When project managers turn in their weekly or monthly status reports, the real work begins for the Project Management Office. Even if your project management software does a lot of the data crunching for you, there’s still an element of human interaction to review and check the information before consolidated dashboards or reports leave the PMO.
But what if the information you’re receiving doesn’t look quite right? As leaders, we need confidence in the data that underpins the reporting that drives business decision making. While it’s not your job to second-guess every report that comes into your inbox – after all, we should be able to trust project managers to get it right – it does help to know what to look for if you have any concerns.
Equally, it’s helpful to everyone if the PMO can address possible inaccuracies in the data before the Board or senior stakeholders get to see the report. This can avoid situations such as the project being reported with a status of Green for some time and then suddenly a big budget issue “appears out of nowhere.” This is the kind of surprise that project sponsors don’t like, and it doesn’t reflect well on the PMO or the project manager.
Here are some things to watch out for so you can catch those problems before they cause a bigger issue.
1. Watercooler Chat
If you’re close enough to your team – you’re managing a PMO in a single-office enterprise for example, and not trying to consolidate projects from around the globe – you will probably bump into stakeholders and project team members in the building.
You and the PMO team will get a feel for how their projects are going from their demeanour and conversation. Listen out for the good and bad. This provides a subtext for the reports and can help you identify where things don’t quite add up.
For example, if the project’s leader is constantly complaining about scope changes and yet these aren’t reflected in the data you’re receiving, you would want to look into that.
This isn’t about checking up on people or trying to use grabbing a coffee as an excuse to uncover a conspiracy in project reporting. It’s simply about using all the information available to you, including any relevant social conversations, to judge whether you should be concerned about the project.
If you aren’t able to connect personally with your team, there are other checks you can use to review the accuracy of project status reports.
2. RAG Status
Each of your projects will report a summary RAG/RYG (Red, Amber, Green or Red, Yellow, Green) status. This indicates the project manager’s assessment of the status of the project against pre-agreed criteria such as budget and schedule.
The project report will also include a summary narrative statement – and you want to the two to be aligned.
For example, a project with a Red status but text that says, “Project is progressing to plan,” would warrant further investigation. Which is wrong? Is it moving ahead in the right direction according to the plan or is there something causing the project to be flagged as Red?
Typically there’s a tendency to report the other way round: continuing to use a Green status when actually the project is challenged in terms of budget and dates. These challenges might be reflected in the narrative and should give rise to a status that isn’t Green. Watch for this and flag with the relevant project manager for further investigation.
3. Performance vs Plan
This is a quick test but it can tell you a lot. You’re looking out for two things:
- Planned vs actual budget
- Planned vs actual milestones
Planned vs actual budget
Each report should include project budget information at least monthly. This should reflect actuals vs planned spend so it should be quite easy to get a feel from this as to whether the project is struggling or not.
Over budget projects are spending more quickly than anticipated. This could be due to needing more resources or having to fix issues that weren’t foreseen, which could be down to poor risk management. You can follow up with the project manager if it isn’t clear in the report: what happened to cause this overspend? Are they confident it’s truly resolved now and that you’ll be back at forecasted spend levels for the rest of the project? There’s always a risk that spending carries on at the current levels and the money runs out.
Equally, being under budget isn’t a good thing. It’s possibly caused by not enough work being done so you could also see a delay in the reported progress.
Planned vs actual milestones
You can also do a quick sense check on project delivery and whether this is progressing to plan. What milestones were supposed to have been achieved to date? Have they been?
If not, this could be a sign of a problem, especially if the project is reporting as Green, or there aren’t any new issues flagged in the narrative.
Budget and progress are covered by Earned Value Management, so if your project teams are producing, or providing input to, EV reports you’ll get this information about performance in a different format. EV reports are only as good as the data being fed into them, so they should also be subject to scrutiny where appropriate, but they are a sensible tool to use to support or challenge the overall status and text descriptions in a status report.
This isn’t meant as a guide on how to check up on the project managers in your team. Rather, it should be used as a discussion point about how the status reporting they provide to you is used, and how it could be better improved.
Transparency and honesty is so important in helping drive the direction of a project and ensure it still has a chance of delivering the benefits. ‘Red’ shouldn’t be seen as something to be avoided. It’s an expression of the fact that the project needs management attention to unblock an issue, provide a decision or something else. If project managers have confidence that their reports will be used as a way to support the projects (and their teams) you’ll find that you’ll receive far fewer inconsistencies.