Status Reports: PM Anachronism or Necessity


I would not be completely honest if I did not admit that there have been times when I have complained – quietly to myself, of course – about having to write a project status report. So, I laughed out loud (LoL) at Cornelius Fichtner’s tongue-in-cheek post, Status Reports are no Fun which concludes that there is no good excuse for not doing an expected status report if you want to stay employed.

Which then reminded me of a classic Dilbert cartoon featuring the pointy-haired manager, Alice and a new guy – Pointy Hair tells Alice to show the new guy how to do status reports. She waits until he Pointy-hair leaves to answer the new guy’s unspoken question and then says, “He doesn’t read them anyway, so we all use a random phrase generator. I’ll e-mail it to you.”

Putting humor aside, I have received and submitted hundreds of status reports and I sincerely believe that they have an important place in organizational communication and project management.

What should be in a status report?
Project managers are accountable for ensuring compliance with the project’s schedule and budget. Therefore, status of those two items should form the basis of the report. Depending on the size of your organization – meaning how far removed from the project are the individuals that will read the report or a summary of it – it sometimes help to provide a one sentence summary of the long term goal of the project.

Use the schedule as a framework to identify major accomplishments during the reporting period and potential risks. If your project uses predictive scheduling techniques that type of data is especially helpful in writing meaningful status reports. (Here’s a link to a post and paper about predictive scheduling techniques.) Budget information is usually reported as actual versus planned expenses.  A real key is to focus on outcomes and measurable things like dates and progress – don’t just status activities like “we held a meeting”.

If your project received positive feedback from a stakeholder about the project, add that information to the report. This real-world good news may serve to make your manager look good to his boss, which is good for you also.

The other cornerstone of a simple status report is risks. Risks are events that have occurred or are likely to occur that will negatively affect the first two items – schedule and budget. Alerting your manager to project risks gives him an opportunity to help (sometimes a mixed blessing, I realize) and a heads-up he can give to his management.

Do not report risks lightly. Part of your job as a project manager is to plan for and handle risks. It is best to present risks or issues within a framework of how you are protecting the project’s schedule and budget from risk-based damage. However, if an unanticipated risk shows up at your door, remember the cardinal rule of management relations – no surprises. Tell your manager that XYZ Company is more than 30 days late in delivering their code AND what you have done to hold their feet to the contract fire.

If possible, add graphical information to show project schedule, expenses and budget compliance. Color coding for on-track, at risk, or in-trouble – typically stoplight charts — make it quick and easy for your stakeholders and executives to see how your project is performing against expectations and shows management that you are on top of the project details. Most status reports include a section on plans or action items for the next reporting period.

Here are some other housekeeping thoughts on writing status reports:

  • If your organization has an approved status report form – use it.
  • Do not use technical jargon, especially if your report is to be combined with other project reports and forwarded up the chain of command.
  • Focus on “outcomes” not just activity.
  • Use spelling and grammar checkers.
  • If the content is proprietary, mark it.
  • Add project name, your name, date and reporting period. Number the pages only if more than two. If your status report covers a month of activity or less, one page should be enough.
  • Be honest.
  • Keep a copy.

If you just need to a simple status then here is a simple list of topics I utilize:

  1. Accomplishments (from prior period)
  2. Plans (for the current period)
  3. Significant milestones / deliverables (with dates and progress information)
  4. Major risks or Events (to be aware of)

Do you have a simple way to do status reports?  Would love to hear from you.

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