Creating and Managing a Project Dashboard

Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.   - Denis Waitley 

As a project manager, you are responsible for keeping your project team, project sponsor, and additional project stakeholders aware of what is happening with the project you are managing. One of the best ways to do so is to create a project dashboard that summarizes the status of the key aspects of the project – something that will provide a base for discussion and highlight where attention needs to be paid.

  Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The aspects you include on your project dashboard may differ depending on the project, but here are the ones I typically use:

  • Key Accomplishments – Since the last time the project dashboard was updated, what deliverables has your team completed? What decisions have been made? What risks have been mitigated? What checkpoints have been completed? What milestones have been achieved?
  • Upcoming Milestones – Over the next 2-4 weeks (or whatever time period makes sense based on your project timeline), what are the key milestones that the project team is scheduled to hit? A milestone may be defined as a key accomplishment or checkpoint that is on the critical path of project completion and allows you to move to the next phase of work. They should be noted on the project plan.
  • Project Risks – What are some of the main risks to project success? Who owns the mitigation of those risks, and what are the mitigation plans?
  • Key Decisions – What decisions need to be made in order for the project to proceed, who needs to make them, and what is the plan to finalize the decisions?

As you can see, creating a project dashboard is all about asking questions and making details of the project visible. And there are other aspects you may want to include on the dashboard – like a budget indicator, resource availability, testing status, etc. – so adjust the aspects based on your project needs.

In terms of how you represent these items on a page, I typically use PowerPoint and create text boxes in which I summarize each aspect.  You can summarize aspects for the project as a whole, or you can divide the dashboard into workstreams (or however your project is organized) and include an update on each aspect by workstream. I typically like to organize my project dashboards in this latter format (by workstream), putting the onus on the workstream lead to provide me with updates and also deliver the updates during our team meetings.

Some project dashboards also include an overall project health indicator – a very high-level, visual summary of whether the project is on track, at risk, or in trouble (to put it simply). You may have seen a red/yellow/green indication for the overall project health and even for specific workstream health. You can define red/yellow/green however you want, but make sure that you put a legend on the dashboard so people understand what the colors mean.

If you do include an overall project health indicator, beware of the phenomenon that sneaks its way into many project situations – that is, the fear that having red or yellow as your project or workstream status is bad! Well, of course it is not great because that means something is wrong. But the beauty of indicating that your status is red or yellow is that then you, your project sponsor, and your project team know that something needs to be done to fix it. If risks and issues are hidden behind a green status because the team is afraid to indicate a red or yellow status, then no one really knows that something is wrong and the chance of derailment or failure grows tremendously.

So, at the beginning of the project, set the expectation with your team that you will be developing this project dashboard, and that the purpose is to share how things are going and raise risks and issues so that they can be resolved quickly, allowing the project can continue down the road toward success. You can update the dashboard weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly depending on project needs, and as the project manager, you are responsible for gathering the updates from your team members and keeping the actual document updated.

Once you get in the groove with your project team, the project dashboard is a simple and effective way to keep everyone informed and bring the team together to problem solve when the need arises.