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Top five visualizations for managing large programs

People use pictures to drive better understanding more quickly, and with modern PM tools to collect data, and advancing visualization technologies to render them, we now have faster, easier access to the meaning of the data than ever before, at price points that are far less than the savings they produce.   

Convincing executives, stakeholders and team members that a problem needs a corrective action is always a challenging moment for any program or project manager.  Time is not on your side, and often you are facing a tough slog up someone else’s cognitive mountain.  How do you convince skeptical viewers of a decision or action on top of potentially shaky data? 

Below are five visualizations that can help you tell your story; from what the budget says about priorities to how the portfolio is executing.   

Waterline 

The waterline helps program managers to communicate tradeoffs around budget reality and helps focus teams on the most valuable work.  Everything above the waterline can be done within the current budget, everything below the line cannot.  This is the hallmark of modern portfolio management:  weighing priorities for a transparent fit between business drivers and the projects that support them.   

Input Data:  Projects with Cost Estimates 
How to Read:  Above the line is in, below the line is out 
Corrective Action:  Identify budget alignment 

Image of a Waterline conveying an example of projects with cost estimates
Image of a Waterline conveying an example of projects with cost estimates

Heatmaps 

The heatmap, made easy to render using conditional formatting, provides that fourth dimension that the Gantt chart misses, and is exceptional at showing outliers in an array of numbers.  When big data gets you down, and you have too much tabular data to fit into a nice matrix, using conditional formatting to pay attention to thresholds that are critical. 

This makes communicating over allocation (and under allocation) much easier and faster.  Having a well-known time dimension (months) and a threshold implied by your conditional formatting is helpful.   

Inputs:  Resources with Availability or Work Estimates by Month 
How to Read:  Look for hot spots (over allocation) and cool spots (under allocation) 
Corrective Action:  Resolve resource conflicts 

Image of a Heatmap conveying statistical data in a matrix represented by colors
Visual of a Heatmap conveying statistical data in a matrix represented by colors

Portfolio indicators 

Formula-based red yellow green indicators can provide a heatmap-like experience on individual metrics and, if well structured, can provide a critical early warning system on common metrics such as cost, schedule and work.  Key Performance Indicators can be expressed against a static reference point like a baseline and are most useful when they show overage by percentage.  By drawing the reader’s attention easily to outliers, they help expedite the transformation of problems into solutions.   

Inputs:  Projects with KPIs 
How to Read:  Look for the red and yellow KPIs 
Corrective Action:  Address cost, work or schedule health 

Image of a Portfolio indicators spreadsheet
Visual of a portfolio indicators spreadsheet

Risk matrix 

The great thing about the project management discipline is that it has a protocol for dealing with things going wrong.  Issues are very present, risks may be a little less so, but they share common data such as owners, due dates and perhaps some financial impact. 

The typical visualization for risks is probability vs impact. And with modern bubble charts, you can add nice dimensions of size and color to focus on what’s important like categories or cost.  Like a Gartner quadrant diagram, up and to the right are the things you need to pay attention to, having the greatest probability and the greatest impact.   

Inputs:  Risks with Probability and Impact 
How to read:  Look to the top right of the matrix for the biggest challenges 
Corrective Action:  Prepare for the expected 

Image of a Risk Matrix chart displaying graphic information regarding Probability and Impact
Visual image of a Risk Matrix chart displaying graphic information regarding Probability and Impact

Gantt chart 

The Gantt chart is the original visual clue of congestion.  This is a horizontal bar chart that plots start and finish dates to show overlapping durations in a non-overlapping manner.  Adding the vertical dimension here is the primary innovation: to plot tasks or projects avoiding the problem of having too much data in a single spot, obscuring the key point that we may need help to do everything at once.  With some artful formatting, the Gantt can also show slippage, critical path and other measurements, but being able to understand overlap is a key use case with this one. 

Inputs:  Tasks with Start and Finish 
How to read:  Look for many bars in the same vertical space 
Corrective Action:  Resolve task conflicts 

Gantt Chart

Usage matrix 

Name Purpose Audience Readability 
Waterline Know what projects to invest in Executives Manage which projects fall above the line (included in portfolio) or below (not funded) 
Heatmap Understand resource allocation outliers Resource Managers Look for overallocation in red color 
Portfolio Indicators At-a-glance metric status Executives Look for red and yellow indicators on key dimensions 
Risk Matrix Distribution of risk by probability and impact Project Managers Understand outliers to the top and right of the chart 
Gantt Chart Visualize task or project overlap Project Managers Scan vertically for overlap in time dimension 

Closing thoughts 

Many Project Management Organizations are engaging in the practice of data-driven project management for simple reasons:  the tools are becoming less expensive; the discipline is becoming less time consuming and the data will reveal something needing corrective action.  Using some of the key visualizations like those above will make it easier for you to convince your audience that they can make good decisions and move projects along more quickly. 

About the author

Mark Read

Mark E. Read, PMP, MCTS is a Principal Consultant at Sensei Project Solutions and serves his local PMI Chapter as President. He has been building charts and graphs since the late 1980s.

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The Growth Center does not constitute professional tax or financial advice. You should contact your own tax or financial professional to discuss your situation.