How to Communicate Project Status to Clients



Here’s something we don’t often think about when working with an external client. Our client probably has no idea of project-management methodology and they most likely don’t know Prince2 or PMBOK or any of the ambiguous vernacular we project managers use. Things like agile, burn down, critical path, earned value, epics, float, scrum, sprints, variance, and work breakdown may be intimidating terminology to non-practitioners. Yet, this is often the language we use when we communicate with them.


Occasionally, our client may be 100% assigned to working-on and managing our project. In cases like this, they may be comfortable with the project management process, however, it is more likely that this person has been assigned to the project because the project is somehow within the broader scope of their responsibilities. Additionally, overseeing the project may only be 5% of that person's overall duties. So, although the project may be strategic to him or her, it is probably not their primary daily function. That is why we shouldn’t expect them to be adept at understanding project management methodology or the terminology of our practice.


Clients like this want us to remember that they are not experts in project management, but that they are professionals with full time jobs in their particular field of business - manufacturing, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. They hired us to be the expert in project management. They want us to communicate and report to them in a way that they can understand; and in a way that is not intimidating and filled with technical project jargon. Our client will have to answer to somebody higher-up in their organization, and that person will also need to be briefed on where your project stands. Clients want us to remember that they have to roll our project reviews and status reports up to their executives in a way their executives can digest them.


In a previous post we wrote about how Project Managers should communicate with their own managers and executives when providing status reports. Many of the same principles apply when communicating with external clients. Here are the top 3 must-dos when communicating with clients:

1. A picture is worth 1K words

Most often our clients are busy people who do not have the time to read text heavy, detailed communications. Graphs, charts and other project visuals can give the client a lot of information. They are also easy for clients to share or distribute within their organization. Including visuals in your communications such as a schedule or small scoreboard will help them understand your report at a glance. Alternatively, if visuals are not possible, presenting your key data on a slide that consists of bullet points and percents will make it more viewable and shareable.

One of the best visual ways to present project status to clients is to use a Gantt chart that also contains percent complete for each task, just like the one below.


2. Less detail is better

We are quite competent at producing richly detailed reports and communications. We are, after all, in a detail management profession, so communicating everything from budget and schedules to sprints and resources, is natural to us. Also, delivering this much detail may seem like we are demonstrating control and accountability. A smarter approach is to just provide a summary of key data that gives the status or health of the project at that particular moment. Of course, you will have the rich detail in case your client wants to drill down, however, it is better to start with a high-level summary and then bring in the detail when asked.

3. Watch your language

When communicating with clients, do so as if you were talking to a non-technical person in your organization, perhaps a marketing person or an admin. When preparing reports or client communications, you should assume that it will go beyond your immediate client, to a wider audience, or that your client will need to digest your report and roll-it up to their management. For these reasons, it makes sense to clean out any heavy terminology that we use in our daily work, or that our project management tools and applications spit out. Instead, communicate in a clear, neutral way that is easy for non-project audiences to understand.

Much of this comes down to being respectful of our client’s time and priorities. They are busy people, working on other important things. They do not have the time to try and digest long communications, nor may they have the capacity or desire to understand the project management world and the cryptic language we speak. Adapting our communications styles to fit their needs will make us more valuable professionals and it will increase the visibility of our work at the customer.


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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 issue
  • 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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Software Development Methodologies Timeline

The Software Development Methodologies Timeline illustrates the evolution of software development from the 1960s. It marks the years when the most significant methods emerged into the field.

The timeline categorizes each software methodology into a primary class that includes Agile, Structured Programming, Object Oriented, Waterfall, Engineering and Team Paradigms.

To quickly create similar PowerPoint timelines for personal, academic or business communications, we recommend using the free Office Timeline add-in which can also be used to edit and update the Software Development Methodologies timeline PowerPoint slide.


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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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7 Point Checklist for Project Closure



Wrapping up a scope of work brings with it a range of emotions. Excitement, relief and sometimes even sadness are common at the end of a project where you have invested so much of your energy and time. Although it is tempting to move on to your next project, before transitioning, take the time to properly bring your current project to closure. Here is a short check-list to follow before fully exiting a project:

Are all required deliverables complete?

This is the time to reflect on the project plan. Review it with an objective mind or partner with a peer to help gain balanced feedback. Work through your project plan and ask yourself if all tangible deliverables have been completed. Be ruthless with your assessment and include not only mission-critical deliverables, but all deliverables the plan committed to.

Have all approvals been obtained?

Diligently obtaining written approval for sign-off during the lifecycle of the project is a ‘must-do’ and a good discipline to adhere to. Ensuring the proper approvals have been obtained keeps business leaders informed and accountable for their actions. It also protects you as the Project Manager (PM) to have the appropriate stakeholder’s confirmation that the project is approved.

Have all required administrative tasks been performed?

Managing the administrative side of the project takes time, however these housekeeping tasks are vital when it comes to project closure. Close out any open contracts and make sure all time has been properly accounted for, billing is complete and people on the project have been released and/or are assigned to new projects.

Are all project documents and deliverables archived?

Ensuring that all documentation related to the project is stored in a central archive and available for access is important. These may be used as the foundation for an upcoming project, or you may need to reference them for future questions about how this project was managed. It is also a good practice to create and archive a FAQ’s or Lessons Learned document, so knowledge and key learnings are transferred to the others who will come after you.

Have all calendars been cleared?

Check across the team to see all the meetings that have been conducted? If there are outstanding or unnecessary meetings still scheduled, make sure to cancel and remove these from calendars. Removing any confusion around recurring meetings is a courtesy to others and a best practice for closing projects.

Does everyone know the project is complete?

Ensuring that all stakeholders and departments involved in your project are aware that it is complete is a sometimes overlooked step, but one that will differentiate your from others. Properly closing with a formal wrap-up communication in which you share the achievements and results with everyone involved shows professionalism.

Have you thanked key contributors, stakeholders and sponsors?

Taking a few extra minutes to thank key contributors, stakeholders and sponsors is another act of professionalism. Saying thank you to someone is a simple way to leave them feeling good about you as a PM, regardless of how challenging they may have been. Make your last interaction on the project one of thanks and you’ll will improve your PM brand.

By utilizing this 7 point check list you can ensure that your project closing skills are as strong as your day-to-day management skills and you will be confident that you are leaving a project well managed.


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