It’s not new. Ever since I’ve been in the IT industry, there has been a hunger from management to see all the information they need at a glance. This used to be a request for the elusive “one-page-report” which was asked of us over and over to show executives all about projects that were underway. In that day and age, data moved slower. It was common for people in the project management business to deliver management reports on a monthly basis. The reports would be collated over a 3 or 4 day period after having been vetted all through the month and the resulting paper dashboard would arrive at management’s doorstep, usually accompanied by explanations and analysis of what was in the data.
IT has evolved in the past 35 years since I started. We now wear our computers on our wrists and on our hips and it is connected to not only our corporate systems but to the vast Internet so we can find data all over.
The more popular current executive desire is for live dashboards. And, make no mistake, people in my industry are awesome at selling these.
The dashboards could be based on big vendors. Microsoft’s Power BI delivers beautiful tools for making dashboards. Oracle BI does the same. And there is a plethora of vendors with dashboard types that are even more involved. These prototypes are waved in front of executives and, management’s eyes widen in wonder. I’m not kidding about this. You can often see the eyes go a little wider as a particular functional graphic is displayed.
“Look,” the vendor will say. “You can see the sales are too low and if you just click on the graph, you’ll be looking at the number, district by district. Click again and you’ll be looking at a district salesperson by salesperson.”
The data, of course, will be crafted so that the executive will immediately be able to see that poor John in District 5 is the culprit and imagine instantly what action they would take.
“And these graphs are coming right from you own data,” the vendor explains. “They’re being update in real time… moment-by-moment. You are always going to know how the business is doing as of seconds ago!”
If only things were that easy.
The biggest challenge with providing such a display is the disconnect between the imagined effect and how it is actually.
I once tried to explain this to someone in the management suite.
“We want to see things updated minute-by-minute,” the CIO said.
“I have no problem making such a display but you won’t want to use it,” I said.
“But of course we will,” said the CIO, mystified.
“Well what if I am showing you a report of actual project progress compared to planned progress but only half the projects have data that has been updated this week and half do not?” I asked.
“Well, everyone would have to update their tasks all the time,” I was told.
“You’d like your staff to update everything they’re working on throughout each hour? Are you sure?” I said.
Now the executive was a little less certain.
“Well, no,” they replied. “But maybe twice a day?”
I paused, waiting.
“Ok, probably once a day,” they admitted.
“And what if the project data that I’m displaying to you that impacts almost every chart on this page, what if only half that data has been approved by the project managers and the other half is only draft data from the end users?” I then ask.
“Oh,” the face is a little less excited now. “I really want to see only the data that has been signed off on. But, isn’t there anything we can do to get the data in real time?”
“Of course,” I reply. “And, let’s say I did and you got dashboards with charts that are changing color and changing shape throughout the day. How often are you prepared to intervene, run down to the project office and make a management decision? Would it be several times a day, once a day, once a week, once a month?”
“To be fair,” says the executive admitting defeat, “probably once or twice a month.”
Some kinds of data might be more useful in a day-to-day review. I’m sure if you are selling something like on an online shopping network, seeing how people respond minute-by-minute can be critical, even though it probably won’t result in a decision until much later.
But, project management data is usually not like that.
The desire from executives to see project data in a timely fashion comes from a good place. They want to make a difference. That’s the overwhelming reaction from the many executives I’ve asked about these kinds of things. They see a dashboard displayed and they imagine for a given moment how they’d be able to intervene in some way and help.
But the process behind dashboards is usually not well thought out. Instead, that visceral feeling of seeing a problem on a chart, highlighted in red, blinking furiously, makes a manager feel like they could jump in and help set something back on track that seems to be off. Once we talk about the process, managers are much more skeptical of how they should get benefit from these displays.
To be clear, I’m not against dashboards. Our own TimeControl timesheet system has dashboards and literally hundreds of TimeControl clients include TimeControl data in their corporate dashboards. I think that the ability of project managers and business people to display data in different formats is one of the most powerful influences over corporate decision making so getting dashboards that work can be critical. The timeliness of the dashboard however can also be a significant factor in how effective it is.
If we’re going to make a corporate information dashboard that can be counted on and which is effective, there are a few rules to consider:
Don’t measure too much
It’s tempting to measure everything you can find data for but just because you can display some data, doesn’t mean you should. It’s easy to overwhelm a reader with a dazzling display of how many different ways you can chart or pictogram something. But, ask yourself first, what is the overall effect? Are we distracting the user from finding the data that needs attention on the screen? Think, “less is more” and be selective about what data makes it to the dashboard. Each indicator should lead to some type of action. If this dial is in the red, management needs to know about it. If this dial is in the green, no one needs to take action.
Indicate the dashboard’s quality
Quality of the dashboard display is critical if the reader is to understand what they’re looking at. Is the data 100% collected? Did we collect this data or approve this data at different times? How about the timing of the data. Are we looking at a month of data on one display but only a week of data on the next? With the tools available today, that would be easy to deliver but make the resulting impact confusing.
Have an action for each indicator
This may be the most important. For each dashboard indicator, define what structured response is appropriate depending on the result of the indicator. If this is transparent and even displayed on the dashboard, then executives should know that one type of display should result in a project review, another type of display should result in a project manager’s report, another type should not have an action, and so on.
Audit the data
There should be a method for determining where the data from a chart came from and how it was processed to deliver the chart that is being looked at. A regular review of how you determine when something is green, yellow or red is a healthy thing. Being able to display a chart’s provenance is also tremendously powerful.
People can get addicted to quick and pretty views. I often tease that a dashboard is like a shiny object to a cat. Executives feel compelled to reach out and pat it. But, making a difference to the organization is the whole point of a dashboarding exercise. So, simplest is usually best.
A dashboard isn’t just a pacifier. It should be something that enables decision making and, just like when the hazard lights of the vehicle in front of you start flashing, you will know the correct and immediate action is to press down on the brakes.