In my colleague Nathan’s recent post, “What’s Wrong with Wall Charts,” he suggested that wall charts are impractical for the purposes of project reporting, despite the gigabytes of professional advice accumulated in the never-ending Tufte Blog exchange. But what about analysis?
Nobody should EVER produce a wall chart to communicate status or for any other reporting purpose, however, they do have a very valuable, albeit temporary, utility during certain analysis activities, and in certain situations over the lifetime of a project, program, or portfolio. It’s just another flavor of data visualization. Yes, producing one may kill trees, but it will likely save your company lots of green in the process.
To use wall charts successfully, you need to have four critical ingredients. If you don’t meet these criteria, do yourself a favor and stick to a regular sheet of paper:
1. A need to look at a ton of data…literally so much data that you need a “wall” of space to fit it on in order to read it. This may be something you have to figure out by whittling down your chart to bare bones only to realize you still need a magnifying glass to read it. In that case, you need a wall chart. Some examples of analysis exercises are:
- Early assessment of dependencies
- Resource analysis
- Risk analysis
- Sequencing approach analysis
- Critical path analysis
2. Although this is the most challenging to achieve, you must have a highly organized chart that contains as little noise as possible. If you just spit out 400 items without any sort of organization, sensible grouping, sorting, formatting, and removal of excess data, everyone will be looking at a messy eye-chart that cannot be consumed. Your audience will be frustrated and you’ll be forced into another iteration. Fortunately, OnePager allows you several amazing features to more easily accomplish this with automated swimlane organization, coloring, and conditional formatting.
3. An easy-to-use color-capable plotter at the ready. Since you may have to print more than one version over time, if using the plotter requires a special degree in plotter printing to use, don’t bother.
4. Familiarity with the data you are reviewing. Without an understanding of the activities, milestones, dependencies, risks, etc. that you are analyzing, even ten items on a chart will be a waste of paper, ink, and your time. The more you know about the data, the more meaningful your exercise using the wall chart will be.
While I agree that wall charts are impractical to most – I mean, who has a plotter handy – if you have the need and the means it can be a very nifty, productive, and useful tool in the right situations. Based on his writing, I believe Mr. Tufte was thinking in terms of analysis, not reporting, when suggesting wall charts were valuable.
The understanding of when and how to use wall charts may take some experience and tinkering, but the payoff could be significant if it produces an “aha moment” that a regular-sized report wouldn’t have given you.
Just don’t forget to use recycled paper whenever possible and put those old wall charts in the recycle bin (or use’em for wrapping paper…the kids’ll love it…maybe)!