Why the problem arises
Most project managers and programme directors are highly competent professionals who accept the need for accountability and their professional duty to keep their executive leadership, stakeholders and project sponsors, fully informed. Almost all will undertake regular progress reporting of one sort or another.
However, this reporting is sometimes flawed. Paradoxically, although well intentioned, it may serve only to confuse executive leadership’s perceptions of the true status of the project.
There are a number of reasons this can happen. Some of the more common include:
- project reporting is at too low a level of granularity or specificity, meaning that people outside the project cannot possibly understand it;
- too much volume is provided. This intimidates readers who may not have the time or inclination to read through say 10 pages to try to find out what is going on;
- critical path tasks and milestones become submerged by minor detail and leadership can’t identify what’s important;
- an excessive focus on budget and figures. These are critically important but some people are less numerate than others. Particularly at executive level, some may find it difficult to publicly acknowledge that they can’t understand what the spreadsheet is supposedly telling them;
- reporting is focused on the position-to-date reporting and does not include forecast to completion dates, milestones and financial projections.
Many project managers will say that project reporting is their biggest single headache. To be fair, the challenges associated with keeping executives informed can be formidable. Of course, project managers command premium salaries to deal with these challenges, not complain about them. One technique that is often successful, is a combination of “traffic light” and milestone reporting.
Traffic light and milestone reporting
There are some general principles here:
- aim for absolute brevity on standard executive reporting. Don’t include lots of detail but have it available instantly to hand should a given individual ask for it;
- agree at the outset with executive leadership, what are the key critical path milestones over time that the organisation must focus on in order to assess the project’s progress and forecast outcomes. These will usually be business-based and it’s best to avoid making things like IT detail into milestones (unless it is an exclusively IT project for IT leadership);
- keep the number of milestones relatively small. Setting dozens makes it difficult to read at-a-glance.
- Each month, show an indicator of “RED”, “AMBER” or “GREEN” alongside each milestone. If it’s other than GREEN, state why and what you are doing to get it back to GREEN;
- Keep executive financial reporting very simple. Focus only on key elements such as summary “Authorised Budget”, “Spend to Date”, “Variance to date”, “Forecast to Completion” and “Forecast Variance at Completion”. Again, show RED, AMBER, GREEN against “Variance to date”, “Forecast to Completion” and “Forecast variance at Completion”. Highlight the actions you’re taking to get spending back on budget if anything is RED;
- Avoid giving low-level financial breakdowns such as splits between capital and revenue expenditure. That won’t interest many executive leaders, though be prepared to meet the sponsor and CFO separately to present more financial detail.
Within this article, we have only scratched the surface of a very complex subject. Each company’s position will be different and various approaches may be required.
As a general objective, try to keep wider-distribution progress reporting to a maximum of 2-4 sheets of presentation-style summary detail. Keep your executives focused on what’s important and on what you need from them to help you succeed.