I’m sure you’ve heard the old saw that dog-bites-man is not news, but man-bites-dog is news. While the news can be a source of entertainment, especially when some man bites a dog, such incidents are anecdotal at best—a statistic with a sample size of one. We should also consider that tabulated instances of dog-bites-man and related details can be statistically analyzed based on characteristics like breed, time of year, distance from the animal’s home, behavior of the man immediately prior to the incident, and so on. We call this information.
I don’t mean to imply that news has less merit than information. I simply mean that we should distinguish between the two types of content. And you should include both types in project status reports. Effective decision makers stay current on the news but base their decisions on information.
Projects are like novels, described by my high school English teacher, Ray Rockwell, as “One damned thing after another.” That said, some activities are recurring, or spread over a long period of time, while other activities and events are one-off, or are notable as start or end-points of longer duration events. This is where we separate the news items from the data points.
Project reporting periods vary, based on the projects and the needs of the stakeholders, but let’s assume you are reporting each week. Some of the news items you might want to cover in your status report include:
• Milestones achieved or missed
• Delayed events or actions that were finally completed
• Noteworthy achievements by team members or the team overall (kudos)
• Noteworthy misses or failures by the team, and what was learned
I could go on, but you get the idea. These are events, both planned and unexpected, at a point in time. Timing is important, as old news is no news, and while a few news items are worth interrupting scheduled programming, most are not.
Projects tend to generate a lot of data that can and should be tracked over time. For example: it can be helpful to understand how risk exposure has evolved over the course of a project. If the project team is continually updating the risk register and the qualitative and quantitative assessment scores, and you have an agreed way to aggregate all of those risk scores, a graph of the cumulative risk exposure can show the trend. If you score open issues, that can be a second line on the chart. Add those to a line with a burn-down chart of planned work and insert major milestones, and you have a picture that tells a compelling story.
During the test stages of a project, graphs can your stakeholders tell a lot about your increasing confidence in the quality of the product. I saw another team graph knowledge capture and transfer as a burn-down chart, to the delight of the folks who would assume support responsibilities after the move to production. Think about your stakeholders and the sort of information (as opposed to news) that they will focus on. Not everyone will care about labor utilization trends or cumulative spend but if your audience wants it, track it. Chance favors the prepared, and management favors the proactive.
Most of us have adopted a Red-Amber-Green score-at-a-glance for quick and easy summary of the detailed message. The key here is to make these broad assessments the result of an actual score, decided in advance of the project. I’ve written before about making these indicators rigorous, but let’s be clear about their value to the consumers of your reports: they should call attention to something to be investigated elsewhere in your report. If you have one overall RAG stoplight and six detail-level stoplights, ensure your project news and information is organized in a way that lets them find the details quickly. Don’t force your CFO to read the whole status report in order to find the sentence that says consultant labor spend is running 10% ahead of plan. Highlight the bad news!
Communication Leads to Influence
We prepare project status reports because we want to communicate with our stakeholders, make them aware of progress, road blocks, and speed bumps, and influence them to act on the things that require their action. A good project status report doesn’t “spook the herd,” but it does let management know what to expect. And the key to becoming a positive influence is by managing expectations.