Control involves monitoring performance against approved baselines, updating delivery documents and taking corrective action as necessary. Control is required throughout the life cycle but this explanation is primarily aimed at controlling the delivery process.

The goals of control are to:

  • review performance against baselines;
  • evaluate the effect of actual performance on future plans;
  • take action as required to achieve planning targets or agree revised targets.

Control techniques fall into one of three broad categories: cybernetic, go/no go and post.

Cybernetic control is part of the day to day management of the work; go/no-go control is applied at the key decision points in the life cycle; post control is concerned with learning from experience so that P3 management is continuously improved.

Cybernetic control is focused on the delivery process.

Go/no go control is focused on the reviews between life cycles phases and the boundaries process.

Post control is primarily addressed in the closure process with a link back to the review previous lessons activity in the identification process.

The term ‘cybernetic’ is derived from the Greek for helmsman and a P3 manager uses cybernetic control to ‘steer’ the project, programme or portfolio on a day-to-day basis. The work of the P3 manager is, strictly speaking, first order cybernetic control and the relationship between the P3 manager and sponsor is second order cybernetic control.

The key element of cybernetic control is feedback. A system is monitored, feedback is provided and compared to a norm. Action is taken to align the system to the norm. In P3 management, the baseline plans are the norm; monitoring provides the feedback on performance and the P3 manager takes action to adhere to the baseline plans.

Tolerances are acceptable deviations from the baselines. If performance is outside, or predicted to be outside, the agreed tolerances, this is classed as an issue that must be escalated to the sponsor. The sponsor and manager will then agree on the appropriate corrective action. If the result is a major change to the work, then a new baseline may be agreed against which future performance is monitored.

Go/no go control is used at key decision points built into the life cycle. These are typically found at the end of a phase, stage or tranche of work and involve a major review of what has been delivered.

At these decision points, the sponsor considers the available information and decides whether to proceed with the remaining work. In extreme cases a project, programme, or possibly even portfolio, may be terminated because it is no longer justifiable.

Post-control is entirely retrospective. It is concerned with learning from experience through, for example, post-project or post-programme reviews.

Specific control methods are used according to the nature and complexity of what is being controlled. For example:

A common method of illustrating schedule performance are RAG reports (Red, Amber, Green). Green status means performance is within tolerances and predicted to remain there. Amber is within tolerances but predicted to exceed them. Red indicates performance has exceeded tolerances.

All six components of delivery need to be controlled. Some techniques, such as change control and quality control, are specific to one of the elements, i.e. scope. Others, such as earned value management, bring together multiple elements (i.e. schedule and cost).

In the context of creating outputs, control of scope is effectively the same as quality control. It has the most diverse range of techniques, covering inspection, testing and measurement. It verifies that the deliverables conform to specification, are fit for purpose and meet stakeholder expectations. Example techniques include: crushing samples of concrete used in the foundations of a building, reviewing user interfaces of computer applications, x-raying welds in a ship’s hull and following the test script for a new piece of software. Inspection often produces empirical data, and tools such as scatter diagrams, control charts, flowcharts and cause and effect diagrams, all help to control the quality of deliverables.

Controls can also be regarded as event-driven or time-driven. Go/no-go and post control are event driven and events could be life cycle based (the conclusion of a phase, stage or tranche) or feedback based (when tolerances are exceeded).

Time-driven controls are more typical of cybernetic control and involve weekly or monthly reports, periodic reviews or regular progress meetings. It is the P3 manager’s responsibility to collect progress data and prepare reports, highlighting areas that need attention. In some cases this work will be done by a support function, freeing the manager to concentrate on decision-making and implementing corrective action.

No work will ever progress strictly according to plan. A good plan will contain elements of contingency and management reserves that will cushion the effect of issues. Some of these reserves will be in the control of the P3 manager and others within the control of the sponsor.


Project, programme and portfolio

The way progress data is collected and reported will depend on the planning techniques used to develop the baseline.

On a small project, the schedule baseline may have been prepared and presented as a simple Gantt chart, in which case schedule progress may be shown as a slip chart.

As projects become more complex and schedules are based on network diagrams, these models can be used for more sophisticated control techniques such as earned value management (EVM) or critical chain.

The more sophisticated the method of recording and analysing progress, the more accurate the predictions of future performance. For example, where a simple slip chart based on critical path analysis may not predict a future breach of tolerances, a forecast based on earned value management will show a breach. This is because critical path analysis assumes future rates of progress will be in accord with the original plan whereas EVM assumes future rates of progress will be in accord with historical rates of progress.

While control systems for traditional projects tend to focus first on time and cost, agile projects focus on scope. In the agile environment products are delivered in short timeboxed sprints and control techniques such as Kanban are more appropriate when controlling the flow of work. Over a number of sprints, burn down charts are often a better way of illustrating progress than Gantt charts.  

In programmes and portfolios there will be multiple levels of cybernetic control. A project manager on a project will gather regular feedback on progress and take corrective action as required. Where the project is part of a programme, the programme manager may take the role of project sponsor and provides the second level of control.

If the programme is part of a portfolio then there is a similar relationship that introduces a third level of control.
This does not mean that there are three people controlling the project on a day to day basis. Each level of control deals with a different degree of detail and has a different span of control. Within larger projects or programmes and portfolios, the control system (possibly laid out in a control management plan) must, for each level, explain how:

  • tolerances will be set;
  • progress data will be gathered and reported;
  • interdependencies between different plans will be monitored;
  • progress information will be consolidated upwards;
  • decisions will be communicated downwards.

As the work becomes more complex it is vital to focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) rather than monitor everything in great detail. The role of a PSO (project, programme or portfolio support office) will be indispensable as complexity increases and managers need timely and accurate information to make good decisions.



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26th September 2014Reference to control techniques for agile projects added
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