Project Controls: A Quick Guide


If something bad is going to happen on a project, it’s likely related to time, cost or scope. Project managers are well aware of this and spend much of their time planning in order to avoid negative risk and its potential impact. There are many tools that can mitigate risk in a project, but it also takes skill in something called project controls.

As the name implies, project controls are about controlling the project and keeping it from exceeding budgets and deadlines. Project controls can vary according to industry and organizations, but they always provide a way to complete a successful project and deliver benefits to cost, time and performance.

What Are Project Controls?

Project controls are a set of tools, processes and people skills that are used together to help project managers have the right information, at the right time, to make the right decision.

ProjectManager's dashboard
Project controls are more effective with ProjectManager’s real-time dashboard. Learn more.

For the technical definition, there’s the Project Management Institute’s project management bible, Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), which states: “Project controls are the data gathering, management and analytical processes used to predict, understand and constructively influence the time and cost outcomes of a project or program; through the communication of information in formats that assist effective management and decision making.”

Think of project controls as the mechanism that keeps a project on schedule when planning and executing, keeping costs within budget. In fact, it works throughout the entire life cycle of a project.

In project management, project controls address the following:

  • Project strategy
  • Methodology
  • Schedule
  • Cost estimates
  • Risk management
  • Project documentation
  • General oversight
  • Quality
  • Resources

It’s all about collecting and managing data, finding trends in that information, reporting on progress and then putting what you’ve learned into practice.

There are project controls professionals who are responsible for the project manager, but they touch the entire project team. That’s because project controls help to guide the project manager in making informed and accountable decisions.

Why Are Project Controls Important?

The scope of project controls is large in a project: that alone should signify its importance. The whole purpose of a project manager is to control the project, from its inception to completion. Manage is part of the job title, and project controls are just another means to that end.

In fact, the project controls are key to a strong project plan. Before execution, a solid plan must be in place, and project controls help to align the whole project with the larger strategic goals of the organization. This means saving the project and the organization time and money.

Furthermore, project controls help to answer important questions about the project. For example, how much will the project cost, how long will it take to complete and what is the value or quality that the project will deliver?

Implementing Project Controls

We’ve been discussing project controls in the abstract. We know what they are and why they’re important, but what about applying them to real-life project management? As noted, they fit into every aspect of a project’s life cycle. Let’s take a closer look to see how.

Project Planning

Project controls are needed at the beginning of the project, as you make your schedule, assemble a team, break down tasks, identify stakeholders and figure out what the project objective is. It is in the estimation of costs and duration of the project where controls are essential. These two constraints are some of the greatest risks to your project. Therefore, it’s key to making accurate estimates.

Project Development

This is the point where the rubber is about to hit the road. Cost estimates are developed into budgets and time estimates become project schedules. It is during this project phase that project controls are strongly needed.

They help with the monitoring and reporting on the project plan and schedule. The better the project controls, the faster one can identify when a project is off-track Same is true for monitoring expenses, performance and budgets. Project controls also work with your risk management plan to recognize risks to the project cost and schedule.

Project Implementation

Executing the project means keeping the team focused to prevent slipping off schedule and busting your budget. To do this requires accurate monitoring and tracking of progress.

Project controls act as a means to identify when there are problems and bottlenecks. Whether balancing resource allocation to match team capacity or quality issues, you need project controls to break down data on the team’s hours worked against budget spent and more to see where there are problems and resolve them quickly.

Project Closure

The end of the project isn’t successful deliverables and satisfied stakeholders, of course. There’s a lot of paperwork to tie up, teams to relinquish or reassign and, naturally, project controls to gather information on performance. This last piece of housecleaning before putting the project on the shelf is like a post-mortem to see what worked and what didn’t, so the next project can benefit from what you’ve learned.

The People Part of Project Controls

Project controls are a combination of many things. But you can break them down into two groups: project management tools and people. The tools will be addressed in the next section. For now, let’s focus on the people: the project manager and the project team.

As noted, project controls are about managing project scope, cost and timeline. That means, having the right project manager, team, data and review and change management in place. The team should be staffed with skillful and experienced workers who have expertise and knowledge in how to do the work assigned to them. They are a project control and often the first set of eyes on issues that arise in the project. A project manager is only as good as the team they lead. Both project managers and teams must always be alert to project scope, one of the main culprits for projects losing control.

Project Controls with ProjectManager

People are key to good project management and good project management tools are key to helping those people work better. ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software that gives project managers the transparency they need to better enact project controls.

With award-winning Gantt charts, project managers can map out every project task and designate assignees. As tasks are completed, progress updates in real time, and managers can make sure everything is going according to plan. If necessary, those tasks can be reassigned to keep the project running smoothly.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart with task info
ProjectManager’s fully-featured Gantt charts give you total control over projects.

Timesheets to better track team and task progress when the project is executed. Teams report how much time they spend on a task, which allows you to quickly catch any anomalies or time-consuming tasks. If one task is taking too long, try the workload feature. The workload feature helps project managers keep their team’s workload balanced. You can see if team members are under- or overallocated and, if so, reallocate and reassign to keep the work moving smoothly forward.

The ProjectManager dashboard might be the most essential feature for project controls, as it keeps you abreast of the project’s progress as it happens. Tracking six project metrics, such as variance, health and tasks, you know where the project is anytime and anywhere. For greater detail, use ProjectManager’s one-click reporting feature. These customizable reports can be filtered for deep data dives or more general progress updates for stakeholder presentations.

ProjectManager’s dashboard view, which shows six key metrics on a project
ProjectManager gives you total visibility into the progress of your projects.

ProjectManager is more than a project controls tool; it addresses all of your project management needs. The cloud-based software is accessible anywhere and at any time, which makes managing remote teams easier and gives all team members a collaborative platform to work more productively together. Project managers can control the planning, monitoring and reporting on their projects and keep stakeholders updated. See how it can help your next project by trying our software for free.

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