Project Tracking: What happened? What still needs to happen?

Project tracking is what most people think of when they think of project management, because it's where most of the time and effort of project management go. But if you haven't figured out what you want to accomplish, it's difficult to track your project because you don't know what to record. And if you don't have at least some idea of what it will take to get you there, project tracking is difficult because you have no idea what tasks should be done or how many you still have to go. So project tracking is really step 3 of project management.

Project tracking? What do I track?
What you want to track is up to you (or your boss), and varies from project to project. At the very least, you'll want to know

  • What is the goal? (see step 1)
  • What metrics represent progress towards the goal? (This is the "M" of SMART goals in step one. So if your goal is to run a 5K in 45 minutes, you would measure how long it takes you to run a 5K. If your goal is to have $10,000 in savings, you would measure how much you have in savings.)
  • What do we know we'll have to do to get there? (Your list may not be complete, but you want to have it around so you don't have to recreate it; see step 2)
  • What has been done so far?
  • What's the next thing to do?
Depending on the size and complexity of the project, you may also want your system to track
  • Who did those things?
  • How long did it take them?
  • What are people currently working on?
  • Who is doing those things?
  • How far along are they?
  • Who will be doing the next thing?

Quick-and-easy project tracking
In many cases, all the tracking you need may be encompassed in a to-do list on the fridge. When you've completed a task, cross it off and proceed to the next thing on the list. The same white board or sticky note can also be used for step 4: project Review.

One-folder project tracking
For many people's projects, all the tracking you need can be kept in a single file folder. Make sure to stick a copy of your goal and your task list in there so you can keep on-course. If you're using Barbara Sher's iterative task-setting, keep a copy of your task tree in there so you can figure out where to go next. Also stick a copy of notes, minutes from meetings, magazine clippings, paperwork generated by your tasks, and anything else you think you might want for your project into the file. There are a couple of different formats:
  • Physical files: Keep everything for your project in a file folder or a binder. I like binders because they're easy to transport without spilling and they give me the freedom to have a stack of paper up to 6 inches thick, but if you have a filing cabinet and like to use file folders by all means do so. Use individual manila folder or dividers to sort out tasks, notes, and so on, or put everything in the folder chronologically. I recommend sticking your goal and task list on the front cover so they're always easy to find. Physical is nice because you can take magazine clippings or memos from your boss and just stick them in the file, but they have the downside that emails and internet pages have to be printed off.
  • Computer folder: Alternately, keep track of everything for your project in a computer file of some sort. Unlike physical files or binders, which are mostly limited to one level of sorting, a computer file can have subfiles and sub-subfiles and so on. I hate to admit that Microsoft could possibly do something right, but I really like Microsoft One Note; it's easy to use and I usually find that its 3-tier structure is adequate for me. Those who like greater hierarchy may prefer to keep notes in a word processor or spreadsheet, and store those in assorted computer folders; those who like the flatness of the one-folder system may prefer to keep a single document with everything in it. Electronic is nice because you can copy-paste whatever you need from internet research or electronic memos, but any physical notes that need to be added will have to be scanned or typed in.
  • Combination: I admit that I actually use a combination of the two: things that are easier to keep offline I put in binders, while most of my notes are kept in a OneNote notebook, and I keep a tab in my OneNote files listing the contents of the physical files. But I'm a geek with minor obsessive-compulsive tendencies -- I like spending a couple hours each week keeping the two in sync. If you're not willing to put the effort in to keep both physical and electronic updated, then stick with a simpler system of one or the other.

For greater detail on how to use any of those, see this blog post.
No matter how you store it, having those notes on hand will give you the information you need for step 4: Project Review.

Project tracking software
If you're managing a project for which the one-folder method is inadequate, you'll want to get software to help you out. Software can help you automatically correlate data from one section of your project to another -- making sure that you don't have one person doing two things simultaneously, for instance, or that your budget for each section of the project doesn't exceed your total budget for the project -- and usually comes with built-in tools to help make the planning easier.

Project management software comes in too many varieties to discuss them all here, but here's a List so you can figure out which one is best for you. Some things to consider:

  • Do I want other people to be able to edit this? If so, you'll want software that's collaborative. Collaborative software will generally include the ability for multiple people to make notes, add tasks, mark tasks completed, and so on. It may also include features that let you communicate with other members of the project (Instant Messaging or Videoconferencing software), that help you keep track of who's doing what (track which changes were made by whom), and so on.
  • Will my projects be closely tied to customer complaints? Many product-improvement projects, for example, have to report back to a customer when they've finished fixing the problem. In these cases, having software with issue tracking may be helpful -- it will help you keep track of how many issues are related to this project and who should be contacted on project finish.
  • Is the project big enough that prioritization of tasks will be important (we may not have the resources to do it all)? Project Portfolio Management (PPM) is intended to help you prioritize when many related projects cannot all be completed (this may happen in a business when management suggests more projects than can realistically occur, or in a family when you'd like to serve on the PTA and go back to school and improve your family's mealtime nutrition, but frankly it's not going to happen.) PPM helps you rate projects according to importance, profit, and cost (financial or temporal) so you can decide which to pursue and which to ignore for the moment. If your project has limited resources, or if you dislike making these strategic decisions unaided, look for software with project portfolio management.
  • Do we need to coordinate resources for this project? Resources may include money, employees' or family members' time, or access to machinery or transportation, among others. Most projects extensive enough to require software will also require resource management, and so most project tracking software will also include resource management capability. Resource management software will help you make sure you haven't over-budgeted or double-booked any of your resources.
  • Do we need to track documents as well? For many projects, the notes of the collaborators are sufficient, and it's not critical that project files be in a certain format or filed a certain way. In some cases however, such as financial or medical projects, it's important to fill out IRS or insurance forms just so, and to keep them on hand for 7 years. In these cases, document management is helpful.
Most software is not good at keeping you focused on the goal. If you have the option to create a homepage that you see every time you start the software, I recommend that you include on that page your goal and next task; no matter what, you'll probably have to come up with your own method for step 4: Project Review.

How do you track your project?

Do you use software or have a technique for paper-based tracking not discussed here? Let us know all about it!

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