How to Create Effective Creative Project Status Reports
This post was orignally published on May 12, 2015 and was updated with new information on September 12, 2017.
That weekly project status report is the lifeblood of the communication flow of a creative project.
This is where you set expectations, assign tasks, report progress, acknowledge issues and agree on time frames. Regardless of your industry or project scope, you should have this vital weekly communication on every creative project. Do this, and little - if anything - can fall through the cracks.
But not all status reports are created equally. Neither do all organizations have the same project status report “template”. Further, not all clients want to see – and want their teams to see – the same status information.
How do you cope with these complex requirements and still communicate effectively? What goes into creating a compelling project status report?
I’ll share my opinions on creating effective creative project reports in this article.
The Purpose of a Project Status Report
At its heart, a project status report is a communication device.
And as we’ve said earlier, communication is the single most important requirement for project management.
The purpose of a project status report, therefore, is to communicate the project’s current status to all stakeholders (clients, sponsors, your own team). This is where you tell all interested parties how the project is holding up, what milestones have been accomplished and what issues you’re facing.
If your aim is to be effective and transparent, a detailed status report is one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal.
While the benefits of project status reports are many, the ones you should know are:
- Transparency: Project status reports include detailed updates on accomplished and pending milestones. It also alerts them to any current or upcoming issues. This improves transparency and engenders trust.
- Identify and Avoid Risks: Risk management is a critical part of integrated project management. A status report typically includes a detailed overview of open issues and risks. This can help you identify and avoid risks early.
- Better resource management: The status report helps you track the progress of different resources. This can help you can shift resources in/out of the project as necessary. For instance, if progress is slow because the design team is undermanned, you can bring in additional designers to improve the pace.
- Project health: The status report offers a high-level overview of the health of the project. It will tell you (and stakeholders) if there are too many open issues or too many missed milestones. If the health is poor, you can take measures to correct course early.
- Accountability: The status report tells everyone exactly which part of the project is lacking and what needs to be accomplished in the future. This helps keep your team accountable.
- Budget/Scope creep: This report will make it clear if the project is off-budget or if there are too many open change requests leading to scope creep - vital for effective PM.
Beyond these, the project status report also creates a paper trail of open issues and concerns. This can come in very handy in case of any future conflicts.
To sum it up, a project status report gives you greater clarity, improves tracking, and creates a record of the project progress. As one of your most important tools, you should take all the time and effort necessary to make it as useful as possible.
Components of a Creative Project Status Report
The purpose of a project status report is to track progress and provide clarity on potential issues. Thus, it should have the following components:
I. Task Progress
This section of the report is intended to give stakeholders an overview of the project’s progress by tracking finished, open and future tasks.
It should have three components:
1. What’s been accomplished
This is pretty basic; it tracks finished tasks, i.e. what’s been accomplished on the project so far.
Usually this just covers the last reporting period. However, I have seen situations where management or clients wanted this to be an ongoing reporting of key major accomplishments with dates.
That way completed project milestones are always available for all to see, even if you’re not looking at a master project schedule (which, surprisingly, many clients hate to look at because they either find it hard to follow or don’t understand it).
2. What’s happening right now
This portion of the report covers what activities are in progress right now. This is usually a summary of all active important tasks on the project schedule. The summary should be at a high level, not the detailed task level as reported on the master project schedule.
Often this is the basis for most of the discussion that will happen on the weekly status call or meeting with the project team and client.
3. What’s coming up
This section gives stakeholders an overview of upcoming tasks. It’s particularly useful because it helps ensure that no one is surprised when an activity is about to start.
I like to look at what is coming up, not just in the next week but over the next two weeks. People need time to mentally prepare. Giving them just a week’s window of what tasks are about to start is not enough time for them be ready to lead their upcoming tasks.
A two-week heads-up usually helps significantly. After all, my goal is to make them productive and successful, not catch them off guard and contribute to their failure.
II. Issues, Risks and Change Requests
As I said earlier, one of the major responsibilities of the project status report is to keep track of open issues, potential risks and change requests. Having a separate section to track these helps a great deal.
Here’s what you should include in this section:
1. Current issues status
Every project has some issues. A list of those outstanding issues, what the current status or action item is for each issue, and who each issue is assigned to is a great thing to include on the status report.
It keeps it in front of everyone and makes it easy to include it as a vital discussion point during your weekly status calls.
2. Open risks
This part has two components:
- Alert stakeholders about any current open risks and the management plan to deal with them.
- Give stakeholders an overview of the risk management plan to spot and deal with risks in general.
3. Change requests
Managing change requests is a key part of a PM’s responsibilities. Use this section to keep track of current open change requests. Also highlight what steps stakeholders need to take to deal with each request.
For instance, if there is a change the project scope, you might want a stakeholder to increase the project’s budget.
Remember: your job isn’t just to catalog concerns but also to give stakeholders guidance on how to deal with them.
4. Change orders history
The change order information is really for informational purposes only. It’s a good idea though to include a summary of these on the weekly status report so the client is aware of how and why the scope (and budget) has changed so far over the life of the project.
III. Milestones & Deliverables
Gantt charts in Workamajig for tracking different milestones
This is where you track what percentage of the project has been completed and what milestones you’ve accomplished so far. Along with the task progress section, this will give stakeholders an overview of how the project is coming along.
Here’s what you should include in this section:
1. Milestones completed
Use this section to show stakeholders:
- How much (in percentage) of each milestone has been completed so far
- Current milestones
- Finished milestones
- Upcoming milestones
Try using a visual format (such as a Gantt chart) to improve comprehension.
2. Start/finish dates
For each major milestone, include:
- Planned start/finish dates
- Actual start/finish dates
This will tell people how fast (or slow) you’ve been with the project progress so far.
IV. Financial Health
In this section, you’ll report on the financial health of the project, i.e. how much of the budget has been consumed and whether you’re on track to keep pace with budget expectations.
This section isn’t mandatory, of course. Some clients prefer not to divulge the project’s budget and financial health to everyone. In that case, you might either remove this section altogether or offer a high-level overview with minimal details. Leave detailed reporting for the financial analysis view.
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How to Create a Project Status Report Template
Since you have to send out the report weekly/bi-weekly/monthly, you obviously want a project status report template to make things easier.
Here are some tips you should follow when creating your template:
1. Create a Detailed Executive Overview
Your stakeholders are busy. While some of them will dig through the entire report, most prefer to get a quick overview of major concerns at a glance.
Thus, start your report with a detailed executive overview.
Here’s what you should include in this overview:
- Project identifiers: Place the most obvious information - the project name, date, and project manager’s name - at the top of the report.
- Project summary: A brief summary of the biggest issues, risks and milestones. Include anything that requires the stakeholder’s urgent attention.
- Project health: The current health of different parts of the project’s components (task progress, milestones, risks, etc.).
2. Use Visualization Where Possible
Visualization makes complex reports much easier to read for time-strapped executives. Wherever possible, use a visual structure to share information, especially in the executive overview section.
For example, you can use green color to show that a component is in good health, red for something that needs attention.
If you’re going to adopt this approach, make sure to establish conventions for visual data. It should be clear to everyone what “yellow” or “red” colors imply. Stakeholders should know what kind of data will be represented in what format (Gantt chart for task progress, percentage charts for milestones, etc.).
Some of this might be obvious to you (such as color codes for project health) but it’s always better to be obvious than to assume anything.
3. Use the Same Template
Consistency is key for clarity when reporting information. Use the same template in all status reports to ensure that stakeholders don’t get confused.
Keep in mind that this will limit your flexibility. You won’t be able to make changes on the fly if you want to report new information.
Thus, make sure that your first template has room for all the information you might want to report in the future. It’s better to over-report than to under-report.
4. Use Project Management Software
Project status reporting in Workamajig
Creative project management software like Workamajig makes reporting much easier. PM software can track the status of different milestones and task progress automatically. Tools like Workamajig also align with your project schedule and budget to give you (and your stakeholders) clear insight on the project’s financial health.
Most PM tools also have built-in reporting tools to help you create project status and activity reports quickly. You can export these reports as PDFs for sharing with clients.
The creative project status report is one of the most vital communication tools at your disposal. You’ll send reports on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Understanding the purpose of a status report and all the components included in it will make reporting much easier.
Now that you’ve read through this, how does this differ from your standard project reporting practices? What items that I’ve listed above do you not consider vital? And what items do you include weekly that I have omitted or failed to mention?
As a side question – how many have had project clients who see no point in looking at a project schedule or don’t seem to understand it? Please share with us in the comments below.
If you're starting out, you can use Workamajig reports shared below to start creating reports quickly.