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.

Aligning Projects with Organizational Strategy

PMI Talent TriangleEvery three to five years, Project Management International conducts a role delineation study. The 2015 project management RDS led to development of what PMI calls the “Talent Triangle.” This is a list of competencies in three groups: technical project management, leadership, and strategic and business management. While most professional project managers “get” the first two, many are dubious about that last item. But employers expect us to think beyond our immediate responsibilities. In talking with business and government leaders, PMI found a recurring theme: Project managers need to take an active role in aligning projects with organizational strategy. The most recent RDS reinforced that finding.

The Project Manager as Reporter

“[M]ost companies see ‘project trees’ rather than ‘strategic forests.’ Only a minority attempt to balance key attributes of strategy implementation across the portfolio, such as alignment to different strategic priorities (47 percent) and risk and reward (35 percent). Worse still, a large number of firms that do seek such balance fail: only 32 percent of respondents believe their organizations balance the relevant portfolios against strategic priorities; just 22 percent say the same of risk.”Implementing the Project Portfolio: A Vital C-Suite Focus

One of the recurring themes I’ve seen on my consulting projects is the difficulty of harmonizing processes and systems after a merger or acquisition. Executives negotiate these strategic deals without bothering to sweat the implementation details, because that’s the job of middle management. Of course, much of that sweat falls from the brows of project managers, who typically work across domains to implement that strategy. Few of those middle managers are positioned to see what’s going on outside their domain. They aren’t aware of conflicts, don’t realize what is being done to work around resource constraints, and may be oblivious to critical risks the organization is exposed to. This is especially true for middle managers who are stakeholders, but not sponsors of the projects under way. They are parties in interest, but not participants. It falls to the project managers to keep them informed, and sometimes to prompt them to action. And in the best case, get everyone pulling on the same end of the rope.

The Project Manager as Counselor

Project managers have little direct authority, but the good ones cultivate influence. Sales people and consultants aspire to be “trusted advisers,” who can point out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. But in order to become a walking SWOT analysis, you have to be perceived as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and collaborative. And as a project manager, you additionally need to be perceived as an agent of change – which you are, courtesy of your projects. Influence comes from perception.

Your stakeholders need current, actionable information, but they also need someone who will listen to their concerns and respond to their requests (even with “No”). You need to be able to frame conversations with your stakeholders in the context of the organization’s goals and the strategy to reach them, rather than your project’s goals. That requires hard conversations about priorities and risk tolerance with your project sponsor and senior folks who can put that strategy in context. You need to be able to facilitate conversations and guide decisions that are focused on the stated direction of the organization, rather than the personal goals of one manager. I’ve seen too many projects get bogged down delivering a scope change that never should have been approved, because it was considered and rejected by the portfolio manager before funding was approved.

A Strategy Provides a Structure for Decisions

A strategy isn’t magical, nor is it a guarantee of success. But it provides a structure for making decisions and taking action. Strategy depends on execution, and modern organizations are holding their project managers accountable for execution in alignment with strategy. Project managers who deliver on these expectations will be recognized for it, and those who don’t will be recognized for failing to deliver. Plan and act accordingly.