Manage Projects With Great Status Reports

“I can’t wait to do the status report this week!” said no one ever. Yet project status reporting is a critical – maybe *the* critical – part of the overall communications plan. If project management is about bringing clarity to the project team, then the status report is the tool for making the project clear.

Here’s why and how to make your status reports effective.

Why It’s Important: Project Status Enables Decisions

“Projects move at the speed of decision-making” is one of my favorite sayings.

At its core, project status reporting enables decisions and action. It does this by providing visibility to where the project is in time, scope, cost, and certainty domains.

Without an effective status, the leads don’t have the information to adjust. If you don’t know what’s going on, or whether you’re on track or not, or in what areas, or what your spending is, then how can you adjust anything?

Banish uncertainty and “project fog” with great statusing.

This is true at any level of the project.

Even at a work package level, knowing status enables decisions about work planning, execution, and escalation. At a workstream level, knowing the status enables leads to allocate resources, prioritize efforts, and address uncertainty.

At the project or portfolio level, status enables management committees and steering committees to do the same – make decisions about spending, changes, resources, and risk mitigation.

Even worse than not knowing is having bad information. At least with no information, leadership can identify a gap in reporting and work to correct it. But having bad information gives a false sense of confidence in the project state. This false confidence will lead the management team to prioritize other things over the project issues. The issues will go unaddressed and lead to much bigger problems.

With good information and reliable status, decision makers and the project team become confident in their footing and are able to address project issues very early on.

So how do we ensure good project status?

What Goes In A Status

To enable decisions, decision-makers need a wide range of integrated information. So the good project status should deliver information on:

  • What has happened
  • What is happening
  • What will happen
  • The degree to which the project is on plan for scope, schedule, and cost
  • Risks, issues, and their mitigation status
  • Trends & directional information of the project
  • What the project team needs to be successful

These items fall into categories of Facts, Risk, Atmospherics, and Trends.

Facts are verifiable information about what has occurred (past information). They are usually supported by documentation or physical work completion. Facts are usually easily understood, though sometimes incompletely documented.

Risk has a negative connotation, but is, at its core, “uncertainty.” Uncertainty can contain both opportunities for improvement and unfavorable impacts. Both should be communicated. “Issues” are unfavorable impacts which have materialized in the project and need to be corrected.

Atmospherics are another category of information which *indicate* uncertainty. They are impressions of different aspects of the project. Examples may include indications from stakeholder conversations, project team “morale”, current events and public relations messaging, the disposition of local authorities to the project, and other elements which do not rise to the level of documented “fact” but are nonetheless important to gauging the ease or difficulty of accomplishing the project.

Trends are the rate of change of progress in certain areas of the project – for the math nerds, trends are the derivative of the facts. They are effectively forecasts of how the project will proceed. Cost and schedule trending are probably the most accessible types of trends to monitor. However, trends can exist other places, such as work-package completion, number of change orders, and defect burndown charts. They help inform the likelihood of success in different areas and therefore the need to take action before problems impact the project.

All of these element should be present in a status report. Failing to include information on any of them will present an incomplete picture to the decision-makers.

What Format To Use

Status reports can be given in many formats.

For small projects, email summaries can be enough. Long-form written documents with charts can work and may be better for more complex projects. Web-based update tools can collect information from many projects and present consolidated progress and resource views, though they still need discussion and alignment on inputs and what the outputs mean.

Smartsheet dashboard example

Some organizations may not require all the information listed above. They may only need a few elements of information from each project to be reported in their status tools.

That said, the most popular formats right now are dashboards and slide decks because of their visual accessibility and easy transportability. These formats have their own drawbacks, as Edward Tufte has noted, in that they present incomplete, sanitized, and simplified information. But that does not diminish their popularity.

So let’s get down to brass tacks: What should go on the slides? And how?

Status Slide Building

First, include headers information like the title of the project, project manager, and project lead or sponsor.

The number and structure of slides depends on the project. If you have a small project, a single slide may be enough. A larger complex project may need multiple slides, such as one per workstream or even per status element, to convey the right information. The rule of thumb about status presentation material is to have “as many as needed, as few as you can.”

Include a “headline” or 1-3 sentence summary of key highlights for project leads to read. If executives needed to know about the project in 10 seconds or less, what would you tell them?

A visual “status” indicator is good to include to prompt the reader on what to expect. Color-coded status for the project and project elements (scope, schedule, budget, and resources) can immediately direct attention to where it’s needed.

Then include highlights or work completed. These can be text bullets about accomplishments and may include facts and atmospheric information.

Upcoming events should include key events in the next 1-4 weeks that are too granular for the integrated project plan. Examples may include meetings, workshops, work activities, and engagement points.

The schedule progress should be on the project status. This means including a table or timeline showing key milestones from the current baseline plan. The milestones should have indicators showing whether they are complete, missed, on track, or at risk. Color-coding is one way to do this, as it text showing “status” of the milestone. Another technique is to have columns on a table showing baseline and forecast dates (as shown below), but this displays a lot of information and may confuse viewers.

The timeline is a critical part of the project and important reference on the status. This means it needs to be updated at least as frequently as the status report.

I prefer tables to timelines since they are information and space efficient and easier to update. However, they are graphically less pleasing, so see what your organization prefers!

Also, consider which milestones or dates to include: Major project dates should always be on the status, and visibility to upcoming dates should increase in the short-term future. Think of a “magnifying glass” on the next 3-6 weeks of project activities to highlight what’s coming next.

A project cost status summary, like budget consumed and contingency remaining, or an earned value measurement, is useful to put on status unless it is controlled information. Showing planned budget vs actual budget consumed can give a good sense of whether cost is trending on track or not.

Last, address risks, issues, and decisions. These should identify critical or high risks and issues, owners, and status. Key decisions (or blocking decisions) can be identified and outcomes articulated on the slide as a supplement to other decision venues.

One of our Project Status Templates

Status Colors

Color coding has pros and cons: color helps direct attention and can add another dimension of information to a page. However, stakeholders tend to read their own meanings into color, so it takes training for everyone to have a common understanding. You can use color effectively by defining a color scheme and definitions for certain elements of the status, such as for milestone dates, risks, and overall status.

Standard colors for a status scheme include

  • Red for high-impact or escalation items,
  • Yellow (Amber) for at-risk, delayed, or moderate impact items,
  • Green for on-track items, and
  • Blue for completed items.

Again, it is important to clarify the color uses. For example, if one stakeholder thinks “Yellow” means “on schedule but watch-out”, but you communicate “yellow” when the work package is forecasting a 10% schedule slip, then the status is not clear. This means that the communication and consequences are not clear, and the decision-makers can’t make a good decision.

A stripped down scheme can include Red for impact items and neutral or black for everything else (i.e. everything is fine unless it’s red).

Get to Green and Help Needed

Sometimes things are wrong. A date is slipping. Cost is running over. While no one likes to be the bearer of bad news, it is ok and even desirable to identify these things on the status.

The catch is: So long as they come with a get-to-green plan, or a plan for recovering the impacts on the project (“getting back to green”). In Risk Management terms, the actions for responding to unfavorable impacts can include accepting, mitigating, or avoiding. So on the status it is important to articulate the issue and response plan (or lack of) as well as any help needed from the management team to keep the project where it needs to be.

Making these two things – recovery response and help needed – explicit will give confidence to the management team that issues are being actively managed or escalated when appropriate.

Gathering Updates

Getting status updates is critical to having accurate information.

It is good practice to have a regular status meeting that covers events of the last period. This is commonly a weekly or bi-weekly cadence. It can change depending on the phase of the project and the audience.

Ask the project team to provide updates on their activities in a regular format. In a perfect world, the work of the team can be tracked directly without having to provide additional updates, such as through Jira or other tools.

Unfortunately, there are some workstreams that do not lend well to perfect digital and physical world tracking. These areas include operations process development, construction, IT Infrastructure, recruiting & organizational work, procurements, and some elements of testing. So they require active updates and information gathering from their workstream teams.

The updates should come before the status presentation meeting. I’ve used short meetings with project team members to gather and input updates.

While discussion of status in the status meeting is productive, it is not a good practice to gather updates in the actual status presentation meeting. This is because it can present an unaligned picture of the project, leading to confusion and unproductive reviews . Do a bit of preparation and ensure that your team’s time is well-spent.

Align On Status Messaging

So now you have information, color-coding, and formatting.

Before presenting status, start with the project management plan and review the status development and delivery cadence with the project management team.

This includes where information for the status comes from, who delivers it, and when they can expect to deliver it.

Multiple levels of status may be necessary. For example, the project team may have to update a local management committee once a week and an executive steering committee quarterly.

With the teams, review what is on the report, what the pieces mean ,and what they are for. There are interactions on the page – if a deliverable is yellow/late, it should have a Get to Green reference. Key decisions may have Help Needed to complete the decision. Planned Events should move into Highlights as they are accomplished.

Another key decision is when to move the project to “Yellow” or “Red”. These come down to definitions of each status. If a single deliverable is Yellow, does it drive the project to Yellow? Or is it only if final deliverables are late that the project status changes? Many times the discussion comes down to what impacts may happen or what intervention is needed to get back on track. These are discussions that the project team status meetings are meant to prompt, to get decisions and action to support the project.

An example format is below, showing a project turned yellow due to an at-risk design date. There is some slack in the plan to placing the PO, but should the management team report the project as Yellow? Should it take action and have a get-to-green plan to reduce the schedule risk? All of these are things the team should explore and then take action on.

Now Go And Give Great Status!

We’ve covered many elements of a good project status, one that will inform and enable stakeholders. There are a lot of decisions to make in building it, and getting the formatting and information content correct for your project audiences. But when you get it, the status will be an invaluable tool for enabling decisions and keeping your team informed.


Let’s talk about your distribution project delivery. Connect with us at PL Programs.

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