Status Reports: News and Information

Dennis the NewsboyI’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.

Project News

WhiteboardProjects 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.

Project Information

ExcelGanttChart4Projects 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.

Project Scorecards

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.

Defining Status Metrics: RAG, Trends, and Transitions

Execution

We’re judged on our results, rather than our intentions

A colleague of mine, Rob Young, lamented the lack of rigor in governance by new project managers. This is especially evident in red / amber / green (RAG) summaries in status reports, where a failing project can still be reported as green. “Clearly, there needs to be a common understanding of the status metric that is being reported against and the rationale for moving between statuses.”

Rob is absolutely correct: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t effectively communicate your measurements if there are no well-understood units of measure. And as Glen Alleman regularly insists, the dimensions measured and units of measurement need to be meaningful to the decision-makers and applicable to their problem domain.

Selecting Project Dimensions for RAG Measurement

While I am an advocate of using RAG status indicators to direct attention to specific areas, such as schedule, budget, quality, staffing, and so on, I believe that reporting an overall project status or risk status using RAG is “governance for dummies.” These are complex topics deserving of a short narrative description that invites inquiry into the details. More on that below.

Prior to the project kickoff, select dimensions that are both relevant to the project and meaningful to your stakeholders, and create a reporting definition statement for each one. Schedule and quality are always relevant, and unless you have an unusual situation, so is budget. Projects with a dependence on shared resources should include staffing. You may also need dimensions for software development, change management and communication, data record conversion, and so on. Then describe how you intend to measure that aspect of your project, as you move from one phase to another. For example, your projected budget should be broken down by month, or whatever shorter time period is meaningful. With that assumption, consider this description:

Budget: Cumulative non-BAU spending to date matches cumulative projected spending in the approved project budget, with approved changes. Capital budget expenditures tracked separately from those to be treated as operating expenses.

  • Green: Cumulative capital spending not more than 3% over budget and operating expenses not more than 5% over budget and no anticipated events are expected to change this state
  • Amber: Cumulative capital spending more than 3% over budget or operating expenses more than 5% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits
  • Red: Cumulative capital spending more than 5% over budget or operating expenses more than 10% over budget, or an anticipated event is expected to put the project over these limits

This definition is both precise and verifiable throughout the project life cycle. Other dimensions, such as quality, are more complex and may need different definitions in different project phases.

Trends and Transitions

Once you’ve reported an amber or red status, you have their attention. But when you transition from amber in one reporting period to red in a subsequent period, or red back to amber, you are indicating more than just a status—you are describing a change of state.Consider this example definition:

  • Green to Amber: An issue has been identified that is driving the project over budget, and corrective action is being taken. If the underlying issue has not been identified or no mitigation is possible, report as Red
  • Amber to Red: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has not been corrected and executive management attention is required
  • Amber to Green or Red to Amber: The underlying issue that drove the project over budget has been corrected and the overage recovered, or the adjusted budget has been approved
  • Red to Green: Not an acceptable transition in a single period

I’ve seen some status reports that use arrows to identify trends. For example, an up arrow indicates trending toward green, down represents trending red, and an arrow pointing to the right indicates a steady state. Trend reporting can be useful, if accurate, but if you report an upward trend from amber in one period and then red in the next, you are going to face some well-deserved hard questions. If you decide to report trends, be sure your stakeholders understand what you want them to do with the information—a down arrow may not mean “all hands on deck.”

Dimensions Where RAG Isn’t Appropriate

As I mentioned earlier, overall status and risk are not RAG-appropriate. Smart stakeholders and sponsors don’t get bogged down in the details, but they want the ability to identify, investigate, and act on a specific, troublesome weed. Facilitate this with your narrative descriptions. If a risk has morphed into an issue or has been overtaken by events and is no longer a concern, say as much. If the schedule has slipped due to resource conflicts with another project or with business as usual, be specific. One team’s solution can easily become another team’s issue. It may be that the conflicting demand really has a higher priority, but let the sponsor and stakeholders make the decision, explicitly.

I’ve also learned to like using “++” and “–“ to flag changes in scope. For example:

  • — Interface to FloximateKersplunk moved to Phase 2, per Nixard Richon
  • ++ Additional testing of GL interface approved and funded by CFO

Also, as Rob points out, “Especially on T&M projects there should of course be no reason not to report spend (in hours and dollars), and estimate to complete.” If you are managing a project with multiple vendors, it may be useful to break out their costs separately, in a detail section. If one vendor is way over budget, while the others are on target, don’t just report amber.

Actionable Information in Digestible Form

The people who are reading your status reports can handle mixed metaphors, so aim for clarity and accuracy rather than mind-numbing consistency. Deliver actionable information and recommend actions. You can be concise and clear, if you seek to communicate rather than just fill out some weekly form.

Consider the ultimate in status reporters: those folks who forecast the weather. They start with current temperature, humidity, precipitation, and so on, and then talk about their projections. You quickly learn whether you need an umbrella or sun block, and when you need a sweater, because they don’t just give you the numbers—they help you reach conclusions. Watch, and learn.

New PM Articles for the Week of December 16 – 22

New project management articles published on the web during the week of December 16 – 22. And this week’s video: Mike Clayton updates a holiday favorite with the twelve project management days of Christmas. No singing and no birds in fruit trees; just short reminders of key themes in project management. Six minutes, safe for work.

Ethics, Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Bas Kohnke points out four trends in the gig economy, people enablement, chatbots, and AI that will further change the workplace in 2020. 4 minutes to read.
  • Rashmi Sharma describes seven tech trends about to transform business in the coming decade. 6 minutes to read.
  • Kimberley Botwright reports on the furious growth of cross-border data transactions, and the growing body of regulations restricting it. Compliance will be one of the challenges of the 20’s. 4 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • Harold Kerzner identifies coming changes to the practice of project management. This will be the decade that project management becomes a strategic skill set. 6 minutes to read.
  • John Goodpasture shares an outline and general guidelines for writing an RFP. 4 minutes to read.
  • Brad Egeland describes what a project manager should be able to expect from the customer, the project team, and from senior management. 9 minutes to read all three.
  • Stephen Biddle tells us how to write a report. And just as important: how to not write a report. 3 minutes to read.
  • Jason Westland gives us an overview of IT governance, including definitions, frameworks, and planning. 6 minutes to read.
  • David Binny looks at the intricacies of the making a business case for a move to S/4HANA, before SAP ends support for ECC. Alternatives abound! 6 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from innovation failures to better standups to actively doing nothing. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Johanna Rothman expands a recent conversation with a project manager to illustrate the power of role titles. 6 minutes to read.
  • Louis-Philippe Carignan observes the impact of DevOps on Agile practices; specifically, the growing value of Kanban metrics as a substitute for story points. 6 minutes to read.
  • Bob Reselman outlines a strategy for testing in an event-driven application architecture. 7 minutes to read.
  • Chris Fox rants, “Testing is essential, but it’s secondary. Sorry.” 6 minutes to read.
  • Nels Hoenig shares an anecdote that underlines the value of validating data before proceeding to analysis. 5 minutes to read.

Applied Leadership

  • Art Petty analyzes the leader’s role in executing on strategy. 5 minutes to read.
  • Amy Jen Su examines the components of trust between manager and team to help us understand if we really trust each other. 10 minutes to read.
  • John Millen uses Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Elon Musk as examples of great communicators. 5 minutes to read.

Cybersecurity and Data Protection

  • Curtis Franklin explains how to approach API security. 5 minutes to read.
  • Edlyn Levine and Algirde Pipikaite assess the potential of cyberattacks that directly target the hardware in our infrastructure. 4 minutes to read.
  • Colin Jones updates us on developments in mobile two-factor authentication and security keys, in the wake of SIM-swapping attacks. 6 minutes to read.
  • Steven Melendez reports that ransomware attackers are now publishing stolen data from victims who don’t pay. Yes, this means they are leveraging GDPR fines. 2 minutes to read.

Pot Pourri

  • Leigh Espy primes the pump with 35 conversation-starter questions for social and networking events. Not just for the holidays! 5 minutes to read.
  • Harry McCracken extols the iPad as his personal gadget of the decade. 3 minutes to read.

Enjoy!