For many of us, reading project reports can be a tedious part of the project management process. Far too often reports lack clear formatting and are generally unclear. Common complications occur when reports aren’t targeted on the project’s planned outcomes, and they fail to consider what the project manager, executive or stakeholder needs to gain from reading the report.
While there are many kinds of project reports that you might have to know about and read at some point, the one many of us deal with most often is the status report. The creation and interpretation of a status report will be the primary focus of this post, but the lessons learned can be applied to all types of project reports and reporting tools.
How to Read a Project Report
In many instances, a status report allows us the opportunity to identify both challenges and opportunities in the project. Unfortunately, opportunities can be easily overlooked without some sort of structured process for interpretation and review. In working with clients around the world, I’ve helped many organizations maximize the positive impact of the time invested in project reports by coming up with a structured approach to reporting that helps make the analysis and understanding of challenges and opportunities simpler.
Create a Report Plan
To begin, every project team should have a plan in place for how project reports are going to take place. Here are five elements that I think every report plan should possess:
- Regularly scheduled: Everyone that has a stake in the project should know when reports are scheduled and what is to be expected from each report.
- Focused: Each report should have a specific focus or emphasis. They shouldn’t be thrown out willy-nilly.
- Should have minimal jargon: The bigger or more diverse a project, the more difficult it is for you to ensure that you all have a shared language. That’s why I advocate that project reports exclude jargon as much as possible. Clear language allows people to have a better grasp of what is really being said in a report, giving them a better opportunity to analyze the information effectively.
- Fact based: There is room for analysis and opinion in your reports, but you need to make sure that they are fact based. You can’t allow your projects to be delayed or sidetracked by ideas and feedback that is based on non-factual information.
- Action oriented: As much as identifying challenges and opportunities is important, not doing anything with them is akin to malpractice. Everything you do within your project should focus on the actions you can take to make the project come in on time, on budget.
Project Reports in Context
This is just a jumping off point for understanding and interpreting your reports. But it is essential that everyone be on the same page from the outset because without some uniformity, your reports can skew your interpretation and the actions that you take. Let’s turn our attention to understanding reports in a context that enables us to recognize challenges or opportunities.
Every report needs certain attributes:
- They should have a certain amount of standardization enabling you to understand where to look for what information.
- They should offer measures of success.
- They must focus on facts.
- They should provide informed analysis.
How to Standardize Reports
To help standardize the reports for my clients, I often advocate for a simple report structure. This allows anyone completing a report to have a template that enables them to be less likely to miss something, and it allows the person reading the report to be more likely to understand what is being stated.
The template I use looks very similar to this:
- Start with a summary and status report: Just as you might imagine, this part of the report focuses on where you are and what that means. By quickly reading this section, any member of the team should be able to know with certainty whether or not the project is on course.
- List of goals and accomplishments: I’m an advocate for always focusing on outcomes. Focusing on outcomes enables better work to be accomplished, better processes to be uncovered, and gives teams a sense of momentum. You can do this in your report by focusing your attention on goals and achievements, especially in the context of how they are advancing the project. To help place these things in context, it will pay to ensure that you apply the filter of any deadlines, timelines and other measures of the schedule as well.
- Analysis: This is where you can give some depth to the things you are dealing with in the project. You can focus on budgets, schedules, resources, risks and opportunities.
- Actions and next steps: Remember, all of this identification and analysis isn’t valuable if it doesn’t lead to corrective or proactive actions. So, make sure you put the suggested actions and next steps into the report as well.
How to Spot Challenges and Opportunities in Project Reports
With all of this laid out, the question becomes what does a challenge or opportunity look like when I am reading my report? The truth is that most of the time there isn’t usually a big flashing light that says, “Opportunity ahead.” The flip side of that being, far too often, the first time you see the challenges they are flashing and screaming, “We have a problem, and it needs immediate attention.”
This creates a conundrum for the project manager because we are often drawn to the thing that needs our immediate attention. While this is human nature, the reality is that to train ourselves to give equal weight to both challenges and opportunities, we have to train ourselves to think about these things in a different way.
In order to do that, first, set a goals for reading the report:
- What do we want to know from our reading?
- Do we want to know where the biggest obstacles are?
- Do we need to look at the schedule and make sure it is on course?
- Are we trying to identify new opportunities?
Second, while reading the report, focus on tasks and question the information you read. Interpret what is in the report, and confirm that all the assumptions and ideas present are correct.
Finally, read with a bias towards action. Again, analyzing and identifying the challenges and opportunities your project presents is great, but useless without action.
In doing this kind of reading and thinking, challenges are going to be much easier to spot. They are going to look like delays in progress. They will poke their heads out as missed deadlines or milestones that haven’t been met. But challenges can also be hidden because of deadlines being met or projects being on budget. This is why your analysis needs to also focus on trends and recent performance. Having regular communication with your team helps too.
When searching out opportunities, the process is more complicated for a couple of reasons:
- Reports are often written with the idea that they are just going to track what the project has been set out to accomplish and not as a vehicle for further opportunities.
- Most analysis of project reports is built on the same concept. Focus on what we are building and measuring.
How to Change Your Thinking About Project Reports
Changing your thinking about opportunities requires a few different ideas.
- First, look at the circumstances that surround your project. Simply, what is the environment your project exists in?
- Second, think about the context of the project and the potential it has to create an opportunity. In this regard, context is all about innovating a way for your team or your project to solve a challenge that your stakeholders are dealing with.
- Third, see what constraints may stand in the way of the opportunity. Maybe it is time. Or, it could be people. Money is always likely to be a problem. No matter what, focus your analysis on these constraints.
When you comb through your report with an eye on these three factors, opportunities will become much clearer, and the next steps you need to take will present themselves more clearly.
Reading Reports Is an Art
Ultimately, reading your reports with an eye on identifying challenges and opportunities is an art form that requires practice. While I have laid out several ideas and templates that you can use to structure your reports and your thinking, the end result of all this should be that you become better at reading reports and are able to recognize what is and isn’t in the report.
Because the truth is that every report, even when complete, will provide a path to both challenges and opportunities.
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