Project Management

Effective status reports keep everyone informed about value of IT

Poorly constructed project status reports can do a disservice to IT. Here's how to create one that will capture the spirit of IT's contribution to a project.

I still remember a meeting that took place a number of years ago with all the managers in a large IT organization. One of the vice presidents was voicing his frustration about their apparent inability to show the business value that the IT organization was providing.

He mentioned an example of a team that had just installed a new release of manufacturing software in a plant overseas. They had to work long hours to implement an enhancement that the business needed on short notice. One of the members of the team also flew to one of the plants for three days to help rebuild the software after a major hardware problem. However, when it came time to issue the monthly status report, the team leader stated “normal support issues resolved.”

People at the meeting weren’t sure whether to chuckle or not. It seemed humorous, but the VP was not laughing.

Why is it that most of us don’t have a problem working 70 hours a week taking care of our clients’ needs and yet we have difficulty writing a decent status report? I believe there are two major problems. First, some people don’t have great written communication skills, and they’re not comfortable writing.

However, in most cases, the problems with communication are not a lack of skills, but a lack of focus. Many project managers don’t appreciate the value of communicating proactively. When they do communicate, it tends to be short and cryptic, as if they’re trying to get by with the minimum effort possible.

Keep the reader in mind
The key to communicating is to keep the receiver as the focal point, not the sender. Try to think about what the receivers of the communication need and the information that will be most helpful to them. If you are creating a status report, put in all the information necessary for the reader to understand the true status of the project, including accomplishments, issues, risks, scope changes, and so on.

In many organizations, the project manager needs to communicate on multiple levels. If so, remember that one size of communication may not fit all. You may need to modify the communication content between typical managers and executive managers. For instance, you may send a one-page report to your direct manager and major clients showing the project status and financial situation. This may be summarized to a half-page or even one paragraph for executive management.

Include useful information in status reports, not the mundane
Try to focus the status reports so that the information in them can be used in the decision-making process. Ask team members (and yourself) whether the information on the status report is there to really communicate something valuable, or whether it is just taking up space. With that in mind, what types of information should be included?

Typically the status report should include the following information:

Project name/project manager/time period/project description
This is all the basic information that needs to be included each time so that people know what they are reading.

Overall status indicator
Typically there is a very short indicator that reflects the overall status of the project. A common way to express this is with color codes such as green (on track), yellow (caution), or red (problems).

High-level status summary
The top portion of the report should provide summary information regarding the overall project. Make sure that the questions are worded in such a way that a project that is on-track will answer either all “yes” or all “no.” Notice that the questions are focused on the present and future state of the project—not the past. For instance:
  • Will the project be completed on time?
  • Will the project complete within budget?
  • Will the project deliverables be completed within acceptable quality levels?
  • Are scope change requests being managed successfully?
  • Are project issues being addressed successfully?
  • Are project risks being successfully mitigated?
  • Are all client concerns being addressed successfully?

Comments
Give more information on any questions above that were answered ”no.”

Significant accomplishments this period
List major accomplishments from the previous reporting period. If the planned accomplishments from last period were not completed this period, the project manager should provide comments as to why.

Planned accomplishments for next period
List major planned accomplishments for the next reporting period.

Additional comments or highlights
Include any other comments that the reader should be aware of and that would not be reflected in the status report so far.

Attachments
There are many other project management reports that might be of interest to the reader. Again, just remember your audience. For instance, the project work plan might be of interest to some of your readers, but it is probably too much information for everyone. Likewise, your readers are probably interested in summary financial information, but not at a detailed level. Other potential attachments include the Issue Log, Scope Change Log, project metrics/statistics, earned value reports, and any other reports required by your company.

Focus forward
If you’re on a support team, your status reports are going to focus on the prior period up to the present time. That’s because support is typically reactive, and it’s hard to know what you might encounter in the future. However, a project status report should focus more on the present and the future. Prior deliverable accomplishments are of some interest to the reader; however, they are more interested in what it will take to complete the project.

Writing good, effective, and objective status reports requires focus and diligence on the part of the project manager. The purpose of the status report is to communicate the true nature of the project—not the way you wish it to be. If there are issues or risks, they should be communicated as well. If your status report is too short, or at too high a level, the reader will not fully understand the status and may have to ask follow-up questions. Make sure that you communicate effectively so that the readers understand the project and how it is progressing.

 
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