How Data Impacts Project Planning
Project planning is a critical element in successful marketing, resulting in marketing projects that are more efficient and less wasteful of time, resources, and budget.
But how do you build a plan that actually helps you keep a project on track and on budget? For me, it comes down to relying on data rather than intuition or an educated guess, and it’s historical data that is the single most valuable information required to build an accurate, realistic plan.
I was once taught that you can always plan for how something or someone will behave in the future based on past behavior. This theory applies to project management just as much as it does to life in general.
When it comes down to it, project management is about planning for the future – planning time, resources, and budget. In order to plan ahead, we must consider what happened in the past. Often, the past carries with it hard truths we must acknowledge and the most unbiased way to bring these to light is through the use of data.
The fact is I don’t know that I’ve ever made a project decision that wasn’t rooted in historical data. Data’s role in project management is so essential that I’m not sure the function would be possible without it. So what kind of things should we be looking for in project data and how does it impact our decisions?
One of the first things to assess is time, both at a high level and more granular level. Historically and on average, how long did a specific type of project take? What about the individual milestones or tasks that make up that project? Where did we go over and why? Did we underestimate or overestimate our time? Did we not plan for time that we should have?
Asking these questions about past projects helps us identify the adjustments we need to make to ensure the next project is more efficient. They also help us set realistic expectations with clients and internal team members—both at the milestone and overall project level.
Another critical component of assessing project data is having a clear understanding of resources. I cannot overstate how important it is to have a clearly defined scope when it comes to identifying resources – whether fixed-budget projects or retainer-based work. Project scope aids in determining how many resources (people) will be involved, what level of involvement they will have and what dependencies (bottlenecks) could be created by involving multiple resources. Also, because projects are not siloed, it’s equally important to determine how other projects will be affected by pulling in these resources.
Historically, we can look back and determine what worked and what didn’t in terms of resourcing. There is a lot of trial and error in the beginning as resources become familiar with one another or new resources are brought in, but in my experience, successful business teams figure out just the right mix they need to make a project both successful for their client and profitable for the organization. And they do this by reviewing past project data.
Time + Resources = Budget. Ok, so the equation isn’t that simple, but when reviewing project data, you’ll find that it’s almost always true. The more time and resources a project requires, the more likely it is that the budget will reflect that. When considering project budget data, estimated versus actual is by far the biggest indicator to consider. Similar to the way we evaluate time, we must look at budget both overall (at the project level) and at a granular level (task by task) to understand where we are under- or overestimating and what adjustments we need to make in the future.
Exceptions to the Rule
But what about the outliers? Certainly, there are exceptions to the rule—projects that broke the mold, projects that hit a roadblock, or projects that change course due to an acquisition or other massive organization change. It happens, just as change happens in life. We can never perfectly anticipate the future. What we must do to manage projects effectively is account for that risk by planning ahead, allocating extra time or budget that may be needed, and—most importantly—being ready to quickly adapt when the exceptions become reality.
Data provides a clear path for project decision-making. For me, it has helped remove all emotion from project decision-making by providing an unbiased view of both the expected/planned and actual results. Having solid project management tools (such as Accelo, Mavenlink or Microsoft Project) that provide reporting for time and budget analysis as well as task management for resources is essential and allows you to receive real-time data to help make decisions at critical points throughout a project. There are countless options for project management tools out there; it’s just a matter of finding one that works for your team.
In addition, completing regular post-project analysis forces you to look in the mirror at any mistakes and identify opportunities for improvement in the future. Project management isn’t a science, and it’s not something that can be done perfectly every time, but with data backing decisions, we can get closer to perfection.