A quick recipe for effective status reporting in large complex programs: Part 1 – Communicate to collaborate
A few days ago, I met up with an old friend of mine, quite unexpectedly at a social gathering. After exchanging the usual pleasantries and talking about random topics, neither of us could resist the temptation of talking about work. Although I was better off at holding back from letting my frustration out, my friend could not hold back, and started to speak about a certain large program he was handling at work that was being reported as problematic and how the problem actually was just a communication issue. After an hour of discussion on what, where and how of the problem, we figured out that the project had performed all the mistakes under the sun, relating to “keeping the customer informed” – right from not sending status reports on time to sending them in varying formats. This is a very common mistake even traditional projects commit during their lifecycle. The problem just accentuates in the context of a large complex program since the stakes are quite high. Problem solvers that we both are, we sat down to figure out some of the best practices that projects can follow to avoid communication issues.
Subsequently, I thought it might be a good idea to encapsulate them into certain steps that can make status reporting effective in the context of large complex programs.
Let’s just look at how we can devise a standardized process for effective and timely reporting:
1. Plan the reporting process. First and foremost, incorporate the status reporting activity into the project plans. Failing to plan is planning to fail. If there is no defined plan to perform certain activities, there is a very high likelihood of those activities being missed during execution. Many project plans have a section/placeholder on the status reporting. The status reporting section typically captures the information on frequency, timing, content, and audience of the status reporting activity. Additional information could actually mention who in the project team (in terms of project roles) would send out the report and other such details. The project schedule could have recurring tasks to perform status reporting. The recommended way to ensure that plans are effective could be to have recurring action items or reminders in the Outlook or any similar application to perform these tasks. A good way of checking if the plan aligns with the project needs, is to have the customer review and agree to the status reporting plan.
2. Establish and maintain consistency in the report structure and content. When Bill Gates wrote his article “Content is King” in 1996, he couldn’t have been any more right. Although he referred to the content on the internet in his article, the concept is completely applicable in the context of a status report as well. The content in the report should give everything that the client needs to know on the progress of the project,– nothing more and nothing less. Choosing the sections of a status report is pivotal in making the report effective. If you hire an expensive consultant, he might spend a couple of days interviewing the team members, clients and later review your project documentation and finally would make an earth-shattering statement that the “status report sections should be made MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive)”. This simple yet extremely powerful acronym is a principle that can be applied in the context of organizing and structuring content in any formal documentation. It essentially means that the content in a document should cover all points that are worthy of inclusion and should not have any repetitive points. An example of repetitive section is when there is a placeholder for “Risks and Issues” and also a section on “Challenges” faced in the project. Organizations usually include standard templates and sample reports for status reporting in their Quality Management Systems. Projects can either use them as is or customize them to suit their project needs. A tried and tested practice is to include project management metrics and measures in the status report. This helps avoid ambiguity on the status and progress of the project.
It is a good practice to check with the client and other stakeholders / partners / vendors involved before finalizing the template. Some clients have preferences when it comes to status reporting formats. Some project managers actually fill out the first status report over a conference call involving all relevant stakeholders. This ensures consistency right at the beginning and avoids surprises later.
As important is the report content structure, so is the channel of reporting – it’s a good practice to have designated authority via whom the reports are broadcasted to the intended audience.
3. Maintain precision and accuracy in the data being reported. Although the template has been defined with clear guidelines on what and how to fill a status report, it would be rendered useless if the person filling out the report makes a mess out of it. The content needs to be simple, precise and to the point. Statements like “Situation tense but under control” only add to the drama, not to the value of the report. Support any qualitative statements with quantitative data. If the overall status is being reported as GREEN/ON-TRACK, then the milestones met till date should also be 100%.
If bad news has to be conveyed, do so early and much in advance so that any course correction if required can be taken as early as possible. Remember, unlike wine, bad news never gets better with time. Another common mistake is to whitewash the bad news with some encouraging news. Euphemisms belong to a different genre of literature, not in status reports. Staying positive and being upbeat even in trying times may be a good philosophy to have in life, but realize that a status report is all about stating facts, not pointing faults or trying to appease others. If there is a 10% chance of something blowing up, it is better to say there is a 50% chance of something blowing up and later claim credit for preventing the mishap rather than the other way round.
A simple, planned and structured reporting process with a standardized template can create drastic difference in the engagement. By strictly adhering to the plan and template, not just the client knows when to look for what, but the team also knows what to share and develops the discipline, with no other choice!
Try these three basic steps and share with me what difference it has made in your team. While you practice this in the next few weeks, look out for the next set of steps, in this space, that can make this effort more effective.