Communication is the lifeblood of any successful project, but without a reliable means of keeping stakeholders informed, even the most well-executed plan can quickly unravel.
Project status reports are a critical tool for project managers looking to provide stakeholders with a clear, concise, and consistent view of project progress.
We'll explore what makes an excellent status report, why it matters, who should be responsible for it, and how often it should be produced. With the right tools and mindset, you can create status reports that tell a compelling story and keep everyone focused on the project's goals.
What is a project status report?
A project status report is an essential tool for keeping key stakeholders informed on the progress of a project. This includes updating the project's current status and flagging any risks or blockers that may impede progress. This regular communication is crucial to ensuring that everyone involved has confidence that the project is moving forward, even if there are challenges to overcome.
In addition to updates on progress, providing information on the project's budget and work in progress can be helpful, but this will depend on your project methodology or approach. For projects that are based on time spent, it is easy to include hours spent versus hours budgeted to determine how far along you are in terms of budget.
However, in my experience, to gain a true understanding of how far along a project is and if there are any budgetary concerns, it is more helpful to review the status of specific tasks and determine how many are left to be completed. This approach can help you to deduce if there is enough budget remaining or if you need to adjust the scope of the project without causing undue panic or alarm.
When to send a status report
I usually work on a fixed-cost project with an agile approach—this means things can change, and the scope can flex if we learn new things along the way, but we also need to ensure any changes remain within the agreed budget.
An update at the end of each sprint is an excellent way to round things out and can include links to designs and/or a staging site so people can see the progress for themselves. If we're not working in sprints, we typically still work in bursts so I would send an update after each burst.
If you have a full project communication plan, you can define when status reports should be expected.
6 tips for reporting on project status
Here are tips to make sure you get the most out of your project reports:
1. Keep it simple and concise
The projects I manage are generally run by busy people working on the project in addition to their regular responsibilities. So my priority, if I want them to read and digest a status report, is to keep it as simple and accessible as possible.
I don't necessarily know who will be reading this report—it might be my point of contact, who is already very close to the project, or the CEO, who wants to know if everything is ok. So it needs to cater to those audiences (and others).
2. Make sure the whole team contributes
The person leading the project (usually a project manager) is responsible for producing this status report. Still, a project is a team effort, and the PM should be getting input from across the team. Using a template makes this process much easier, as everyone knows what information they need to provide each time.
3. Be kind
We may be project managers, but what we're actually managing is humans. Sending an update that focuses solely on numbers, tech, or risks will not help your point of contact. They're facing pressure from their stakeholders and need you in their corner.
Making sure your project status report is as clear and concise as possible will go a long way towards doing that. Make sure that it's clear what actions are needed to be taken off the back of it, if any, and don't throw anyone under the bus.
For example, if you're still waiting on those brand guidelines from the client, pop it in there as a blocker but keep it friendly—don't say, "Despite several emails requesting the brand guidelines, they still haven't been sent, and therefore, the project will be delayed." Where possible, send an email, then hop on a call with the key stakeholders to run through it and answer any questions.
4. This is a summary of what you already know
If it's not easy to pull this together, it should be a little red flag waving at you. Use your project management tool or project planning software to do the heavy lifting for you—what's been done, what's up next, and what needs to be reviewed. Ask the following questions:
- What deadlines and milestones are looming?
- What are you blocked on?
- How confident are you that you can deliver what was agreed upon within the timeframe and budget?
If you don’t know this data, the status report will reflect that.
5. Don't use the status update to inform people that the project is on fire
If a project is in crisis, avoid communicating this information through a routine status update. Instead, involve vital stakeholders close to the project to discuss the situation and find solutions. By keeping the right people informed, you can work together to get the project back on track.
6. Adjust your approach as needed
Once you're happy with your status update, pop it into an email with a light, breezy message. You may have a regular status call booked in, and you're sharing this update ahead of that call so everyone can read it beforehand (amazing!), or your client is happy to do it over email (love that for you!).
If there's something a bit thorny, offer to jump on a call to discuss things if they'd like. Remember that clients are people too.
Use these free project status update templates
This template has two versions: one for agile projects and one for waterfall. Choose the one that fits best with your approach (it may even be a hybrid!) and modify as needed.
Project status template for agile projects
I like a Google sheet for a project update when working with sprints because it's easy to share, and you can use a new tab for each sprint to create a new update. This makes it easy to see progress happening from sprint to sprint.
Project status template for waterfall projects
For more traditional, waterfall-type projects that don't use sprints, you can use the same guiding principles of this status update but fit it to your project milestones or regular time intervals. This helps stakeholders know what to expect.
Additionally, in a waterfall project, you will work to a fixed scope, budget, and timeline, so it's more important to watch for risks, delays, and blockers because these can throw off an entire project.
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