A common method of reporting project status is to use the familiar traffic light system, with a status of green, yellow and red. This method of reporting, in theory, makes it easy to determine whether a project is on track and allows the reader to glance quickly at a status report and determine whether there is any cause for concern that requires their attention.
A status of green simply suggests that no such action is necessary, and that the reader has no required actions. A status of yellow or red may require some discussion or resolution. In concept, this system makes sense and allows a project sponsor, who is likely involved in multiple projects and has limited time for each, to quickly determine which projects require their attention.
In reality, this system results in a false sense of security regarding the status of a project and often covers up issues that require attention until they inevitably become serious, at which point the result is most often a project delay, an increase in budget, or more often than not, both.
No project is perfect
The reality is that any project that will result in real change in your organization — including software implementations, cost savings initiatives, and organizational changes — will have problems. It is not the existence of problems that will make or break the success of a project; it is how these problems are addressed. Addressing a problem properly almost always requires early identification and action. Too often, the status reporting system delays the identification of problems, causing them to fester and build to the point at which they can no longer be easily repaired.
The politics of project status
Status reports are inevitably a very political process as the project manager must gather information from the leads or key members of the project team who are completing sets of tasks. In some cases, the project manager is an employee who is overseeing a combination of internal and external resources to complete a project. Quite often, the reverse is true, where the project manager is an external resource who is managing a combination of internal and external resources.
Regardless, the motivations of project managers are in conflict. They want to ensure that they report issues early enough that they can be addressed, but have to balance multiple political realities. A project manager must be careful not to burn bridges and gain the trust of the team members. Changing a status report to yellow will increase the pressure on team members and potentially make them look bad to their management. Those team members may resent the project manager for the action and be reluctant to share information with him or her in the future.
Therefore, a project manager will often hide the truth, buying the team time to address the issue on its own before escalating the issue by properly reporting the actual status of the project. The result is that often the status that appears on a report is a matter of negotiation between the project manager and the respective team members.
This issue can be even more significant when the project manager is an external contractor managing a project that includes resources from the same company. The project manager in this case has a split loyalty. The first is to the project, and the second is to the employer. To protect the employer, project managers might be reluctant to report a status that will indicate a delay or issue caused by their team, resulting in overly optimistic status reports that hide the project realities.
This is further complicated by the reality that status, particularly status with a green-yellow-red option, is highly subjective. One might interpret a red status as one that is halting the project, but a problem could have serious implications down the line even if it is not halting the project today. A green status could be interpreted as one in which the project remains on track even if there are issues.
Properly reporting status
How does a project sponsor ensure that the true status of a project is reported?
First, there needs to be an acceptance that the status of a complex project cannot be simplified into the equivalent of a system that is designed to let us know whether it’s safe to proceed through a traffic light. Sponsors must be prepared to take the time to fully read through reports and understand the events and issues that have occurred and be prepared to ask questions to challenge the project manager and team leads about the urgency of any issues to see if they require sponsor involvement.
Second, project managers and team members need to be informed that the expectation is that all issues, challenges, and risks will be raised in status reports and status meetings without any fear of repercussions from project sponsors or project team members. These issues should be included in status reports, even if resolved before the report is created, to create visibility into any challenge the project has to overcome. The discussion about issues in status meetings should be open and honest, with proposed solutions provided by team members. Often issues can be resolved timely with the proper allocation of resources, expedited decision making, or simply through discussion.
Finally, the motivations of the project manager must be considered and factored into discussions. In many cases it may be preferable to have the project manager be an internal resource or an external resource that is not from the same company as your implementation or software partner. In cases where they are the same, extra attentiveness to the status and issues presented should be considered to ensure that the reports are being prepared without bias.
While the green-yellow-red method may allow for efficient review of status reporting, it can lead to missing the important details of the actual status that are vital to the success of the project. Proper communication can ensure that red lights change to yellow, and yellow to green, ensuring that the project will not face a true stopping point at a critical point, leading to costly delays.
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