Why 'Percent Complete' Is Never a Measure of Progress

Andy Jordan is President of Roffensian Consulting S.A., a Roatan, Honduras-based management consulting firm with a comprehensive project management practice. Andy always appreciates feedback and discussion on the issues raised in his articles and can be reached at andy.jordan@roffensian.com. Andy's new book Risk Management for Project Driven Organizations is now available.

Very early in my project management career, someone said to me: “The first 95% of the work takes the first 95% of the time; the other 5% of the work takes the other 95% of the time.”

Aside from the rather suspect math involved, that statement has stuck with me because it is often such a true representation of how projects go. Everything seems to be going well, but then you run into a huge challenge at the end that slows everything down or forces you to take steps backward and redo work. It seems that just as the finish line is in sight, it is more unattainable than ever.

And let me assure you, that’s not unique to new project managers. I recently had a new house built, and I walked through it with the main contractor and we listed 43 items that were left to do. After a lot of activity, we walked through the house again six weeks later and listed 46 items!

Faced with this reality, it still amazes me that so many projects are run with progress tracking based on percent complete. I understand that it’s a simple metric, but it’s also highly inaccurate for either individual tasks or (especially) the project as a whole. It also has the potential to create a false sense of security.

To truly understand what’s going on with their projects, it’s important for new PMs to avoid falling into the “percent complete” trap in …

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