Can we please stop manual project reporting
There is little point arguing the rapid rate of change of project management practices in recent years. Delivery approaches have evolved at light speed, bespoke delivery models, new systems and software are emerging at pace.
Over recent years we have seen all sorts of changes in the project management space, from small changes around the edges to wholesale change in an organisations delivery approach. Some organisations have moved to “new ways of working” that use less “projecty” structures to deliver work while others have new delivery models with different ceremonies to collaborate and inform stakeholders. Some have introduced new systems and software, while others still have introduced digital dashboards.
Despite these modernisations and changes, one particular stalwart of the old world seems to be unshakable, status reporting. This is typically a one-page report style summary of project progress and KPIs, communicating a snapshot of the state of the project.
In many cases it is produced manually by the project manager, consuming several valuable hours a week to pull data from multiple source systems. Often they are pulled together because they have to be, and often they are either not read or fail to share, or communicate, the information that is really important for delivering project success.
We believe the real value in this process is not the report itself but the discipline in taking the time to review, reflect and consider the state of the project and determine what action needs to be taken. As Churchill once said “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential. “
Overtime Status reports have tended to be designed to support communication and governance in a time when command and control structures were strong and there was a need to push information up and down “the line”. Our observation is that status reports have become a “thing that is done”, often left unread, rarely used to aid decision making and in many cases an untrusted perspective presented by a Project Manager in a hurry to meet a reporting deadline. In many cases the separation of the manually produced report from the “data” has allowed and potentially encouraged an industry of “spin” and wordsmithing. Project Managers are often “encouraged” by their stakeholders or by their own volition engage in “editorialising” the situation. We have all see the “watermelon” project that looks green on the outside but is not green below the surface.
For information to be valuable it must be trustworthy and it must offer a clear position on the progress, performance and challenges for the intended investment. Will this investment deliver? Are we on track? Do we need to make an intervention to improve progress or remove blockages? What is happening to the risk profile of this investment? What is happening in the cost-benefit equation and is the return still there? Simply reporting project progress against, milestones and forecast cost at completion is no longer good enough. So what is the alternative?
Contemporary Project Management and Work Management Systems such as Project Online, Azure Dev Ops, Jira and others are specifically designed to help the project team do their job more effectively and as a bi-product contain all the project information required to understand the progress and status of the project. These systems hold a plan or target and can show progress towards that target, whether it is code completed, documented approved, risk profile reduction or other measures. Dashboard and reports that source and present data from the system without interference is arguably the most trustworthy approach to informing performance and status.
While understanding status and concerns via a dashboard or automated report is great, as humans we still need the chance to interact with others, see for ourselves and ask questions. Historically, a lot of interaction has happened around the “status report” or the latest PowerPoint pack produced for “stakeholders”. Why do we do this rather than focus our energy in demonstrating progress? We should seek to see it, not hear about it. We should use showcases to demonstrate progress, show the development of a document, share design mock-ups, show prototypes, working software, marketing material and so on.
One of the benefits of the virtual word we are working in today is that showcases are available to everyone online via your preferred videoconferencing platform.
We are all time poor, trying to do more with less and focus on valuable use of time. So let’s leverage what we have, let’s use real data from systems people are already using. Let’s showcase real things to demonstrate progress and use our time to focus on addressing issues, challenges and things that need to change in order to optimise success. Rather than manually producing relatively meaningless reports, let’s use that time to reflect, review and course-correct using disciple and thought.