4 Tips to Using SharePoint Lists to Improve Project Delivery

A SharePoint list represents a great tool to capture and maintain project information in a very structured manner. In addition, the information maintained in the list is more accessible to the team than information maintained “off-line” in tools such as Excel. The most powerful aspect of creating SharePoint lists to enable project delivery processes is that the data captured and displayed in the list can be tailored to meet the specific needs of your project environment by YOU. Creating and maintaining SharePoint lists requires an understanding of how to manage your project site, but does not require deep technical skills (I am your average technical project manager – not a SharePoint architect).

Since I receive so many comments and questions on my blog about how to create and maintain SharePoint lists, I decided to write a blog post that provides more tactical information about how to use SharePoint lists to meet the specific needs of your project. This post provides four pretty basic tips about creating and using SharePoint lists in a manner that makes your project teams more effective or efficient.

TIP #1: Custom vs. Standard Lists

In many of my SharePoint blogs I talk about “starting from a custom list”. The term “custom list” tends to scare people because they relate the term to customization (e.g., requires a programmer to perform the function). Selecting a “custom list” as your starting point just means that you are starting from a blank list that you can add your own columns and views to. SharePoint provides several different preconfigured list templates to use as the starting point to create a new list. I use the following standard SharePoint lists on my project sites to support specific project delivery functions:

  • Contacts – Great for the project team roster. I usually add columns to identify team members that are on the core team and the steering committee.
  • Tasks – This list is best for tracking action items within your project meeting workspaces.
  • Issue Tracking – I tailor this list to track risks and issues (my post on risks and issues provides a lot of detail on this list type).
  • Status List – This is a very unique list that is used to define and display project metrics (my post on measuring project performance provides more details on this type of list).
  • Links – This list is used to provide links to project resources (external or internal sites that are directly or indirectly applicable to your project work).

There are several project processes that I find it easier to start from a blank list than a predefined list available within SharePoint. The roles and responsibilities (RACI), change request tracking, and milestone tracking are all examples of lists that are unique to project delivery best practices, and best to create from a custom list and add the columns required to support the specific process.

TIP #2: Streamlining Data Capture Process

You want to make it as easy as possible for team members to add and update information in the list. The most important aspect of making a list easy to use is that you capture the data that is relevant to the process (and only the data that is relevant to the process). If there are columns in the standard SharePoint list that are not relevant to your specific process, delete them. In addition, it is helpful to order the columns in a sequence that is logical and meaningful to your project teams.

The other aspect of making it easy for project teams to use the list is minimizing the amount of information they are required to type into the form. There are specific column types available that ensure that data is captured in a consistent manner, and reduces the amount of “free form” data entered into the form.

Choices: Provides the ability to capture information from a predefined list of options (using a drop down, radio buttons, or checkboxes). This is used when you want to control the values that are entered by team members. Below is an example of the use of a “choice” type column to capture project phases.

Look-up: The look-up feature is used to access information maintained in a specific field in another list. In this example below, I created a list for project roles and access the list to select the project role within the roles and responsibilities list.

Below is another example of using the look-up feature. I am accessing the project team roster list to assign the specific person within the roles and responsibilities list. In this example, I selected the option to allow multiple values to be selected, providing the ability for multiple team members to be assigned to the deliverable.

Date: For date related information (e.g., completion date, target date, due date), utilize the date and time column type. I will generally set-up the field to capture only the date.


Calculated: Calculations can be used to derive values within the list from other columns maintained in the list. This function is commonly used with dates maintained in the list (e.g., number of days past due). In this example, I use the feature to calculate the overall risk ranking by multiplying the probability times the magnitude (impact) for the risk.


TIP #3: Using Views to Target Stakeholders

Views represent the “window” into the information maintained in your list. It is important to create views that provide the information required for specific stakeholder groups. What your core team member needs to review and update risks on an on-going basis, is different than what your sponsor needs to understand the project’s overall risk profile. The first consideration for creating views for target audiences is related to the columns that are displayed within the view. When creating a view you can select the columns to be displayed, as well as the order in which they are displayed.

SharePoint provides several other features to tailor the list view to meet the needs of your target audience. Below are the features that I utilize the most frequently.

Filtering: This feature provides the ability to limit the items displayed based upon specific columns values. I will frequently utilize filtering to limit the items displayed to “active” or “high priority” items.


Sorting: This feature provides the ability to define the sequence that list items are displayed within the view (providing a primary and secondary sort).


Totals: This feature provides the ability to show a count of list items within the view, or display the sum of specific columns within the view.

TIP #4: Use of Templates

It is a best practice to tailor lists to meet the needs of your project environment “one time”, and then save your new list as a template. As a new project is initiated, you access your organization’s project templates to create the new project site. The definition and creation of templates makes it very easy to create project sites that are preconfigured to meet the needs of your project environment, and also ensures that your project management best practices are enabled in a consistent manner from project to project. Some organizations allow project teams to modify the lists based upon the needs of their specific project, but most organizations “lock down” the templates to limit the project specific tailoring to modifying values captured within columns (and not adding or deleting columns within the list). In addition, a standard set of list views is saved with the template, but most organizations allow project teams to create and modify views to meet their team’s needs.

Within the list settings for the specific list, you will find the ability to save the list as a template.

Below is an example of the information captured when you save a list as a template. Note that you have the ability to save the list with or without the list content. This feature provides the ability to create a template from a project site that is already using the list.

Using SharePoint for On-Demand Project Status Reporting

Several months ago, I published a blog talking about the importance of Project Status Reporting. I also reminisced about the scene in the popular parody on office workers, Office Space, where the boss constantly nags Peter about the timing and quality of his TPS report. This scene drives home the point that status reporting is a mundane and meaningless activity imposed on employees by incompetent managers.

Unfortunately, many project teams maintain a similar attitude about project status reporting. I am a project management purist that views project status reporting as one of the critical few best practices that produces positive project outcomes, particularly during the execution phase of the project life cycle.

Nobody reads it, why do it?

1. Facilitates communications – This is the obvious reason – The project status report establishes a consistent and timely vehicle for fact based reporting about the project that can be consumed in a meaningful manner by all stakeholders (core team members, project sponsors, and other interested parties).

2. Establishes a rhythm for project performance analysis – It ensures that on a regular basis the project manager performs analysis on what has been accomplished, how is the team performing, and what corrective actions need to be implemented (to resolve problems, or mitigate risk).

3. Maintains focus on the project team – It highlights where the team needs to focus to correct problems or maintain the progress required to meet or exceed customer expectations.

Using SharePoint to Improve Project Status Reporting

The collaborative project environment created using SharePoint enables capturing project information in a structured and timely manner. This project information provides the ability to create an up to date status report that is available for project stakeholders to consume on-demand. I usually start by creating a new site page for the on-demand project status report. A link to this page is added to the project home page to provide easy access for project stakeholders. The components of the project status report are maintained in separate lists on the project site, and organized on the project status report site page by adding the appropriate web parts. The project status report is as up to date as the individual components are maintained by the project team. The remainder of this blog describes the individual components of the on-demand project status report – project summary information, milestones, accomplishments, risks & issues, budget update, variance explanations, and project trends.

Project Summary Information

At the top of the status report, I insert a list with project header information – project name, project manager, target date, project budget and project phase. Next I add a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) web part that displays the current status for each of the project performance metrics. The KPI information is described in more detail in my blog on Using SharePoint to Measure Project Performance. The project status summary is as up to date as the individual project metrics are maintained by the team.

Project Milestones

The project milestones list is included in the project status site page to provide an overview of the current project schedule performance. This list provides the ability to open up individual milestones to obtain additional information. I will also insert a content editor web part to capture textual explanation of team accomplishments during the current period. I generally update the accomplishments at the same time I make updates to the milestones list.

Project Risks & Issues

The high impact risks and issues view of the Risk and Issue list is included in the project status site page. This view provides a summary of the high probability and impact risks and issues. Because this is an actual view of the list in the status report, the stakeholder has the ability to open an individual risk or issue to obtain more information about the risk or issue. As the project risks and issues are updated by the project team, the most current information is displayed on the project status site page.

Project Budget

I generally maintain budget tracking information in an Excel spreadsheet on the project site. Excel web parts are utilized to display budget summary information on the project status site page. Note that you must define a named area within the spreadsheet prior to setting up the Excel web part on the site page. The budget summary is updated as frequently as new budget information is available (usually once a month). For each cost category, the budget update provides actual costs to-date, estimated costs to complete the project (ETC), estimated costs at project completion (EAC) and cost variances at project completion (VAC).

Variance Explanation

Another content editor web part is added to the project status site page to capture project variance explanations – schedule and budget variances. This section is generally updated by the project manager at the same time that budget or milestones are updated on the site. The variance explanation should describe the source of the variances, as well as action plans associated with the variances.

Project Trends

I will often include a chart maintained within the budget tracking spreadsheet that provides project performance trend information. The Earned Value metrics Cost Performance Index (CPI) or Schedule Performance Index (SPI) provide an excellent mechanism to display overall project performance trends.

Top 3 Reasons SharePoint Improves Project Status Reporting

  1. Current Project Information – Assuming that the project team actively collaborates on the project site, the information displayed on the project status site page will contain significantly more timely information than the project status report updated once a week by the project manager. In addition, the responsibility for keeping information current is shared by the project team – no longer the sole responsibility of the project manager.
  2. Saves Time – Once the site page is created (a “one-time” effort), the project status report becomes a by-product of maintaining key project information on the project site. The project manager no longer needs to dread the weekly task of preparing the project status report.
  3. Ability to “Drill Down” – Your project stakeholders are one “click” away from obtaining detailed information to answer questions about data presented on the status report. In most cases, the stakeholder just needs to open a list item to obtain more details about the information presented.

Using SharePoint to Manage Risks & Issues

One of the most straightforward applications of project management best practices using SharePoint relates to managing risks and issues. Maintaining a Risk & Issues Tracking list within your project team site improves the structure and accessibility associated with this important best practice area. This is a huge improvement over the “offline” tracking Excel spreadsheet that is reviewed and updated on a semi-regular basis only by the project manager.

Creating the Risk & Issue Tracking Log in SharePoint

I find that the Issue Tracking type list is a great starting point for creating the Risk & Issue Tracking Log in SharePoint. The following are the standard fields associated with this type of list that I leverage to create the Risk and Issue tracking tool:

  • Id – System assigned unique identifier for the risk or issue.
  • Title – Headline associated with the risk/issue.
  • Description – More details about the risk/issue (background and source of the risk/issue).
  • Category – Tailor this field to capture the risk/issue categories associated with your project. In most cases, this field is used to group the risks/issues by type/source of risk or functional areas.
  • Priority (Magnitude) – Used to capture the magnitude of the impact of the risk or issue on the project. I tailor this field to be a choice between 9 (high impact), 3 (medium impact), and 1 (low impact). Assigning a numeric value enables calculation of the overall risk/issue ranking. The values 9, 3, and 1 provides separation between the higher impact risks/issues and medium & low impact risks/issues.
  • Assigned to (Owner) – The team member that owns management of the risk approach or issue resolution.
  • Due Date (Target date) – Represents the target date for the resolution of an issue. The date assigned for a risk is generally when the potential event is anticipated to occur and needs to be proactively managed.
  • Status – Tailor this field to capture the current status of the risk or issue. Try not to overcomplicate the status – something like Active, Resolved, and Closed is adequate to communicate the status of a risk/issue.
  • Comments – Utilized to explain the current status of the risk or issue.

The following metadata is added to this list to improve the tracking of risks and issues based upon the best practices associated with Risk and Issue Management:

  • Risk or Issue – A selection of Risk or Issue. This field provides the capability to maintain risks and issues in the same list. If a Risk turns into an Issue, you just need to update this field (vs. re-enter it into another list).
  • Project Impact – A multiple line text field that is set-up to explain the impact of the risk or issue on the project (schedule, scope, budget, quality). This description helps explain the magnitude ranking assigned to the risk/issue.
  • Probability – Used to estimate the probability of the risk occurring. Similar to the magnitude field, I set-up this field to be a choice between 9 (high probability), 3 (medium probability), and 1 (low probability). A value of 9 is assigned for issues (the event has already occurred). Assigning a numeric value enables calculation of the overall risk/issue ranking. The values 9, 3, and 1 provides separation between the most risks/issues and medium/low risks.
  • Risk ranking – The risk ranking is set-up as a calculated field to establish the overall risk/issue ranking based upon a combination of the magnitude and probability of the risk (magnitude x probability). An “81” risk/issue represents a high impact and high probability item that triggers more focus and attention from the team.
  • Risk approach – The planned risk management approach. This field is set-up with an option of Mitigate, Avoid, or Accept.

Below is an example of the “All Items” view of the Risk and Issue Tracking Log list in SharePoint.

image

Creating Views

Once the list is set-up and populated with data, multiple views can be created to communicate more effectively with different audiences. If you are talking to your core team, you will pull up the Active Risks or Issues, and filter on different categories. If you are preparing your status report or communicating with your project sponsor, you will use the High Impact Risks or Issues views. Individuals on the team will l focus on the risks or issues that they own, using the My Issues view. Below is an example of different views created for the Risk and Issues Tracking Log.

image

image 

image

 

Exporting to Excel

I am not an advocate of pulling the issues “offline” into Excel for communication purposes. It is best to provide your stakeholders access to the view that gives them the relevant information based upon their needs. However, on larger projects with significant amounts of data, it is helpful to be able to export the list into Excel to perform additional analysis (e.g. creating charts that depict risk/issue related trends). Below is an example of the risk and issue tracking log exported into Excel.

image

Summary

Diligence around resolving issues and reducing the probability or impact of potential risks is a key PM best practice, particularly during the execution phase of the project. Use of SharePoint to manage risks and issues enables a more structured and accessible process, creating a project environment that encourages and facilitates timely identification and resolution or mitigation of risks and issues. In addition, it provides a strong tool to deliver targeted communication to key stakeholders. Teams that most effectively manage risks and issues are the teams that avoid major surprises and set-backs throughout the project life cycle.