6 Steps to Prevent Information Overload
I was thinking about the dashboard on my car the other day. Whenever I turn my key there are a myriad lights and indicators that illuminate on the dashboard. Some indicators light up for a second or two and then they turn off again. Others stay lit the entire time. Other gauges and indicators only come on when there is a need for them to tell me something is going wrong with the car.
Well, I decided to count them one day (yes, I must have entirely too much time on my hands). To my surprise there were nearly 30 gauges, lights, and indicators tucked away in the cramped space of my dashboard!
There were indicators that told me about my battery health, oil level and seat belts, heat and speed, distance and miles traveled, lights to warn me if there was an issue with the engine and indicators referring to I don’t know what, with acronyms like TPMS and VSA.
Do you know how many of these I use on a daily basis? Two! That’s right…just two.
I use the speedometer and fuel level gauge. Those are the only two that I monitor every time that I get in the car. I need to know how fast I’m going and how far I can go. Now, I will use the gauges on an as-needed basis.
However, all I really need to keep focused on to operate the vehicle are just two out of the 30 or so indicators that are available to me. I would succumb to information overload if I tried to pay attention to all 30.
Then I thought about my project dashboard and reports. I wondered if I was loading up these project manager mainstays with too many indicators, gauges and dials that resulted in nothing more than project information management overload. I wondered if the final users were zeroed in on only 1 or 2 pieces of information (speedometer and gas, for example) and ignored the rest.
So, I came up with the following 6 step process to provide answers to my question…
Is my project dashboard contributing to project management information overload?
- Define Your Users: The first thing that must be done in order to prevent project management overloadis to have a very clear understanding of who is using your reports:Is the report being used by management to make decisions on whether to continue or cancel the project?Is the report being used by project team members to get a feel for when it will be their turn to start working on the project?Sit down with end users and get a feel for what they need to glean from the report. Find out what they don’t need on the report.There are a lot of unnecessary items that can end up on a report and just contribute to project information management overload. For example, I know of a report that includes a piece of information that has not been updated for over 6 months. It includes the exact same numbers that have not changed once…even though the reality is that it should have changed.Nobody has questioned it, nobody has raised concern, and nobody cares. Why? Because it’s not the speedometer or gas gauge. Start putting your reports together based upon what is important to the users.
- Determine What Information You Already Have:Once you know what is important to your users, start pulling together the metrics and data you already have at your disposal.Is everyone interested in the percentage of high, medium and low risks that are attached to a project? Find out where you have this information and pull it together.Are people interested in the variance of actual over budgets? Find out where you have this information and pull it together. Map the needs of the different users to the information you already have.
- Determine What Information you Don’t Have:Despite the fact that project information overload is rampant, there may be some things you do not currently have available, that showed up on the needs assessment from step #1. Identify those gaps and then come up with a way to locate this information.One thing that’s way worse than providing too much information is not providing enough information. If someone is asking for a relevant piece of information to be included on your report then it’s incumbent upon you to find a way to make that happen.
- Determine What Everyone NEEDS: Just like the song says “You can’t always get what you want”…you need to now take the data that was assembled in steps two and three above and come up with a matrix clarifying which stakeholders requested which information, and what it is that you will be able to provide.You may find out that some requests are just not achievable or require an inordinate amount of manual time pulling information together that is spread out over 2-3 disconnected systems. Even the best pivot table expert and VLOOKUP expert in the world would struggle with accommodating some of the requests for information.You now go back to the people that asked and let them know what can and can’t be done. You may be surprised to find that what you are able to provide, is fine. People are so used to being overwhelmed by project management information overload that they ask for the moon. When they realize what you give them will satisfy their needs, they are usually just fine.
- Determine the Frequency of Reports:You now have the basis for a solid report or set of reports that can be generated which people can use to understand what is going on with the project.Find out how often they need this report. Remember, a daily report may contribute to project information management overload and quickly find its way into the Trash folder. People may initially say they want a report generated every day, but the changes are so minute, or it doesn’t tell them anything new, that they quickly stop looking at the report.Perhaps it’s better to spread the frequency out over a week or two to allow for bigger changes to occur.
- Make the Reports Easy to Access: Finally, now that you have given everyone just what they are looking for and in the frequency they need it, make sure everyone knows how they can get the report. Is it something you are going to email to them on a weekly basis? Is it a folder on a shared drive where they can access the report? Are they able to run the report themselves whenever they want? Make sure everyone is clear on how they can locate the report so it is utilized.
That’s it. The above should help you address your stakeholder’s project management information needs without overwhelming them with unnecessary bits of information.
You’ll also need to have a contingency plan in place for additional information if and when it is needed. For example, your oil light does not go on every time you get in the car. But, when it does go on you know it’s very important that you do something about it to make sure no damage is done to your engine. Keep that concept in mind as well and make sure you can access other vital pieces of information to share with the team on an as-needed basis.
It’s funny how similar a project is to a car. You want to know how fast it’s going and how far you can take it. Use the principles above in putting together information people need to make decisions and you’ll avoid project management information overload.
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