Five questions to keep status reports clear and concise

Status reports can often ramble on for page after trivia filled page, and in the act of telling everything they bore you to tears and you miss the important information hidden in the data dump.

If you are in charge of a project, you can be lulled into a false sense of security as the weeks go by, yet the status reports become a paper trail that comes back to haunt you. Because important information is in those reports somewhere and because you don’t see it, you will pay the consequences unless you take steps to make sure key issues and potential problems are clearly highlighted.

Some years ago I led a team of developers on a big development project. We were subcontracting to a much larger company that was the prime contractor on this multi-million dollar project. Every Friday by lunch time I had to turn in a report on my doings for that week. I listed tasks completed, tasks that were challenged and obstacles that my team faced.

I also listed all sorts of project statistics such as man-hours planned versus man-hours actual that week, earned value credits on my work, and projected critical task man-hours for the coming week.

Then the prime contractor would take my report and all the other similar reports from the other project team leaders and compile a grand all-encompassing status report that reviewed all aspects of the project. This report was then delivered to the business executives at the client company who were responsible for project oversight and who were approving payments on the project.

After the project had been going on for about a year (and getting nowhere) the client company began to get impatient. Senior managers from this company began to investigate what was going on; they demanded to know what was happening on the project and where their money was going.

This is typical. Team leaders like me on projects like this spend 20 per cent of their time or more each week filling out reports; a large project office organization churns out voluminous status reports filled with words and statistics, and still nobody really knows what is going on.

Vice presidents at the client company had routinely been signing off on the status reports they received each week without ever reading them in detail. Who has time for all those words, all that boring, badly written text that takes for ever to get to the point? But therein was their downfall.

When the client company figured out that not much was getting done and demanded a refund of some of the tens of millions of dollars they had spent, the prime contractor brought out the loose leaf binders full of those voluminous weekly status reports.

A weekly status report was typically 35-40 pages long with a few bar charts and line graphs thrown in to illustrate whatever point the report writer wanted to emphasize. At the end of these reports was a spot for several signatures indicating that the report had been read and its information therefore communicated.

The prime contractor showed that several of the client’s vice presidents had signed off on these reports week after week, month after month. Then they began pointing out certain sentences and paragraphs buried here and there in those weekly reports. In those passages were statements about problems and delays and cost overruns on the project.

“We told you there were problems,” the prime contactor said, “and you didn’t say anything so we assumed you wanted us to just keep going.” I can only imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs as the vice presidents whose signatures were on those status reports began to contemplate the mess they were in.

After that meeting the project went on as if nothing had happened for another couple of months and then the project was quietly wrapped up and shut down. The client company wrote off more than $100 million and I heard that the vice presidents who had signed those weekly reports had all left the company “to pursue personal interests.”

I realized I could easily have made the same mistake as those vice presidents. I resolved to learn from their misfortune and thereafter, on my own projects, I instituted a short and simple format for the status reports I requested from by development team leaders. This format is designed to get to the main points right away, to give clear answers, and to quickly flag issues that could become big problems for the project.

My status report is composed of five questions that cover all the major problems that can occur on a system development project. They are yes or no questions, and if you answer yes to any one of them, then I ask for a short description of the problem and suggestions for how to resolve the problem. After the five questions, I then ask for only a few sentences about what was accomplished this week and what will be accomplished next week.

Such a report is never more than two pages long so it actually gets read by me and everyone else who needs to know what is going on. There is no place to hide the bad news so I quickly find out what is happening. This format has saved me more than once from the fate of those former vice presidents.

Here are the five questions that get to the heart of the matter so effectively:

1. Has the scope of any project task changed?(Yes/No)
2. Will any major activity or milestone date be missed? (Yes/No)
3. Does the project team need any outside skills/expertise? (Yes/No)
4. Are there any unsolved technical problems? (Yes/No)
5. Are there any unresolved user review/approval problems? (Yes/No)
(For all questions marked Yes, explain the problem and recommend possible solutions.)

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