How to write better project status reports

As a first-time Project Manager good communication is an essential skill that you need to learn quickly. All Project Managers need to be good communicators and to update their stakeholders with a regular status update in the form of a weekly project report.

Project Managers do not enjoy doing them, and they are often done quite badly, but they are an essential method of communication on projects and, if done properly, they can help the project run more smoothly.

What’s the problem with project reports?

There are a number of problems with project reports, I think.

From the Project Manager’s view point – they hate doing weekly project reports for these reasons:

  • They are time consuming to write
  • They find them difficult to write as they are trying to find something different or new to say about their project each week
  • The mere fact that they hate doing them makes them more of a chore
  • Finally – they also have a nagging suspicion that no-one actually reads them – so why put all that effort in?

From the audience viewpoint i.e. the people reading the report, I see a number of problems with weekly reports that I read every week as part of my role as a Programme Manager:

  • Report is too wordy, waffles too much, is too long and complicated to read
  • Report has too much technical jargon which is hard to penetrate or understand
  • It is hard to get to the really valuable information
  • Highlights information that is irrelevant to the audience
  • Doesn’t highlight important information or underplays its significance

So how do we improve weekly reports?

What’s the purpose of the project report?

Let’s start by looking at why we are doing the weekly project report. What purpose does it serve and what are we trying to achieve?

Communicating regularly to your project stakeholders and also keeping your project delivery team in the loop in terms of what is going on in the wider project, and what is being communicated to stakeholders is a good thing.

The weekly report is the opportunity to keep a wide group of people involved in the project up to date with what is going on in the project.

The audience for weekly report falls, broadly speaking, into three categories

  1. The business stakeholders – including management, customers and users
  2. The project governance team such as Project Management Office (PMO) or managers of the Project Manager – they are concerned with ensuring that the project is under control
  3. The Project delivery team – the team(s) working on the project day to day including suppliers. They will know quite a lot about the project progress but may not be across all the different areas of the project

I have also known Project Managers to send their weekly report to their project delivery team first for review before it is sent out to wider list of stakeholders – this is a great idea, I think.

What qualifies as good communication?

When writing the weekly project report, it is essential that you focus on what the audience want to get updated on. The content is covered in a later section but here are some guidelines:

  • Keep the information clear and to the point
  • Ensure the information is up to date and correct
  • Keep jargon to a minimum
  • Keep it brief, but not so brief that it is hard to understand – use sentences and good grammar
  • Ensure the information is relevant to the audience
  • Ensure important information is highlighted
  • Avoid repetition

How often should we do a project report?

Ideally you should be writing a project report every week. The more often the Project Manager writes it, the easier it should be to update. It is a lot to easier to remember what you did in the last week, whereas sometimes 2 weeks in a project seems like a long time to remember exactly what has been achieved. However, this is dependent on the project itself and also where you are in the project lifecycle.

Not every project is going flat out for the whole time. In some phases of the project there might not actually be much going on for a few weeks, so there might not be much to report. In this situation I would negotiate with your key stakeholders and request that you push the project report frequency out to every 2 weeks. You can always go back to weekly again when the project pace picks back up again.

In some organisations they do project reports once a month. I would question the value of that. The overhead for the Project Manager is high as this would take quite a long time to go back through the months’ worth of work to write the report. It would also be likely quite out of date.

My preference is for weekly project reporting to ensure the regular flow of information to the project stakeholders and also so that we can act quickly on any concerns, risks or issues.

How long should it take to write a project report?

I would argue that a Project Manager should be able to write a project update in 15-30 minutes. If it is taking longer than that they are spending too much time on this. There are occasions when you might need a bit longer to do an update and it will depend on the size of the project and on how busy and fast paced the project is, but I would still aim for the 15-30 minutes.

Report format and delivery method

My preference for weekly reports is a text document in MS Word, GoogleDocs or similar. This should be maximum 1-2 pages.

Sometimes a presentation type format such as MS PowerPoint or GoogleSlides is used – this is quite common particularly in projects which are part of a larger programme. The same content should be included as per next section.

Sometimes a simple email will suffice as long as it summarises the information as outlined in the next section.

My preference for distribution of the weekly report is via email – either with the file itself or a link to where the file can be found.

Don’t forget to date the files and email subject headings so that reports can be easily searched at a later date.

What should be communicated in the project report?

I have outlined a typical format for the project report below. The format may vary between organisations, but the content should be similar to that outlined below.

Weekly Report 
Project <Name>                      <Date>
What’s been achieved this week:
<approx. 3-5 bullet points>
 
What’s planned for next week:
<approx. 3-5 bullet points>
   
Main Issues:
Issue 1 – brief summary and action plan
Etc.
Key Milestones
Milestone 1, status (red, amber, green, done), and forecast date
Etc.  

Key Risks:
Risk 1 – brief summary and action plan Etc.    


When to distribute the weekly report

Reports are often issued by Project Managers at the end of the week, but this can also be dictated by what project meetings are scheduled for the week. So, the Project Report contents can be discussed in these meetings. So generally speaking, late Thursday, Friday or early Monday are the most common days I would say.

What not to communicate in a weekly project report

Clearly the weekly project report is used to communicate information about the project to a wide audience and highlight challenges, risks and issues. However, I would not use the project report to highlight new information to the audience as the first point of communication.

If you need to highlight project challenges, issues, risks, budget changes or changes to timelines I would use your regular project meetings, monthly Project Boards or one to one meetings with stakeholders to communicate this information before you put it on the weekly report.

People don’t tend to like surprises or feeling like they are the last to know about issues and challenges on the project. I have seen many mini stakeholder rebellions and extra project management calming work created because of one small sentence in a project report. The Project Manager’s role is to keep everything under control and running smoothly not create extra communications challenges – whether well intentioned or not.

Happy report writing

So you should have a set of useful tools and pointers which you can now use to produce your weekly reports more efficiently and effectively. Good luck.

Chris Wilson

Agonda Projects Limited 2019

Author: Chris Wilson

I'm a Project Manager based in Brighton, UK. I have 20+ years of experience running technology projects and I can help you to run yours.

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