Project Controls – A Definition

ControlsSeveral months ago at the Project Governance and Controls Symposium in Canberra I was asked to define project controls. Everyone talks about ‘controls’ but exactly what is included and how does ‘controls’ relate to other disciplines such as project governance?  To answer this question, my proposed definition for ‘project controls’ is:

Project controls are the data gathering, management and analytical processes used to predict, understand and constructively influence the time and cost outcomes of a project or program; through the communication of information in formats that assist effective management and decision making.

This definition encompasses all stages of a project or program’s lifecycle from the initial estimating needed to ‘size’ a proposed project, through to the forensic analysis needed to understand the causes of failure (and develop claims).

The functions undertaken by project controls professionals includes estimating future works, determining the current status of work in progress, understanding the reasons for this status and recommending appropriate actions or alternatives based on the observed status and trends. Within this framework, for a recommendation or prediction to be useful, the reliability of the information upon which it is based needs to be understood, and additionally, any realistic estimate or forecast must take into account uncertainty and the cost and time consequences of identified risk events.

Consequently, the project controls discipline can be seen as encompassing:

  • Project strategy, planning and methods studies to optimize future outcomes,
  • Scheduling including development, updating and maintenance,
  • Cost estimation, cost engineering/control and value engineering,
  • Risk management,
  • Earned Value Management and Earned Schedule, including WBS, OBS and other breakdown structures,
  • Document management,
  • Supplier performance measurement / oversight (but excluding contract administration),
  • The elements of a project management methodology that integrate these disciplines both within the ‘controls’ domain and with other project management functions, and
  • The ability to communicate effectively the information generated by these processes.

This proposed definition deliberately excludes the actual management of the project scope, including scope related disciplines such as quality control, and general management disciplines such as team development, stakeholder management and communication. ‘Controls’ information is often an important input to these functions but the ‘controls’ role is information generation, management’s role is making effective use of the information.

This means: Project Controllers are the experts who gather, manage and analyse data to generate useful information and insights for others to use. And the primary users of the ‘controls information’ are the project management team and project governance and oversight entities within the organisation such as PMOs and ‘project control boards’ (PCBs).

Certainly, the surveillance aspects of time, cost and risk are intimately linked to the accomplishment of scope, to the quality standards required by the stakeholders, by the project team; but the ‘controls’ processes are not directly involved with the management of project work. Project controls professionals work with the team and other stakeholders to plan the optimum way of accomplishing the work, then measure the actual performance of the team against the agreed plan and use this data to recommend future actions and predict outcomes.

Most authorities recognise that it is impossible to effectively manage or govern a project (or program) in the absence of reliable information on the current status of work in progress, and reliable predictions of future outcomes. This is supported by this proposed definition, with the key delineator between ‘controls’ and ‘management’ being the recognition that it is management’s role to make use of the information and advice generated by the controls professionals.

This theme is carrying forward to the 2014 governance and controls symposium – you are invited to be a part of the debate! To catch the ‘web hot specials’ and/or submit a proposal for a paper visit the symposium website at:

Once the definition of ‘controls’ is resolved, the next step will be establishing a framework of certifications and qualifications to benchmark ‘professional’ knowledge and behaviours. There is already good progress in this area with developments by AACEi, Planning Planet, PMI and CIOB to name a few (see more on PMI and CIOB credentials).  What’s lacking in the general ‘market’ is a general recognition that effective controls professionals need domain knowledge as well as tools knowledge.  Developing this recognition is the next challenge.

9 responses to “Project Controls – A Definition

  1. Thanks Pat, a proper defintion of Project Controls and simple to understand.
    Though I am interested to know why contract adminstration is completely excluded from the project controls. Project controls team needs to be involved (not just to provide information or advice) in the change management and included in when there are any potential changes to the contract in terms of time, cost & scope.

    • Easy… Contract Administration is an integral part of doing the work – it is built into the fabric of managing a project in exactly the same way team performance is. Project controls is not involved with the direct management of the work and therefore cannot be involved with the direct management of contractor and the processes of payment, etc. There may be admin activities in the schedule that have associated costs, etc but administering a contract is fundamentally the same as directing the work of employees in a project team.

      The consequences of contract admin., team performance and any other aspect of actually doing the work can provide data that may be important in planning, monitoring and predicting project outcomes and this aspect of ‘observing the effectiveness of the work’ is implicit in the definition.

  2. Great piece which sums up the requirements nicely.

  3. Well done in less than a dozen paragraphs, what some do less effectively in an entire book..

  4. Good, concise piece. Please clarify where Management of Change falls into this discussion. Thanks

  5. Pingback: One Defence – A Governance and Controls Perspective | Mosaicproject's Blog

  6. I have found several papers on the internet that attribute this definition to the PMI’s PMBOK. But I went through all seven editions and never found it (2022), in fact, the PMBOK still doesn’t define project controls. I presume that this is your original phrasing and will cite it in my classes. Let me know if I am incorrect.

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