How project status reports add value

by Sylvie Edwards
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Say the words project status report, and it conjures all kinds of images in the minds of project managers across the globe. These status reports have been developed and used on almost every project since the beginning of time. Why is it that so many people still do not see its importance or value to project delivery? Why are some PMs maligned for even suggesting it is needed? We will look a bit closer at the project status report and hopefully give it the light it so deserves.

One of the key elements of any project is communication. Without open communication with your stakeholders, your chances of accomplishing your project and the goals for which it was intended are slim to none. There are several communication components that are key to achieving this, one being the status report. This document, although it might appear simple in its nature, is actually one of the reliable sources of information on which your stakeholders rely for their understanding of the project’s delivery and standing. People love a good report and executives even more so as it often means they are given condensed to the point information.

A good status report will aim at accomplishing these key targets:

  • Promote the support of decisions that have been or have yet to be made as to the project direction and approach.
  • Keep the stakeholders not only aware but engaged as the project progresses. This is really important to the health of your project. If your stakeholders are left in the dark or think that they are not aware of what is going on, they will disengage, which can lead to delays with decisions and an overall feeling of secrecy.
  • Clearly recognize the work being done, the work yet to be done, and outstanding issues which might be impacting the project.

This report has taken many forms over the years. The one thing that must be said about it is that it should remain simple so that it is easy to produce as well as clear so that it is easy to understand. As with anything that we see in project management, concepts develop, and sometimes not for the better. In recent years, several organizations have developed complex dashboard documents to act as status reports. What I would say to this is that you really need to ensure that your stakeholders are on board with this format and that it provides the amount of data that is needed for decision-making. 

A dashboard with dials, colors, and graphs does meet the expectation of visuals, which is a plus for this report as well as often being generated with real-time data, but only graphics are also not good as they potentially do not convey enough of the message needed.

Another disadvantage of the dashboard format is the need for someone with targeted skills to create and maintain it. This is often not something the PM can do, and if the data becomes corrupted or not presented properly, it might take some time to catch and correct.

It is up to you, your organization, and the stakeholders to develop a format that will suit everyone’s purpose. 

Generally, a good project status report template should include the following elements:

  • A header containing basic information about the project: title, PM assigned, sponsor name, the period being reported on, start, and targeted end dates.
  • A section giving a view of the overall project status in terms of scope, time, budget, and any other key areas being analyzed. This is where you can put colored traffic lights to easily show on, not quite on, or off-target objectives.
  • Highlights of achievements for the period.
  • Key decisions or items requiring attention soon or being worked on.
  • A summary of what is planned for the next period.
  • An update on previously documented issues, action items, and risks.

As with any document or artifact that we generate for our projects, it is always best to remember some basic rules to adhere to when it comes to the development and generation of such documents.

Here are five rules to respect in terms of best practices for generating your status report:

  1. It should reflect REALITY – so make it realistic.
  2. It should be VISUAL – so that all participants can easily understand it at a glance.
  3. It should be CLEAR – on top of being composed of realistic data (no garbage in), it should be clearly laid out to avoid losing your stakeholders in it.
  4. It should be based on REAL-TIME data – this will require automation, but it can easily be done with the tools that are now available to us.
  5. It should be part of an OPEN communications model – your stakeholders should never find out that the project is at risk by reading the status report. The status report needs to be part of the continuous chain of communication, making it more of a reminder and an update.

Regardless of the format that you decide to choose for your status report, remember to ask your stakeholders occasionally if that format still gives them what they need to assist in their decisions for the project. It is key for the PM and his/her team as well to ensure that one document fits all. You would not want to be starting a tailoring loop that leads to 20 different versions having to be issued on a Thursday afternoon. This is counterproductive and zaps the morale of your team.


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