+++ The 8 Pillars of the Project Status Report +++ How to Keep Track of Your Project Progression at All Times +++
Do you occasionally break out in sweat just thinking of the project status report? You are not alone. For creating meaningful project management status reports requires lots of time, communication and data. A challenge for many project managers busy with their day-to-day operations.
Still, if you are trying to stay in control of the project progression, you will need answers to the essential questions. And on a regular basis, too.
This article will teach you what to watch out for. And what content is essential for creating a meaningful project status report.
The article focuses on the following aspects:
- Presentation of the project status report
- The overall state of the project
- Status of the work performed
- Milestone tracking
- A target-actual comparison of work and cost
- Risk matrix
- Listing the relevant decisions
- The role of the project management office (PMO)
Interested in other useful reports? Read about the 5 Most Important PPM Reports.
Please note: The actual contents can vary considerably depending on the type of project and the industry. And last but not least: seek the support of the PMO by all means. This is how the project status reports will not fall behind due to lack of time.
But read for yourself.
1. Project Status Report: The Presentation of the Contents
Project status reports have to give answers to the right questions. These questions could regard:
- Status of the work performed
- Adherence to the effort, cost and time plan
- Risk assessment
The reason to create a project status report is obvious: to provide a steering committee with current information on the status of the project.
Why Have a Project Status Report?
Project status reports have an advantage over project managers merely describing the situation to their principals. They allow detailed statements on the progression of projects.
This is particularly true when there are many projects. It becomes difficult to invite all project managers for reporting at the same time.
It is important to note that the steering committee may require different types of project status reports. The type depends on the project size – whether large or small. In the end, the effort for creating a status report should remain affordable and in proportion. Whether you are dealing with a huge construction project or a small IT project.
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Always see to it that the form of the reports for the different project types stays the same. This makes them better to historicize and compare. What is more, you will find it easier to orient yourself knowing where to find what information. This saves you having to read the whole thing every time.
Tip: Create a predefined outline for your reports. This facilitates the orientation and the subsequent alignment of the reports.
When you have many parallel projects, you may not even be able to look at all projects in every reporting meeting. In such a case, you need a project list allowing the correct selection of projects to look at.
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For this purpose, you maintain one row per project with the most important information and indicators. It should be possible to filter and sort the project list. This will allow you to identify the ten most important projects from possibly more than one hundred.
Too many project at once? Create a project list with the most important information and select the ten most important projects.
In a monthly steering committee meeting of possibly only two hours, you will look at only those ten status reports.
2. The Overall State of Your Project – Red, Yellow or Green? Concise Presentation with the Project Status Report Traffic Light
When reading a project status report, you are looking to get a general overview of the project status categories first. In case anything is wrong, you will want to look at the details in a second step.
The Classic: The Overall Traffic Light
The overall state is usually displayed as a red / yellow / green traffic light. This has two advantages:
- A clear statement
- The option to filter the list of projects according to traffic light colors
This overall traffic light should be set manually, in our experience. But it should follow a simple, plausible rule.
Tip: Look at the overall traffic light’s history. It will provide valuable information, especially the color changes between the reports – for the better as for the worse.
Optional Traffic Lights for Details
In addition to the overall traffic light, you can have further traffic lights. These are calculated automatically from the target-actual comparison of work, cost and schedule.
In such a case, it might not be possible to set the overall traffic light to green while:
- at least one of the other traffic lights is red OR
- not all other traffic lights are green
Important Indicator “Need for Action”
We recommend to maintain an indicator “need for action”. This project status category enables project managers, irrespective of the traffic light color, to ask for the resolution of unmade decisions or the detailed assessment of their project. Thus, they can make themselves heard before it is too late and the traffic light turns red.
The project manager should have the option to explain the traffic light or the current main issues. It should be possible to enter a short comment. But by all means short and to the point. It is best to limit the length to a few lines.
Tip: Especially in a multi-project environment, the project manager’s comments should be kept extremely short.
In a multi-project environment, a one-line comment can make sense, as this could be read directly in the project list. Displaying only the first line of a multiline description field tends to be of little help.
3. Status of Work Performed – What Details Are Important
Along with the status of the project, by all means, document the status of physical target achievement.
Stage of Project Completion Is only a Rough Rule of Thumb
Regarding the status of physical target achievement, you very often find percentage values delineating the stage of completion. But in the overall view of a project this project status category can never be more than a rough pointer.
While the value is calculated from the completion of the single tasks, the informative value of e.g. 71% is not exactly high. However, a plausibility check is possible. Simply compare the percentage value of the stage of physical completion with the target and actual values of work, cost and time.
More Detail: Deliverables, Stage Gates and Milestones
It is better for the project manager to indicate the status of work performed by means of concrete information on the completion of deliverables.
This means listing deliverables that are:
- in progress
- to be handled next
Another option is to simply list all deliverables with their status as started / in progress / completed.
But there is an even easier way that is also independent of the project scope. It works well to describe the status through standardized milestones or stage gates. This has the advantage that all stakeholders will be able to tell from a single entry where the project stands.
Percentage values delineating the stage of project completion are only conducive to the overall view. The stage of completion of deliverables, stage gates, or milestones will provide more detail.
Having reached the milestone M3 could mean that the specification has been produced and approved. M7 could be the start of the production.
These delivery stages have to be defined individually for every type of project. Meanwhile, they can be found in all industries. Our Tip: Celebrate particularly relevant delivery stages in public, too.
4. MTA – Milestone Trend Analysis in the Project Status Report
Reporting milestones and their dates and variances in lists is not very clear and informative. Ideally, the milestone dates are historicized on the status dates. This enables the creation of a milestone chart: the Milestone Trend Analysis (MTA).
TPG Service: Free MTA tool available for download here!
- Horizontally running lines between the milestone demonstrate the adherence to delivery dates
- Rising lines indicate delays
- Falling lines show a delivery ahead of schedule
Once you have become accustomed to the chart, you will see the project’s entire schedule development at a glance. You will be able to derive the future trend from this on your own.
Some representations also include the deadlines of the milestones. This means not only delays but also overruns become visible.
5. Target-Actual Comparison of Work and Cost
In the most straightforward case, your project status report will compare the target values with the actual values. You can use figures for this or a bar chart. Do not forget to list the values of the current planning (i.e. the calculated costs and finish date), too. This will reveal variances from the target (baseline) before the end of the project.
If you have purchased deliveries or goods and services, it makes sense to include further values, such as:
- Payment transactions
This makes for a striking increase in cost transparency. For very often, a lot of time passes between commission and payment.
You should also distinguish between:
- Tied and free budget: This is the essential basis for possible changes in the project progression.
- Internal and external work and costs: You could structure work according to type (of service), cost according to cost type.
Thus, you will achieve a detailed comparability of similar projects. In particular, when you are trying to assess why the circumstances in this project differ from others of the same category.
For the target-actual comparison, it is worthwhile to look closely: is the budget tied or free? Are work and cost internal or external items?
These distinctions will help you. They will allow you to recognize problems in the making and to derive countermeasures. Counteracting such problems will be hard for those who only have aggregate amounts of work and cost available across the entire project.
Our Tip: Use line charts similar to the milestones’ for this. They are more informative than mere numbers. You obtain them from the historization on the reporting dates.
To this end, present:
- The baseline curve from baseline start to baseline finish date
- The actual curve from actual start to the status date
To the right of the status date, continue the actual curve with the current target curve up to the current calculated finish date.
6. Risk Matrix
In principle, listing risks in a status report makes sense. If the list is not too long. But it is better to present a risk matrix that will always take up the same amount of space – irrespective of the number of risks. Again, this makes for better comparability.
Use the risk matrix to check your projects for risks. It will allow you to identify at a glance where there is need for action.
The risk matrix presents risks in a colored grid. Each cell contains the number of risks behind it. The focus is on the probability of occurrence and the impact of the risk.
The impact of a risk is the possible financial amount of loss. In practice, it is often very hard to determine. The easier route is to state the impact in points from 1 to 10 or in categories, such as low / medium / high.
The same goes for the probability of occurrence. A statement such as 63% suggests an accuracy unlikely to be correct. The division into 10 steps or the categories low / medium / high gives a better picture.
Tip: To estimate the probability of occurrence and the impact, it is better to work with steps and categories. In this case, figures tend to suggest an accuracy that is not actually warranted.
The Exception: If you want to present an overall risk for the project, you will always have to provide numbers. To this end, the impact is multiplied by the probability of occurrence of the risk in percent and added up.
The overall risk can be an important indicator for the closer consideration of a project.
7. Relevant Decisions
This project status category is about organizational and content-related issues that have been decided or are yet to be decided. Examples of this are:
- Commitment of resources
- Approval of orders
- Decision on a content-related variant
The indicator for “need for action” mentioned under point 2 plays a central role for this. With it, you will be notified that outstanding decisions need to be made by a competent body – even when the traffic light is green.
8. The Role of the Project Management Office (PMO)
Experience has shown: if many project managers have to hand in useful status reports by the due date, this only works with the support of the project management office (PMO).
Project managers tend to neglect the status report issue. In their day-to-day business, they regard it as tedious extra work.
The PMO checks whether:
- There is an up-to-date project management status report for all projects
- All mandatory information has been entered
- The texts are plausible
- The values are plausible
- There is a reason for the variances etc.
All the same, compiling the project management status reports is also a time-consuming affair for the PMO. It can only be successful if project managers and PMO work hand in hand. Therefore, always remind yourself how important status reports are for the success of a project.
Read more about The Challenges of Modern IT-supported PMO Reporting.
Project managers have to realize that project status reports are in their self-interest. Once this has happened, they will provide their input with more motivation and care. Two examples for the high value of the project status report are:
- Due to the project status reports, the PMO arranges certain issues for the project managers directly
- The steering committee can make well founded decisions earlier
Conclusion – Project Status Report
This article has taught you:
- Why a standardized format is important for your project status report.
- How to combine overall traffic lights cleverly with traffic lights for details.
- What elements your project status report should include.
- How to use the Milestone Trend Analysis appropriately.
- What you need to consider for the target-actual comparison of work and cost.
- Why you should work with a risk matrix.
- That relevant decisions have to be incorporated or obtained.
- And why project managers should collaborate with the PMO.
The project status report provides:
- Presentation of the state of the project in important sub-areas
- Quick overview
Examples of this might be the following:
- How far along are we? (= position in the timeline)
- What is the overall status of the project? (overall traffic light manual)
- Comment by the project manager
- Comparison of the actual situation with the baseline
- Actual cost vs baseline
- Actual work vs baseline
The following articles might also be of interest to you:
Give us feedback!
What has been your experience with project status reports? Do you feel we have missed an important point? We look forward to receiving your comments.
About the author: Johann Strasser, a certified engineer, has been a managing partner at TPG The Project Group since 2001. After many years as a development engineer in the automotive and energy sectors, Johann Strasser spent a decade as an independent trainer and consultant in the field of project management. During his tenure, he also served as project manager for software projects in the construction industry and provided scheduling and cost management support for large-scale construction projects. At TPG, he applies his expertise in product development and consulting services for international clients. His special focus is on PMO, project portfolios, hybrid project management, and resource management. For many years now, he has shared his knowledge through presentations, seminars, articles, and webinars.