Project status reporting: Waste of time or a critical success factor

16.05.17 Ilkka Töyrylä

Project managers and teams often feel burdened by status reporting requirements and continuous status meetings. Several reports in different formats may need to be created, while it is unsure if anybody ever reads those reports. Status meetings with limited relevance for the participants are held. Resulting administrative effort takes time from real work. In today’s agile era, the relevance of status reporting is questioned. Is status reporting a waste of time that should be eliminated or drastically reduced?

Why is status reporting needed?

From management’s perspective, the situation may look different. With insufficient information on projects’ status, management may be in the dark and just keep fingers crossed hoping that the project will be in time and will deliver what is expected while at the same time being held accountable for the outcome.

Projects involve major investments and are expected to bring significant benefits for the organization. There needs to be a way to ensure that the money is well spent and expected benefits will materialize. Provided with accurate status information, management can take corrective actions and help projects to succeed.

Management is not the only party needing status information. Other projects and stakeholders depend on project’s outputs and need up to date information to be able to adjust their plans if needed.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of status reporting is the project manager herself. The requirement to report puts pressure on the project manager and forces her to stay on track and to ensure that planned actions have taken and will take place.

Another observation is that if a project is not able to provide clear status information to its stakeholders, the status is almost always unclear within the project itself. When team members are not sure of their tasks, priorities, dependencies and expected schedule, focus and efficiency are lost.

How to make status reporting relevant … and minimize burden?

Nobody needs reports that do not provide relevant and actionable information. Neither are reports needed when there is no active management structure to utilize the information in the reports.

We have observed that in many cases in large organizations, project managers need to report using different templates.  If you want to minimize your project manager’s burden, ensure that they only have one template to use and only relevant information is reported.

Reporting should always be connected to project targets and schedule. Standalone reports without a context only provide a snapshot of the situation with limited relevance. The break-down of activities against which the status is tracked should also be done carefully. Smaller tasks or backlog items are tracked within the teams, but are hardly relevant for others. Having major tasks with too long duration is also useless. If the same task is reported to be on-going week after week, it is hard to tell if the activity is really on track or not. There is a risk that such a task is continuously reported to be on green until it suddenly turns red at the time when the task should finally be completed. Our observation is that breaking down activities to ones that are ca. 1-2 weeks in duration, makes progress and delays visible without excessive delay. This allows quick corrective actions, while reporting effort remains reasonable as reporting is not on a too detailed level.

Collection of status information should mainly happen outside of status meetings in one-to-one and team discussions and through team members updating the status themselves (e.g. status of tasks on a task list or backlog items) while status meetings summarize the status and allow time for cross-team discussions and decision-making.

Based on our experience, lack of visibility is one of the most common factors underlying project failures and improving visibility one of the best ways to get projects back on track. One should also understand that status information may be critical for others even when there is no direct benefit for the project itself. Small projects with limited dependencies and criticality also have smaller reporting requirements. The larger the project or program and the larger the stakeholder base, the higher the importance of status information.

Effective project managers use status reporting as a tool to get the support they need, to ensure that tasks get done and in that way to ensure that their project stays on track.