project plan

If you already know why you’re tracking projects, skip this section and go straight to How to structure projects below. But if you’re unsure why project tracking is necessary to your business, or you just need validation for reasons you’ve already chosen, then scan these paragraphs for ideas you may not have thought of.

Learn how long your projects take

The hard fact is, you must reduce project execution time or your inefficiencies will be your downfall. Most of the reasons below have this singular goal in common. They all approach it from a different perspective. This business climate demands efficiency and flawless project execution.

And it’s all about time. Tweet this!

After all, what is a project? It is a group of individuals working together to achieve an end-result. When that endeavor is accomplished, a new one is commenced. The key to that last statement is when. The word when is important because it measures the amount of time we spent in that endeavor. And since salaries are usually the lion’s share of any project cost, when is vitally important.

Think of executing a project as under-water diving. You suit up, make final preparations, and then dive. But how long can you stay submerged? The resources don’t last forever. The oxygen supply is limited. Human strength and stamina have their limits. So everyone under the water, and everyone above the water understands that you are there to accomplish all you can with the limited time you have.

Described another way... project plans don't always work out the way you think.




Business-related projects are the same way.

That is why learning how long they take, and learning to optimize your time is so important.

You cannot stay submerged forever. Or, you might encounter obsticles along the way.


Which kinds of work consume the most time?

This is one of the very basic reasons to track projects. Categorizing tasks by the basic kinds of work your organization performs lets you go back and find inefficiencies. Does one category of task consistently outpace others? Is one notoriously slow? Or over-budget? It’s easy to find out. Just assign a user-defined categories to each task. Users will not even know this has happened. They will simply track hours as usual, but you’ll suddenly have a whole new way to learn where your time money is spent.

Categorizations like this transcend projects. In other words, it doesn’t matter what project the time was logged under. The fact is, it was logged under a certain category that is meaningful to you. You’ll know that for projects X, Y, Z, you spent a certain amount of time on each kind of work. That leads to a deeper analysis and bigger questions you may find interesting and valuable.

Compare projects to similar ones you’ve already completed

How long did your previous projects take? How much was admin time, and how much was actual project execution? Research? Design? Implementation?

At first, you might consider admin time a complete waste. No revenue is generated. No strategic goals are accomplished. The ball is no further up the hill than when you started.

Work = force times distance

No work is performed if your project isn’t moved forward.

Even if it made you sweat and strain.

So you must view admin time as a tool to accomplishing your goals. A means to an end. By itself, it performs no work, but it enables the team to work together and complete a goal. But reduce admin time too much, and your team disintegrates. Load up too much admin time, and the team grows fat and lethargic. We can all think of wasteful examples we don’t want to emulate.

Comparing admin time in previous projects is a great strategy for improving this.

And comparing other categorizations of time can be just as enlightening.  How much time did you spend on each project stage? What percentage of time did each project stage take? Why so long? What held us up? These are the types of questions one asks when breaking projects into logical parts and studying them.

Actually, reducing completion time is not always the best choice

Every project is held in tension by three forces: quality, time, and cost. This is the “Project Management Triangle.”

Quality is how close to the requirements you want to get.

Time is when you want to complete the job.

Cost is how much you’re willing to spend.

It’s pretty easy to complete a project sooner. Just do less. Or do crap work. Or pay a billion dollars. Problem solved; you finished early. But that’s probably not going to meet your long-term strategic goals. One of which is staying in business. You’re on a tightrope all the time. You have to watch these competing forces, or you won’t last long.

Sometimes you’re faced with the choice: “Fast, Good, or Cheap: pick any two.”

 scope time cost


Inefficiencies, redundancies, and priorities

If you can measure it, you can improve it. That’s only partially true. Sometimes there are three levels of indirection between measurement and improvement, and sometimes there are multiple factors with unexplainable relationships. In other words, things are not always as simple as they seem.

You might have to become a scientist to study your projects. Tweet this!

But that’s okay… what else have you got to do? J

It’s true, examining past projects to find inefficiencies and redundancies is like performing a scientific study. But what are the alternatives? Ignore a vast goldmine of information just because it’s hard?

Why not try breaking the project down into categorizable parts. Which parts take the longest to execute? Which parts are the hardest to estimate? Which estimates are most unreliable? Why do we have such a hard time with this one area? Why did we place such high priority on this? Or such a low priority on that?

Questions like these, which can only be answered by studying past projects objectively after all the emotion and politics have past, make you better at the next project. They lead to better ways of doing things.


Better ways to do things

Project strategy is best learned after the emotion of the moment is past. It’s the reason military strategists study Roman battles with the Barbarians. Only then is objectivity unclouded by emotion and politics. You’re allowed to draw conclusions from the facts, and present them as good strategy for the future.


Expensing verses capitalizing engineering time

Here’s a great reason to track projects --> Taxes! Your development time can be written off as an expense. The only difference between expensing and capitalizing engineering hours is the time frame under which the work was done. If the time was relatively short and fell within one year, it should be expensed. If it occurred over multiple years, it is an asset that depreciates over time. Either way, write it off.

Capitalizing project hours is probably not a reason to study past projects, but definitely has strategic value to the organization. It’s a perfectly valid reason to track projects.


Phases and stages

A huge reason to track projects is to study each phase or stage after the project is completed. Every project phase has a purpose, usually customized to serve the needs of the organization. Break your project into phases, announce the purpose of each phase to employees, and ask for their participation in delivering the best results possible. When the project completes, you’ll have a perfect breakdown of where your project time was spent.


Compare projects portfolios for cost and ROI

Portfolios contain multiple projects. After tracking many projects in multiple portfolios, you may find that comparisons on the aggregate yield interesting results. One project portfolio may routinely outperform another – costs less, less time, fewer resources, higher quality, etc. That may lead to questions about why. What do they have that we don’t? Can we emulate or beat them? Is there a trend we can adopt? But until you place projects into portfolios, and actually track hours for a bunch of them, you may never get to these advanced questions.


Done deal… we’re doing it!

So you’ve decided to track your projects for one or more of the reasons above. Good for you! You won’t regret it; you probably learn a lot along the way, and get some new information you never even thought of.

But how should you organize your projects for optimum time tracking?

That’s a decision only you can make. It depends on what you want to accomplish. Or what you expect to get out of the exercise. And you may only know the answer after a few false starts.

You may track a few projects and realize you want more information. The results are ‘okay’ but don’t let you distinguish one kind of work from another. Or they don’t let you distinguish one phase of the project from another. Or admin from real project work. Or don’t contain breakdowns that tell you what part of the project is being tracked.

That’s a good problem to have!

That means you are isolating the raw materials that answer bigger questions everyone is asking.

  • Are we sticking to our priorities? Or have secondary priorities hijacked our organization?
  • Are we lean and mean? Or are we pork and beans?
  • Is this division worth keeping? Or should we cut it loose?
  • Are our costs and prices sustainable? Or should we abandon ship?
  • Is this product or service making money? Or is it time to go?


How to structure projects

Here are some suggestions for structuring projects for strategic value. Keep in mind that each project structure is designed to specifically collect information to answer the questions above. And every structure is different, depending upon the need. There’s no point in building out a project with every detail if you don’t actually need the information for some strategic purpose. Keep it simple.


1. Flat project, no phases, no stages, no subprojects, no tasks

Consider starting with a flat project without any structure. No breakdowns, no tasks, no milestones. Just a project. Nothing else. Collecting time at the project level may sound too simplistic for any real value, but actually it could give you a lot more information than you have now.

A simple project without any breakdowns lets you know which priorities you’re focused on, and spending your time on, and your hard-earned money on. You’ll know the cost of each project, and can compare that with expectations and industry averages. You’ll know who is working on what, and if they are fully allocated, or partially allocated, or completely loafing off. You’ll know if your division is making money or losing it, or if you’re business model is sustainable. Tracking time to a simple project (without any breakdowns whatsoever) gives you all that. It may not be enough to answer some of the deeper questions, but it’s a start.

If you’re not tracking projects now, this is something to try.

What’s the downside? You may not be collecting all the information you need to answer the tough questions.


2. Flat project, with just categories

Let’s say you’ve started with the ‘flat project’ plan above. It worked, but you wish you had kept track of the basic kinds of work you do. With that you could compare admin to actual project work. You could differentiate research from design from documentation.

Categories can do that.

A simple category distinguishes one type of work from another. You’ll know if admin exceeds 20% of your project. You find out if fixing bugs and defects takes more than 30% of your development cycle.

What’s the downside? You’re asking employees to go a little deeper when filling out their timesheet.


3. Flat project, with just tasks

This is one step above the ‘flat project with only categories’ above. Instead of categories, you’re asking team members to enter time for tasks. To them, it looks the same. It’s a list under each project. Users pick a task from the list and enter hours. It’s just like categories, except that managers get more information.

It turns out that a category must be assigned to each project task. So you get all the information you got in the structure above, plus more. You now can tell who is scheduled for work and who is without. You can tell which tasks take the most time. You get estimates and actuals, plus rollups to the project level. You can mark a task as complete and stop users from entering time. There are ways to stop employees from camping out on favorite tasks, and nudge them forward to other important work. You can collect material costs, billing information, and search resource allocation by skillset.

What’s the downside? Just like above… asking users to drill deeper into their timesheets. Plus, there’s an administrative overhead to creating tasks and assigning users to them.


4. Full project with breakdowns and tasks

This is the big kahuna. The project from hell that can get so deep employees curse you in their sleep. It has phases to track every stage of the project – concept, requirements, design, implementation, and close. And under each of these phases are further breakdowns representing the activities, subsystems, and subprojects. And then under those are the actual tasks employees track hours to. Sounds awesome, huh?

Employees may not think so.

This full project can be good. It can collect a lot of information you can use to answer all the big questions. But it can also frustrate end-users who must wade through piles of phases, stages, subprojects, and tasks they’ve never even heard of. That jeopardizes employee buy-on. So you had better find ways to simplify.

The best way to simplify a project structure like this is resource assignment. Assign employees to projects, phases, subprojects, and tasks they are working on. Expect to spend loads of admin time making sure employees only see what’s immediately relevant to them. If they see anything more in their timesheet, you’ll have wrong entries, emails, and phone calls. Then you will curse them in your sleep.

What’s the downside? Full-on employee rebellion combined with admin overload if not done right.


5. Add milestones

Consider adding milestones to your tasks. Actually… add milestones in addition to tasks. Each milestone represents a delivery date. Place reminders to these (zero duration tasks) so everybody remembers them. Email notifications go out automatically. Everybody gets onboard to make things happen.

What’s the downside? More admin, scheduling, and risk of confusing employees.


Good luck on your venture!

Let us know how you made out, and how we can make the journey easier. Tweet this!





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