Visual project management is a new practice concept that integrates visual thinking tools and data visualization methodologies with more traditional project communication, reporting, and facilitation practices. This revolutionary new approach leverages the latest techniques in presenting data and information within visually-rich constructs that improve awareness and understanding of critical project information data points and key performance metrics. This paper provides an overview of why these techniques work and where they are best applied in project management practice, and will be of particular interest to any organization or project management practitioner tasked with communicating project-based information among a widely diverse audience that includes project teams, sponsors, and key stakeholders.
FACT: Project management is an extremely “data rich” business activity. At any given time, project management practitioners are capturing, manipulating, transforming, and communicating hundreds of individual project data points. These data points include labor estimates, capital and operational expenses, task lists, performance metrics, calendars, cost-benefit analysis worksheets, risk profiles, trending data, and a seemingly countless number of other project-related artifacts.
As the speed of business continues to increase, and as focus on an ever-growing number of data points is needed to keep business and project execution in control, new and innovative tools and techniques are required to help busy executives make efficient and effective decisions on where to invest money and resources. Visualization of data and complex processes has proven valuable in serving those needs.
A project manager's world is already full of data visualizations, designed to transform complex and voluminous data into simple, effective communication tools. Traditional visualizations such as Gantt charts, work breakdown structures, Kanban boards, process diagrams, project team calendars, project stakeholder organization charts, and the like are beneficial in their own way, but they don't tell the collective story of overall project status and/or performance.
Complicating the matter, busy executive sponsors and key project stakeholders no longer have the luxury of time for lengthy project status reports or weekly status briefings. Decisions must be made in the moment, with whatever facts are available at the time. Because of this, traditional project management discipline that relies on complex processes and document-heavy approaches are rapidly being left behind in favor of more agile-based methods.
Lengthy, paper-based project artifacts take significant time and effort to both generate and consume. Research has also shown that information presented in text-based formats is ineffective and inefficient. In fact, several supporting statistics exploring this concept indicate that, in order for information to be conveyed most efficiently, it needs to be visual. According to research conducted by the data visualization services firm Insight Information, “the human eye can see visual patterns 65,000 times faster via picture than in tabular form” (Pensa, 2009). Researchers from quintagroup.com claim 95% of all cognitive information is perceived through sight (Quinta, 2013).
These facts have led to the creation of a new niche within the project management community known as “Visual Project Management.” When it comes to improving project communication and collaboration, as well as envisioning processes and work flows, visual project management has emerged as one of the best new methods for leading and managing projects.
The key benefit of this new approach is speed, as critical project information can be produced, replicated, and digested in more effective and efficient ways. Taking this new approach also provides additional distinct benefits to project managers, team members, and, most importantly, key stakeholders:
- The status of project planning, execution, monitoring, and control activities are available in a single, at-a-glance, and easy to understand view;
- Improves clarity, visibility, and understanding of the scope and overall operational plan of the project effort;
- Resource allocation levels across the project, or multiple projects, are clearly visible;
- Impacts of changes to the scope, plan, priority, or resource allocations are available in real-time; and
- Information is delivered in such a way that anyone can consume it at a time, place, and manner that is most convenient to them.
What is Visual Project Management?
In today's time-compressed and lean business culture, busy executive sponsors and key project stakeholders simply do not have the luxury of time to digest a verbose, three-page project status report on a weekly basis. Likewise, their double-booked calendars can no longer support attending status briefing meetings that simply regurgitate information that is otherwise available in alternative formats. Project decision-makers must constantly make conscious decisions when to be engaged versus when to simply monitor progress. Based on this new reality, managing project-based work in a “business as usual” fashion is no longer a feasible or acceptable option.
Time-honored, structured processes and document-laden approaches to managing projects are rapidly being left behind in favor of more agile-based methodologies. Established waterfall and command-and-control structures no longer address the new, innovative manner in which work is now being conducted and managed. The agile movement wasn't started with the desire to eliminate traditional work organization tactics or project management methodology, but to make them more balanced, less rigid, lighter in documentation, and more fluid in planning.
In fact, agile approaches to managing projects have started to become entrenched within even the most conservative industries like financial services, insurance, and healthcare. Self-managed teams are beginning to replace hierarchical management structures. Time-boxed iterations, or “sprints” of work, rather than start-to-finish individual task sequencing, has allowed for increased velocity in completing deliverables or objectives.
Make no mistake, however, that traditional project management methodologies still play an important and valuable role in executing upon the strategic visions of many organizations and their products/services. The focus shift on “doing the right thing,” as compared to “doing the thing right,” has pushed both traditional and agile methods forward in a positive way. Cross-pollination from a number of different methodologies has led to an impressive diversity of custom approaches dedicated to finding the most efficient and effective way of getting the work done.
One of many new customized approaches gaining traction in project management circles today is a concept that presents project-related information in a visual, often graphical, form to improve clarity, visibility, and understanding of the scope and operation of the effort. This “Visual Project Management” approach serves as an additional tool for project management professionals to provide:
- At-a-glance views of project status,
- Real-time project status tracking,
- Real-time issue management and resolution status, and
- Data-rich environments for better decision making.
Visual project management offers up information delivered in such a way that anyone can consume it at a time, place, and manner that is convenient to them. Traditionally, project information distribution has been based on “push” methods of communication. In push-based communication, the sender, or project manager, decides the “who, how, what, and when” regarding project information flow. This information is typically delivered in the form of emails, status reports, project status meetings, conference calls, and in some cases, instant or text-based messaging. The recipient doesn't really get a choice regarding whether they receive the communication or not; nor do they have a say in what format it is delivered.
Alternatively, more and more information is being made available electronically, to be digested when the recipient has the time to review it. In this “pull-based” form of communication, information is simply posted to a common location, akin to a bulletin board or document library. The recipient chooses what information they want to receive and when they want to access it. Most importantly, it creates an opportunity for the project manager and the project stakeholders to have a conversation about what information and specific data points are most important to them. Then, leveraging any number of visual thinking tools, the project manager can design the format that most clearly and efficiently serves the stakeholders needs.
The “Data Visualization” Concept
Today's global environment is becoming increasingly more complex and interconnected at an almost incomprehensible rate. One critical by-product of that complexity and interconnectedness is something innocuously called “big data.” This “data” is generated continuously, accumulating exponentially with each passing millisecond. Raw data, in and of itself, is practically useless without proper context. However, when the data is collected, stored, “mined,” and then viewed with the appropriate perspective or query, it becomes one of the most valued and sought after resources in the modern world.
Similarly, as the pace of change accelerates, and as business challenges become more multi-faceted and complex, many leaders are increasingly finding it difficult to visualize and organize the chaos created among the myriad of data points, environmental and market factors, or influences, both internal and external. Witness the typical strategic planning meetings where, after lengthy discussion around complex organizational concepts and bulleted charts, the situation devolves hopelessly into utter confusion and frustration. Only after someone, out of sheer desperation of attempting to get his or her point across, finally draws out the concept on a whiteboard or easel pad, does the discussion finally become productive again.
So, what is this lens of visual perspective that allows a seemingly meaningless stream of complex data to become a desired commodity? It is a concept known as data visualization and the corresponding discipline of visual thinking. Data visualization refers to the technique of communicating complex data or information by converting it into a visual object or graphical representation in order to aid in visual processing and comprehension. Effective visualization makes data more understandable and usable for analysis and communication.
One of the early pioneers of data visualization theory is Edward Tufte, who authored the seminal book on this topic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Tufte, 1983). In his book, Mr. Tufte defines graphical displays and principles for effective graphical display in the following passage: “Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency. Graphical displays should:
- Show the data
- Induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production or something else
- Avoid distorting what the data have to say
- Present many numbers in a small space
- Make large data sets coherent
- Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data
- Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure.
- Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation or decoration.
- Be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set.
- Graphics reveal data. Indeed graphics can be more precise and revealing than conventional statistical computations” (Tufte, 1983, p. 13).
In recent years, data visualization has become an active area of research, teaching, and development. Scholars and practitioners in the field have even begun to branch out into a number of specialty areas that have application within the project management profession:
Informational Graphics are graphical visual representations of information, data, or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system's ability to see patterns and trends.
Visual Literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of written or printed text. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading pictorial information.
Exploratory Data Analysis is an approach in statistical modeling for analyzing data sets to summarize their main characteristics, often with visual methods.
Common tools used in Data Visualization are:
- Data Plots,
- Technical Drawings or Illustrations, and
- Maps or Cartograms.
The results generated by the use of these tools serve as feedback for conducting certain analytical tasks, such as depicting cause and effect, discovering the ratio of one data set against another, showing trends or cycles, revealing anomalies or rare events in repeatable processes, discovering correlations between two or more sets of data, and/or ranking categories of data.
One of the reasons that the conversion of data into graphical renderings is such a key contributor to understanding complex processes and concepts stems from the fact that the human mind is naturally designed to more easily process information in the form of pictures. This concept is also known as Visual Thinking.
The “Visual Thinking” Concept
At its core, visual thinking is the natural process of how the human mind captures, processes, and understands the visual world. True “visual thinking,” or the phenomenon of seeing and processing words as pictures and/or images, is common in approximately 60–65% of the general population (Deza, 2009). This means that fully two-thirds of those with whom a person regularly interacts with, both personally and professionally, will process information and communication that is transformed into images within their mind. While it seemingly does take longer for the brain to process words vs. pictures, the time is actually negligible. In fact, reading itself is a form of visual thinking in that humans see letters as individual pictures and words as visual patterns. Something to think about when formulating the best way to communicate an intended message or concept!
Scientific study conducted by molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina has shown that there are more neurons in the human brain dedicated to vision than the other four senses (touch, smell, hearing, and taste) combined (Medina, 2009)! Additionally, a 1999 research paper titled, Integrating Vision with the Other Senses (Bowan, 1999), written by neurodevelopmental optometrist Dr. Merrill Bowan, cites a 1957 study conducted by R.S. Fixot, “that upwards of 50% of the neural tissue is devoted to vision directly or indirectly. And almost incredibly, two-thirds of the electrical activity of the brain is devoted to vision when the eyes are open. Two of three billion firings per second are from the visual sense” (Fixot, 1957).
Since science has proven that the human mind is “pre-wired” for visual thought processes, and since the majority of the population already thinks and learns in terms of visual objects, the question becomes, how to enhance this natural ability for the benefit of an organization or to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit? The answer is the formation of core visual thinking principles for learning and organizational development.
Visual thinking, as an area of academic focus, is the consolidation of study in neuroscience, art, storytelling, information design, visual perception, color theory, shape/pattern recognition, and graphic design. It extends beyond the “black and white” world of spreadsheet grids and word processing rules. It is a discipline that leverages a myriad of tools to bring ideas and concepts developed in the mind, out into the external world for further examination and testing. It seeks to bring clarity to complex concepts and brings truth to the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Seeing is not only believing…seeing is, indeed, understanding!
One of the common misconceptions around visual thinking is that it is solely an individual activity. While actual thought-processing is an individual effort, the facilitation and encouragement of extracting those thoughts, ideas, and concepts out into a visual format can be a group-based activity. Many organizations underestimate the strategic importance and bottom line impact that visual thinking can bring to the workplace. Tactical, facilitated visual thinking activities can bring significant positive impact within any business function and have even experienced a renaissance as of late from a number of different organizational sources:
- Strategic Management
- Vision and Mission Development
- Scenario Planning
- What If? Analysis
- Organizational/Strategic Road Map Development
- Product Management
- New Product Development
- Target Market Assessments
- Product Lifecycle Management
- Product Road Map Development
- Product Documentation
- Marketing and Communications
- Sales and Marketing Campaign Management
- Customer “Day In The Life” (DITL) Analysis
- Customer Use Case Development
- Forecasting and Backcasting Analysis
- Risk Analysis and Mitigation Planning
- Financial Modeling
- Project Management
- End User, Business and/or System Requirements
- Project Timeline and Road Map Development
- Project Communications Management
A Summary of Visual Project Management: Tools, Techniques, and Concepts
For visualizing project management-specific information, three main categories of tools exist, each with a number of specific techniques or approaches, which increase project stakeholder understanding and clarity surrounding complex project data:
Visual Thinking Tools that Support Project Management
The use of visual thinking tools enhances understanding of complex projects and supports management of high volumes of disparate data points. Visual thinking tools also facilitate conceptual and idea-development processes, as well as fostering a common language for conversations and discussions among the members of the project team. While only a small sample of the available list of visual thinking tools can be applied in project management practice, the following have the most direct, day-to-day practicality and impact:
- Mind Mapping (see Exhibit 1);
- Process Mapping;
- Storyboarding (see Exhibit 2);
- Root Cause Analysis;
- Charting, Diagramming, and Graphing;
- Drawing and Sketching; and
- Wireframes and Use Cases.
Visual Project Reporting Tools
Experienced project managers know that communicating effectively and efficiently is a critical part of successful project management. Aggregating, analyzing, summarizing, and reporting on key project performance metrics all fall squarely under the accountability of the project manager. Project sponsors and key stakeholders rely on quality project reporting in order to properly assess progress and performance, make informed decisions, and ensure that the scope and deliverables remain aligned with organizational strategy. Traditionally, the majority of project reporting was done via a written and/or verbally communicated status report. Today, however, the simple reality is that time constraints and data complexity dictate that project reporting shift to more visual and efficient methods such as:
- Earned Value Analysis
- Tolerance-Limited EVA Charts
- Dashboards (see Exhibit 3)
- Road Maps
- Lean and Agile Concepts
- Kanban Boards (Lean)
- SCRUM Boards (Agile)
- Burn Down Charts
- Infographics (see Exhibit 4)
Visual Project Collaboration Tools
Collaboration and facilitation are rapidly becoming critical “soft” skills for project management practitioners. Project management isn't just about organizing and managing project activities anymore. Instead, project managers are expected to facilitate project team dynamics and foster effective collaboration among team members and stakeholders. And it goes beyond just facilitation, project leaders must also be conversant and experienced in the proper tools, techniques, templates, and guides to ensure that their project teams understand and properly leverage the concepts in order to successfully execute the project. This same accountability extends to visual tools and techniques that support collaboration and team communication:
- Project War/Control Room
- Project Science Fair
- Project Display Wall (see Exhibit 5)
- Project Collaboration Wall
- Project Flight Status Board
- Project Social Media
- 3D Project Environments
- Project Gamification
In summary, today's project manager has more to manage than just project scope, deliverables, communications, and teams. They are also expected to manage large volumes of project-related data. And the expectation goes beyond just managing the data. It extends into creating great visualizations that allow stakeholders to fully digest that large volume of data in a manner that is quick, effective, and clear. They are also expected to serve as facilitators in the use of visual thinking tools as a method for working through project issues, risks, and problems. These new expectations require new skills. The era of multi-page, text-based project communication is over. The era of visual project management is here. Time to “skill up!”