Project Planning from the Top Down

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

In many organizations, managers (and especially senior managers) view project planning as a waste of time. To them, the project plan is needless. They want to “start work immediately without wasting time in useless planning meetings and creating mounds of paperwork.”

Project Planning: A Waste of Time?

Why do many managers and executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time?  Why are they unwilling to invest their time in project planning? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • They have never seen a project properly planned so they have no understanding of how smoothly things can run.
  • Project planning requires that the sponsor and stakeholders know what business result they want the project to produce. Often executives start projects to fix a problem they have just heard about. They have no idea how to solve it or define what they consider to be a fix.
  • The sponsor and stakeholders are unwilling to make commitments about the acceptance criteria for the project’s deliverables. They are unwilling to take the risk of specifying precisely what they want. Project Plan Template Main Page

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #1

The most common reason why they have never seen a project properly planned is that the organization doesn’t exercise control or require justification for starting a new project. There is no reason to plan if people can start a project any time they want. The organization also doesn’t require a return on investment (payback) from a project.

On the other hand, executives must plan their projects if the organization requires the following:

  • a cost-benefit analysis for new projects
  • a clear specification for the business results the project will produce
  • its cost and duration.

Project Planning: A Waste of Time Reason #2

A second and very common reason for these “waste of time” attitudes is that many executives have never sponsored, run or even worked on a properly planned project. As a result, they don’t know the benefits a properly planned project can deliver. Their projects usually miss their planned completion dates and budgets. They rarely deliver the project scope or any business value. Project teams don’t know what they are accountable for delivering, what performance level the project manager expects or how the project manager will evaluate their work. As a result, the project manager must tell the team members what to do each week.

The executives also have no practical experience with change control. They don’t realize that a well-conceived project plan gives them and the project manager tools to manage changes to the scope, budget, quality and resources.

Project Planning: What Is Top-Down Planning?

Despite the reasons why the executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time and resources, you (as the project manager) must persuade them of the benefits of planning a project from the top down. When executives want to start a project, you must describe the right steps and explain how that process benefits the organization. Finally, you must discuss the top-down project planning techniques, documents and meetings. Executives also need to understand that you cannot use the same project planning techniques for every project. You should not bury a small project in needless paperwork. But a large strategic project will suffer if there isn’t sufficient planning, control and risk management.

A well-planned project uses the top-down project planning technique. Top-down project planning starts with a project scope that is defined in measurable terms. That means the sponsor identifies the overall scope of the project and the deliverable(s) the project has to produce. Then you and the sponsor identify the acceptance criteria that the executives will use to approve those deliverables. Next you break the criteria down into deliverables for each assignment. This lets you and every project team member know exactly what the executives want in a deliverable before you start work. On a well-run project, you and the team members don’t have to stop work to figure out what to do next. Each team member’s assignment or task is specifically defined so they know what they must deliver before they begin work.

project planning

Project teams that must stop and figure out what to do next are working on a project with a “To Do” list plan. In this situation, the project manager planned the first thing they’re going to do, then the second and then the third. Things get a little vague after that so the team members must stop work and ask the PM what to do next. That process continues until the planned completion date is looming on the horizon. At that point, the PM and team members must stop work and plan what they can quickly finish before the completion date. This is a disaster for the project and the PM’s career.

Project Planning: Top-Down Benefits

When you use top-down project planning, you make as many of the decisions as possible during the planning process which is before you ever start work. When the team does start work, they focus on executing the plan, not re-planning the project. You save several hours of meetings, talks and arguments for every hour you spend planning before the work actually begins.

Top-down project planning also saves you from doing the wrong things on the project. That’s because you have done all the thinking on the deliverables before you start work. And that means you don’t incur the costs of having to produce “missing” deliverables at the last moment. In top-down project planning you start with a clear definition of the project’s scope. Then you can break it down into high-level deliverables. You continue to break these down into sub-deliverables until you get to the level of tasks you assign to the team members.

Project Planning Summary

You are certain to have a failed project if you fall into the trap of starting work immediately without using the top-down project planning technique. The executives who forced you to start work quickly will be exceedingly dissatisfied with the results as well as the money and the time spent to produce them. The only way out of this situation is to explain to the project executives that success is a direct result of a solid planning effort.  Working from the top down, you and the sponsor must define the scope of the work and the acceptance criteria that the project stakeholders will use to judge its success. The key to top-down project planning is having a clear scope definition that you can break down into high-level deliverables and sub-deliverables. Then you have the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS) that minimizes the amount of work required to successfully deliver the project’s scope.

Consider our online project management courses to learn how to use all the tools and techniques for top-down project management planning. You’ll work privately with Dick Billows, PMP, as your instructor and coach. You begin when you wish and control the pace and schedule. You can have as many phone calls and live video conferences with Dick as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Project Schedule: Best Scheduler Techniques

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Every project manager does project scheduling. For a project that you can do in a day, a yellow note pad is often enough.  When there are others doing some of the work, an Excel spreadsheet may work to plan everyone’s dates and dollars. When the team reaches 4-5 people and the duration is more than a couple of weeks, PC software specifically designed for project scheduling and budget control is most efficient.

Project Schedule: Data

Some project managers have very little data to help them successfully managing their projects, deal with change orders or respond to variances. They may not even know when they have a variance.  The key to identifying problems is getting estimate-to-complete information from your team and vendors.

Project managers who receive that data are able to quickly gather information about problems and opportunities. The key to their success is that they find out about problems early, before the problem causes a due date to slip. Here are the keys. First, you must get information on every  task that is in process. Second, you must know how much work has been completed and how much remains.  This allows you to forecast the project completion date and the total expense on all the tasks. You can control any variances, handle change requests and take corrective action early and easily. You can use project scheduling software to optimize your schedules. In this article we’ll show you how to do all these things.

Project Schedule: Software

Previously, project managers didn’t use project management software because of the high cost and the amount of time required to learn how to use it.  Those two excuses are no longer valid. There are some adequate project management software programs that are free and easy to learn. It only takes 30 to 40 minutes to learn how to use the software through the entire project lifecycle.  Gantter is a free program available with your Gmail account. There are editions for smart phones, tablets and desktops. This software provides all the capabilities you need for small and medium-size projects. The learning curve is short considering the benefit you get. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

More capable software for larger project scheduling includes Microsoft Project®. It is almost $600 but provides more capabilities and a tremendous amount of decision-making data. It includes the ability to do budgeproject schedulingting and cost tracking and also manage multiple projects. These features are adequate for even large projects. You will need to invest a few hours of time to learn it.

Now lets talk about how a project manager using a yellow note pad, an Excel spreadsheet, or project scheduling software would handle three common situations.

Project Schedule: Finish Date, Changes & Status

The project manager doing project scheduling with a yellow note pad can quickly tell the client the finish date by using his or her ability to pick a number out of the sky. There is no basis for this completion date other than a guess about how long the project will take. This “yellow pad project manager” makes a similar guess about the cost. Projects scheduled on yellow pads usually finish late and cost more than anticipated. This means the project manager and their company lose money if they’re doing a project for a customer or client. This project manager uses the same approach when the customer wants to change the project or the deliverable. The project manager guesses about the impact the change will have on the finish date and the cost. And they are usually wrong. The yellow note pad project scheduling technique gives project managers a very limited career future.

The PM doing project scheduling with an Excel spreadsheet does a bit better. He or she enters start and finish dates for all the tasks they can think of. Then they let the program give them an idea of how many days or weeks it will take to complete those tasks. The problem with using Excel spreadsheets for project scheduling is that if the client wants to make a change, the project manager has to redo the entire spreadsheet. The same is true if the client adds a task or alters a finish date. The “Excel spreadsheet project manager” spends endless hours laboring over their PC instead of managing the project.

The project manager who uses project scheduling software does the best of all. If they are using the software correctly and following best practices, they base the project schedule and budget on work estimates. Instead of picking a finish date with a Ouija board, this project manager works with historical data, published estimating information, and the opinions of the project team members. They use this data to build a schedule based on estimates of the amount of work required. When project managers use work estimates, they gain all the benefits of the project scheduling software.  They decide how much work each team member can do and the project scheduling software will assign the work to the team members so the project finishes as soon as possible. These calculations take the software about two seconds. This project manager can work with similar speed on a change request. They merely change the amount of work for the task(s) the client wants to alter. Then a nano second later, the software re-schedules the entire project and gives the project manager a new completion date reflecting the change request. If the project manager has entered hourly rates for the team members and the material costs, the software will also calculate a budget and give the project manager data on the cost of that change request.

Finally, this project manager can give accurate status reports based on the team’s estimates of the amount of work they still have to complete on their tasks. This lets the project manager anticipate problems early, not after getting hit in the face with them. There is a very good reason consistently successful project managers use project scheduling software. It allows them to spend their time managing the team and solving problems. They don’t have to spend their time making guesses or laboring over an Excel spreadsheet or a yellow note pad.

Project Schedule: Optimizing the Schedule

Too many project managers control the sequence of tasks in their projects using the start and finish dates. Instead, they should use project scheduling software with predecessor relationships. For example, these relationships tell the software that Task B can’t start until Task A is finished.  Or that Task A and Task B must finish at the same time. Entering start and finish dates wastes an enormous amount of time during the original creation of the schedule and every week after that. Project managers who don’t use project scheduling software with predecessor relationships spend hours updating their schedules and changing all the start and finish dates.  Even worse, the schedules they create with this fixed date technique almost always have longer durations than they should. However, project managers can experience these problems even if they use project scheduling software like Microsoft Project®. This happens if they use start and finish dates to control the sequence of tasks instead of  using predecessor relationships.

Project Schedule: Increase Efficiency

Predecessor relationships are the key to building dynamic schedules. These are schedules that update themselves whenever you make a change.  As an example, if you discover that Task D is going to finish two weeks early, or two weeks late, you merely enter that fact into your project scheduling software. It will automatically change the start and finish dates for every one of Task D’s successor tasks (the tasks that depend on Task D).  The alternative is to manually change each task’s finish date. Using predecessor relationships saves you hours in the initial project scheduling and significant time every week for the duration of the project.  That is reason enough to use this project scheduling technique.  How To Use Dynamic Project Scheduling

Project Schedule: Finish Earlier

Using dynamic scheduling, you set up our predecessors in the software by identifying the type of relationships that each task has with its predecessors and successors.  There are three types of predecessor relationships:

  • Finish-to-Start predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that Task B starts after Task A is finished.  You’ll use this type of predecessor 85% of the time. That is why it is the default in project scheduling software.
  • Finish-to-Finish predecessor relationship between Tasks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at the time that’s required for both of them to finish at the same time.
  • Start-to-Start predecessor relationship between asks A and B is scheduled by the software so that these two tasks start at exactly the same time.

You can get fancier with predecessors by using leads and lags.  But these three types are the basics and are a great way to get started.

Project Schedule: Parallelism and Concurrency 

You make a project take less time to finish when you sequence the tasks by building in parallelism. This means you have many things happening at the same time.  It makes sense that if a project has three or four tasks going on at the same time it will finish earlier than a project that has only one task happening at a time.  In other words, you don’t want the whole project to be a long sequence of FinishtoStart relationships.  Instead you want to design the predecessor relationships for each of your major deliverables so as many tasks as possible are occurring at the same time.  The simplest way to create parallelism using the project scheduling software is to give a task multiple successors.  Whenever you can do that, you will shorten the project duration.  A parallel design is always going to take less time than scheduling those three tasks to occur one after another.

There are obvious limits on parallelism, such as limits on how much work a person can do and the technical or physical dependencies between tasks (e.g.: the materials must be delivered before they can be installed).  But using predecessor relationships lets you avoid unnecessarily long task sequences. That makes reporting and updating faster and saves you hours of time.

Take a look at our online Project Management Basics course where you can learn these techniques from an expert PM. In this instructor-led online training you have as many phone calls, e-mails and live video conferences with your instructor as you need.

Project Plan – Answer Tough Questions

Every project manager must get Project Plan Approval before they begin work. That includes getting the “go-ahead” for the plan, schedule and budget for a new project. Even if you have been working closely with the sponsor and stakeholders, there is still the need to persuasively present the information you have developed. Too many project managers approach these meetings as “data dumps.” They think all they have to do is recite the scope, budget and schedule highlights and the executives will automatically give their approval.

A better approach is to anticipate the questions the decision-makers will ask you about your data. There are two questions that have been asked in every project approval meeting since the dawn of time.

Project Plan Questions: Time and Cost

First, the executives want to know how the project can finish earlier. Second, they want to know how the projects’ cost can be reduced. You, as the project manager, must have answers to these questions in the form of alternative ways of doing the project. If you don’t, the executives will make arbitrary changes to the budget and schedule. Then tproject plan approvalhey’ll tell you to find ways to make it happen.

Project Plan Answers: Trade-offs

You must be prepared to answer these questions with “trade-off options” so your project has a chance of success. The trade-offs will give  the executives information about how the project can finish earlier and deliver the scope for less cost. Specifically, you need to have modeled options for finishing 10% and 20% earlier and delivering the scope for 10% and 20% less than the budget you submitted for their approval. You need to have these alternatives ready to present in the project approval meeting. If you don’t provide the data, the executives are likely to arbitrarily decide that you can finish the project 20% earlier without additional people or budget.

If you aren’t prepared to respond to the inevitable questions about finishing earlier and spending less money, you will leave the project approval meeting with a project that is doomed to fail.

Here is a video about how to answer difficult questions from executives.

How to Answer Executives' Questions

You can learn all of those skills in our project management courses. Take a look at the courses in your industry specialty.

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Project Manager Credibility- Sell Yourself and the Project

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

If you want credibilty and support from users and executives you must “sell” yourself and your project.  If you ignore selling or you try to impress them with technical jargon they will see you as irrelevant to their issues.  Let’s look at a PM’s fantasy of how they are perceived by the user and then see the harsh reality.

PM’s Dream Credibility…(That Never Happens)

An expectant buzz of conversation fills the meeting room as the assembled “suits,” await the project manager.  Each executive knows that he or she will leave the project presentation enriched with new knowledge and a PURPOSE. Suddenly there is silence.  Then they hear a faint swishing noise as the PM’s belt-mounted cell phones, three pagers and two Palm PCs jostle against one another. The crowd parts and the project manager swoops into the room with a stack of Gantt charts in one hand and a pile of PERTS charts in the other.  The PM glides to the head chair, nods to the hushed throng and says, Selling projects“Here is the Project Scope:. The AFR443 project will have a gooey interface and 354 nano-gigabytes of ROM, RAM, TAM and PAM. We will not impact the bandwidth on advertisements for customers and will not inflict trauma on the techno-workers who morph customer service.”

The executives shriek their approval of the project plan.

One executive slams a hand on the oak table and shouts, “If anyone fails to cooperate instantly, you may flog them.”

Another flaps a sheet of paper at the PM and yells, “Here’s the title to my BMW.  If I ever suggest a change in the scope you have so clearly enunciated, you may have the car.”

A third screams, “You can take as long as you want and spend as much money as you need.”

Additionally, the support continued that same way for the life of the project.  People who said, “You have my full support,” actually meant it. There weren’t new #1 priorities daily that changed the scope.  Team members treated project assignments as if they really mattered and not as work for times when there was nothing more important to do.  No one vanished into the underbrush just when their critical path task was about to start.

Selling Projects – PM’s Real World

You can count on this fantasy or recognize the need to sell your projects.  This need is most clear before project approval. But it is required through the entire project and the lesions learned at the end. The twin concepts of selling the project and having people “buy” it are most obvious when you do a project for a client. But the are also necessary when the “buyer” is your boss or a user department.

So what are you selling? How do you sell it? And what are they buying? Do you sell a lot of technical lingo, a 40-page scope narrative and an endlessly long Gantt chart? Too often that’s all you have to sell.  It’s no wonder that few people “buy” it and whatever support exists on “approval day” fades quickly. With it go the odds of your project success.

Some PMs try to make up for the lack of value in what they are selling with a “silver tongued-devil” approach, like a used car salesman.  They may not wear a plaid outfit or mousse their hair but they say things like “I’m your strategic partner”, “we’re user-oriented”, and “I’m here for you.”  However, no sales tactic can make up for the fact that you have not created project value in the user’s, client’s or boss’s mind. So while you may be charismatic and cute, support based on “golden words,” strong personal relationships or charisma doesn’t give your projects the kind of support they need. This becomes painfully clear when you need more resources, need to cope with a problem team member or must exercise scope control.

Selling Projects – Project Positioning & Hidden Performance Pressures

In selling projects, you need to present your projects so the boss, user or client “buys” the value of the project’s business result.  The business result has value when it relieves a performance pressure that your decision-maker feels. What are performance pressures? They are the operating shortfall that the decision maker’s boss made a big point of at the last quarterly review.  They can also be what the newspapers wrote about last week that made all the executives frown.  The problem is that most of the time decision makers tell us what to do; not what performance pressure they want to resolve. And, whether or not they have told us about their performance pressures, they will judge the project’s success based on whether it relieves those performance pressures.

This sounds simple but there are a couple of problems when you are selling projects.  First, you must identify the decision-makers who have a stake in the project.  Often times, performance pressures ripple through an organization and the person who assigns the project may not know where the performance pressure came from.  Second, with the decision makers identified, you need to quantify the performance pressures they want the project to relieve. As projects get larger, your “map” of decision makers and performance pressures can become complex.  But keeping this mapping updated is a great tool for account management and positioning.

Let’s say you get a project assignment to change a billing system report by adding several data elements and altering others.  The billing supervisor who described the project may have no idea where the changes came from or what the higher up wanted to achieve.  As you probe for the performance pressures, you find out that things started with the CFO wanting to identify the biggest customers.  A marketing director complained about how hard it was to track the sales that resulted from special promotions to these big customers. When you convert these performance pressures into measured achievements (See AdPM™ Achievement-driven Project Methodology) you have value to sell these decision makers. That leads to higher odds of project success.

This sounds simple but there are some barriers to unearthing the decision makers and then quantifying their performance pressures.

Selling Projects  -“Buying Perception” Barriers

Why don’t many clients/users/bosses share this information?  First, sometimes it reflects badly on them and there are many who won’t talk about their problems or pressures.  Second, they may not know what upper-level performance pressures rolled down-hill to them.  But the dominant reason decision makers don’t tell you about their performance pressures is their buying perception of project managers.  That means what they think they are buying ,or can “buy,” from a project manager.  The worst project buying perception is when the user/client/boss sees you, the PM, as an order-taker.  With that perception, they share the same amount of information with you as with the person at the drive-through window at McDonald’s®. Here’s an example of a PM selling projects and probing for performance pressures with a decision maker who has an order-taker buying perception of the PM:

Decision maker says,”Here are the changes I want in the report layouts.”

PM says, “Great! Exactly why do you need these changes? What are you trying to achieve?”

Decision maker answers, “I need the changes by next week.”

PM says, “If I understand your business purpose then I can do a better job of …”

Decision maker says, “That’s not your concern. Just make the changes in these report layouts by next week!”

PM says, “You’re making me fly blind here.  If I don’t understand what you…”

Decision maker says, “Make the changes in these report layouts, you little geek.”

This PM made a strong effort to unearth the performance pressures that triggered the project request. But they pressed so hard that they angered the decision maker.  The PM failed to unearth the performance pressure(s) or the cast of decision makers involved. They don’t have much to sell and the decision maker doesn’t have much value to buy.  They PM only knows the decision maker wants them to start quickly and hit the due date.  This brick wall the PM hit was low-level buying perceptions.  It reflects poor positioning with the decision maker.  It might result from the decision-maker’s previous experience with PMs who operated in the order-taker mode and never even asked about the performance pressures.

But if you focus on selling projects, you know there are performance pressures behind the decision maker’s request.  You can just start work on the assignment and hope that the decision maker has correctly aimed the project so it relieves their “hidden” performance pressures.  This hoping happens too often. Hoping perpetuates the order-taker buying perception. And puts you in a position where you’ll need luck to have the project be a success.

Selling Projects – Building Bad Perceptions with Techno-babble

You can start to change poor buying perceptions when you work with the user/client or the boss by selling projects. However, what often happens when you get a chance to meet with a decision maker to discuss the project?  Out of nervousness, inability to discuss anything else or a desire to impress the decision-maker with your expertise, you drag the conversation into the project and technical details. You never focus on their performance pressures.  Is the decision maker impressed?  No, they’re thinking, “This person is really scary. They have absolutely no perspective on what we want to achieve for the business.” That’s another example of a PM’s bad efforts selling projects.

To get at a decision-maker’s performance pressures, you have to stop talking about the delicious technical details of the project and start selling projects. You must probe and listen for their performance pressures.  Even better, you will meet with the decision maker after you have gathered information about their likely performance pressures. You use these sessions to find out what they want to buy as an end result. That is very different from what they want us to do.

Selling projects is a process of positioning.  You work to elevate the user/client/boss’s perceptions of what they can “buy” from you.  Then you use those improved perceptions to position our project(s) to relieve their performance pressures.  Each time a project relieves a performance pressure, their buying perception of you improves, making it easier to get and hold support for this project. Additionally, it will be easier to sell the next one.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Presentation Body Language Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Effective project presentations don’t come from being a smooth talking project manager. You need a strong presence before the audience and that comes from your Presentation Body Language coupled with your words. Relevant content & media should be augmented by engaging body movements an gestures that communicate your message.

This video illustrates five common body language problems in presentations. Then it gives you an example of an effective use of body language in the presentation. Listen as Dick Billows, PMP points out  the good and bad techniques in each of the presentations as well as the professional level techniques used by the last speaker to make his presentation very persuasive.

Presentations & Body Language

Making effective presentations is critical to building support for your project and influencing people you work with and for. Both are keys to project success.

As you’ll see from various speakers in this video, the PM making a project presentation can use Presentation Body Language of facial expressions, hand gestures and body posture to accentuate various parts of the presentation. Body language can also help you engage the audience and cause them to want to listen to and absorb the information you’re presenting. Of particular importance is the use of eye contact with the audience. This does not involve staring down a select number of individuals. It involves sweeping the crowd with your eyes so that all the members of the audience feel you are talking to them. As importantly, use of your hands and arms to accentuate points improves your communications. You will be more interesting to watch that a person who stands still at the front of the room with their hands clasped, stuck in their pockets or gripped behind their back. Even worse are the people who play with their clothing, hair or jewelry during the presentation.

In all our courses, you make live presentations privately with your instructor over the web. You practice Presentation Body Language and get a video of your presentation along with your instructor’ feedback and coaching. Practicing presentations and seeing yourself on film are the best ways to improve your presentations.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Status Report Template

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

In this article about the Status Report Template, we’ll discuss the sponsor’s expectations and the raw materials you’ll need to make and deliver a professional status report each week that will build your credibility with the project stakeholders and sponsors.

Project sponsors expect project managers to know what’s going on in the projects they’re managing. While some sponsors expect you to provide the project status on a daily basis, most are satisfied with a weekly status report.   Project Tracking Reports Main Page

Status Report Template: Project Sponsors’ Expectations  

Let’s start by considering what project sponsors expect of their project managers. First, they want you to know what’s happening with the project. They want weekly status reports on the project team’s performance, the results and any problems. Second, they expect you to anticipate problems and solve them. They don’t expect to hear about surprise problems; particularly late in the project. Third, they expect you to deliver concise and well-organized status reports that give them the data they want without wasting a lot of time on technical details or project management minutia. How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Status Report Template: Keep it Simple

With those expectations in mind, you must avoid trying to impress executives with long-winded technical details or excessive detail on individual tasks in the project. You impress your sponsor and stakeholders by simply giving them the data they want about whether the project will finish on time and within budget. You need to use a weekly Status Report Template to plan your weekly status reports, whether they are written or in-person, to answer those questions in the first 60 seconds. If you launch into a 30-slide Power Point presentation, don’t be shocked if they interrupt you after the fifth slide and ask the questions they want answered. It’s much wiser to give them the information they want in the first minute. Don’t make them drag it out of you. This is particularly true if things aren’t going well on the project. If you don’t talk about the problems early, they will think you’re hiding them.

Status Report Template: Current Data 

You need current data to enter into the Status Report Template. That will allow you to compare where you should be on the project, as of that day, to where you actually are. The foundation for good status reports is in good project plans and schedules. That doesn’t mean they have to be long. A one-page project plan and a 20-line project schedule are more than enough for a small project. Here’s what the project plan has to include:

  • a measurable scope definition. It can be as little as one sentence like, “Less than 3% of our customers are on hold for more than 30 seconds.”
  • a list of major deliverables to carry you from where you are now to the above defined scope.
  • a work breakdown structure (WBS) where those major deliverables are broken down into tasks lasting between one and seven days. They are an assignment for one of your team members.
  • a project schedule that has estimates on the amount of work for each task in the WBS. It also includes information on which tasks must finish before other tasks can start.

If you have that kind of project plan, you can assemble your weekly status report. Here’s what you need:

  • information from each team member telling you how many hours they worked on their task and how many hours of work remain.
  • after you put this team member data into your scheduling software, you have one-on-one discussions with every team member whose tasks are not in line with the plan/schedule.

With this information, you can use the Status Report Template. Following the guidelines above on what you want to present and how you want to present it, you would prepare the following data:

  • forecast of the project completion date and final costs
  • tasks experiencing major variances (good and bad) from the plan
  • corrective action you recommend for bringing those tasks back into compliance with the plan/schedule
  • cost of your recommended corrective action
  • reforecast of the project completion date and final costs after implementation of your corrective action.

Status Report Template: Early Warning About Problems 

Executives do not like surprises. They particularly don’t like bad news surprises. So when you deliver expected results every week that coincide with the plan, the executives feel comfortable with the project.  If your weekly status reports suddenly communicate an enormous variance to the plan, the executives don’t believe this developed recently or unexpectedly. They suspect you were hiding the problems. Executives expect you to give them early warning about problems that will affect the project’s completion date and total cost. They also expect you to identify problems early, when you can solve them quickly and cheaply, rather than waiting until disaster strikes.

Unfortunately, many PMs are not equipped to identify problems early, when they’re small. We discussed how you should plan your projects to be able to give a professional status report. Now let’s talk about why you have to do it that way. The short answer is because those project-planning techniques let you spot problems early. Project managers who don’t have that type of plan have no ability to track week to week the actual work on a task versus the planned work on that task. Those project managers may receive “thumbs up” weekly status reports from team members on their tasks when actually they have not done any work on them. That’s why your weekly status report template includes tracking the actual work completed versus the plan/schedule. That lets you find out about a problem when it’s small and you have time to fix it.

In addition to that technical problem, many project managers improperly handle bad news from their team members. This causes the team members to not report problems as early as they could (and should). If you greet bad news on a team member’s task with anger, you won’t hear about future problems early. The team member won’t tell you until they can’t hide the problem any longer. That’s why it’s best to be appreciative when people tell you about problems they’re having. Then you and the team member have time to work out a solution.

You learn all of the status reporting skills in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

At the beginning of your 4pm course, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Project Reports – Project Presentations, Reports, Meetings that Build Credibility

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project managers spend at least 80% of their time communicating with their team members and stakeholders. You communicate when giving project reports, running meetings, giving presentations and updating the project status. No one will appreciate your knowledge and skills on the technical aspects of managing a project if you can’t clearly and concisely communicate your ideas in project reports.  Even worse, poor communication skills can cause confusion among your team members and incorrect project expectations among user managers.

Project Reports Must Fit the Audience

Effective project communicators tailor the message and communication style to fit the audience. You can’t speak the same way to a group of  high-level managers unfamiliar with technology as you do to the techies from your department.  These skills require practice and coaching in a safe environment where you can make mistakes, learn from them and try it again.

Communication and presentation training is the path to effective skills that give you self-confidence in front of an audience and the ability to influence them.  These skills are a key to gaining acceptance of your plan and building user and customer support for your project. Giving a presentation that is technically correct is not good enough. You need to determine the personality types in the audience and tailor your presentation’s design, content and delivery style to suit those personality types. With all these ingredients properly combined, you have a chance of persuading them to your point of view and supporting your project. Project Management Skills Main Page

Project Reports Video

Effective and Persuasive Presentations

In this presentation training lecture, Dick Billows, PMP, discusses the presentations skills you need throughout the project. During the initiation phase, you may present the business case and make presentations about the project to the stakeholders. During the planning phase, you’re making presentations about requirements and presenting the project management plan to the sponsor and stakeholders. As your project moves into the executing phase, you are presenting weekly or monthly status reports to management. You are also holding meetings and presenting information to the project team on a regular basis. In the project closing phase, you gather infoproject reportsrmation for the lessons learned archive and present it to the team and stakeholders. When conducting the lessons learned meeting, your presentation skills are vital to overcoming the conflicts that affected the project.

Project Reports Training

You don’t need to be a fascinating, spell-binding speaker to succeed. Even if you are uncomfortable with public speaking, a little live practice online with one of our instructors will help you master proven techniques. You will be able to overcome nervousness and use effective body language. Most importantly, you will learn to “read” the personality types of the audience and deliver your ideas in a style to which they will positively respond.

At the beginning of your 4pm course, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

Project Team Ground Rules

Project team ground rules are a necessity. Almost all project teams have frequent meetings and even more frequent communication in various forms. If the project manager doesn’t set ground rules for these meetings and communications, a significant amount of time is lost. Together, the project manager and team identify and formulate the ground rules that members of the team should follow when they interact. These rules cover video conferences, in person-meetings and telephone conferences. The ground rules can cover a wide range of team member and project manager behavior.ground rules

Project Team Ground Rules: Examples

The ground rules may include the “completed staff work” concept. That approach to meetings aims at substantially reducing the amount of time the team members waste when people at the meeting are not ready to discuss the topics. The completed staff work concept is based on an agenda. Anybody can add an item to the agenda. The only requirement is that they distribute materials to all the team members before the meeting. That allows everyone to come ready to discuss the issue. Another rule is that you cannot raise an issue at the meeting that was not on the agenda with preparatory materials distributed. These rules help avoid bad decisions being made when people have not had time to thoroughly consider the issues.

Other ground rules may deal with interpersonal conflict. As an example, a ground rule may prohibit discussing work issues on previous projects. Other rules may bar personal criticisms, (“you’re very stubborn”) versus criticizing behavior (“you would not listen to my side of the problem”).

It is very easy to get carried away with too many ground rules. You don’t want people to have to consult a lengthy document to decide how to handle an interpersonal situation. The ground rules should fit on one side of one piece of paper. Remember, the goal is to avoid wasting time in meetings or making bad decisions because people are  unprepared or rushed to make a decision.

Project Team Ground Rules: Project Meeting Scenario

A status report meeting I participated in some months ago lasted 2 hours. Approximately 20 people attended, including the project team, test leaders, team leaders, PMO staff, etc. The meeting had many elements that are considered best practices. They included the following:

  • all attendees sent the PM their issues before the meeting
  • the agenda was distributed before the meeting
  • no other issues were brought up in the meeting

Long story short, it went something like this. Each person went through the status report covering their work stream, what they did, what they were going to do, issues, risks, decisions to be made, etc. I noticed that after the first 30 minutes, some of the attendees lost interest. After one hour, most were either checking their phone or chatting about something with the person next to them. You can imagine how the situation was after 2 hours.

I share this example to make the point that following what are considered best practices does not mean you are efficient or effective. In the above example, if you calculate 20 people * 2 Hrs = 40 Hrs (40/8 =5PD) of effort for a single status meeting.  One meeting a week adds up to 260PD a year, which is a significant effort.

Project Team Ground Rules: The 30 Minute Meeting

Below is an approach that has worked for me. I call it the 30 minute meeting.

  1. Schedule important meetings early in the day. A meeting is a pit-stop (as in Formula One racing) where all the team members must get the overall picture. It must be kept short and to the point.
  2. The core of a status meeting is the status report. Prepare it beforehand. I like to prepare a presentation vs. a written document.
  3. A picture (or better a chart) shows no more than 1,000 words. The PM must give the bigger picture, showing all relevant charts in perspective. That includes the actual, planned, and forecast.
  4. All topics that are on track don’t need to be discussed one by one. They are only referenced in the status report (preferably in a chart). Include all the details in the appendix for the people who want to read it on their own time.
  5. Deal with topics that need bilateral attention outside the meeting. Time is precious so nobody is allowed to waste it. The PM must ensure the status meeting is not a place for everyone to dump their issues and problems.
  6. Keep it short and keep it clean. Be brave to exclude from the meeting all less relevant content. A short and to the point meeting is too important to be sacrificed for side topics.

Finally, a PM needs to keep the right balance of management overhead and actual work product in their meeting ground rules. My rule of thumb for overhead is not to exceed 10% of the total efforts. This approach to status report meetings works for me. It leaves the team energized, their attention sharp through the entire meeting and minimizes the management overhead.

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Project Launch – Video

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project launch, also called project initiation, is a critical phase of every project. If it is not done properly, the odds of the project’s success drop significantly. The purpose of the launch/initiation meeting is to build team member and stakeholder enthusiasm for the project. The project manager must also communicate the key strategic issues for the organization that this project will address.

Project Launch Video Synopsis

This video starts with the project sponsor calling the meeting to order and giving a brief description of what the project will produce.  The sponsor makes threats to the project team about what will happen if they finish late. He also argues with one of the key team members about the special packaging that will be required for the new product.  As the sponsor and the team member start to argue, the project manager interrupts and suggests a way out of the problem.

The sponsor then threatens punishment if the project is late. The project manager steps in and explains to the sponsor that his threats and attempts to lower the team’s estimates will not make the project finish on time or early.  The project manager wins the debate but the angry sponsor may take up the issue with the VP.

In this video, watch how the project manager politely but firmly stood up to a terrible sponsor.  She knew she had to stop the sponsor’s bad behavior during the project launch/initiation phase. If she didn’t, it would continue throughout the entire project and lead to failure.  She took responsibility for the project’s performance but would not commit to a completion date without a clear scope statement and information about the resources available for the project. She did a great job defending the team members to the sponsor but she made it clear that their assignments would be stated as measurable business results.

At the end of the video, watch private interviews with the project manager and team members and learn how they felt about what happened during the launch meeting.

Project Phases Main Page

You can learn the steps in a proven project methodology from launch through planning, scheduling, tracking and reporting in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Project Meeting Agenda

As a Project Manager on any size project, one of your most important tasks is to regularly communicate with your team by following this project meeting agenda.  It is a very simple set of rules that tell your team members and stakeholders what to be ready to discuss and what decisions they should be prepared to make. It will train the attendees at your project meetings to look at the materials you send them prior to the meeting and come prepared for the discussions and decisions. It will substantially reduce the amount of wasted time in a project meeting. If you also enforce the discipline of limiting the conversation to topics on the agenda, you further gain in the efficiency of the meeting.

project meeting agendaThe term “communication” certainly implies a dialogue, so conducting regular meetings with your project team to discuss issues, status, priorities, direction, etc., is not just a good idea. It’s a genuine opportunity for information to be exchanged between you and your team members.  Effective teams are enabled by a solid communication plan that offers every team member multiple channels for receiving and sharing information important to the project.

One of the easiest ways for a Project Manager to facilitate the flow of information is the Project Team Meeting (aka, Project Staff Meeting, Project Status Meeting, or any of several other names it might go by).  While team members will always complain about meetings (it seems to be necessary for camaraderie), a well-managed project meeting is something they will privately look forward to.  Why?  If done right, the project meeting clears confusion, addresses priorities, provides direction, and updates everyone on project status.  A poorly managed project meeting—or worse, none at all—squanders time and opportunity, and can do more harm than good for morale and motivation.

Project Meeting Agenda Tips

Here are some simple tips from experience to keep your project meetings on target:

Schedule regular meeting times.  Project team members may have a tough time juggling their activities, so meetings that are scheduled regularly (e.g., every Monday at 8:00 a.m.) provide members a chance to work around scheduling conflicts and make an effort to participate.

Don’t be afraid to cancel a meeting that isn’t needed.  If the content doesn’t warrant it, don’t have a meeting just because it’s on the schedule. That a waste of everyone’s time. Your team members will appreciate your consideration and they’ll be more willing to make the effort to attend meetings that are scheduled, knowing you believe it’s important.

Agenda in advance.  Distribute an agenda in advance whenever possible.  This does two things:  (1) It forces you, as the project manager, to think the meeting through.  Is it worthy?  Can it wait?  Is the agenda sufficiently meaty to warrant a team meeting, or will an email do?  And, (2) it alerts team members to topics that may be important to them and may help them choose between working on a task or attending the meeting.

Keep the meeting short.  Most of the tips being offered here are intended to make your meetings something your team wants to attend.  And keeping meetings crisp, meaningful, and as brief as possible will encourage that response.  You will need to find that sweet spot between too short to be useful and too long to retain their attention.

Make your meetings relevant and timely.  If you have the same agenda every week, you are transmitting “nothing new” before the meeting even starts.  Work hard to make your meetings fresh by covering current issues and priorities, achievements, and near-term goals.  Don’t dwell on topics of limited interest but try to tailor your discussions so everyone on the team can be engaged.  Keep the team apprised of milestones and deliverables so that each person can connect their work with the project’s major schedule points.

Encourage dialogue.   Your team members need to feel that project meetings are intended to exchange information, not just receive it.  Of course, as a project manager you’ll have your own objectives for the meeting, but some of those should be to:

  • clear the air on team concerns or issues
  • provide a forum for good ideas
  • seek group consensus on problems and solutions.

If the team senses that your meetings are simply a device for you to dictate policy or direction, you are setting the stage for larger problems that develop when communication becomes one-sided. While you want to encourage dialogue, don’t let the meeting get diverted into narrow subject areas of limited interest to your team members, or pass over an important topic so fast that its significance is missed.  Finding that balance between sufficient depth and breadth is an art form that will take some time to develop but your team will appreciate it.

Provide status, concerns and near-term focus.  Your meetings may be the only opportunity for some team members to fully understand the overall status of the project and their contribution to it.  A software developer, for example, may not have a clear concept of her role in delivery of the first article that occurs months later.  Providing a periodic “big picture” status review recalibrates the team and allows each member to appreciate his/her own contribution, as well as that of other team members.  In discussing status, focus on the near-term and use the opportunity to discuss your concerns and priorities with your team.

Acknowledge successes, address problem areas, and reinforce the rules.  Public recognition of your team’s successes can pay huge dividends in commitment and respect.  When your team does good work, both individually and collectively, and it is recognized, they are motivated to maintain that higher standard.  Never pass up an opportunity to compliment a team member who has earned it. The return is far greater than the investment.  But your meetings are also a great opportunity to address team problem areas or performance issues. You should have established your operating rules in the project plan.  If you’re having a problem with the team complying with the rules, your meetings are the best way to personally and directly remind team members why they exist.

Make sure information is disseminated.  There are two very good reasons for designating someone to capture notes from your meetings.  First, you can be assured some members of your team simply will not be able to be present. Leaving them out of the information loop can start a cascade of problems if they aren’t aware of changes in how the project is to be executed and its products delivered.  Second, because project plans are only current on the day they’re prepared, your meeting notes may quickly become an archive of real-time decisions and direction that the team can refer to.

Learn how to implement an effective project meeting agenda in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager and practice running meetings in live online conferences, just the 2 of you. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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