Project Status Reports

Project status reports are the major determinant of a project manager’s credibility.  PMs who regularly surprise executives with bad news late in the project quickly erode whatever credibility they had.  Here are two errors that can leave your reputation in tatters.

1. Project Status Report Error #1: Over Optimism in Forecasts

Beginning PMs are often afraid of the sponsor, particularly if that executive gets angry whenever he hears bad news.  It is easy to be overly optimistic when estimating how quickly you and the team can fix a problem or recover from a harmful risk.   It is wise to pad the recovery estimate by 25% to protect yourself from bad luck or team mistakes. For example, if you’ve calculated it should take 8 days to fix a problem you say, “We’ll be back on schedule in 10 days.”  The sponsor will still be angry but will calm down when you actually achieve the recovery in 8 days. Making the bad news worse than it is protects you and the team from over optimism in forecasts.

2. Project Status Report Error #2: Hiding Problems

It is very easy to convince yourself that a problem is so minor its not worth reporting. Unfortunately, problems rarely go away. When you sit on a small problem and it grows until everyone knows about it, you look like a liar and a fraud.  People stop believing your status reports.  They may openly question them in public.  Don’t be surprised by open distrust and the question, “Is there anything else that could spring up and bite us?”

Those blows to your credibility are impossible to erase. Here are solutions.

1. Project Status Report Solution #1: “Things I Am Watching” List

Each status report should include a “Things I Am Watching” list.  These are not variances…yet.  But you note them and ask your stakeholders for their help.  Here are some examples.

  1. Attendance of the senior Customer Service reps at the system training  sessions is less than 50%. I need help from the stakeholders in that division to increase the reps’ attendance.
  2. The systems engineers are worried about late hardware deliveries which may cause them to overrun their estimates.  Does any stakeholder do business with vendor XYZ? If so, I need to talk to you.

You are alerting people to potential problems. You are also getting out in front of your team and stakeholders on these problems so they can be resolved. That is the image you want of the “plan ahead” and “take charge” project manager.

2. Project Status Report Solution #2: Estimate to Complete

There are a few project sponsors who simply will not listen to bad news about the project being late and/or over budget.  Many project managers let themselves be intimidated by this behavior.  The easy answer is to say, “Sir my professional standards require that I alert you, the project sponsor, and the stakeholders to any problems we have.  I would not be doing my job if I stopped.” This may get you reassigned but hiding problems will get you fired when they come out.

The most powerful tool to improve your status reports is including Estimates to Complete (ETC).  Each week you ask your team members and vendors (those who are billing by the hour) to report two things:

  • How many hours they spent on each of their tasks during the past week
  • How many hours it will take them to finish their tasks.

There is no need to ask them for a status narrative.  You only need to know these two pieces of information.  The ETC lets you operate in front of your team – you’re  discovering problems early when they are small and more easily solved. If a team member or vendor is forecasting finishing late or over budget you meet with them to craft a solution.

As importantly, the ETC also lets you provide the sponsor with a forecasted completion date and an estimate of the budget at completion.  That enhances your credibility with the sponsor and stakeholders.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on