How comfortable would you be driving a car without being able to see how fast you’re going, or how much gas you have? Or flying a plane with no instruments that would alert you when something is wrong?

When managing a project of any size, one of the most important features of your project management software is the project dashboard. Just as cars and planes have dashboards to monitor their internal workings, so too must projects have a dashboard to measure key metrics.

There are many types of dashboards, some that require setting up, and others that work automatically behind the scenes. But they all share one thing in common; they’re an essential project management tool for any manager.

Let’s take a deep dive into the world of dashboards, exploring what they are, their benefits and the many different kinds that project managers use to keep their projects on track.

What Is a Dashboard?

In project management, a dashboard is a tool that gathers data on key performance indicators (KPIs) on various aspects of the project and displays them for quick reference. These KPIs typically include performance and progress (measured in time and cost), but may also include workload and other project metrics. Often, a dashboard must be built from scratch—although most project management software offerings include this feature.

ProjectManager.com, for example, has a real-time dashboard that tracks project metrics across your projects and portfolios, and instantly updates colorful graphs so you can stay on top of everything.

Real-time project dashboard tracking health, tasks, progress, time, cost and workload

A typical dashboard is a collection of widgets that take the form of charts and graphs, but they can also show that data in other, less graphic ways. Ideally, a dashboard should collect real-time data, so the information displayed is accurate and timely.

Most dashboards will have indicators that track activity, such as deadlines and other important upcoming events. Progress is also a popular widget to get a look at the status of tasks, the overall project, workload and budget. Sometimes milestones and resource allocation are tracked. There are even dashboards that monitor one’s personal to-do list.

A dashboard (and what it monitors) takes different forms, depending on what department is using it, to better suit the activities and metrics important to that department. Marketing, business, DevOps and more all use and benefit from dashboards in their day-to-day procedures.

In short, dashboards are important because they offer managers a place to see all their project data in one place where it’s laid out visually and easy to digest. As data-driven decisions on KPIs continue to drive organizations, dashboards have only grown in their importance.

Three Kinds of Dashboards

Dashboards serve many industries and departments within organizations, and they can be created and customized in endless ways depending on the needs of those who use them.

That being said, most dashboards fall into these three categories.

Operational

Most dashboards are this type. They update in real time, and capture the performance of the project as a team progresses.

Analytical

This dashboard taps historical data to find trends that will help inform decision-making on upcoming projects. Because of this, the dashboard is mostly used by database analysts, who have more training in understanding these figures than a typical manager.

Strategic

As the name implies, this dashboard helps to keep a project in alignment with the organization’s overall strategy. It does this by tracking KPIs, and is often shared with everyone in the organization to motivate them.

Common Dashboard Examples & Configurations

Those are the main types of dashboards, but there are subtypes of dashboards that target specific performance. The following are a few of the more popular kinds of dashboards.

Project Dashboard

The project dashboard is made up of widgets that display the KPIs related to a project. These are used by project managers to make sure they’re meeting the requirements of their project plan as it reflects the schedule, scope and costs of the project. Watch the video below to learn more about project dashboards.

Project management training video (4kjr6a3i77)

Reports Dashboard

A reports dashboard is no different than a project dashboard, which is really just a progress report that is set up to read live data and display it. While reports can be delivered as text or in spreadsheets, a report dashboard is always shown as a type of graphic to help discern the data quickly and easily.

Photo credit: Eralis Software

KPI Dashboard

This dashboard is designed to gain insights into the key performance indicators, which are communicating the most important information to those who need that data in order to make better decisions. Like any dashboard, the KPI variant is used to get the information necessary to meet business objectives.

Photo Credit: Zoho

Business Dashboard

Speaking of business, there’s the business dashboard, which is another graphic display of KPIs. You’re starting to see a similarity among these dashboards. Back to the car analogy, trucks, cars, motorcycles — they all have dashboards, with minor differences. The business dashboard tracks data that impacts a specific business.

Image credit: DashboardBuilder.net

Data Dashboard

The data dashboard is just another way of visually tracking and analyzing KPIs, which are used to better run a business. Like other dashboards, the data that can be collected is across a spectrum that is narrowed to address those essential concerns related to what you’re managing.

Image credit: Klipfolio

What Are the Benefits of Dashboards?

Dashboards are an integral part of running a project and are used by different departments in organizations… but why? The benefits are as varied as the various types of dashboards and widgets that can be displayed. Here are some of the main reasons why dashboards are such a useful project management tool.

Visibility

Being able to see how your project is performing, particularly in real-time, is the number one benefit of a dashboard. You can never have enough data to drive good decision-making, and dashboards mine, calculate and display that information. Dashboards let you know if you’re on track and, if not, where the issue is. Then you can resolve it before it becomes a problem.

Save Time & Money

Dashboards are designed to efficiently monitor a project’s performance. Without a dashboard, you have to create reports, which take time and pull you away from actually managing the project. If you find yourself repeatedly going back to create reports on an aspect of the project, then a widget on your dashboard is great to take busy work off your desk. Once the widget is created, you can check on it whenever you need to—without the paperwork.

Data in One Place

Another efficiency of using dashboards is that all the project data you need to monitor to stay on track is collected and displayed in one place. You don’t have to move from one platform to another, use multiple tools or get sidetracked with building unique reports. It’s all there in one place, where you can get the data you need to manage your report at a glance.

Data-Driven Decisions

Dashboards are not going to give you opinions or obfuscate their findings due to inherent prejudices. It’s just the numbers. The hard facts. You get a clear, unbiased view of the project, which is the only way to make the right choices that will help your performance. Dashboards will lead to improved results, because you’re measuring your project accurately and can keep it on schedule as planned. This means greater productivity and reduced stress.

Accountability

The dashboard isn’t just a passive tool that merely shows you what’s happening. It’s also a means to spotlight what isn’t working. While it’s great to get data that says you’re on track, it’s also important to see where the problems are. A dashboard holds the team accountable for their actions, both good and bad, giving them the info they need to improve.

Making a Dashboard

Most dashboards have to be built from the ground up, which can be an impediment on their usefulness. True, you’re not having to generate a new report every time you want to track a KPI, but still—making a dashboard in Excel is time and labor intensive.

It’s easier to use a project management software that allows you to set up the dashboard or, better still, automatically does the work for you.

That said, not everyone wants to commit to a software choice right off the bat. Some prefer to get their bearings using a template first. Don’t fear! You can create a dashboard in Excel by downloading our free project dashboard template. Follow the instructions, and you’ll get widgets for task progress, workload, costs and more.

Using the ProjectManager.com Real-Time Dashboard

Dashboard software is an invaluable tool to collect and deliver information quickly and easily. Some programs have you build the widgets, and others have them built-in and ready to function— for example, ProjectManager.com.

Our dashboard tool crunches the numbers for you and provides project metrics for you to make data driven decisions. Sign up for a free 30-day trial and follow along to start tracking projects with powerful dashboards.

Add Tasks & Deadlines

Dashboards need data to pull from in order to calculate and display project KPIs. Therefore, tasks lists with start and end dates are critical.

Upload your task list, or use our industry-specific templates to get started. Add the start and end dates to each task to give them a duration.

Task chart on real-time dashboard

Set Budget & Costs

In order to keep track of your overall budget and resource costs, you need to first determine them. Once you have these figures, you can compare them against actual expenditure.

Add the planned cost for each task and any related resource that will be required to complete that task. These can be added to the appropriate column on the Gantt chart.

Cost panel tracking project financials

Update Progress

One of the most important KPIs for a project is knowing the progress. With this information, you can compare where you actually are against where you expected to be.

Progress is shown in real time as team members update their task status. That data is then collected and calculated by our software and displayed in a color-coded chart.

Dashboard feature showing progress graph and percentages complete

Log Hours

The total number of tasks and status updates from your team will give you a snapshot of their workload. The more balanced, the more productive they will be.

Set your team’s hours and assign them tasks. As they work and update their status, the workload chart shows what they’ve completed, what’s remaining and what’s overdue.

Workload bar chart on dashboard showing team’s task allocation

Use Dashboard Repeatedly

Dashboards are only useful if you use them. They capture the project at that particular moment, and that image is constantly in flux. Therefore, returning to your dashboard must be a regular activity.

Look at the dashboard throughout the project to avoid slippage. See if you’re on time, keeping your team productive and making sure your costs are in line with the budget.

Time graph from dashboard view showing what’s on time and behind

Share with Stakeholders

Dashboards display the project metrics to project managers who are tasked with keeping things on track, but it can also act as a communication tool to keep stakeholders updated.

Use the gear symbol on the top right-hand side of your dashboard and share it with anyone who has access to the software.

Full view of the real-time dashboard, with all six widgets show project metrics

Limitations of Dashboards

Dashboards are important, but they’re not a panacea. They offer a window into the workings of the project at a high level, and because of that, smaller, crucial details can be obscured.

Using data analytics is essential, but dashboards only really measure what’s happening now, or in the past. They cannot predict what will happen, even based on historical data. More importantly, dashboards are unable to offer a course of action moving forward.

Therefore, dashboards can give you a false sense of having all the answers. For one, the metrics followed on the dashboard, while key to understanding the project, only offer a limited picture.

People like to say numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. It’s all about how you interpret those numbers, and the greater context. Data can be presented in any number of ways to tell the story you want to be true. This is something to always keep in the back of your mind as you use the dashboard.

Try Our Dashboards for Free

ProjectManager.com is an award-winning tool that organizes teams and projects. Our cloud-based software gives you real-time data to make better decisions.

The dashboard is only one in our suite of project management software features, so you have every project tool at your fingertips to manage it right. Over 10,000 teams use our tool to better manage their projects, both big and small, at companies as varied as the Bank of America, NASA and the US Postal Service.

Find out for yourself how our tool delivers you real-time data to inform your decisions and manage your team better by starting your free 30-day trial.

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