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A Beginner’s Guide to Project Status Reporting

A Beginner’s Guide to Project Status Reporting

It’s not enough to deliver your projects. You also need to let people know. That means learning the basics of tracking progress and project status reporting.

Your project sponsor, teammates, and stakeholders all need regular project status reporting. It lets them track the momentum of your project. And that gives them confidence in you. They want that… and you need it.

So, for this week’s guide, we invited Ben Aston to tell us all about project status reporting. Ben is the founder of The Digital Project Manager. He’s been at the sharp end of client relationships for over 10 years, at top agencies. And he’s delivered digital projects for major brands in many sectors. These include automotive, utility, FMCG, and consumer electronics. (FMCG: fast-moving consumer goods)

A Beginner’s Guide to Project Status Reporting

So, what is Project Status Reporting?

‘Project Status Reporting’ can refer to many things. For example:

  • Reviewing and documenting basic information, like hours logged or budget spent.
  • Providing updated timelines of how long certain tasks are taking to complete.

Project managers use reports to keep people informed:

  • the project team
  • sponsor and project board
  • clients or customers
  • other stakeholders

Status reporting is part of the Monitoring and Controlling of a project. This is during the implementation, or delivery, stage.

You’ve already done all the preparation and planning. Now you are making progress and monitoring your successes and challenges. The Monitoring and Controlling process is vital to course correcting your project if something isn’t working. That’s why tracking and reporting are so important.

The Project Lifecyle - Monitor & Control

Why it Matters?

There are plenty of benefits to progress reporting. And these include:

  • identifying risks
  • cost analysis
  • visibility of key information
  • maintaining control
  • learning from the process
  • accountability

Sharing progress will assure your client and your team that everything is on track and on budget.

Regular progress reports also help to keep lines of communication open. You’ll be glad of this, if something needs approval, or goes awry. Your project reporting process can help build relationships as well as manage expectations.

What I Will Cover

There are two different aspects of project status reporting that I will cover here:

  1. Status reports. These are usually written or visualized. You will share them with stakeholders with some regularity.
  2. Status meetings. These may be less frequent. But they involve a face-to-face session that allows more dialogue between everyone involved.

Both are important to the process of your project.

Part One: Project Status Reports

Project status reports are, fundamentally, a record of your progress. They keep all parties accountable to one another and the overall project.

You will create and distribute them on a regular cycle:

  • weekly
  • fortnightly
  • monthly
  • or whatever schedule you, your team, and your client agree on.

They are more than just productivity checks, though. Status reports can help you mitigate risks and course correct before things get out of hand.

What is a Project Status Report?

A status report may be a single item or a number of formal and informal notes that work together to convey important details about:

  • progress
  • setbacks
  • forecasts, and
  • future plans

You might use simple graphics to make information easy for your readers to follow. For example:

  • Labelling individual tasks might with RAG health indicators
  • Using a dynamic timeline to show where you are in your project process

There is no right or wrong way to build a status report. But there are some best practices that I’ll go over below. You will find that every team, project, and client will want a different approach to reporting.

How and Why to Use Status Reports

One benefit of project status reporting is to connect your work to your client’s expectations.
From the start, a good status report will:

  • define the project’s workflow
  • leverage any flex in the current schedule
  • highlight inter-project dependencies (between tasks or different departments, for example)
  • track resource usage
  • map and learn from any errors or course corrections, and
  • reinforce ongoing (and sometimes changing) deadlines

Where to Get Your Data

Project scheduling tools can help you access real-time information. That will allow you to build dynamic status reports, that reflect anything from:

  • individual tasks to
  • a larger picture of a full projects

You can pull custom reports from dedicated software, or collect your own data and plot it as you see fit. Most organizations look for a balance of both, to craft the type of report that best suits their needs.

How to Write a Good Report

How do you write a good status report? Here are nine tips to get you started.

1. Tailor reports to each individual client

This probably sounds obvious but it’s a good thing to reiterate. Every client will have their own priorities in mind. So, your status reports must meet these expectations. Here are some typical examples of what clients want or need:

  • the amount of time and money going into each task
  • how are you meeting their target numbers (say, social engagement)
  • performance against budget or schedule plans
  • an outline of every potential risk and reward scenario so that can feel in control of the process

And, of course, some want all of the above – and more!

So, as you start a project, ask your client what is most pressing to them. It may be key measurements, statistics, or specific questions. Then, use your project status reports to boost their confidence in these areas.

There is nothing wrong, by the way, starting with a standard template report format. If you’ve used it before – particularly on a similar project – this is a great short-cut. But the message is that this should be your starting point only. You should always adapt a template to your and your client’s specific needs.

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2. Keep it short and sweet

Clients that have time to read a weekly 10-page status report are few and far between.

Respect people’s time. Make sure you are conveying information that is useful and actionable for them. For ongoing status reports, try keeping them to a page or less. Quickly outline:

  • highlights
  • lowlights
  • whether any action is needed or not (approval on a budget increase, for example).

3. Break it into easy-to-identify parts

First, this give your reader’s eyes a break and makes your report more readable. But second, it can help if the same report is going to multiple people.

Why?

Each person who receives your status report may have a different interest or area of expertise. Make sure it is clear and easy for them to find what they want, without reading the whole thing from start to finish.

4. Define technical terms in context

Not all of your clients or stakeholders will be completely familiar with all the jargon. So, don’t assume they will understand it all.

Break things down for them in easy-to-understand language. And provide definitions where it would be helpful. Also, if you use acronyms, spell them out the first time you use them. Even if people have heard them before, you don’t want to make them go looking for answers.

5. List goals (and how they relate to the big picture)

Goals can change as your project evolves. For a status report to work correctly, it must give your project status against particular goals and milestones.

So, make these clear in your report, to make sure everyone is on the same page right away. Use language that you’ve agreed-upon with your stakeholders already, to state these goals. This way, your client will feel heard and understood. Then, relate your status updates back to these goals as often as possible.

6. Consider both short- and long-term planning

Your reports need to cover all time-horizons relevant to your project. Usually, you’ll focus on the near-term. But good project status reporting needs to alert readers to trends that allow them to act early to address future problems.

7. Leave room for changing conditions

status report without a context is not helpful. So be sure to reference any changes in internal or external circumstances. This will allow readers to properly assess your information, and make robust decisions.

8. Visualize your data (like with Gantt charts)

People like pictures. The more you can show rather than tell, the better. Certainly, some forms of graphical representation take time to understand. So, if you are using complex images, I recommend you spend time with your stakeholders, helping to familiarize them with your graphics. This way, they will be able to:

  • read them easily
  • draw correct interpretations from them
  • ask good questions

9. Be consistent in how and when you report

First, a regular cycle sets up expectations among your readers. They can make plans. But second, it also allows you to plan a regular rhythm to your project – the project heartbeat.

The free OnlinePMCourses Project Management Fundamentals course refers to project heartbeat in the ‘Deliver Your Project’ module.

However, don’t be afraid to review your reporting cycle from time-to-time. If your project changes pace or hits a critical period, you may want to report more often. Or, if it goes into a slow, steady phase, you may want less frequent reports.

Part Two: Status Meetings

Many people like the feeling of a face-to-face meeting. They find it a more effective form of communication that simply reading a report. It lets people:

  • ask questions
  • hear teammates and colleagues respond to them in real-time
  • discuss and brainstorm ideas
  • build relationships

And effective meetings are important for other reasons too. Thse don’t work so well inwritten for, like:

Status meetings will enhance your project status reporting process. In rare occasions, your client may only expect you to provide one or the other: reports or meetings. In most cases, you will want to use a combination of the two.

  • Status reports tend to be more frequent, and require little time.
  • Status meetings will often take up larger chunks of your workday. But they do offer the option to dig deeper into each issue.

What a Project Status Meeting Involves

Status meetings involve pre-booking a time and place. This can be a physical or a virtual meeting. It allows an in-person status update.

A meeting can be somewhat more challenging to organize than a written report. Because it needs everyone to carve out a slice of their hectic schedule to come together.

Anyone who has worked in an organizational setting will appreciate how challenging this can be. However, status meetings are a vital, precious resource. They are most often well worth the time and effort you put into them.

The How and When of Status Meetings

Where possible, schedule in recurring status meetings at the start of any project. If everyone involved knows to keep the first Tuesday of the month free for your status meeting, it will save you a lot of hassle later.

This isn’t always possible, though. Even pre-scheduled events will have to get bumped due to unexpected schedule conflicts:

  • Crises
  • Business travel
  • Family emergencies
  • Illness
  • and so forth

However, always ask whether the person who is indisposed really needs to be present.
You are sure to find that meetings will become a valuable part of your client relationships. And you have plenty of choices:

  • in person
  • phone
  • video conferencing
  • e-conferencing (Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime)

Why You Need Status Meetings

Status meetings give you a chance to present your data in person, putting a face to the information.

Why is this important? It can boost confidence in your project, particularly when addressing risks or concerns. A text-based status report may come across as technocratic, sterile, and uncaring. But, an in-person presentation can reinforce your dedication to the project. You can show that you care about every issue and bump in the road.

Status meetings also give the client a chance to respond to your points. This may come in the form of questions, like:

  • ‘Can you explain what X means?’ or
  • ‘Can you try X or Y?’ or even
  • ‘I’m concerned about X, can you justify your choice?’

These may be questions that you hadn’t considered, or information that you didn’t think was pertinent. Either way, it will prove valuable to you going forward, so long as you’re paying attention.

Priorities

This real-time interaction gives you a glimpse into your client’s mind:

  • What makes them tick?
  • What do they focus on?
  • Where is their knowledge lacking?
  • Where does their knowledge excel?
  • What do they care most about?

These considerations can help you better tailor your communication to their unique needs.

Personalities

These types of meetings will also help you glean details about personality types and quirks.

  • Is someone obsessed with numbers, while someone else likes nuanced narratives?
  • Does one person prefer visual information while another prefers verbal?

You can, and should, ask these kinds of questions during a status meeting.

Personal Impact

Most important, status meetings let you sell yourself and your ideas. There is a reason why you were chosen to work on this project over anyone else. You have something to bring to the table and status meetings are your chance to shine. Status meetings are a space where you can show your professional assets. You can be creative, articulate, energetic, optimistic, excited, and passionate. These are things that are not easily measurable and are best portrayed face-to-face.

Tips for Success

Keep it concise and on track

Plan your project status meetings in advance. Then follow your agenda. You dot want to stifle good conversation, but keep it relevant. Take other issues off-line, unless there is a pressing reason not to do so.

Handle questions and concerns with grace

Questions are questions – not a challenge to your authority. And concerns are important to the people who raise them. So, a defensive response is not just a waste of time. It’s inappropriate and undermines your professional standing. Listen with care and respond calmly.

Admit when you don’t have all the answers (but have a plan to get them)

If you don’t know, say so. It’s not your job to have all the answers. Although that’s not a license for poor preparation.
But, it is your job to know how to get the answers. So give assurance that you have a process to follow, and offer a hard deadline for a full response.

Leave time for pleasantries and some small talk – get to know one another

‘We don’t have time for that!’
Yes, you do. It doesn’t take a lot of time. And relationship-building is essential:

  • Leave space at the start for chat
  • Introduce new people to the group, and
  • Finish early so people can discuss the meeting informally

Conclusion

How can you prove the value in your work?
How can you define success and mediate failures?

These are necessary parts of any project.

Without a doubt, you will need status tracking, reporting, and meetings in your Project Management career. Being able to create a professional status report or meeting is a valuable skill. It will go a long way in building professional relationships with clients and even your own team. Never underestimate the power of a good status update via a report or meeting.

What is your take on project status reporting?

Mike and Ben would love to hear your thoughts, and we’ll respond to any comments you leave.

If you liked this article, you might also like a companion article by Be, on his own website: ‘Keep Your Project On Track With Status Reports’.

About the Author Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of The Digital Project Manager, one of the fastest growing online resources for digital project managers. I've been in the industry for over 10 years at top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS, flash games, banner ads, eCRM and eCommerce sites across automotive, utility, FMCG, and consumer electronics brands.

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