Most project managers want to track actual effort and dollars toward the completion of their projects and deliverables. The goal is obvious and laudable. By knowing the actual cost of something we can provide more precise estimates the next time around.

However, I don’t find actuals useful. I have little faith in the quality of the data that gets collected. Low-quality data is, at best, not useful. At worst, it will lead you to wrong conclusions and bad decisions.

Four issues seriously degrade the reliability of actuals.

  1. We, as individuals, remember pain. And we are much more inclined to remember when we took 100 percent longer to complete a one-day task than when we went 50 percent under on a two day task.
  2. Professionals prefer producing results over pushing paperwork. Sometimes we don’t put any mental cycles to tracking and remembering our effort against discrete activities. When the time come to push out the paperwork we can do no more than look back at our estimates.
  3. Sometimes we don’t work in sequence. Tasks get entangled. Priorities shift. We deviate from our plan to help other team members. The work gets done, but there’s no accounting for where the effort went. Again, our only fallback is our estimates.
  4. There is an expectation that each of us contribute a minimum number of hours per week, regardless of whether one is an employee, consultant or contractor. Will there be a problem if my actuals don’t add up to 40 hours (or more) a week? What about meetings, email, chores and helping other teams — where do those things go? No matter what reassurances you provide, too many of us will ensure that our weekly actuals total to the company work week, regardless of our actual effort toward shippable product.

Is it really worth spending your team’s limited resources on this?

5 Responses to “Stop the Insanity. Don’t Track Actuals.”
  1. Not only that, but actuals aren’t billables. even if my totals don’t add up to 40 hours per week, or whatever, I spent time on “non-delivery” activities. So if we are trying to forecast cost as well as duration, actual time spent on delivery tasks is completely useless, especially when resources are shredded across project streams.

  2. Exactly. Spot on

  3. Okay, at a core project level, I see your point. However, I suspect that many of you work in environments where the ultimate cost of something is important. If not to you, then to your finance group. They should also be interested in knowing the real allocation of your time between delivery and non-delivery tasks to drive at a real cost per productive hour of development. There is also the question of allocating costs when resources are shredded across project streams. Without actuals, the allocation of those costs is just a guess. If you are contracted externally, you need to know if you are winning or losing on your pricing. If you are internal resources, these numbers can and often do drive R&D tax credits and are at least a reference point for business planning. Yes, tracking actuals is a pain and its value for future estimates is often overstated especially if the team resource mix is in continual flux.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Brian!

    (And a belated thanks to Rich and Agile Scout.)

    Brian, I agree with you about often needing to know the ultimate cost of things, especially in environments with shredded resources, contract billing, and tax implications. I use velocity and task estimates give me these answers.

    I, and other agilish project managers, assign people to projects based on velocity. If a person is shared across two projects and has a total velocity of three effort days a week, I will work with the PMs to determine the number of effort days that person should contribute to each project on a weekly basis. We’ll adjust as necessary to make sure the greatest needs of both projects are met. And we’ll keep a record of the person’s allocation toward each project on a weekly basis based on the *estimates* of their completed tasks. Once people tell me their total hours worked (or billed) each week I can use the sums of their completed task estimates to ration out those hours against all the projects in play.

    Similarly, I can track non-delivery ratios by asking people to task out (and estimate) their non-delivery assignments on a weekly basis. But I do this only when I have to.

    In the end – because of the four complications I’ve listed above – the fidelity of the information I collect from actuals is not any greater than what I’ve already collected (if I’m smart about it) from planning. That is the crux of my argument.

    If a PM isn’t helping the team to set near-term goals, plan for those goals, and keep track of those plans – I will acknowledge that collecting actuals is the only option available. However, I’d argue, if someone on the team isn’t doing those things then there are much greater things to worry about than collecting actuals.

  5. - I want to track actuals
    - How are you going to use that information?
    - … hrd hurty durt …

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