Last time, we discussed the importance of advance planning when
you're facing a large project. This time, we'll look at key
challenges related to keeping that project on track once work has
begun. Successful implementation requires you to track and document
progress and to maintain the right priorities. This article shares
insider tips to help you meet these challenges.
Obviously, preparing the plan is not the same as completing the
project itself. Even though you've gone through a comprehensive
advance planning process, you'll face many challenges after work
has begun. For this reason, it's important to stay flexible-your
plan may have to change as the situation evolves. This leads us to
a major dilemma faced by design firms: from a creative standpoint,
you must always remain open to change and discovery; however, as a
smart businessperson, you also need to keep each project within its
approved budget and schedule parameters. As every experienced
design professional knows, keeping a large project on track is not
easy to do!
Implementing the project plan requires collaborating very
closely with all team members. It also requires monitoring progress
at key checkpoints to see that objectives are being achieved. This
process of monitoring performance requires you to prepare progress
reports on at least a weekly basis. In general, big projects need
much more documentation than small projects. It's essential for
busy design firms handling large projects to have an efficient
system in place for tracking the labor and expenses that are going
into each project. The system has to make it easy to generate
work-to-date reports that are current and accurate.
Reports must also be produced with varying levels of detail.
Those with the most detail are for you and your team. When a
progress report is shared with a client, it should only be a
summary-it's not a good idea to distract clients with too much
detail. Reports are important tools for demonstrating progress and
managing client expectations. Providing timely and reliable
summaries to the client is an essential aspect of good account
Keep in mind that project summaries shared with clients should
show gross amounts only. Most project tracking software gives you
the option of viewing financial information at net or at gross. Net
is the internal cost to your studio (labor at payroll rates plus
purchases at whatever amounts were paid to vendors). In contrast,
gross is the external billing value-the total that will be shown on
your invoice to the client (labor at full billing rates plus
purchases to which a markup has been added).
Within the design team, an effective tracking system helps you
stay within the approved scope of work and maintain the right
priorities. To keep priorities straight, many people find the
following concept quite useful:
This concept is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian
economist and sociologist. Some people also refer to it as “the
80:20 rule.” In 1906, Pareto published a study of the distribution
of income in Italy. Not too surprisingly, the data indicated that
most of the nation's income went to a small portion of its
population. This observation of unequal distribution has led to a
general management concept. It holds that, in most groups, the
majority of items will have comparatively little importance, while
the truly significant items will be in the minority. This is often
the case with large design projects-just a few items are the most
significant in terms of their effects or consequences. Because of
this, it's vital for project managers to maintain clear priorities
and concentrate the team's efforts on the most important elements.
It's all too easy to lose focus and go off on tangents, squandering
time and effort on insignificant items that won't have a noticeable
impact on the ultimate success of the project.
Now we need to expand upon a topic mentioned briefly in Part One
of this article: visualizing the actual time and materials being
expended. On a large project, it's essential to track the speed at
which the budget is being used. Most small projects have tight
schedules. Although they're stressful, they're beneficial in that
they force you to stay focused. In contrast, large projects tend to
have extended schedules, which make it much easier for the team to
slowly creep over budget without even being aware of it.
One technique for watching how quickly the budget is being used
is to expand your Gantt chart, as we discussed earlier. A second
set of bars can be added to show current budget status. Gantt
charts are specialized-they were specifically developed for
planning and tracking projects. However, there are two additional
ways for you to visualize the total amount of time or money being
expended: standard bar graphs and line charts.
An ordinary bar graph is a great way to display the differences
between groups of data. Typically, information is presented
chronologically as a series of horizontal bars or vertical columns.
The lengths of the bars are in proportion to the values of the data
they represent. Bar graphs can show resource usage in specific
weeks, such as dollars spent or hours worked. They are easily
produced with any common spreadsheet application.
These are commonly used to show increases or decreases in
activity from period to period. The line connecting the series of
data points tends to jog up and down, leading many people to call
these “fever charts” like those seen in hospitals. For design
projects, however, line charts are most useful for showing
cumulative totals, which means that the connecting line will only
move upward. A line chart of cumulative performance reflects the
steady accumulation of costs over the lifetime of the project. A
second line can be placed on this chart to visually compare the
estimated cost of work scheduled to the actual cost of work
performed. These line charts can be produced using any standard
Both bar graphs and line charts can help you keep an eye on your
project's burn rate. Burn rate is an investment term for how
quickly a limited amount of cash is being spent. Managers in
startup companies calculate their burn rate in order to understand
how much time they have before they need to achieve positive cash
flow from operations or obtain additional funding. In project
management, the term is used to describe the rate at which the
overall budget is being used. If you're working under a fixed-fee
contract, all work must be completed before the budget runs out or
else you'll begin to erode your planned profit.
To stay on top of a fast-moving project, many design firms
maintain a chart of running totals and post it in the workplace for
the team to see how quickly the budget is being used. The chart
might show week-by-week totals, cumulative totals, or both.
Sometimes it is helpful to simplify how the original plan is
presented so that it can be plotted as a straight line. This is
done by taking the total budget and dividing it by the total number
of weeks in the schedule. This would seem to imply that the level
of activity is expected to be exactly the same in all weeks. We
know, of course, this won't be the case, but showing the budget as
a straight line makes the chart much easier to read when actual
performance data is added. The uneven line representing actual work
will move about in marked contrast to the straight-line budget.
This charting process requires easy access to current data from
your company's project tracking system. The raw numbers available
to you from the database can be either weekly or cumulative-it's a
simple matter to calculate one as long as you have the other. If
you're producing a weekly bar graph of dollar totals, another level
of detail can be shown by building each bar in layers representing
the subtotals for staff, freelancers and materials.
Each time you prepare an update, you're watching to see if
actual totals have begun to exceed the plan. Occasionally, an
accelerated burn rate is not a problem-it could indicate that the
project is ahead of schedule and all work will be completed early.
If a project stays significantly ahead of schedule, you might even
be able to reallocate unused money and resources.
Most of the time, however, running ahead of budget is a bad
sign. It usually indicates one or more of these classic
If you see that actual expenses are beginning to exceed the
budget, you must intervene to reduce the burn rate. In design
firms, several tactics are common:
This last point is an important one. It's not unusual for design
projects to fall behind schedule because of additional client
requests. Anything that's outside the original scope of work should
trigger a change order. This gives you a chance to increase the
budget and possibly renegotiate deadlines.
If overruns are not due to client changes, however, it's
unlikely that additional funding will become available. If you
negotiated a fixed-fee contract and now you're running out of money
before the agreed-upon work is complete, it might simply mean that
you under-budgeted. In such a case, you may have no option but to
carry the project through to completion without additional
compensation. As a businessperson, of course, you must be very
cautious about this-accepting a reduced profit margin on too many
projects will jeopardize your firm's long-term viability.
The amount of analysis you do and the formality of the reports
you produce should, of course, be scaled to match the size and
complexity of the project at hand. At the upper end of this scale
is something called earned value management. It's an approach for
measuring forward progress that's used by many engineering firms
and software developers. Earned value is defined as the value of
the useful work completed up to any given point in the project.
Analysis of earned value is based on schedule performance, cost
performance and technical performance. Let's look briefly at each
This is management of the time budget. Detailed Gantt charts are
used for tracking labor hours and keeping an eye on variances. The
goal is to know whether the project is behind or ahead of schedule
and whether it will be finished on time.
This is management of the financial budget. Detailed line charts
are used for planning and tracking the monetary aspects of the
work. Usually there are two sets to show both net cost and gross
billing value. This data is continually updated and analyzed to
determine whether the project is over or under budget and to
calculate the size of any variance. On an ongoing basis, you need
to know if there's enough money left to complete the work.
This third metric moves us into a new area that we haven't
discussed before. Technical performance means measuring the volume
of work accomplished-the physical percentage of completion at a
given moment. This represents a significant challenge for design
firms because progress on creative problems is very difficult to
quantify. When asked how much progress has been made on the scope
of work, most design teams will respond in a purely subjective
way-a number will be pulled out of the air, like “concept
development is 50 percent complete.” In contrast, earned value
management attempts to measure progress objectively. This requires
you to quantify the scope of work by breaking the project down into
a series of specific milestones and then assigning a numeric value
to each one, either in dollars or percentage of completion. Some
milestones might have much higher values than others. Each time you
prepare a progress report, the farthest milestone that has been
reached determines the percentage of work completed as of that
status date. Once you have an accurate measure of how far behind or
ahead the team is on scope, you can compare that to the cumulative
totals for schedule and cost. (One note of caution: since tracking
technical performance requires you to quantify the project plan and
assign predetermined values to milestones, it's not always a good
match to research and discovery projects where the work itself will
take you in new directions that cannot be foreseen.)
With these three metrics as a foundation, earned value analysis
goes on to calculate an
“estimate at completion” (also called a “forecast at
completion”). This is a projection forward of the expected total
cost and expected total schedule, based on actual performance as of
the status date. This allows you to estimate what the variance will
be at completion-the final difference between plan and actual.
This real-time trending gives you early warning of performance
problems on large projects while there's still time for corrective
action. The earlier a discrepancy is identified, the sooner you can
act to remedy the problem. However, these mid-course corrections
cannot be accomplished by the project manager alone-they require
the involvement and commitment of the whole team. For that reason,
earned value metrics are used as a scoreboard for the team.
Variances are shown as percentages or ratios. Areas of concern are
In a large studio with multiple teams, these metrics are also
shared with the principals of the firm. Having current information
on all active assignments allows senior management to focus their
attention on those projects encountering difficulties and provide
assistance as needed in the form of added support or
We've talked a lot about managing time, money and quantity of
work accomplished. At this point, you may be asking yourself: “What
about quality?” It's important to note that quality control is a
separate challenge. Project tracking systems have no provision to
measure quality, and good numbers from a database are no guarantee
of creative success. Good design requires a strong creative leader.
He or she must bring the right people into the team, inspire
performance, maintain high standards and effectively guide the
group through an iterative, problem-solving process. For a more
detailed discussion of design team roles and dynamics, please see
the earlier article about teams (November 2006).
OK, you took on a large project and kept it on track. Now the
end of work is drawing near. Here are a few quick tips for wrapping
things up successfully.
As you near the conclusion of a large project, take time to
prepare both the team and the client for a successful handover of
the finished work. Especially on projects such as websites and
corporate identities, it's important to formalize the process of
transferring responsibility. The client may need preparation and
training to use the solution that you've developed.
When you've delivered the last portions of your work, conduct a
wrap-up meeting with your client to assess satisfaction. It's a
final opportunity for the client to identify any defects and ask
for corrections. It's also a golden opportunity for you to discuss
additional needs that have emerged and to propose follow-up
projects. Closing the loop in this way can help you to convert a
successful one-off project into an ongoing relationship. The
process of closing the loop with the client was discussed in an
earlier article on marketing (April 2004).
After client satisfaction has been assessed, it's smart to
conduct an internal evaluation of the project with your team. Some
firms refer to this as a post mortem because it takes place after
the project's completion. However, a more optimistic term is post
Hold this final discussion as soon as possible, while everyone
is still available and all of the details of the project are still
fresh in everyone's mind. Review the process as well as the
outcome. Get the full team to participate so that all phases of the
project and all professional perspectives are represented. Be
honest in examining both the good and the bad. However, if the
project did have some problems, be careful not to let the
discussion devolve into a finger-pointing session. Handled
properly, this is a valuable opportunity for the team to learn from
any mistakes and agree upon improvements that will benefit future
Most of the issues that come up in this discussion will relate
to specific details of planning and managing this one project but,
occasionally, company-wide issues might surface as well. Start the
review with some questions about the project's process and
Next, expand the discussion to address any company-wide issues
that have surfaced:
Document the results of this final assessment and follow up
diligently on the action items that have been assigned. If the
project was successful, you might also consider adding it to your
design portfolio as a case study. As soon as that's done, you can
archive the final creative files. Separately, be sure to save any
client approvals and other key information that might be needed
later to resolve any financial or legal disputes.
If your work on the project produced any new forms or reference
materials that could be useful to other projects in the future,
store them in an easily accessible format and location. Many design
firms maintain a binder of general procedures, a set of templates
and forms for project planning and tracking and reference files
about vendor capabilities.
If you work in a large firm, you should also think about ways to
publicize your project review findings internally. One of the best
ways to disseminate the new knowledge is to present an
end-of-the-day “show and tell” to the rest of your company's
Conducting a final evaluation after each major project is
essential for creating a culture of learning. Over time, it helps
you to improve your personal skills and evolve best practices that
will contribute significantly to the success of your firm.
Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association
of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent
Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is available from New Riders.
Projects of greater scope and complexity require a more formal approach to planning and management. Read on for tips on tackling such undertakings.
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