According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, 5th edition), a variance is “a quantifiable deviation, departure, or divergence away from a known baseline or expected value” (p. 452). Put another way, a variance is the difference between what the project planned to do and how it actually performed. Given that no one has a (functioning and accurate) crystal ball, there will always be variance — positive or negative — because it is impossible to exactly predict how the team (and when the team) will accomplish or approach work during the planning phase of project lifecycle.
Although many readers will associate a variance with cost or schedule performance and also with quality, it is applicable more broadly. For example, there may also be communications variances. According to Timothy J. Kloppenborg in his 2015 book Contemporary Project Management (Third Edition), the “Control Communications” process involves a discussion between the Project Manager and core team about “whether the communications are following the plan, how effective they are, and how to improve their effectiveness” (p. 391). If communications are not following the plan, then why not? Is it because of technology-related issues? Perhaps the client’s Video Teleconferencing (VTC) equipment is out of commission and the team must use email and phone calls to exchange information. Or have there been improvements in the way stakeholders interact? Maybe the Project Manager and the client have such a strong relationship that they discuss the project every morning during their commutes into work, out of compliance (in a good way) with the Comms Plan that called for a biweekly face-to-face meeting.
Whatever the situation, it’s important for the Project Manager to: review all of the “chapters” of his or her Project Management Plan on a regular basis to understand how the team is performing against established plans; understand the root cause of the variance; and take action as appropriate. That could mean updating obsolete sections of the plan or taking corrective action to steer the team back on course to cost and schedule targets.
How often should this be done? As with all things in Project Management, that answer depends on the size and complexity of the project. Some variances, such as cost and schedule, need to be examined as often as the team statuses the schedule and has actual cost information. Others – such as communications or stakeholders – might be deferred to a quarterly or as-needed basis depending on events.
So, open the aperture on variance widely and begin to apply it broadly to all PMI Knowledge Areas. If necessary, establish a timetable that reminds the team when it’s time to assess variances against all plans. In this way, the plans are used, updated, and personnel are reminded (if necessary) of expectations.