Write status reports with the reader's interests in mind

Not many project managers like to write status reports. Here are some tips to help you along with the task.
Written by Tom Mochal, Contributor
The dilemma
I had lunch with my boss Wayne a few days ago. Wayne passed along some feedback to me about status reporting that will require some follow-up from me.

“Tom, I’ve been hearing concerns from some of the senior managers about the quality of the information that is being reported in the project status reports,” Wayne said. “I need you to work with the project managers to make these more effective.”

“What kinds of concerns are you hearing?” I asked.

“Some of the managers are receiving project status reports on a monthly basis,” Wayne explained. “However, they’re just a bunch of words. After reading the reports, the managers still don’t have a good understanding of the project status.”

“Our company is ready to move to a higher level on status reporting,” I agreed. “Two years ago, status reports were sporadic, and everyone used a different format. Now, every project manager does status reporting on a monthly basis in a consistent format. However, I agree that the information on the reports is not always at the high-quality level we need it to be.”

“Great,” Wayne replied. “Let’s figure out how to get the content improved over the next two monthly reporting cycles."

Mentor advice
Is there a project manager out there that likes to do status reports? If so, I would like to shake his or her hand. It’s a funny thing. We work hard all month. The team accomplishes great feats, solves perplexing problems, and strives to meet deadlines. Then, when it comes time to tell our management and customers the status of the project, we want to spend as little time as possible providing the absolute minimum amount of information that is required. It might be understandable (but still not right) if the project was in trouble. But even project teams that are doing a great job don’t always communicate effectively in the status report.

Of course, let’s first agree that management stakeholders depend on project reports. If they don’t feel they’re getting the information they need, they can always pick up the phone (or even walk down to talk live) to get more information from the project manager. But let’s make life easier for them.

Project managers must come to terms with the fact that communicating status is one of their fundamental responsibilities. Communicating status is a way to manage expectations, and keep everyone informed on how the project is progressing. Managers have many priorities that they are working on at any given time. The status report is one of the ways they can keep an eye on your project and know if they need to become more engaged.

The bottom line is that the project manager must prepare the status report to meet the needs of the reader, not to see how few words can be included. The reader does not want to know all the minutia of your project, so don’t include it. The reader also does not want to read about how smoothly the project is progressing, if, in fact, there are problems. A good status report should include major accomplishments, major variations from the schedule (at that particular point in time), issues and what is being done to resolve them, scope-change requests, newly identified risks, and other observations or comments that will be useful to the reader. Try to provide a good, solid status on your project. If your readers are not clear on how the project is progressing, you have not done an effective enough job.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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