Status reporting is one of the most vital governance practices for any project. When used appropriately, status reporting serves multiple purposes, not the least of which is to support informed decision making, monitor progress, communicate with stakeholders and maintain performing organization credibility. Above all, status reporting is the primary means to "control the project narrative". Read on to learn how it all works.
Status Reports: The Path to Informed Decisions
As projects are executed, it is vital to have accurate information regarding “where things stand”. Status reporting is the means by which “progress” is quantified and documented, providing the basis for informed decision making as the project unfolds. And that’s the key to effective status reporting.... using the information reported to make decisions, solve problems and keep the project moving forward in a positive direction. Within the project management lifecycle, productive status reporting serves seven (7) key goals:
- To maintain a timely, consistent flow of information relating to project progress and performance.
- To raise issues, problems and delays in a timely, actionable fashion.
- To provide sufficient reasoning and rationale for changes and adjustments to plans and strategies.
- To monitor and track project costs and budget utilization.
- To lay a solid, practical foundation for informed decision making and creative problem resolution.
- To acknowledge individual and team accomplishments in a timely, organized fashion.
- To provide a standardized mechanism for communicating “status” to project stakeholders.
It All Starts with the Reporting "Templates"
Status reports are most efficiently produced using standardized procedural and production “templates”, designed to save time and set realistic expectations regarding report timing, frequency, content and formality. Truly actionable status reporting will convey “where you are” in comparison to “where you planned to be” and “where you need to go”. It’s about quantifying work completed in measureable terms (typically percentages) and comparing that data to established baselines, all to determine whether the project is on track (and to take immediate corrective action if not).
In order to ensure that all key goals are met, status reports must provide the following types of information:
- Facts: Milestones, planned accomplishments, schedule utilization, budget utilization, resource utilization and related variables.
- Variances: Measureable differences between planned and actual status (e.g. are we on plan, ahead of plan or off plan, and if so, why?).
- Analysis: Reasons for and the impact of any identified, measureable variances (e.g. why is the project ahead of or behind schedule?).
- Next Steps: Actions to be taken to respond to variances and resolve problems, as well as expected accomplishments for the next reporting period.
Controlling the Project Narrative
Projects do not occur in a vacuum. There is always an underlying “narrative” that determines how a given project will be perceived – from both a progress and “probability of success” point of view. As a project manager, you can either take control of the narrative, or you can let the narrative control you. It’s easy to guess which is preferable.
In order to take control of the project narrative (and to hold on to it as the project proceeds), status reporting must go beyond steps and templates to communicate actionable status information that is both timely and in context. What makes status information “in context”? Usability. To serve its intended purpose, project status reporting must keep stakeholders informed in a meaningful way – to make relevant decisions, take appropriate action and fulfill project roles and responsibilities. To “report” is to communicate, and project communication without purpose lacks productivity and value.
The key to timely, “in context” status reporting is to match reporting “means and methods” (i.e. status reporting procedures and templates) to stakeholder needs and interests. This is achieved through a four (4) point analysis:
- Who are your “status report” stakeholders (to receive status reports)?
- What are their respective project roles and responsibilities?
- How will they use status information to fill these roles and responsibilities?
- Are they considered “active” or “passive” participants for status reporting purposes?
This is where the art of status reporting truly kicks in - matching status reporting practices to stakeholder needs and interests (which can and do vary). In all likelihood, multi-layered procedures and template formats will be required to address varied needs with regard reporting frequency, level of detail, and related format possibilities (i.e. software produced reports, simple forms, formal documents, presentations, etc.).
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(8) Easy Tips to Maximize Reporting Results
- Be on time - if status is not timely, it is meaningless.
- Be accurate - nothing is more damaging to performing organization credibility than inaccurate (or partial) information.
- Don't hold back - if the news is bad, be open and upfront about it.
- Don't be shy about good news - tout accomplishments (status reporting is part "marketing" - it's your job to "sell" project viability).
- Always be prepared to explain known and potential variances and trends (whether you are ahead or behind).
- Anticipate stakeholder concerns and interests - look at status from the "other side" and try to meet information needs.
- Be aware of the politics - and respect the information hierarchy.
- Know your audience - make sure your status reports are always relevant, concise and to the point.
Be sure to remember that, as a process, status reporting also has its downsides. If not properly sized, it can increase administrative overhead, it can lead to "information overload", and it might be perceived as "micro-managing". The art to productive status reporting is to minimize these downsides so that all true benefits can be realized. In actual practice, potential downsides will only be a factor when appropriately sized "status reporting" standards aren't clearly established and followed.
What would project planning be like if every task, decision and event were given the same weight and significance? It would all just be “noise”, without a meaningful way to monitor progress or plan next steps. That’s the point of the project milestone – to quiet the “noise” and provide actionable goalposts to manage by. Read this article on Project Milestones or other related articles listed below.
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How to use strategic fast tracking to negotiate with stakeholders and build shared expectations.
How to use strategic fast tracking to become a more productive project manager and team member.
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