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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. He did one anyway. Every week he took the time to log into the project management tool and produce a report. “I found the forced-focus helpful,” was his explanation.

The conversation moved on in a roundabout way. We talked about Risk Management. Chris noted that one of the crucial things to do when thinking about the risks associated 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.

Parallel thinking

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. Everyone in the discussion is applying the same emotional thinking at the same time. The group 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.

There’s more to Project Reporting than producing a Report

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 wear different ‘hats’ or personas for each section of the report. Writing about project risk requires the Project Manager to don their ‘risk hat,’ issues need an ‘issue hat,’ and so on.

Articulating the activities that will occur during the upcoming week requires the Project Manager to wear the hat of a detailed activity planner.

When it comes to the numbers, the hats are removed 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 Manager takes on the persona of an external consultant – weighing up all the different factors and condensing them into a single project status.

How long does project reporting take?

“Too Long!” is a common complaint. Project Managers love to moan about Project Reporting. And who can blame them? I’ve never met anyone who enjoys reporting – yet we all have a responsibility to communicate with our stakeholders and managers about progress and challenges. Project Reports are often more difficult to produce than operational reports. This is because 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.

Of course, there are many types of project reports. There are resource reports that assess capacity. There are ad hoc reports focusing on project health. There are reports that focus exclusively on project planning. There are highly polished presentations produced for the leadership team. But what we are looking at here is the weekly status report, which stakeholders and PMOs look at to determine whether project is on track.

It isn’t the writing that takes the time; it’s the mini project-audit

But how much of the time is 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 plans to switch from Red to Amber to Green and back again during the week. While 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. Maintaining a view of the overall project is hard. There are workshops to run! There are so many meetings (and time spent setting up each meeting agenda)! You have to maintain the scheduling tool and update the Gantt chart. And you have to negotiate 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 only a short time to take stock. The Project Reporting routine gives the Project Manager the time they need to assess the current status. It forces taking stock to the top of their agenda. To put it into the terms that are used in Eisenhower’s Effective Time Management Model, the deadline for getting a report out takes a vital activity. It makes it both urgent and important: an action 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 compromise situation – exceptional circumstances. What is always true in these situations is that once the Reporting is halted, all the 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 the project could have been recovered much earlier.

When we talk of Project Reporting, it is tempting to only think in terms of the output – the report itself. But as you have probably realized by now, there is more to it than producing project status reports. The truth is this: while the Project Report is valuable, the process of Project Reporting is priceless.

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