Project reporting: be brief, be brilliant and be gone.



Less is More


I was once given this advice when preparing executive business reviews at a large corporation, “be brief, be brilliant and be gone.” I took me several years and my first management role, before I truly understood the wisdom of that advice. In enterprises, reporting flows uphill from the trenches all the way to the exec corridors. For this flow to happened, at each point along the way, reports need to be distilled, consumed and the regurgitated up to the next level.


When it comes to reporting your project to management and execs, many project managers fail to understand this perspective as they prepare project status reviews. The biggest mistake we make is to create reports with too much detail. Since our day-today work is detail-oriented we tend to think that our managers want to see this same level of detail too, and there lies the most common mistake in project reporting.


Our managers are under pressure to keep their executives informed about all the projects under their watch. To do this they depend on timely project status reports from around the organization, and they need to quickly consume them so they can keep their bosses informed and current. Your manager may only have allotted between 1 – 2 minutes to review your report and may become frustrated if it does not give them a sense for the overall health and progress of the project in that short amount of time.

Key Data Only

Your status report need to be succinct and concise so it can be consumed without much effort. It should be prepared in three levels. The first and most important level of reporting should immediately provide your manager a sense for the healthiness of the project. They should be able to assess this quickly based on a few key data points. This data should include:


  • Your rating of the project’s status:
              - Red: Project forecasted to be delayed.
              - Yellow: Project has potential problems which may cause delay.
              - Green: Project on schedule.

  • Actual % complete of the project at the time of your report vs. the planned % complete
  • How many days, weeks or months the project is ahead or behind the plan
  • List of top 3 critical issues the project faces

The second level of reporting should provide your managers more progress data on the plan, if they want to drill-down a little further. The best way to do this is to provide a high-level project schedule where you can break-out the progress of the key tasks. This will include:


  • % complete for each of the key tasks
  • Actual start date and finish date vs. the planned start date and finish date for each task
  • Flagging the critical milestones

The final level of reporting should provide your manager additional data on the key issues you have reported. They should be listed in order of priority with the most severe issues listed first. This part of your report should still be presented as data points or very short sentences, and not paragraphs, so it is simple for your manager to consume quickly. It should include:


  • Owner of each issues
  • Ageing report showing how long it has been open
  • Estimated time of resolution
  • Action report

Best Practices


There are several best practices with regard to status reporting. The first is to minimize your content by reducing it down to data points wherever possible. Doing this can be challenging particularly as you may assume management wants to see a narrative covering some of the details and nuances of the project. Avoiding long sentences or paragraphs in your report will help scale it down to the raw data, which will make it easier for management to consume. Train yourself to think about presenting just the most important data points, like a scoreboard, rather than writing a story.


Using charts, tables and visuals is a good way of distilling status reports down into something that is easily consumed by management. Presenting reports in a visual way makes it easier for managers to digest your project information quickly. It also provides them something they can share with their bosses or roll-up into their business reviews. Creating a single PowerPoint slide which can be shared or presented or included in other slide presentations is a good technique for communicating with managers in the enterprise.


Being consistent and rhythmic in your reporting is critical. Providing frequent status reports will instill management’s confidence in you and in your ability to control the project. This confidence will serve you well if/when you have to downgrade a project’s healthiness rating or raise key blocking issues. Proactively communicating status reports creates channels for dialogue and gives you the opportunity to showcase your work. Most importantly you are communicating with predictability and discipline so management is not chasing you for progress report.


Benefits


If you mix brevity, with key status data and communicate it in a consistent, predictable manner, your management will be pleased with your reporting. This does not mean they won’t engage or seek further details, but it does mean there will be no confusion around the status of your project. Clarity like this calms management because it demonstrates that you are in control, which may mean less intervention and fewer panicked managers.



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Negotiate for Realistic Project Goals



Clients, executives and stakeholders may pressure you you to commit to an unrealistic project schedule or demanding project goals that you know are not achievable. This could be because they are looking to maximize the productivity of the project, or more likely because they are also responsible for a deadline and your project is a part of that. In these situations, there will be pressure to commit to a schedule or target that you know is highly improbable or even impossible to deliver. Under these circumstances, it is critical to negotiate for realistic goals rather than making a commitment you cannot keep. Here are some ideas to help you be prepared for those negotiations

Battling for realistic goals requires that you know what is achievable. If your team has prepared a schedule, study it carefully, analyze the assumptions and double check all the estimates. Supplement your analysis with any historical data from similar projects that have been completed in the past. Having confidence in your estimates will empower you to stand firm when clients, executives or stakeholders push for a commitment that is not possible. Being able to reference historical data that supports your position will also help you be credible and more persuasive as you negotiate.

Don’t say no, but rather reply with choices for achieving the outcome they want. This is an effective negotiation technique because it places the responsibility back to them which will drive a more reasonable conversation. To do this, mentally prepare a few trade-off scenarios in advance of potential negotiations with stakeholders. For example, if stakeholders pressure you to deliver your 1-year project in six months, suggest that is may be possible to achieve that but only if you get more people and more budget to work on the project. Then actually ask them if you can get X more people and Y amount in additional budget at a specific date?

You may also want to suggest that the project’s quality or the project’s scope will need to be reconsidered in order to meet their new demand. For example, if being pushed to complete an effort with less budget or less staff, probe to see if they are prepared to accept a lower-quality project or whether they would be satisfied with fewer features. For example, ask what functionality they are willing to sacrifice in order to cut the budget or ask whether they would be willing to accept a higher rate of failure than it was originally scoped in order to cut the headcount. Presenting them with choices like these and driving them to make trade-off decisions will force a more reasonable discussion.

If you anticipate being pressured to deliver something that is not realistic, be prepared to negotiate with good intent, but do not make a commitment you know you will not be able to achieve. Executives or stakeholders may be pushing you to change some of the dimensions of the project but, if you are properly prepared, you can negotiate with them to find reasonable and mutual ground. To do this, it is important that your estimates are solid and that you can provide them choices for achieving their demands but also the trade-offs those choices will require.


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Kick-off Project Planning with a High-Level Schedule

Having a high-level project schedule prior to planning a project is a useful technique for kicking-off project planning. Starting all planning discussions with a model of the project schedule will get the team focused on the right things and allow them to iterate it, which will ultimately produce an accurate and comprehensive final schedule.



Your high-level schedule should be clear and easily understood by all parties and stakeholders involved in the project. Creating one should be done prior to other activities because it will serve as the starting point for the structured, definitive project planning that will follow. Remember, the dates and tasks in your high level plan needn’t be absolutely firm because they will change through the planning process.

In the following post, we will provide 5 steps for creating a high-level project schedule that you can use to kick off project planning:

1.List all of your tasks

Start by creating a list of tasks required in order to accomplish each deliverable of the project. This may seem intuitive, but it is often overlooked in favor of starting with a project scheduling application from the beginning. When creating a list of tasks you must also consider the amount of time it may take to complete each task and who will deliver the task. Knowing these variables will help you hone your estimate for each deliverable in the project, and ultimately help you model the project’s delivery date.

2.List your milestones

Milestones are often overlooked when creating project schedules and they shouldn’t be. Including high-level milestones on the initial schedule provides a measuring stick to evaluate the progress of the project. Given that milestones will be used by management and stakeholders to assess the project’s progress they should be included on your project’s high-level schedule. Start by identify the points of time or events that you recognize as important and add them. They can and probably will change later on, but making them visible during the earliest communications and conversations will add the perspective that the planning team needs.

3.Sequence your list

Sequencing is all about arranging the order your tasks will be delivered in. Some task can be done independently or simultaneously while other tasks will need to have a preceding task completed before they can begin. Look over your list of tasks and put them in the order that they need to be completed. Take note of which tasks are critical and which tasks are dependent on others. Knowing this will be useful in the more formal project planning stage when it comes time to identify the project’s critical path.

4.Group tasks together

Look over your list and find logical breakpoints. Group all the tasks between each of these breakpoints so your plan is a series of phases. For example, there may be a series of tasks related to analysis and feasibility which may fit into a Preparation or Proof of Concept phase, and then there may be a series of tasks relating to delivering the work, which may be a Deliver or Build phase. Finally, there may be tasks related to testing and iterating which could be a Test phase. Showing activities as phases will make it easier for audiences to think comprehensively through the project, rather than just seeing a single extended block of work.

5.Check deadlines

The schedule you have modeled will be a good way to check if the expected delivery date is realistic. If your high-level schedule is showing a delivery date that is significantly different from what management or stakeholders expect, begin making adjustments right away, prior to developing the comprehensive project plan. This may include presenting your high-level schedule to stakeholders in an effort to discuss a new date for the project’s delivery date or it may include reducing the deliverables of the project.

Starting the project planning process with a high-level schedule will give your team the perspective they need as you begin developing the more comprehensive final plan. Doing the work up-front to model a project schedule will ultimately lead to a more accurate and realistic project plan.


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6 Basics for New Project Managers



Project Management is a deep and well documented practice with many brilliant books, blogs and organizations dedicated to it. However, if you are new to project management and are merely looking to learn some basics for successfully managing a project, we recommend these 6 fundamentals:

1. Know the purpose

It is important to understand what the real goal of the project is. For example, if you are responsible for implementing a new tech-support ticketing system, is the goal to help increase the productivity of your tech support team or is it improve low customer satisfaction scores? Once you understand the real goal of the project and what success looks like you can better determine how to plan and how to execute it.

2. Nail the scope

It is also important to precisely define the project’s scope. Continuing our example, does your project scope include defining the selection criteria and selecting brand new ticketing system software or will that be done prior. Determining what is in scope and what is out of scope will not only have a huge impact on the work required but also how your success will be measured.

3. Detail the deliverables

Once you have defined the scope it will be critical to break the scope down into the things that must be delivered. Furthering our example project of implementing a new tech support ticketing system, one of the things that must be done is to install a new data base. This should be defined in detail so it is clearly understood by the person or team who will deliver this work. You will need to identify all the project deliverables and define them in this way.

4. Plan Properly

With the deliverables properly defined it will be easier to determine what activities, resources and budget will be required for completing the project. To properly plan your project you will need to determine what activities or tasks are required to achieve every deliverable, and you will need to determine the amount of time required to complete each task. It will also be important to identify which task are dependent on other tasks. In our example we may not be able to complete the task of installing the new data base because that task is dependent on another task, procuring new data base hardware. Finally, you will need to put the entire project plan on a schedule by assigning dates to each of the tasks.

5. Share your plan

Now you have a project plan that is a schedule of clearly defined deliverables which have been properly scoped and properly aligned with the business goals. You know the plan very well but it needs to be shared with the project team and stakeholders. Team members will need to know exactly what is expected of them, when it is due and how it interrelates with work others are doing. Communicate the plan often so team members stay focused on the activities they have been assigned.

6. Review progress

When the project is underway, it will be important to monitor the progress of you plan and to report this progress back to your executives. You will need to periodically check the project against its planned cost and schedule. This will allow you to calculate and report the variance between the actual execution and the as-planned execution. Once you identify and understand any variance from the original plan you can make necessary adjustments to the project’s scope, schedule or budget.

New project managers will find that these 6 fundamentals are relevant to any project they are assigned, regardless of size and complexity. Becoming proficient in each of these areas will increase your chances of successfully delivering your project on budget and on time.


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7 Leadership Skills to Develop



It is often said that successful leaders are made, not born. In other words, being a successful leader is a matter of skill, not luck, and it is therefore possible to develop this skill. Anyone aspiring to be one, can become an effective leader through planning, persistence, focus and effort. Personal style, education and background will influence you, but becoming a good leader is learned through experience. If you have the desire to develop your leadership skill, here are 7 areas to focus on:

1. What you do matters most

This idea here is that others see and follow the direction of their leaders, so leaders become effective because of what they do. In today’s workplace, leadership authenticity is often judged on actions rather than words. Organizational values are also molded by observing the behavior of our leaders. As a leader, you have the privilege of being a role model within your organization and leading by example is a practice you should constantly refine.

2. Create a learning based culture

Leadership styles can be categorized as either learning based or a knowledge based. Leaders who develop learning based styles create open and transparent environments that do not expect that there will always be answers. Rather, these leaders value learning and constantly ask good questions to drive mutual learning exchanges. Knowledge based leaders place value on quickly obtaining answers, and they fail to nurture the exercise of learning. This leadership style is more critical as it tests, judges and challenges teams for immediate answers.

3. Tell a good story

It is difficult to be an excellent leader without being a good communicator. Good communication means the ability to get others to understand your vision and to buy into it. It is about understanding your environment and adapting messages to meet the needs of your audiences. Good leaders practice this. They are masters at listening and deciphering the communication styles of others and adapting their messaging on-the-fly. Since most leaders will spend much of their time engaged in interpersonal situations, is critical to understand and practice these skills.

4. Have a clear vision

Good leaders are visionaries. They have a clear vision or dream for their team or project and it is often the most powerful tool in their toolbox. It is an image or picture of the future that, when articulated well and frequently, wins commitment and inspires people to action. Visionary leaders are easy to follow because their vision provides teams with the clear direction and purpose they need. Good leaders take the time to develop and share their vision because they know it will motivate people to strive for its attainment.

5. Empower your people

Having an empowered team that has initiative and drives tasks forward with little guidance is the wish of all leaders. Empowering people requires focus. Leaders develop empowered teams by recruiting great people, giving them clear direction, providing support and delegating important tasks to them. Leaders should allow their employees to try new ideas safely and independently, even if it means that their employees will lead others. This may feel counterintuitive to classic ideas of leadership but they will learn a lot and it will prepare them to lead in the future.

6. Be a Connector

Strong leaders are connectors. They take the time to know their team members and to create opportunities that leverage the strengths of their team. They are good at bringing together people, ideas and resources that wouldn’t normally relate to one another. To do this they build strong networks both inside and outside of their company, and they leverage these networks to facilitate collaboration and find new opportunities.

7. Get real

Good leaders know themselves. They have a strong sense of what they believe in and they are willing to share that with their teams regardless of the situation. Their authenticity creates trust and this trust makes them more convincing leaders. They do this by defining their personal values and fearlessly committing to them. Their behavior reflects those values irrespective of obstacles and adversaries. Authentic leaders are genuine and people will follow a leader they feel is real.

Developing your leadership skill requires focus and intention. These tips above can be a compass on where to apply that effort. By practicing some or all of these skills, you can build a solid foundation for your own personal leadership development.


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