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Earned Value Management Is Not Enough

OK, I know this is going to create a stir in the social atmosphere, and that gives me a bit of a smirk on my face. Why? Because it’s time for project managers and PMO leaders to wake up and pay attention to what the business has to say.

What is earned value management (EVM)? According to Wikipedia,

“Earned value management is a project management technique for measuring project performance and progress. It has the ability to combine measurements of the project management triangle:

  • Scope
  • Time
  • Costs

In a single integrated system, Earned Value Management is able to provide accurate forecasts of project performance problems, which is an important contribution for project management.”

EVM is about measuring schedule and cost performance of a project. That’s good, but it only measures the performance of the project, not the outcomes that the project was intended to create. That’s the problem. EVM alone cannot tell our business leaders if they are going to achieve high-impact business outcomes for the work that was done—only if that work will be done according to what we expect.

Now, before the methodology zealots start blasting me (which they tend to do before reading the whole article), let me clarify. EVM is a good tool. It’s a great resource for measuring project performance, and one that I encourage you to study and apply, but that’s not all we need to be measuring. We need to start measuring return on investment (ROI) of our projects, and the likelihood of that return being achieved throughout the life cycle of the project, if we want to actually prove our worth as project managers and PMO leaders. It’s about getting to strong outcomes, not just breaking even.

Let me put this into some real-life scenarios…

Scenario 1: EVM for Loss

Imagine we are talking about your retirement savings plan. You make investments, and you expect those investments to grow through earnings so that the money you are putting away plus those earnings can help you afford to eventually retire.

So let’s say you diligently put money into this plan through every paycheck, and then your retirement plan manager comes to you and says, “Well, we spent all of your money and we need more money.” What? You spent all of my money? (At least that’s what I would be saying!) The manager keeps saying they will take care of your investments, you will get a big return in the future, and so you keep putting in more money. You can count on your fingers and toes the number of times you heard, “Promise, this is the last time.”

That goes on over the years and you are now ready to retire (a.k.a. your project is now complete). It’s time to reap all of the rewards of your investments that were promised to you, and it turns out there aren’t any. You can’t retire. The money was thrown into risky investments that were not well managed and you have no savings (a.k.a. the high risk project that completed without delivering any of the benefit outcomes expected [like a system that is built but no one ever uses it]—all loss, no gain). You’d be pretty upset, wouldn’t you? That’s how your business leaders feel when they look at all of this money spent on poorly managed projects that never complete. Money down the drain.

What’s the EVM situation here? It depends. Did you put in the money you thought you would? If you put in a million dollars over your career and you expected to put in a million dollars over your career, then the project cost exactly what you said it would cost. Did you retire when you thought you would retire? Yep! Right on the planned retirement date. OK, so schedule performance is as expected and cost performance is as expected. The EVM numbers are all good and your retirement account is empty.

But you are saying you would never have gone that long without checking on your investment to see how it is doing, right? You are also saying you would have pulled out long before retirement if it were doing nothing but losing money. OK, so that is exactly what your business leaders are doing when they ask you for status. They want to know how their investment is being managed to get to the outcomes they want. Unfortunately, when they ask you for status, you answer them in EVM language: The money is being spent as expected. But what they really want to know is ROI projections: Is the money I’m investing going to achieve the earnings we expect?

Scenario 2: EVM for Breaking Even

Now what about the scenario of breaking even? What if you planned to put away one million dollars over the span of your career, and your expected spend met your actual spend at retirement (a.k.a. your project completion date). According to EVM, you spent exactly what you expected to spend, you spent it in the timeframe you expected to spend it, and the scope of your investments is exactly what you planned for. OK, EVM says we are rocking and rolling! Now, what happens if you spent years putting away a very-well-thought-out-and-managed million dollars only to find out that you have earned 0% on that money over the life of the investment? The money spent equals the money you earned. The money would have been better off in a basic checking account or money market earning 1% interest (the less risky project). Would that scenario be okay with you, or would you be really upset with your retirement plan manager who promised great returns?

The “promise” of earnings was clear from the beginning and why you decided to invest your money in this way. Yet, here you are no better off than had you put the money under your mattress. The investment cost you exactly what you expected, and according to your EVM calculations, you are exactly on plan, yet the return on your investment is zero.

Scenario 3: EVM as Intended

Now, what if you invest that retirement money and see huge rewards? The earnings are phenomenal and you know you invested in the right places. That initial investment has grown well because you invested in the right funds, with the right manager watching over your investment, and you reaped huge benefits. You achieved a great return on your investment. Happy now, right?

Wouldn’t you want to do everything you could to ensure that all of your investments repeatedly reached that same level of performance and focus? Would you want to ensure that your retirement plan manager was investing in the funds that were getting the highest returns, or would you want them to just spread the love across all possible investment options and hope that there would be some return on some of them? Every investment fund should get a “fair chance” at your money, right? HAHA, no way, buddy! Not a chance. Put my money where the returns are the greatest—where we will have the greatest impact. Right? I’m pretty sure you would want them to focus their energy only on the ones that could give you the biggest bang for the buck. It’s the job of the investor to make sure that money is being well spent on the investments that will yield the greatest return on the investment.

Enter your business leaders. That’s all they are trying to get you to help them do. Each project is an investment, an investment that we expect a return on. If that return is not there, then your company is better off putting the money under their mattress instead of doing all of that work.

About Laura Barnard

Keynote Speaker, Consultant, Coach & Trainer. Owner, Impact by Laura. Founder and CEO, PMO Strategies. Founder and President, Project Management for Change, 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Laura Barnard has spent more than 24 years helping business leaders in a broad range of organizations, from nonprofits to global financial institutions, get the results they crave. She shares her experience and stories in her blog titled, “I wish I had me when I was you... ™” Laura runs several training and coaching programs that help organizations and individuals deliver high-impact results on their projects and drive organizational change. Laura is best known as “the PMO lady” for her extensive experience in building and running PMOs that Get. It. Done. for the business and teaching others how to do the same. You can learn more about Laura at https://impactbylaura.com.

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