Write Effective Program Management Reports

Writing good program status reports

When you walk onto a plane and take a look into the cockpit, it’s amazing to see how many controls, switches, lights, and indicators the pilots have to get you from point A to point B. There’s an altimeter, airspeed indicator, turn indicator, vertical speed indicator, course deviation indicator, magnetic compass and heading indictor to mention just a few. The list goes on and on of all the instrumentation and indicators that make the trip safe and enjoyable.

A program manager needs to keep up with a considerable amount of information as well, to ensure their program makes it from point A to point B and delivers the value that was promised. While most programs are not quite as life and death as when something goes wrong on a plane, there are still many things that must be monitored. For example…actual cost, estimate to complete, earned value, cost variance, schedule variance, and cost performance index. All of these indicators feed into the projects that make a program healthy and productive.

Here’s the problem. It’s very hard to aggregate, assimilate, and distribute all of this information in an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand format that benefits the program stakeholders. There have been countless methods and systems for putting together a perfect program management report. However, experience shows that the program management report is dreaded by both producers and users for the following 3 reasons:

It Takes Too Long to Compile

You will be amazed at how quickly a week will pass when you are tasked with putting together a weekly program management report that updates everyone on the status. You will have just finished one report to be turned in on a Wednesday and the next thing you know you’re creeping into Tuesday afternoon one week later.

You have to put another one together again and again and again. That summarizes the current status of the program as of this moment in time.You cringe because you know what is involved in pulling this report together. Hours of your time following up with the right project managers. Eyestrain as you review the spreadsheets and emails to cobble together one cohesive thought of how things transpired over the previous week. Fatigue as you work into the wee hours of the morning making sure all the facts are just right because you know this is going to a critical audience.

It Takes Too Long To Read

Take comfort…the person on the receiving end of this report feels as if it takes too long to read as well. There are so many details included and meaningless facts and figures that their eyes glaze over the second they see the email from you pop into their inbox.

It Doesn’t Net Things Out

The program management report is many times a disparate collection of semi-loosely related items and activity that are hard to pull together into one cohesive message. As such, it leaves a lot open for interpretation and room for confusion by the reader. It’s up to the reader to connect the dots to truly understand the current status of the program.

And, to add insult to injury, you would be amazed at how many people don’t read the report that comes their way. Don’t believe me? Try this…stop sending your weekly report for a week or two and see how many people even ask what happened. I recently talked to a colleague who sent a weekly report to over two dozen people for one year. He ran into some system issues and couldn’t report out on the numbers correctly so he decided to not send it one week. The issue wasn’t resolved for three weeks. Do you know how many of those dozens of people asked what happened or where was the report? Not one!

How to Make Your Program Management Report Meaningful

Do you want your report to take less time to put together, meaningful to the receiver, and ultimately read? We all do. Then focus on making sure just these four questions are answered on your weekly report.

  • What Happened – Have one section on your report dedicated to what happened over the prior week. You can do a brief recap of some of the highlights that occurred, meetings that took place, or milestones that were reached. This section provides just enough information to show that progress has been made and that there’s a certain momentum and life to the program.
  • What’s Next – After you’ve spent a couple of minutes putting together what happened over the previous week, focus on those items that are coming up over the next week or two. Again, you don’t have to include a lot of detail, but an executive overview of those major events that are planned in order to keep the program on track. This could include a project being complete, or a review of open tickets, to completing a plan for better handling customer complaints.
  • What May Get in the Way – You will next want to answer the question about what may get in the way of the “what’s next” section. This is the area where you briefly discuss risks to the program or even issues that have already occurred. Be sure to have some element of what you are doing to mitigate a risk from occurring or how you are resolving a risk that occurred and turned into an issue.
  • Indication of Trends – Finally, you should include some type of trend indication in the form of an easy to understand chart or graph that shows the momentum of the program in general. You don’t need a lot of Key Performance Indicators here. Just pick out 3-5 very relevant and very meaningful indicators and make sure they continue to go in the right direction. It may be that you want the number of trouble tickets to go down, or customer satisfaction index to go up, or the amount of uptime for the system to stay right where it’s at. Whatever you and the users of the program management report deem to be important is what you should include in this section.

Two Principles to Keep in Mind for an Effective Program Management Report

Over the years I have seen more program management reports than I care to remember. I’ve also worked with scores of program managers and their bosses who literally obsessed ad nausea over how impeccably perfect these reports needed to be (for example, the period after one sentence is 12 point and the period after another sentence is 14 point…not kidding.) Stop the madness and focus on these two principles:

  • Keep It Simple – Your report needs to be simple.How to keep your program reports reasonable It needs to be simple to put together, simple to read, simple to understand, and simple to update week after week. Nobody has time anymore to get bogged down with putting a report together that will be glanced at for a matter of a few minutes.
  • Keep it Relevant – Since people only have a few minutes to read it, keep it very relevant. Ask people what they want to see on the report. More importantly, ask them what they don’t care about or don’t need on the report. This will be a big timesaver for everyone.

Are program management reports important? Absolutely. Do people get carried away in putting them together? Yes. Keep them simple, relevant and meaningful and you’ll make everyone (including yourself) that much happier.

The best project management tools make it easy to produce reports. In turn, that makes it easy to collaborate with your project team, as everyone knows what is going on at any point. ProjectManager.com turns complex project and program data into easy-to-understand graphical dashboards, so you can boost your reporting skills. Give it a try here.

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