For those familiar with the movie classic that pokes fun at the workplace, Office Space, you probably remember the scene where that boss repeatedly nags his subordinate about the importance of a cover page on the TPS reports. This exchange between the boss and subordinate highlights that status reporting is a management mandated activity that does very little in terms of getting actual work done.
Unfortunately, many project teams maintain this same attitude when it comes to project status reporting. This project management purist views project status reporting as an integral component of effective project communications and reporting (no surprise there). In fact, I would go so far as to say it represents one of a handful of best practice areas that ensures success throughout the execution phase of the project life cycle.
Nobody reads it, why do it?
1. Facilitates communications – This is the obvious reason – The project status report establishes a consistent and timely vehicle for fact based reporting about the project that can be consumed in a meaningful manner by all stakeholders (core team members, project sponsors, and other interested parties).
2. Establishes a rhythm for project performance analysis – It ensures that on a regular basis the project manager performs analysis on what has been accomplished, how is the team performing, and what corrective actions need to be implemented (to resolve problems, or mitigate risk).
3. Maintains focus on the project team – It highlights where the team needs to focus to correct problems or maintain the progress required to meet or exceed customer expectations.
From my experience, the best practices associated with effective project status reporting are in the following areas:
Format: How is the information presented to communicate the desired message(s) to the different groups of stakeholders
Project Metrics: What are the metrics regularly generated and reported to accurately communicate the current and forecasted status of the project
Timing: What is the appropriate frequency of reporting status information (timely enough to be proactive, without becoming burdensome to the project manager and/or team)
Re-enforce the message: What additional vehicles must be in place to make certain that the important message(s) are understood, and the required corrective actions are initiated
Format: As a consultant, I usually walk into a situation where a project status report format already exists. Rather than irritating the customer by suggesting that the current status report is not adequate, I normally look for subtle ways to enhance the information presented. The goal is to ensure that the status report draws attention to the key information that is required to inform or initiate action. Some of the important elements of the status report include:
Project header information – Re-enforcement of the overall project scope/goals, and key stakeholders
Overall status – Often expressed as a color (Green/Yellow/Red) with some comments about why the overall status is what it is
Accomplishments – Highlights progress in the current reporting period (make sure that the key messages are not lost in too much detail)
Risks & Issues – Escalates the “top 3” risks & issues, including the corrective or mitigation actions
Upcoming milestones – Focuses on the important milestones, including planned vs. forecasted completion
My general guideline is that a status report should not exceed two pages – if it does, stakeholders are likely to miss some, if not all, of the key messages.
Metrics: Project metrics are the primary ingredient of the status report that creates fact based information on a regular basis. These metrics must be generated directly from the project management artifacts that are utilized to manage the project on a day-to-day basis (project schedule, project budget, risk register, change control logs). Because these metrics are created from existing project management tools, there should not be significant effort associated with updating them.
Based upon my experience, the key project metrics presented on the status report fall into one of the following categories:
Time – Comparison of the planned vs. actual or forecasted completion dates
Effort & Cost – Comparison of the planned vs. actual or forecasted effort / cost to progress to this point in the project (this is where earned value is a useful tool)
Scope – Comparison of planned vs. actual scope of deliverables completed to-date (summary of scope changes)
Risk – Assessment of the level of risks identified or realized (compared to the initial risk assessment)
Timing: The most important element related to the timing of the project status report is establishing and maintaining strict adherence to a consistent reporting interval (e.g., every other week) and delivery schedule (e.g., by end of day on Monday). This ensures that the stakeholders know when to expect (or look for) the status report. From my experience, implementation of either weekly or bi-weekly status reporting most effectively meets the needs of both the project manager, and key stakeholders, without creating too much project overhead. Specific sections of the status report may be provided on a less frequent basis (e.g., budget information may be updated on a monthly vs. bi-weekly basis).
Re-enforcement of the message: Project managers often fall into the trap of assuming that distribution of the status report is enough to ensure that the key messages are well understood, and the appropriate next steps are completed. The distribution of the project status report needs to be directly connected to other regular team communication events (core team meetings, project sponsor / steering committee meetings) to confirm understanding of the current and forecasted status, escalate issues / risks, and initiate corrective actions.
Delivering the Right Information to the Right People
In summary, the project status report should not be created with the view that it satisfies a requirement mandated by management, but rather a best practice that creates significant value for you, as the project manager, the core project team, and other stakeholders. Effective use of the project status report is one of the clear indicators that the project is “under control” during the execution phase of the project. On top of that, there will be no need for this conversation: “Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.”