While project managers used to be part of a specialized office focused on scheduling and executing technical projects, the world has changed—project managers are everywhere now. Projects are one of the keys to driving the execution of strategy, with PMI even saying that an organization is defined by its projects. Why? Because organizations have come to realize that projects (and their management) are essentially a strategic function. If your organization can do projects well, you’re more likely to execute successfully on your strategies, lower your costs, and stay competitive (even through the tough times).
As a software company that focuses on strategy reporting, we’ve always been a big proponent of strategic projects—those that are linked to strategic objectives and help you achieve your key goals. That’s why we’ve worked hard to master the art of the project dashboard, an important tool in any PM’s toolbox. Whether you realize it or not, you need a project dashboard in your organization. Unsure about what that is and exactly how it can help? Keep reading to learn why project dashboards are so valuable, see different dashboard examples, and get some tips on how to maximize their use.
What is a project dashboard (& why is it so important)?
A project dashboard is a collection of key data, qualitative information, and visuals that summarize a portfolio of projects. It takes what would otherwise be a mass of scattered information related to all the moving parts of projects—budgets, statuses, tasks, owners, etc.—condenses it down to the most important pieces, and puts it in one convenient location. Project dashboards serve as a quick reference point for project managers, making it easy for them to keep a close eye on tasks that may be falling behind or projects that are underperforming so they can take corrective action.
There is a lot for a project manager to keep track of; sometimes, tasks and milestones for even a single project happen across a number of departments. Project dashboards are helpful for managing single projects, but they become essential when there are multiple strategic projects ongoing that all play into achieving your goals. In this case, a project dashboard—or what we like to call a project management dashboard—will contain information about a portfolio of projects so that the project manager and employees can see performance across all projects quickly and understand performance on the portfolio as a whole.
The Importance Of Maintaining Updated Project Dashboards
For organizations that use projects to drive strategy execution, the project dashboard serves several important functions:
It directly links individual projects to strategic goals.ClearPoint project management dashboards show the direct link between a project and the overall goal or objective that the project impacts. This link makes it easy to quickly see the impact the project is having on the overall strategy. Without this clear linkage, it can be difficult for top-level management to see what is being done at a project level to further certain business-level objectives.
It serves as an organization-wide strategy communication tool. A project dashboard isn’t just for project managers—it could also be useful to other parties engaged in the project and even to high-level managers. For instance, employees often develop “tunnel vision” and remain solely focused on their individual and team activities. A project dashboard counteracts that narrow view by providing employees with insight into what all teams are doing, offering everyone the chance to see how their actions impact the project at large. It also gives individuals a better sense of time and bandwidth across projects. On a management level, a project dashboard provides a basis for evaluating strategy execution efforts.
It allows for fast identification of projects or milestones that are falling behind. Dashboards give good—and quick—insight into which projects are underperforming, why they may be underperforming, and who you can follow up with to get additional insight regarding performance. If necessary, you can implement a change immediately and take corrective action.
It simplifies performance reporting. Reporting is a crucial part of strategy execution because it helps ensure project teams are on track and held accountable. A project dashboard makes reporting easier because all the important information is already there, eliminating the need to click around and gather information from numerous other sources. And if your organization is reporting out to the public (for example, if you’re a municipal government body), dashboards are a quick and easy way to inform outside stakeholders (local residents) about the progress of important projects.
What information should appear on a project dashboard?
Every project has a different intended outcome, different milestones that will help reach the end goal, different teams, and different processes. As a result, project dashboards vary—there isn’t one “correct” template to use when getting started.
That being said, a great project management dashboard must contain some combination of visuals that simply convey overall project performance, key project management KPIs being tracked in association with the project, and qualitative reports that add context to performance reports across various aspects of the project. It all depends on what is important for you to see in relation to your projects. The way you choose to present the information may vary, but most project dashboards would include:
Status indicators—Whether you’re using red-amber-green (RAG) status indicators or some other system, a project dashboard should show each project’s status at a glance. Project status is automatically evaluated based on the indicators you’ve selected, such as budget, percent complete, start/end dates, etc.
Description—Not everyone who looks at a project dashboard will be familiar with the purpose of each project. For outside viewers or others less intimately involved, it’s helpful to provide project descriptions that briefly explain why and how they are being implemented.
Budget—A project dashboard makes it easy to track if project spending remains within budgeted limits. It can display information on percent complete, percent budget spent, and forecasted total cost for one or more projects while allowing viewers to drill down into each project for more information on spending and progress.
Owner—It is best practice to assign a spokesperson for each project, so project managers have a consistent source of information regarding project updates and someone to turn to for further information. Displaying owners assigned to projects allows managers to easily follow up with the correct person for any project about which they need additional information.
Start/end dates—Defining the start and end date for projects allows everyone to see whether a project is on track and when it’s expected to be completed.
Qualitative analysis—Details explaining each project’s status or progress provide important context for dashboard viewers. Some software solutions (like ClearPoint!) even allow you to attach relevant documents in support of your analysis.
Recommendations—For projects that have gone off-track, your project dashboard could include recommendations on ways to address specific issues.
Percent complete—With a visualization of the relative number of projects in various stages, you can quickly identify if you have too many projects behind or ahead of schedule. This snapshot also allows managers to quickly assess which projects may need extra support.
Impacted goals/metrics—If the idea is for your projects to impact your strategy, your project dashboard should show your projects in connection with the objectives they are linked to. (ClearPoint is one of the few project management solutions that makes it easy to show linkages, so you always have an idea of how your projects are impacting the bigger picture.)
Projects/milestones/action items—Each project will likely have many smaller sub-projects that will contribute to the overall success. These sub-projects may even have individual single tasks. It’s helpful for a project dashboard to show these sub-projects (the milestones) and the associated action items (the tasks).
Seem like a lot of information for a dashboard? Keep in mind that you shouldn’t be summarizing the status of all projects in your organization, and likely not even all your strategic projects. Your status dashboard should only show the handful of high-priority projects that have the biggest impact on your strategy.
Examples Of Project Dashboards
At ClearPoint, we’ve built out a number of project dashboards that are useful for performance tracking and planning of next steps. Take a look at these examples:
A project status dashboard shows the different status indicators (red-amber-green) with the various projects listed below, and a summary graph of how many projects are in each of the status categories. You can click into any project to learn the details behind its status, including a Gantt chart timeline, percent complete, and qualitative analysis.
A project management dashboard acts as a central hub for project managers to assess the current progress of an organization's initiatives and identify which projects need an extra push, which will require extensions, and which are running smoothly. A Gantt chart displays the timeline and status of each project and milestone, with summary information on the various projects below. Again, viewers can click on any individual project for more detailed information.
Gantt charts like the one shown below are useful so project managers can see which activities are on the horizon; they also show how different activities are related to one another and how the completion or delay of one milestone might impact the others.
A project budget dashboard displays charts that show percent complete, percent budget spent, and the forecasted total cost for one or more projects. The data table below these charts offers further details on each project’s budget vs. actual spending (and the percent complete), so you can make a quick visual comparison. As always in ClearPoint, viewers can drill down into each project for more information on spending and progress.
A program management dashboard serves as a central hub of information about a program and all its projects. (A program is a longer-term endeavor that is accomplished through multiple projects.) Program management is also important to strategy execution and can be handled through ClearPoint right alongside project management.
Program management dashboards differ depending on the program, the organization, and the program manager. The one shown below includes the program objective, a status overview for the program’s overall health and progress, and a Gantt chart showing timelines of the various projects included in the program. Having this information readily available allows project leaders and program managers to assess program health, drill down to determine the performance of individual projects, and decide on next steps.
Best Practices For Creating A Project Dashboard
Regardless of what information you decide to include in your project dashboard, here are a few tips that will help make it as useful as possible:
Scannability and ease of navigation are key. Keep in mind that this dashboard will likely be viewed by individuals at all levels of your organization, so make sure it is understandable to someone who might not have as much insight into the projects as those who are involved in them intimately.
Use visuals. Visuals make complex information more understandable. Easy-to-read pie charts, Gantt charts, and bar charts are easily digestible and convey information and insights more effectively than qualitative information and long lists of data.
Assign ownership to milestones and action items. Clearly define necessary actions, as well as the individuals responsible for carrying them out. Doing so helps ensure that tasks get done and you are steadily progressing toward the end goal.
Do not attempt to include every single project detail. There’s a lot of information associated with individual projects, but if you attempt to track every single detail, the whole point of the dashboard—which is to easily glean important insights on projects—becomes null. Information overload is too difficult to manage and creates clutter—problems that the dashboard was supposed to solve in the first place.
Update dashboard information regularly and make use of it. Don’t go to the trouble of creating a dashboard that then goes unnoticed. Use it in the way you intended—as a tool that helps your organization stay on track with strategy execution. Make sure project information is updated as well as reported on regularly. (ClearPoint can make those tasks easier, too!) When you have an accurate, comprehensive picture of how your projects are aligned with your strategy—and how those projects are performing—you’re more likely to meet your organization’s future goals.
Interested in learning how ClearPoint can help you manage and execute strategic projects more successfully? Schedule a call with us today.
Customer Success Manager & True Crime Fanatic
RJ assists clients throughout their ClearPoint journey, ensuring smooth implementation and management of accounts.