If there’s one thing that keeps project managers up at night, it’s the possibility of a project going off the rails—causing missed deadlines and cost overruns.
According to Wellingtone’s The State of Project Management 2022, just 43% of project managers said they always complete their projects within budgets. An even lower percentage of project managers (29%) said their projects are completed on time.
Implementing project controls can help safeguard your projects from burning cash and spiraling out of scope.
What is project control in project management?
Project control is the process of collecting and evaluating data related to costs and schedules to measure project progress.
It involves understanding the project goals, defining criteria by which progress can be evaluated, monitoring performance, and taking corrective action when needed to ensure that the project remains on track.
In his book, Practical Project Control Manager Handbook, Jeremie Averous says, “The main objective of project control is to enable the project manager and sponsor to make decisions derived from an accurate knowledge and understanding of reality, with the aim to reach a successful project outcome.”
Because integrated project control is needed to make data-driven and reality-based decisions, it must be implemented at every phase in the project life cycle.
Think about it. When you create a project scope and cost estimates at the beginning of a project, you are setting controls that prevent it from veering off course and ensure it’s delivered on time and within budget.
What are project control plans?
When it comes to implementing project control, your team might have different thoughts and ideas on how to approach things. That’s where a project control plan comes in.
A project control plan provides the framework or set of guidelines on how to control a project. It includes specific processes, systems, and tools the project controller will use. The purpose is to promote a common understanding of workflows and techniques to control the project.
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What is a project control system?
A project control system is the people, processes, and tools that help identify and communicate metrics of project performance (in terms of schedule and cost).
Here’s why you should implement a project control system
A project control system is like a radar for your projects—immediately after a risk is spotted, you are made aware of it.
Project control is important because it provides data needed for decision-making and the success of the project.
By measuring project performance against baselines, you can minimize and prevent variance in costs and schedules and arrive at the outcome you want to achieve.
Some examples of project controls
From holding daily stand-ups to get updates to adjusting the project schedule to avoid missing a deadline, project managers are constantly exercising project control. Here are some additional examples:
Reviewing the project schedule
At the beginning of a project, you estimated that it would take five people working eight hours a day to finish laying the foundation of a construction project. But halfway through the task, someone calls in sick and the schedule is thrown off course. As a result, you’re forced to extend the schedule by two days ( using buffer time) to make up for lost time.
Pro tip: With a resource management tool like Float, you can forecast project work and schedule people based on their availability and capacity. When unexpected changes arise, you can quickly adapt by reassigning tasks to others on the team or extending the task duration.
Managing the scope of the project
A client keeps asking for new features on an app your team is building. You document all requests in the change proposal document and ensure they are signed off on before implementing them. Then they are added to the change log with new deadlines.
Forecasting, reviewing, and regulating costs
When planning a project, you use historical data from past projects to figure out hourly rates by looking at the time it would take to complete the list of activities on your schedule.
Identifying and planning for risks
Before starting a project, you list risks and make contingency plans for when issues occur. A contractor delay might throw you off schedule, so you anticipate it and create a list of freelancers to work with.
What does a project controller do?
Project controllers (also known as project control specialists or project controls managers) keep the project on track by measuring performance, detecting variances, and suggesting corrective actions.
They create baselines and key performance indicators and try to ensure that the project aligns with those baselines.
Project controllers need to be adept at analyzing, reporting, communicating with people, team building, and planning.
Some core functions of project controllers are:
- Project budgeting
- Cost estimating
- Variance analysis
- Schedule development
- Critical path diagramming
Although there's some overlap between the project manager and the project controller, the role of the project controller exists to support the project manager. They are likely to be focused more on data, giving the project manager the time and space to perform their duties.
Project control vs project management: This is the difference
Project control and project management are similar but not the same.
While project management deals with the delivery of the project, project control is focused on the consistent measurement of progress to keep things on track.
In this way, project control is a supporting function of project management. For example, if the project budget is already far spent and the project is barely at 30% completion, the project controller will alert the project manager to implement cost control.
Here are some common challenges with project controls
While project control can be highly beneficial to an organization, it can also be hard to implement properly. Here are some typical challenges faced:
- When project control is handled by project managers instead of dedicated staff, it’s easy to overlook. Project control involves gathering and monitoring project performance, something the project manager might do only when absolutely necessary.
- Not all projects require the same amount of control. Smaller projects might only need some of the documentation required in a bigger project and may not need to be measured as frequently. You might not need a formalized RACI chart for a small ad campaign, but you do for a high-stakes capital project.
- If project control is implemented within a system with no change management, it could lead to disaster. If plans change without considering the extra cost and time an expanded scope requires, you may not notice incremental changes and could end up with a failed project.
- Only 39% of project managers create baselines for their project schedules. Without project baselines, tracking progress is hard because there's nothing to measure performance against.
- If no process for requirements traceability exists, you can’t ensure that the final product matches the needs of the stakeholders.
Five project control methods to keep your projects on track
From regular status updates to earned value management, projects can be controlled using many different methods.
According to Roland Wanner, a senior PMO, and author of Earned Value Management – Fast Start Guide: The Most Important Methods and Tools for an Effective Project Control, some of the most common project control methods are earned value management, milestone trend analysis, status reports, budget/actual comparison, and reviews, tests, and audits.
1. Earned value management
Earned value management (EVM) is a technique that integrates cost, schedule, and scope to measure project performance and progress. It compares what the project is supposed to do against what has been done. EVM shows the current status of the project and where to take corrective action.
Pro tip: Measure your EVM using the reporting feature in Float. It shows you the actual vs. estimated costs/schedules.
2. Milestone trend analysis
Milestone trend analysis is used to detect schedule delays by measuring the progress of the project over time.
For this method to be effective, Wanner points out that milestones need to be set through the phases of the project and not just at the end. “A prerequisite for MTA is the definition of a sufficient number of meaningful milestones—not only milestones at the end of each project phase but also important milestones within the project phases.”
Pro tip: You can add milestones to your schedule in Float to mark important dates and deadlines. Milestones can be updated/moved with a few clicks.
3. Status reports
Status reports show the progress of your project over a period of time.
This document is valuable because it provides historical data which can be used to measure performance in future projects.
Before writing a status report, find out what your audience needs from it. Status reports for stakeholders should offer high-level information, so keep them simple, short, and full of vital information. Check out our tips and templates on status reports to save time!
4. Budget vs. actual comparison
A budget vs. actual comparison is a variance analysis of cost that shows how much has been spent compared to the forecasted budget. Comparing your planned vs. actual costs can help you detect when you are running out of funds to complete your project and reign in rogue spending.
Pro Tip: By centralizing people and project data in Float and tracking time on tasks in the same place you plan work, you can track progress and budget spend in real-time in reports.
Set project budgets
Float lets you pick hourly or dollar-value budgets that reflect real-time project progress. You can set a task to billable or non-billable hours and keep track of it in your reports.Find out more
5. Audits and reviews
Audits are used to track the performance and progress of projects. According to Mike Clayton, founder of OnlinePMCourses.com (and former project manager at Deloitte), they are used to find out the status of the project in terms of “delivery performance, cost against budget, progress against schedule, and clearance of risks and issues.”
Reviews ask, “how have we been doing things?” While reviews can be ad hoc, it is best to have them on a regular basis, preferably at the end of each phase.
Ensure that you critique and not criticize while giving feedback. Nitpicking is not productive and can be damaging to team morale.
How do you control a project?
To control your project, follow these steps:
- Determine your baselines
- Collect project data
- Measure project performance against baselines
- Analyze results
- Correct deviations
1. Determine your baselines
What’s the budget for your project? Milestones and timelines? What are the deliverables and requirements?
Identifying your baselines for cost, schedule, and scope will give you benchmarks to measure team performance against and understand the status of your project.
Let’s say the timeline for building a go-to-market strategy for a software product is one week. If this phase exceeds one week, you will know your project team is behind schedule.
2. Measure performance against the project plan
To measure performance, begin by gathering relevant project data e.g., work performance information like actual costs, actual durations of activities, and change requests.
Compare what has been achieved with what was planned and look out for any deviations, e.g., your team finishing the go-to-market strategy three days behind schedule.
In cases where your project is on track, there is no need to make any changes.
3. Analyze results
Once you’ve identified deviations, the next step is to find out why they exist. This step is important because you need to get to the root cause to get your schedule back on track and avoid mistakes in the future.
In the example above, it could be that a resource in charge of an important function with dependencies was unavailable.
4. Take corrective action if needed
After detecting the root cause, you need to correct the deviations to safeguard the project from failure.
To get your project back on schedule, you can crash the project by getting more people to work on it and reduce the time to complete it.
Ensure you take note of lessons learned and use it to improve your projects as they progress.
Automate your project control with the right tools
Project control requires you to keep a close eye on a lot of moving parts. Gathering, measuring, and analyzing project data consistently can be difficult without using project control tools.
Project control tools collect project data, measure performance, analyze results, and detect risks. Some examples of tools are project planners or schedulers, cost estimators, cost controllers, and cost/schedule risk management tools.
Float combines many of these features into a single tool.
With Float, you can plan people and projects with a live view of capacity and everyone’s time. This includes each person’s availability, skills, and rates, alongside project timelines, budgets, phases, and milestones, allowing you to assign the best team every time and track progress in real time.
Enabling a people-first approach to project planning means you can schedule work that matches capacity and budget. For example, you can easily spot over-allocations that would cause you to exceed your budget. You can also resolve scheduling conflicts and revise the project schedule as needed to ensure that the project timeline is kept.
Reporting in Float makes it easy to monitor your budget, actual costs, and utilization rates in real time. You can set a budget based on time or fees and forecast your capacity and spend. If your team tracks time, you can compare scheduled vs. logged hours to see if your project is on track.