There's more to Project Reporting than producing a Report

I was speaking with Ken Burrell (PMO professional and blogger), Chris Walters (Senior PMO / portfolio consultant and mentor) and Nicole Reilly (Head of PMO, and the first person I go to when I need advice on PMO tooling). Ken told me that back in the day, when he was first working as a Project Manager, no one asked him for a status report - but he did one every week anyway. "I found the forced-focus helpful" was his explanation. The conversation moved on in a round about way. We talked of Brexit and Risk Management. Chris noted that one of the important things to do when thinking about the risks associated with the United Kingdom leaving the EU is to park your 'optimistic outlook' once in a while and consider risks and potential outcomes. He likened this to consciously wearing different hats. Nicole agreed and wished that more Project Managers would take this approach when gathering and assessing Project Risks.

This idea of wearing different hats is not new. Many of you will be aware of Edward De Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats'. It's an approach that utilizes the idea of parallel thinking in conversations - that everyone in the discussion is applying the same emotional thinking at the same time. Everyone will wear a metaphorical yellow hat and think of positive outcomes. Then everyone will switch to a black hat and think cautiously and conservatively. Disney used a similar approach for Ideation.

 Edward De'Bono's Thinking Hats.

Edward De'Bono's Thinking Hats.

What do Thinking Hats have to do with Project Reporting?

Completing a well-structured Project Report is in itself an exercise of Parallel Thinking. Project Managers find themselves wearing different 'hats', or personas, for each section of the report. Writing about project risk requires the Project Manager to don their 'risk hat', issues require an 'issue hat' and so on. Articulating the activities that will occur during the upcoming week requires the Project Manager wear the hat of a detailed activity planner. When it comes to the numbers, the hats are removed completely and replaced with the wire-rimmed glasses and briefcase of an accountant to assess capital expenditure, accruals and financial forecasts. Then it's time to don a hat again - or rather, a helmet - as the Project Manager takes to the skies to gain a helicopter view of the project: where it is going and what the long-range view looks like. One final role to play as the Project Manger takes on the persona of an external consultant - weighing up all the different factors and condensing them into a single RAG status.

How long does Project Reporting take?

"Too Long!" is the common complaint. Project Managers love to moan about Project Reporting. And who can blame them? I've never met anyone who actually enjoys reporting - yet we all have a responsibility to communicate to our stakeholders and managers about progress and challenges. Its fair to say that Project Reports are often more onerous to produce than operational reports, but this is mainly down to the fact that projects are temporary constructs and reporting processes are rarely as well honed or benefit from the same levels of automation as operational colleagues may enjoy. 

But how much of the time is actually spent on creating the report, and how much is spent working through the mini-project audit that the process of cycling through personas allows? The process itself has value. This is seen time and time again. In theory, project RAG statuses can change at any time. Worsening risk profiles, delays on dependent projects and day-to-day dramas and issues mean that we should reasonably expect projects to change from Red to Amber to Green and back again during the week. Whilst this does sometimes happen, more often than not it is during the project reporting process that the RAG changes. Why is that? 

During the week, the role of the Project Manager is a busy one. Organizing and chairing meetings, running workshops, negotiating with suppliers and sponsors alike. There are the daily routines, the calls and the stand-up meetings. And of course there are the requests for change and the never-ending avalanche of emails. Little wonder then that PMs have little time to take stock. The Project Reporting routine affords the Project Manager that time and forces it to the top of the agenda. To put it into the terms that are used in Eisenhower's Effective Time Management Model, the deadline of getting a report out takes an important activity and makes it both urgent and important: an activity that demands immediate focus.  

The Report is Valuable but the Process of Project Reporting is Priceless

On occasion, I have seen projects that stop reporting. Usually this is due to some kind of a compromise situation - exceptional circumstances. What is always true in these situations is that once the Reporting is halted, all the component parts of the mini-audit by multiple personas begin to unravel. Of course it could be true that this would have happened even if the reporting process was still being followed, but in other cases risks could still have been mitigated and project could have been recovered much earlier.

When we talk of Project Reporting, it is tempting to only think in terms of the output of the process - the report itself. But the truth is this: whilst the Project Report is valuable, the process of Project Reporting is priceless.