This Month’s Pattern *

16 Dashboards

Dashboards are used by strong teams and weak teams, but typically not by average teams.

Google the term “dashboards” and few of the results will have anything to do with automobiles. Over the past decade, dashboards have become a very popular way to visualize and communicate the status of a project or business process.

A dashboard is a document or Web page that displays a collection of metrics—usually both graphically and numerically—to provide an overall picture of how well the project or process is performing. Some dashboards allow the user to “drill down” to see more-detailed information about performance elements summarized at the top level.

Like many dashboards, the example above uses a color scheme to indicate the relative health of various aspects of the project or business process. This is one of the most popular schemes; it employs the three colors commonly found on traffic lights: green, yellow, and red.

With color schemes and simple design, dashboards can be quite effective and beneficial. However, they can also be a complete waste of time. The difference has little to do with the dashboard and everything to do with the culture of the organization that is using it.

The best teams use dashboards to focus their collective attention on making the most important decisions and taking the most important actions, all at the right time. The underlying belief is that (1) at all times, certain conditions are reducing your project’s probability of success; (2) these conditions are sometimes difficult to detect; and (3) you can improve your chances of success if you take corrective action on the most important issues, soon enough. Good dashboards help you focus on the conditions that need correction.

Weak teams use dashboards to affix blame on others or to deflect blame (by conveying good news).[1]  To tell whether you are on such a team, look for these signs:

  • Red means failure. If this is the team’s belief—explicitly or implicitly—then your team uses its dashboard as a pillory. A dashboard should be used to share status indicators, such as colors, to highlight what needs to be adjusted for the project to succeed. If people conclude that red casts them in a bad light, they are far more likely to hide exactly the conditions that most need to be exposed. Avoiding the use of red for fear of blame is like disconnecting a smoke detector because it makes too much noise.
  • Orange is red in denial. Weak teams can’t handle the truth. They want to see everything optimistically, and they want to avoid raising alarms. Their dashboards reflect this outlook. Orange is just red seen through rose-colored glasses.
  • Green means don’t look too closely. Often, teams stay green longer than they should—until the status is switched to red, at the last minute. On some teams, anyone who declares that an aspect of the project is yellow or red will be challenged to prove that the item is not green. The implication is that yellow or red means “you’re screwing up.” The inevitable effect of such a culture is that all items will remain green until failure is imminent; then red is assigned, when no options for corrective action remain.

These practices are superficial symptoms of a deep and usually fatal problem: Teams that operate like this are driven by a fear of criticism, not by a passion for success. Teams inherit such traits from their leaders. Dashboards don’t improve leadership, they reveal it.

So, what are some of the traits of effective dashboards? Here are a few:

  1. Dashboards don’t overwhelm us with data. The surest way to defeat any project control scheme is to report everything. Great dashboards report a carefully chosen and very limited set of metrics.
  2. Dashboards are editorially selective. A team’s dashboard is in some ways the team’s weekly newspaper. The process of deciding which information is on the front page—and which is buried three levels deep—sharpens the team’s focus.
  3. Dashboards are more judgmental than informational. Some dashboards look like a corporation’s annual report. You’ll see page after page of tables and graphs, all very factual and objective but mostly useless. These dashboards provide lots of information about what’s going on without addressing the real question: Is this okay or not? Effective dashboards provide information, but they also convey judgment.
  4. Dashboards are predictive as well as reflective.[2] Some teams use their dashboards as scoreboards, to report on what has happened. Effective dashboards also attempt to predict what will or will not happen in the future. For an example of a kind of dashboard that is designed to be predictive, see The Balanced Scorecard:Translating Strategy into Action.[3]
  5. Dashboards show trends over time. A surprising number of dashboards present nothing more than a snapshot of the project or process. However, unless the work has come to a complete and final halt, this is not a sufficient set of telemetry. Teams also need to understand the trajectory of the effort. If an item is yellow, what color was it before? Is it getting better because our corrective actions are working or getting worse, trending toward red?
  6. Dashboards provide a framework for making comparisons when teams must report a subjective assessment. Dashboard assessments are not absolutely objective; they do—and should— reflect the judgments of the team members. When they do, it is important to state what the judgments mean. You might be surprised at the wide variety of incompatible definitions we’ve heard for designations like red, yellow, and green. Just for the record, we prefer these:
    • Green: The effort is on-track and likely to meet expectations, without major course corrections.
    • Yellow: Substantial and/or immediate corrective action is required in order to meet committed dates and other expectations.
    • Red: The effort is now off-plan. It either has missed a date or will soon, unless drastic action is taken, probably involving at least some replanning.

We’ve used the green-yellow-red model here, but these definitions apply to many kinds of status report. Regardless of their style or format, effective dashboards share this single most important trait: They focus the team’s attention on what needs to be fixed immediately, to improve the probability of success.

 


  1. See Pattern 45, “News Improvement.”
  2. See Pattern 49, “Journalists.”
  3. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996)


* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.

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