do all look pretty much the same.

Bernard Marr suggests at a minimum your KPIs need to cover the four pillars of any business by measuring and understanding in some form:

  • Customers
  • Financial performance
  • Internal processes
  • Employees

Ideally within your strategy all of these will be mentioned, but it will be the idiosyncratic form of each of these which will shape the KPI dashboard for your business.

How often you measure your KPIs very much depends on:

  • The KPI being measured;
  • The amount of work it takes to get the information;
  • The benefit that additional information will give you over the last measurement;

For instance, if you’re measuring the amount of work completed on a project and the developers update their time-sheets at the end of the week, running a daily report on this is likely to get you little additional information than a weekly review.

Conversely leaving this report for a month could mean it is difficult to manage overruns, especially on short run projects.

Keep on Measuring

Once you’ve found the measurement rhythm which works best, the next step is to keep on measuring. Many companies give up too quickly as they’re either spending too much time extracting KPIs or are fire fighting other issues and drop them.

Stick with it, KPIs are not just for the here and now; over a number of months they can be used as a tool to look for long term trends – which in themselves can be used when reviewing strategic objectives.

In Conclusion

This article is not condoning management by numbers. Far from it. KPIs are by their definition merely indicators for you to use to increase company performance; numbers can often be misleading or interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the person who is reading them and their agenda.

Nothing beats good management so do not use the output of a KPI dashboard as the final answer. Instead use it as a starting point to ask questions about the business based on the overall strategic intention of the company.

Remember there’s real internal (employees) and external (customers) stakeholders behind the numbers and the classic quote I had from the marketeer Felix Clarke when I started my first business was “delivering stuff is easy, it’s people who are the challenge”.

If something doesn’t look right (or looks too good to be true), either take ownership and find out why or empower a team member to do it for you. Once you’ve ascertained what’s gone wrong (or right) remember record it in a lessons learnt document to avoid (or promote) the set of circumstances you’re investigating.

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