The Project Status Report: Keeping It Simple to Communicate the Details

Every project manager knows that one of the most important aspects of his or her role is to be able to communicate effectively and transparently to all those involved with […]

About the Author: Tom Schaetzle

November 16, 2011

Every project manager knows that one of the most important aspects of his or her role is to be able to communicate effectively and transparently to all those involved with a project. A project manager must not only be able to convey insightful and meaningful information to project stakeholders, but he or she must also be able to establish a consistent and timely vehicle for communication that can be consumed by all those involved in the project.

How can a project manager establish this vehicle for communication? The answer is simple: by creating and distributing a project status report. This piece of documentation allows project managers to communicate the progress of the project while managing expectations. To ensure that the project stakeholders do not get lost in the details of the status report, I greatly recommend keeping it simple by adhering to the best practices outlined below.

Best Practices for Creating a Status Report

For a status report to measure up to best practices standards, it must be clear and concise. Likewise, it must provide valuable information that clearly illustrates the current state of the project with respect to the project’s scope, schedule, financial position, and risk position.

Divide Sections by Task Type

I’ve found that in order to keep the status report simple and to ensure that it provides enough insight for the project team and sponsors, the project status report should only contain a few sections divided by task type. The types of tasks include completed tasks, current tasks, planned tasks, current issues and risks, and late tasks.

  • Completed Tasks: Outline the tasks, deliverables, and milestones that were met during the reporting period.
  • Current Tasks: Describe the work that is currently in progress. It is important here to identify work being completed by the project team, as well as information and deliverables that are needed for the project team to effectively begin the planned tasks.
  • Planned Tasks: Describe the tasks that are to be completed in the subsequent reporting period according to the project schedule.
  • Current Issues and Risks: Identify the issues and risks that affect the project’s scope, schedule, and cost.
  • Late Tasks: Identify tasks that are late and include ownership of that task. It is important to acknowledge whether the project team is late or whether the delays are being introduced by factors beyond the control of the project team. The intent is not to place blame, but simply to provide sufficient information to escalate the issue for effective resolution.

Include the Right Amount of Detail

As a project manager, you need to determine the appropriate level of detail to include in the status report. The status report should provide enough detail to be valuable to the project team and stakeholders, but not too much detail that it becomes overwhelming to middle and upper management. Always be aware that the management team has many priorities and is typically impressed by reports that provide information on what is critical to the success of the project. I’ve learned through trial and error that the more efficient you are in presenting the status of the project, the better impression you make.

Align It with the Project Schedule

For a status report to be effective, it must be aligned with the project schedule. We construct our project schedule based on tasks that are no more than 40 hours. Using this rule to dictate task duration, we can make a general assumption that everyone on the project team should have at least one task per week that that should be completed. In addition, this rule of thumb for scheduling allows us to track tasks by resource, which allows us to gauge whether an individual resource is ahead or behind the project schedule. Using this scheduling philosophy, we can easily report the status of tasks that are completed, active, and planned based on the project schedule.

Most Importantly, Keep It Simple

I’ve found that a generally good length for a status report is 1 to 2 pages, ensuring that the highlights of the project are covered. Status reports that are too long will likely not be read completely by all those involved in the project, which will unfortunately waste your efforts. In other words, the key is to keep the status report simple so that all those involved with the project can quickly and easily understand its status.

Why do I aim for simplicity? It is understood that executives are typically on a time crunch and just want a snapshot of the status of the project. The project manager and team, however, usually demand much more detail to fully understand where the project stands. An effective status report should accommodate both of these needs.

To do so, a status report should incorporate an executive summary with a color coded dashboard to visually show the status of the project. Both features give executives a quick update at a glance. Likewise, the status report can easily transition into weekly status meetings with the project team so they have the necessary specifics to discuss the project, make changes, and plan for the next steps.

The Goal of the Status Report

Ultimately, the goal of the project status report is to keep everyone involved and on the same page. This allows the project to proceed as smoothly and efficiently as possible. As a project manager, you will want to make sure there is no confusion about the current status of the project. Likewise, you want to ensure that all of the issues and risks that affect the project’s scope, schedule, and cost are rightfully addressed.

My fifteen+ years of project management experience has taught me a great deal about being an effective and transparent communicator. A good project manager promotes communication by not only understanding his or her project stakeholders, but also by adhering to a proven and consistent methodology when it comes to creating and distributing project status reports. A great project manager, however, knows how to sift through the details to identify and communicate what is most important. In other words, a great project manager knows how to keep it simple.

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