Work At Home Project Teams

Dick Billows, PMP


Technology over the last 10 years and the recent pandemic have allowed/forced large numbers of project team members to work at home.  Using solid technology with your at-home team members is the easy part.  Managing remote teams requires changes to your project manager style and leadership techniques.

First, having an at-home team is like “Kid’s Day” at work every day. You need to coach your team members on how to manage their children so they can get their work done.  With mommy or daddy home all day, it is not unreasonable for kids to expect more of their parent’s time. But a good balance can be struck by using discipline and rewards for the children

Second, if you are weak in defining the measures of success for your team members’ assignments, you will fail at managing at-home workers.  Your team members must to have a crystal-clear understanding of how you will measure success.  You will no longer have the luxury of walking by a team member’s desk and eye-balling their work.  Also they may not be working the same shift at home so you will need to schedule your calls with them.

Third, there is another new issue. People working at home get lonely.  They can lose all feeling of being part of the team.  So you need to create interaction opportunities that make everyone feel they are still members of the team.

Those are the three big issues. The most frequent mistake we see is thinking that having team members working from home is no different than having them in the office.   You can’t believe that technology will let you manage the team the same way you did when everyone was in the same office.  Leading Teams Main Page

The truth is that your leadership style still has to accomplish 4 things with all your team members, no matter where they work. You must:

  1. Give them clear performance expectations and explain how you will measure their work.
  2. Gain their commitment to the team’s goal and understanding of how their assignment(s) fit in.
  3. Ensure that they understand the status of the project and their assignment(s) each weekly.
  4. Practice giving praise publicly. That’s your most valuable reward.
Live Video Conferences

Project managers can use live video conferences to make their leadership effective for remote team members.  When you use the video conference as a substitute for face-to-face meetings,  you need to avoid falling into the video conference “Tar Pit.” Let me explain what I mean.

Video Conference Tar Pit

In the Tar Pit, managers start the video conference off by logging into the meeting, saying hello and then turning down the sound.  Then they proceed to catch up on emails and phone calls while occasionally glancing at the screen and listening to the muttering voices.  The Tar Pit spreads like the flu when these managers mistakenly call their subordinates who are in the same video conference. Oops! People quickly realize that faking their attendance and attention is the “cool” thing to do.  Soon no one is listening.

The project manager realizes that the absence of any questions from the attendees is an early symptom of the Tar Pit.   So they start asking questions of random people or threatening the group with a test.  That works for a while until an attendee answers the question with, “I can’t hear you; there’s too much static” or “Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”  The excuses and their entertainment value skyrocket until the PM stops asking questions.

Here’s how you can avoid the Tar Pit:

  1. Limit the size of your video conferences to 1-4 people.
  2. Limit the video conference time to 30 minutes.
  3. Use the conferencing software feature to display everyone’s image, not just yours or the speakers.
  4.  Keep the conversation interesting. Schedule 1-on-1 sessions to discuss details that aren’t of interest to the entire group.
  5. Keep the meeting moving by asking people’s opinions.

You should also leave the video conference open to other team members. You can decide whether to admit them based on the topic being discussed. That gives the meeting a social boost which people working at home need.

Collaboration between remote team members

Working remotely can create some challenges when working as a team. You need to give your team members tools to work with each other.  This collaboration is important for both efficiency and social bonding.  It’s how remote workers are made to feel they’re part of the team.

Most of the “remote team” software products provide several communication tools that can function between team members, working from home, in different offices, or in other countries.  In addition to video conferencing, they include: texting, email, Twitter, Facebook, live streaming of meetings (like Zoom) and much more. These tools enable remote team members to collaborate effectively. But some programs have a few bad features. Among the worst are the “drop in” communication packages. They let you or a team member connect directly with another team member’s PC.  That team member is rudely interrupted (and possibly frightened) when someone’s face appears in a window on their screen.

Successfully managing remote teams requires keeping up with technology and producing the same, if not better, results than if you were working with your team locally.  Here are five suggestions for effectively managing your remote teams.

  1. Conduct the Remote Project Team’s Kick-Off Meeting as You Would for Local Projects
    Managing a project remotely may not allow for a face-to-face initial kick-off meeting. But the same principles should apply during initiation, determining scope, etc.  Brainstorming sessions, although potentially easier in person, can still be conducted thoroughly via video conference.  This is an opportunity to identify as many questions, concerns, ideas, timelines, constraints, etc., as possible to help ensure clarity toward the end goal throughout the project.
    Other Suggestions:  Kick-off with a clear agenda that includes project purpose, goals, and success factors. Ensure team member roles are established and explained and include appropriate stakeholders to positively support the project.
  2. Form Strong Remote Project Teams
    If you have the opportunity to build your own remote project team, seek motivated, positive, self-sufficient and knowledgeable people.  Self-sufficient and motivated team members will help offset the potential communication challenges of the non-face-to-face environment.  An opportunity to work with the most qualified people increases with the pool of employees from across the country or even the globe. This is a big advantage of managing a remote team.
    Other Suggestions:  Invest time in your project team.  Get to know your team members. You can use LinkedIn to learn something about them.  Also, it’s best to speak with your team members about more complicated items rather than using email or texts.
  3. Conduct Regularly Scheduled Meetings (as needed – daily, weekly, etc.)
    Communication is key, especially when distance exists among your team.  Project team members can easily get distracted and focus on other tasks or projects when “out of sight, out of mind.”  Detailed status reports containing issues, items for attention, etc. should continue to be sent before each meeting and used as an agenda for the meeting. This helps keep meetings at an appropriate length. I have never heard anyone complain about a meeting being too short.  Please be mindful of time zone differences (if needed) to accommodate the entire team as much as possible.
    Other Suggestions:  Gain a reputation for being reliable and dependable.  These characteristics become even more important when working in a remote environment.  Respond to inquiries and issues in a timely manner.  This behavior typically becomes the norm for all team members and benefits the entire project.
  4. Set Expectations Throughout the Entire Project Lifecycle
    Similar to an exercise program, consistency is crucial.  In addition to regularly scheduled meetings, project statuses and updates should be communicated frequently. The team must be aware of exactly where the project is on the overall timeline, which tasks remain open, and the status of each task for each team member.  Consistent and appropriate communication should occur at both the individual and team level.
    Other Suggestions:  Customize for individual expectations.  Work with each member individually, as needed, to ensure expectations are clear.  While some members may prefer and even excel in multi-tasking various responsibilities, other members may be more effective with a shorter list of tasks.
  5. Recognize Team Members for Positive Performance
    Most people enjoy some type of positive recognition.  Recognition can be tailored to each individual team member depending on their preference.  For example, a team member might finish their task early, which could correlate to an earlier project finish time.  That person might appreciate even more responsibility and assisting with another task. Another person might appreciate getting the “extra time” to work on other projects. In addition, an email to their immediate superior recognizing their good work is always appreciated.
    Other Suggestions:  During each (weekly) meeting, do a “shout out” in praise of at least one team member. Document the recognition of their achievement in the meeting minutes and inform their immediate superior.

Managing a unique project from start to finish, with a remote project team always presents challenges.  Working with a motivated team through appropriate and timely communication channels can help overcome at least some of these challenges.

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Project Tracking: Where PMs Build Credibility

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Project tracking is the key to consistent project success and to earning the stakeholder’s confidence that you are in control of the project.  It’s the way successful project managers update executives and stakeholders on the status of the project.  Last its where PMs avoid  bad surprises at the end of the project.

Project Tracking Based on Estimates to Complete

A status report is where the PM reports on how the actual results compare to the original plan. These reports are from hard data.  Every project team member should reports the hours of worked on each task and estimate how many hours of work remain to complete that task.  Good project tracking is based on numbers, not opinions or guesses. So we estimate the hours of work on each task during planning and then track the hours actually used as we execute. When we update those estimates with actual data we have the information to avoid bad surprises at the end.

Project tracking informs the sponsor about any variances to plan that exist. It also includes well formulated corrective action plans to fix the variances to the project’s plan and schedule.  Presenting those options reassures the executives and stakeholders that you are in control of the project.  Project Tracking Reports Main Page

Causes of Bad Project Tracking

You can easily erode your credibility with poor project management tracking. Most time project tracking problems come from lack of good data. a weak project plan an schedule is the primary problem.  If the project manager does not carefully define each deliverable and then estimate, with the team member, the hours of work it will require, it will be impossible to accurately track progress.  That’s what leads to those, “Uhh Boss, we’re going to finish 4 moths later than planned.”

This is especially true if one project after another has a bad surprise when it is too late to recover. Project sponsors soon think your projects are out of control and question everything you tell them. The solution is to present hard-edged data, not guesses, in your status reports. This allows you to spot problems early when they are small and easier to fix.

Project Management Tracking: Metrics

Project managers and executives too often use tracking data that hides big problems. They eventually surface when it’s too late to fix the delays and overruns they have caused. Bad surprises late in a project make executives crazy and ruin your credibility.  Why does this happen? It’s a combination of the following:

  • Inability to precisely measure progress
  • Mushy project checkpoints
  • Team members not reporting bad news when they first see it
  • Too much status report optimism.

The first step to correct the situation is to use metrics to quantify the scope and major deliverables for every task in the work breakdown structure. Those metrics provide unambiguous check points against which to measure progress and show any slippage. The next thing you need to do is work with your team to develop estimates of the required hours of work. Do not use only finish dates in your schedule. Tracking actual work versus the estimated hours of work gives you another measure of how far along each task is. In combination, those two metrics will let you spot problems early. Solving them early is a real credibility builder with executives, stakeholders and team members.

Project Management Tracking: Mushy Check Points

Project managers and executives should build a firm foundation for project management tracking in the planning process. Unfortunately, the planning often doesn’t force stakeholders to decide exactly what they want.  So the project’s foundation is built on vague wishes that can’t be measured. Those wishes don’t give you tracking metrics to measure progress. They only give you due dates.  And it’s impossible to decide what is in the project and what it not.
Those mushy definitions of scope and deliverables let people avoid hard decisions and conflict. Plans and work breakdown structures that are merely “To Do lists” let everyone think they are getting everything they want from the project.

The lack of clearly defined deliverables makes it difficult to decompose them into their parts.  It’s impossible to decide what is in the project and what is not.  It also makes project management tracking a highly subjective and judgmental process.  You’re left to track the progress of vague tasks that everyone defines in their own way. People often have to work with mission statement mush like “Deliver world-class customer service” and “Improve system response time.” What are the components of “Deliver world-class customer service?” No one knows. This vague high-level deliverable saves the project manager from committing to exactly what they expect from each team member.  The due date is the only measure of the task’s performance. So the team members start work based on a guess of what is expected. Very predictably, they spend lots of time doing the wrong things and trying to avoid blame.

You can’t be successful managing projects that have scopes like this. Projects must have measurable deliverables like, “Less than 5% of customers are on hold for more than 30 seconds.” Then you can break down the scope into component parts, the deliverables, and tell the team members exactly what you expect from them. These deliverables, must be objectively defined. You won’t give them just a due date as the only performance measure.

Project Management Tracking: Gathering Status Data From the Team 

Project Management Tracking

Each week project managers must gather status information to give project management tracking updates to the sponsor. Some PMs conduct status meetings with the aim to report that NOTHING bad happened during the week.  If a team member expresses confusion on their assignment or says that finishing by the due date is impossible, the PM becomes angry. They blame the team member for not asking the right questions, for slacking off or letting down the team. Isn’t is funny how the PM doesn’t hear any bad news after that? Well, at least not until the finish date draws near. How to Write a Weekly Status Report

In this environment, the team members have to guess about what is expected or run to the PM daily to ask what they should do.  Most people do both. But because the PM doesn’t know exactly what the project should produce, their answers are vague.  Soon no one admits any problems and everyone says they’re on schedule. That’s because they quickly learned that to report anything else brings down the wrath of the gods.

The PM’s experience when reporting to the sponsor is similar.  Everything besides good news triggers a snarl. The PM soon resorts to saying, “Everything is going according to plan,” or “Every task is in ‘green light’ status.” No one is solving problems early. As the due date draws closer, the team members make a wild guess at what they should produce and they frantically slap some junk together.

This is a bad, but common, example of project management tracking. Everyone on the project is wearing blindfolds. No one actually knows what the project is supposed to deliver.  The project team members are trying to guess what’s expected of them. When they ask questions, they just hear the project due date repeated at louder and louder volume. And the project manager doesn’t know how the project is doing.

Project Management Tracking: Doing It the Right Way

How should you and project executives build a plan that lets you do effective project management tracking and solve problems early? First, you and the executives must define the scope as a deliverable with acceptance criteria that are measurable. Then you must build a high-level framework of deliverables that lead to that end result. And you must define each of those deliverables with a metric.

Next you break  the high level deliverables down into smaller tasks. You stop at the level of deliverables that each team members will produce. These deliverables tell the team members what’s expected of them. So they know what a good job is before they even start work.

With these project management tracking metrics, you and executives can measure progress against unambiguous and measurable checkpoints. You can also spot problems early. That’s possible as long as your behavior when you receive bad news encourages team members to report problems as soon as they occur. They mustn’t hold back bad news out of fear of incurring your anger.

These steps allow the project management tracking to show things like this:

“Achievement #47 – “The customer history screen lets our service reps answer 85 percent of customer inquiries in less than 60 seconds without referring a question to another department.” 

Status: “As of last Friday, this task was 23% complete and not the planned 26% complete. That is due to a snowstorm which caused absenteeism among user personnel. Without corrective action, we will finish this task 5 days late. That will cause three successor tasks to start late and postpone the project completion by 4 days and exceed the budget by $10,000. I propose the following corrective action…”

This project management tracking status report has several good features. First, the PM is reporting status on an objectively measurable business achievement. They’re not going to need a meeting or long debate to decide whether they have reached the goal. Second, it quantitatively compares “where we are as of last Friday” to “where we should be as of last Friday.” Third, our progress assessment is based on the hours of work completed as of last Friday and it estimates the hours of work remaining. Fourth, the executive is receiving data on 3 quantified dimensions of status tracking (the level of achievement, the duration and the budget), not just the due date.

These project management tracking elements set up the second half of the status report. In it the PM presents data about alternatives for solving the problem. Having three quantified dimensions for each assignment lets the PM develop quantified options for executive decision-making. These alternatives might continue the status report as follows:

We have three options for recovery. First, we can hire an outside programmer to work on the coding. This option would allow us to recapture the lost days of duration but will increase the budget by $3,000.  Second,…”

The PM proposes alternatives that involve trade-offs between the level of achievement, duration and budget. The executive can make a decision from the options because the PM has seen this problem coming and has plotted corrective action. The most important feature is that all this is happening before the task is actually late.

Project Management Tracking Summary

The foundation for effective project management tracking and status reporting is laid during project planning. That’s where the project manager and executives define unambiguous deliverables and checkpoints for measuring progress. See also our Project Manager Skills Main Page

This process is the heart of the methodology we teach in our private, online instructor-led Project Management Basics course. We can also design a customized program for your organization and deliver it at your site or in online webinars.


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.

Earned Value Management

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

Earned Value Management data gives you information about “where we are on the project as of today” versus “where we should be as of today.” In that sense, earned value data is much more valuable to a project manager than simple variance information. Earned value management is an integrated set of tools for managing project progress and spotting variances from the plan.  These tools help you identify variances between actual performance and the project’s schedule and variances between actual costs and the project’s budget. Earned value management can also provide forecasts of the likely completion date and final cost of the project. It can provide insights and forecasts on even small projects.  But it is a particularly useful tool on larger projects. Although many project management software programs automatically calculate earned value data for you, it’s worth learning how to do the manual calculations. That’s because the Project Management Institute (PMI®) certification examinations often ask questions about earned value calculations. Yet many people who have passed the PMP® exam don’t have an understanding of how earned value works. So let’s dig into it. Project Tracking Reports Main Page

Earned Value Management Example 

Let’s say an amusement park entrepreneur hires you to manage a project to build 1,000 miles of railway track.  earned value managementThe client wants it done in 10 days for a cost of $10 per mile, or $1,000. Because tracking progress and spotting variances in the project’s cost and duration are important, we’ll review the basics of earned value analysis and the three variables we always use. We always calculate each of the three variables as a dollar amount. That includes the schedule data (which seems unusual at first). Let’s look at the three variables:

Planned value is the “perfect world number.” In our railway track example if everything goes perfectly according to plan, we would lay 100 miles of track every day at a cost of earned value management$10 per mile and would spend $1,000 a day. So the planned value is the “perfect world number” of how many units we should have produced and the cost for those units.

Earned value in our railway example is the number of miles of track we actually laid times the $10 planned cost per mile. So we base the earned value on what we actually delivered at the planned cost for delivering it.

Actual cost is what we actually spent producing what we’ve delivered as of today. It comes from the invoices we pay vendors and the payroll we have to fund.  earned value managementThis table shows each of the 10 days of the project with the daily totals for the miles of track laid per day and the actual dollars we spent for the track we laid that day. Overall, we should have laid 100 miles of track each day and we should have spent $1,000 each day. As we see on day 1, we only laid 80 miles of track, which is under the plan. But we spent $1,200, which is more than we should have spent if we had laid 100 miles of track. The variance is very bad because we only laid 80 miles of track instead of 100 and we were still over budget.

Things got even worse on the second day. We only laid 60 miles of track and we spent $1,400. We’re digging quite a hole for ourselves here.

On the third day, we recovered a little bit. We laid 130 miles of track and we only spent $190. You can follow the ups and downs of a project by looking at this data in any project management variance report.

The table shows the same data on the mileage and the actual costs but we’ve added a calculation for the earned value and the planned value of the project. Let’s go back and look at the unhappy results from the first day of the project. earned value managementWe know we should have laid 100 miles and we should have spent $1,000. So we know that the 80 miles of laid track is bad and so is the $1,200 cost. Now let’s look at it from the earned value perspective. On the first day, our earned value was $800, which is calculated by multiplying the miles of track we actually laid by the planned cost per mile. We see that there’s a $400 difference between the actual cost and the earned value. In fact, that $400 difference is the amount that we’re over budget.

The last row of numbers is the planned value which is the perfect world number. We calculate it by multiplying the planned cost times the planned mileage. And as you can see, the amount is the same every day because we planned to lay the same miles of track each day at the same cost per mile.

So on the first day, the planned value was $1,000 and our earned value was $800. Why? Well on the first day we only laid 80 miles of track when we should have laid 100 miles at a cost of $10 per mile. So we are $200 behind schedule. We have produced $200 less value than we planned to produce. How are we able to express schedule variance in dollar terms? Here’s the way earned value works: it rests on the fact that we have produced less than we should have by quantifying the value (in dollars) of what we didn’t produce. That’s the $200.

We also see that the planned value on day 1 was $1,000 and the actual cost was $1,200. So we spent $200 more than we planned to spend/ But more importantly, we also produced less than we planned. A better way to calculate how much over budget we are is to compare the earned value to the actual cost. We see that the actual cost is $1,200 and the earned value is $800 so we have been much less efficient from a cost point of view. We can measure that inefficiency as the difference between the actual cost and the earned value, which is $400.

So by using the data our project software calculates for us, we can figure out that we’re $200 behind schedule and we’re $400 over budget because we’ve been less efficient than planned.

Everything in earned value is a comparison of what we actually did to what we planned to do.

Let’s Look At Earned Value Management Report Information

I’ve added two more rows at the bottom on this version of our earned value table where
earned value managementwe calculate the project’s schedule variance and the cost variance. We can express the schedule variance as the earned value (EV) minus the planned value (PV).  We can express the cost variance as the earned value (EV) minus the actual cost (AC). Most project software calculates this data for you but you need to know what all of it means.


Forecasts – Let’s Add One More Set of Numbers

The last row of numbers deals with our estimate at completion (EAC), which the earned value table calculates.  We start calculating an estimate of the cost to complete the project based on how things have been going to date. Then we add to that the actual cost to date and come up with our estimate at completion. That’s data the project sponsors always like to see.

If you can remember the information in this brief summary, you can use earned value management to quickly quantify where you are on your project and to estimate how things are going to finish. To master these techniques and the way to present them to the project sponsor, take a look at our advanced techniques courses.

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

How To Deliver a Status Report

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

The way you deliver your status report determines your credibility with the sponsor and stakeholders. It impacts their level of comfort with the project itself and your ability to manage it. You need to clearly and succinctly answer the questions the sponsor and stakeholders have about the project.

Status Report: Common Questions

You should answer their questions in the first five minutes of your project status presentation or in the first paragraph of your written status report. The four questions are:

  • Will the project produce the deliverables promised in the scope statement?
  • Will it finish on time?
  • Will it cost more or less, than what was budgeted?
  • Do the team members and vendors working on the project know what you expect of them? How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Status Report: Answer Questions

You should immediately answer the four questions above and discuss the problems as well as what you can do about them. How do you answer those four questions? With language that a 10-year-old child could understand.  The answers should not assume any knowledge about the project or what people said at the last status meeting. Why does it have to be that simple and straightforward? Because project managers are often their own worst enemy when they deliver status reports. They incorrectly assume everyone in the audience is as familiar with the project as they are. Status Report Template

Status Report: State Problems and Solutions

If you delay in answering these questions at the beginning of the report, people will think you are hiding something. If there are problems and variances to the plan, you should disclose them at the beginning of your status report. You need to tell people what you will do about the problems and variances and what help you need to take corrective action. You must also quantify the trade-offs between the project scope, budget and duration to solve the problems. If you can’t fix the problems, you must tell them. The sponsor and stakeholders must have confidence that you will reveal the problems as soon as you know about them. What they hate the most are problems that surprise them late in the project. Most executives will think you hid the problems for weeks or months and revealed them only when you could no longer hide them.

Status Report: Be Brief

Project managers tend to provide too much data and they assume everyone understands it. They also tend to “deep dive” into the technology of the project itself, using acronyms and discussing technical issues until the audience is bored to death. Some project managers assume this detail is the way to build their credibility and the stakeholders’ confidence in them. The opposite is true. The stakeholders think the PM is a technical geek who has a very weak grasp on what’s happening in the real world.

When a project status report confuses people, they assume the worst. They assume the project is out of control, that no one is monitoring the work and that the team members are equally confused and lost. They also assume that they are hearing only the tip of the iceberg and that many other problems are being hidden. As a result, they have little confidence in the project manager’s analysis of problems and recommendations for corrective action.  Earned Value

Status Report: Use Visuals

You can avoid this situation by using simple visual communications with the sponsor and stakeholders. Don’t assume they are as interested in the technical details of project management and the project work as they are. None of these assumptions are ever true but project managers often make them. Effectively communicating with stakeholders and sponsors requires you to use easily understood visuals that communicate the project status. The worst thing to give your audience is the classic project variance report which has 12 or 15 columns and lists every task in the project. This chart compares the planned start date with the actual start date, the planned finish date with the forecasted finish date and so on. No one can get an accurate picture of what’s going on in the project from that kind of data. Project Variances

You need to have visual charts and graphs that people can look at and understand in a moment. The Tracking Gantt chart available in many commercial software packages is ideal forStatus report this purpose. It has a bar chart for every task in the project. It shows when the task should start and when it should finish, usually in gray. Each task also has a second bar, usually in blue, which shows when it will start and when it will finish. If these two bars are stacked on top of one another, the task is on schedule. The red bar is the critical path which is the longest chain of tasks. It depicts the project’s actual start date and the projected finish date. This visual display lets everyone quickly see where the problems and opportunities are. It also makes it easy to explain your options for corrective action. Project Tracking Software – Video

Status Report: Tailor It to Your Audience

In addition to visual aids that tell the story with pictures, you also need to tailor the status report presentation to your audience. If the attendees are all expert project managers, the status report can be concise and fact-filled without explanations. If the audience is composed of stakeholders who have had little exposure to projects or project management, you must explain the basics. You can’t assume everybody knows as much about the project itself or project management best practices as you do.

Another issue is designing the presentation to fit the personalities of the attendees. If the audience is composed of technical staff who are very detail oriented and value a chronological presentation with plenty of data, you will have one type of presentation. If the audience is composed of “big picture” thinkers, you need to present the end results first and then offer as much supporting detail as the audience wants. If you get into too much detail for these people, they’ll quickly leave the room.  Team Status Reports Video

You can learn all these status reporting skills in our online Project Management Basics courses. You work privately, one-to-one, with a expert project manager.

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


Project Status Reports

Dick Billows, PMP
DicK Billows, PMP

The biggest problem in Project Status Reports is getting good team status reports. It sounds easier than it is in practice. Project team members and vendors often report inaccurate data due to undo often about their ability to resolve problems like technical issues or lack of stakeholder cooperation. Another obstacle to getting good data comes from project managers and sponsors themselves and how they behave when they receive data about problems. If every report of a variance is greeted by anger, hostility or blame, project team members avoid that by basing their status report on hopes and even prayers of solving the problems before anyone notices. Many sponsors and project managers are their own worst enemy in this regard thinking that aggressive response will somehow magically stimulate a solution. What it does is cause people to hide problems until it’s too late to fix them.  How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Project Status Reports

Dick discusses Project Status Reports and how to gather good status data from your team members as he hikes the shore of a barrier island off the South Carolina coast. He’ll also describe techniques to avoid having the team hide problems until it’s too late for you to fix them. Consistently successful project managers get early warning on problems that will affect the project. They encourage the team members to discuss problems at the first hint that the project will be adversely affected. Getting that information is not as easy as it sounds. If the project manager explodes every time somebody reports a variance, the team will very quickly learn not to report problems until they are too big to hide. Project managers who behave that way are often doomed to find out about problems when it’s too late to fix them. On the other hand, getting problem information early lets them solve the issue quickly and cheaply. That makes good project status reports and results in projects that finish on time and within budget.

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 of yourncourse, 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 Variances, Solve Just the Real Problems

Work Breakdown Structure
Dick Billows, PMP

Project variance is what gives executives nightmares about project failure. They are the calculated difference between the approved project plan’s costs and duration and the actual project results. We can have project variance vs.  schedule where we identified that a task should have been finished by July 1 and it was actually finished by July 5. That’s a four day bad variance. We can also have project variance on the project budget. Let’s say a task was planned to cost $5,000 and it actually cost $4,500 when we were done. That’s a $500 good variance.  Project Tracking Reports Main Page

We can also have project variance on the characteristics of the deliverable and on the planned work versus the actual work. The most important thing about project variances is we do not have to wait until the task is completed to identify a variance. Project managers get information from their team members’ status reports. Using project management software, they take the information about the actual results versus the plan and they forecast variances when the task is done. That allows the project manager to start corrective action before the task is actually finished.

Another major use of project variance is in status reporting to the project sponsor. Having the variance data allows the project manager to show the sponsor how the project is going and what tasks are on schedule and what tasks are not. One of the techniques that separates consistently successful project managers from the rest of the pack is their ability to identify problems early, when they are small and easily solved. Unsuccessful project managers are routinely surprised by big problems that they find out about when it’s too late to fix the damage that’s been done.

The important thing to remember when your project sponsor becomes hysterical about a variance is that we do not have to take corrective action about every variance. If we have a 5 day variance on a task’s forecasted completion date, We do not have to order overtime for the whole team.  If you have used professional scheduling techniques, you will be able to quickly determine if the task is on the critical path and if not how much slack it has. I the task has 10 days of slack you should do nothing about the variance because the slack can absorb it and it will not affect the project completion date. You also need to check if the variance is a signal of a growing problem. But that is an example of when we can ignore a variance.

A few prudent steps during project planning can make all the difference. To spot problems early, you need unambiguous, measurable checkpoints in the project so you don’t have to guess whether you’re on track. With the deliverables defined by metrics, you will know exactly where you are. That’s what lets you take action at the first sign of a problem. Do you want to be regularly surprised by problems when it is too late to fix them or do you want to spot problems early and fix them before they mushroom? How to Write a Weekly Status Report

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

Status Meetings: Info-free, Macho or Micro-detail

Your Status Meetings quickly earn a reputation, and it’s usually bad. First we’ll discuss three types of bad status meetings. Then we’ll explore ways to make your status meetings short and effective.

status meetings
Dick Billows, PMP

Status Meeting Types

Some status meetings are info-free, meaning no one knows much about anything. The project manager doesn’t know where the project should be and is blissfully ignorant about any variances between where it should be and where it is. So the project manager provides no information to anybody about this. The team members are left to self-report, sometimes at great length about where their task is and what problems they are encountering.
In other info-free status meetings the project manager utilizes a three color system. Greenlight status is good, yellow light status is a warning and red light status is deeply in trouble. Greenlight is used 99.99% of the time because people know that anything else gets them in trouble. Yellow light is used to signal minor problems like the moon has crashed into the surface of the earth. Red light status is not used until the due date for the task was more than a month ago.
These status meetings waste a lot of time because there is little or no information.  The project would be better off not having any status meetings. Unfortunately, these are predominant types of status meetings.
The macho status meeting doesn’t use any cutesy status reporting tools like the red light/green light system. Instead, the people plan what they are going to do during the next week. Why do they do that in the status meeting? Because it wasn’t done before they started work.  They try to figure out what to do next and when they do, it is accompanied by rock-solid commitments to be finished by next week’s status meeting. No one thinks much beyond that. If one of the team members feels a little uncertain about what their going to deliver by next week’s meeting, they are criticized by everyone for letting the team down. With this macho insistence on committing to due dates that aren’t tied to factual information, the people on these teams work a lot of overtime. And many of those costly hours are wasted.
The third popular type of status meeting focuses on micro-detail of tasks and deliverables. These projects are usually headed up by a project manager who is (or thinks he/she is) a technical guru. This expert is uncomfortable with other people making decisions. They believe everyone should come to the guru to receive direction and assignments from “on high.” Status meetings revolve around the guru’s detailed investigation into exactly what was done and what was created. This grilling is mixed with angry lessons about mistakes that were the result of a team member “going rogue” by making their own decisions. As a result, the team members’ feelings of dependency on the guru grow with each status meeting. Soon the team is afraid to make any of their own decisions or solve any of their problems. They go to the guru instead. Unfortunately this type of project manager is incapable of managing teams larger than two or three people. How to Write a Weekly Status Report

Status Meeting Organization

You can fix the problem with whatever type of status meeting you have by learning how to organize your status meetings. We all have heard these statements: What is the purpose of meeting every week? Don’t we have enough meetings? We project managers have asked ourselves this question: How can we organize a status meeting that gets results and doesn’t bore people to death? Lately I’ve tried something that takes a little more work on my end but boosts the productivity of my status meetings. It also cuts down the time that status meetings take. Let me tell you what worked for me…  How to Write a Weekly Status Report

First, I prepare the agenda for the project status meeting ahead of time. Let me explain. What is the purpose of the status meeting? It is to provide your team with the overall status of the project and to learn the status of their activities. It is also to identify potential problems. The emphasis is on identification, not on solution. So I prepare a standard project status report meeting form. That sounds bureaucratic, but it isn’t. The first section just lists the people who are expected to show up and those who are not. Those who are not expected to show up, will receive the meeting minutes. Next, I add a graph about the project status. For this status I graph the information from my Earned Value Analysis. It shows a comparison between the percentage of work actually completed vs. the percentage of work planned to be completed. Next, I add sections for activities that are overdue, that are due this month, and that are active throughout this month. For each activity, I list only the following information:

  • The owner of the task
  • The original due date
  • The current estimated completion date
  • The current % complete
  • Three lines for status text

Every week, I update the status for each of the tasks according to the status reports I received throughout the week.

Second, I organize the meeting using MS Outlook’s meeting organizer. I know it sounds trivial, but I need to make sure people know there is a recurring status meeting.

The actual meeting follows a simple routine.  We discuss what’s new on the project. Next there is a general status report of the project, followed by a status update of each of the tasks listed. Going through the task list is rather simple. I state the task and ask the task owner where they are on the task. I do not go into details during the status meeting. I don’t want to start lengthy discussions. If I sense a problem, I will schedule a private meeting with the task owner. Going through the task list usually takes no more than 20 minutes. Once this is done, I ask the team if there is anything else we should add to the protocol. Once again, my goal is not to solve all these issues. It is to bring topics to the table and organize additional meetings for the problem solving process.

Lastly, I make sure that the updated meeting protocol is available for everyone to view no later than 48 hrs. after the meeting.

Using this method, the time spent in status meetings went down to about 30 minutes, just enough to keep everyone focused.

If your team has problems with the status meeting, try structuring the meeting in a similar way. By doing so, you provide a protocol and agenda that you can enforce. And you actually boil down the meeting’s purpose to what it is: Getting a status, not solving all problems and issues.

Learn how to lead effective project status meetings 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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How to Run Project Meetings

One of the biggest complaints we all hear is that there are too many project meetings. They prevent people from doing “real” work.  Project meetings come in all sizes: sponsor meetings, cabinet meetings, stakeholder meetings, status meetings, working meetings, brainstorming meetings, etc. The types of meetings depends on the organization and the complexity of the project.  In this article we’ll talk about working meetings, also called brainstorming sessions or issues resolution sessions.  These meetings are often huge time-wasters and are viewed negatively by frustrated team members and project sponsors. Disgruntled participants complain about the  lack of progress in solving the project’s issues or risks.

How to Run Project Meetings: The Approachproject meetings

This approach helps project managers make working meetings more effective.

Why is a meeting needed?  Clearly communicate what the issue is and why it is important to meet and discuss it. Here’s an example: “Compliance is questioning the new software application’s security access which may require a programming change.” It’s important to keep meetings focused on a single topic. Don’t  try to “boil the ocean” and cover too much ground.

What is the goal of the meeting?  To review options and gain consensus?  To inform stakeholders about an issue? To determine the issue’s priority?

Who needs to be invited and why?  The more people you have in a meeting the more difficult it will be to control the topic.  However, excluding critical stakeholders may result in a lack of critical input and additional “repair” work.

Where, When, How – Ignoring basic logistics can be stressful, frustrating, and highly unproductive.  Make sure the meeting invitation includes these critical elements:

1) an agenda

2) the goal of the meeting

3) the location

4) the time. I f you have remote participants, be sure to confirm the meeting time for the relevant time zones (PST, CST, EST; International).  Otherwise you may have people calling in at 2AM!

5) a teleconference and/or video conference number, including host # and participant #

Summary and Next Steps – It is the PM’s responsibility to ensure that everyone leaves the working meeting with the following:

1) an understanding of the issue and what decision(s) were made

2) the next steps and/or who is responsible for each one.

A best practice is to follow up working meetings with clear, concise summary notes or highlights. This should be no more than ½ or ¾ of a page summarizing what was discussed, decided, and any additional action items, including due dates.

Meetings are a way of life for Project Managers.  Making them effective and efficient takes practice, but it is an investment that pays off.

You can learn all of the skills for running meetings in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager and practice running meetings and giving presentations in private, online sessions with your instructor. 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.

[button link=”” style=”info” color=”red” window=”yes”]IT Projects[/button]

[button link=”” size=”medium” style=”download” color=”#1e14a8″ border=”#940940″ window=“yes”]Business[/button]

[button link=”” style=”info” color=”red” window=”yes” bg_color=“00000000″]Construction[/button]

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