How can we meaningfully summarize—in a brief status report without losing important details—the successes and setbacks our projects experience?
The boss says, "I need a status briefing on the Alpha project tomorrow morning. It needs to fit on six to ten PowerPoint slides, and you will have twenty minutes to present it."
A request to distill complex project status into a twenty-minute briefing might sound like something from Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss, but if your organization has dozens of projects active in its portfolio, this may be a common, necessary, and legitimate request.
How can we meaningfully summarize—in a brief status report without losing important details—the successes and setbacks projects experience? The short answer is, we can't—some information will be omitted. Thus, it is vital to select and present the information needed to support informed decision making.
Is Status Reporting Necessary?
Many see project status reports as little more than a ritual sacrifice of trees made to appease the pagan gods (pointyhaired executives). But, here is a secret: The leaders in some organizations actually use status information to support decisions and help them steer.
Imagine that your organization manages a multi-million-dollar portfolio of projects. Some projects are simple, inexpensive, low risk, and short; others are complex, expensive, mission critical, and may extend for years. An organization's executives must routinely make decisions about these projects, including:
- Which projects are going well? Which need special attention?
- Which projects will continue as defined, which will be cancelled, and which will be accelerated, slowed, or postponed?
- Which budgets will be cut? Which will be augmented?
- Which projects are not on track to meet expectations?
- How should the organization respond to that?
- What is the relative priority among the projects?
- Which projects are expected to deliver the most value to the organization in the near future?
It's obvious that these decisions can be difficult, complex, and easy to get wrong. What decision makers need is timely and accurate status information summarized by knowledgeable and trustworthy people who are close to the effort and know what is important.
We sometimes imagine our leaders (managers, executives, legislators, generals) as super-beings who track all details of the universe simultaneously, using their massive brains and uncanny intuition to sort it all out with clarity. In reality, most executives I've met are clever, but thus far none has revealed any super powers to me. At the risk of heresy, some executives are probably no smarter or experienced than you. Scary, isn't it? Perhaps you were hoping your organization had adult supervision? Don't panic! This just means the decision makers in your organization are mere mortals who need your help to deal with the complexity of their projects.
What Information Defines a Project?
A project is a temporary effort undertaken to accomplish a specific goal within defined resource bounds. Examples of projects:
- Obtain suitable manufacturing and office facilities in Oklahoma City for 300 staff to occupy by January 1, 2010, for $5 million.
- Design, build, and test Version 2.0 of the WhizBangWidget product for $2 million with release to manufacturing to occur by June 1, 2009.
- Procure, install, customize, and roll into organization-wide production a suitable replacement for the XYZ software system by December 31, 2010, with a budget of $15 million.
Projects exist in three dimensions: scope (what you want), chedule (when you want it), and resources (what you are willing to invest to get it). Most project management methodologies and processes can be mapped to the three step model shown in table 1.
Larger projects may adopt a divide-and-conquer strategy that partitions an effort into multiple smaller projects that are done individually. The important point is that you cannot have an intelligent discussion about a project without addressing three