The problem with how we measure project progress


Those arbitrary and highly subjective task progress updates you get from your project team members can be frustrating -- and frighteningly inaccurate and contrived. Beware.

"I'm 92 percent done with my project tasks."

Have you ever heard that statement made by your project team members?

As project managers we often live and die by the percent complete of the tasks on our project schedules.  We obsess over them and compare the tasks to the calendar dates. Are we as far along as we should be?  Is my assigned resource making progress?  And what, exactly, does 43 percent complete really mean?  What does it look like?  If you're me it looks about like the progress in my new house that my contractor has made up to this point when he was supposed to be done a little over a month ago. Ugh!  But I digress...

You can understand my frustration -- and skepticism -- with the reporting of percent complete from project staff.  How many times have you relied on your project team to supply you with weekly (perhaps even daily?) percent complete updates on some of their key tasks and curiously the progress reported sometimes rises by 1 percent over the previous week’s report.  1 percent.  What is that?  And we often don’t question it because it is at least showing progress, there isn’t anything going on that is a showstopper for the project and we’re too busy to dig deeper into that 1 percent progress report. 

But if we took the time to step back and look at the reporting week to week we would see that one or more team members may just be upping the percent in order to show at least some progress on paper.  Is that good?  Not really.  It works for a while, but it can be masking an underlying problem.  The top 3 problems that may be hiding from us as we get those bogus updates from our team members are these.

1. They are preoccupied with work on other projects.  It may be that our project team members who are reporting small incremental progress gains are really not doing much of anything on our project at the moment because they’re too busy with work on other projects.  They may either be afraid to speak up about their project overload or they may just be oblivious to it.  The bottom line though, is that our project is likely suffering as a result. 

It’s imperative that we, as project managers, pay close attention to the weekly progress updates that our teams give us.  Question what doesn’t seem right…like very small 1 percent or 2 percent incremental progress updates or no progress reported over several updates.  Those are red lights signaling that we need to dig deeper.  If your project team member is truly bogged down with too much work on other projects, it may be time to go higher up the chain – to their supervisor or…if you have one…the PMO director.  You need team members who are available for your project, because they’re likely charging time to your project even if they aren’t performing much work for it.  Over time it will kill the project budget and you’ll have nothing to show for it.

2. They are stuck and aren’t reaching out for help.  Another cause of the slow progress or no progress report may be that the resource is stuck and is afraid or ashamed to reach out for help.  It may even be that they are overwhelmed with the task or lack the skills to actually perform on the task.  Again, it’s our job as the project leader to recognize when progress isn’t being made on the tasks we are assigning.  If it’s a skill set issue we must either find another role for the challenged resource on the project and get the right skills on board or we must replace them altogether.  We can pretend to be the nice guy and not take any action or ignore the real issue, but in the end all we will have is a failed project to show for it and then it’s our problem, not the team member’s shortcoming.

3. They lack focus.  Finally, the project resource may be lacking proper focus on the tasks at hand that you’ve assigned to them or they may just be lazy.  Again, it’s up to us to ask the right questions to uncover the root cause or causes for the lack of progress.  And, again, it’s up to us to replace the resource as quickly as possible if they’re performance is dragging the project down with them.  We can’t let that happen – we have been charged with doing everything we can to bring home a successful project.


No one said that being a project manager is easy.  We often have to make tough calls on our projects – even if it’s exposing a team member’s incompetence.  And for two of these three reasons, that is really the underlying factor.  If you’ve had similar experiences on projects where your team members are “going through the motions” on progress reporting and you had to take some action to get back on track, please feel free to share those experiences with us.

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