A successful project depends on good communication. A project manager spends most of their time communicating - keeping stakeholders abreast of what is going on, collaborating and facilitating issue resolutions and decision making, as well as maintaining the morale of the project team and other stakeholders.
Good communication is concise, relevant and candid. Concise means that the communication gets to the point, minimizes redundancy and unnecessary detail. It is brief and comprehensive; succinct. Relevant means that the communication meets the needs of the stakeholders - the people involved in the exchange. Candid, particularly in project management, means that the content is a true reflection of the situation at hand and that within the constraints of necessary confidentiality, truthfully tells the whole story.
For this article, we'll focus on candid project reporting. Project reporting is one-way communication - the person reporting provides information to interested stakeholders. Feedback (for example, "What in the world caused that delay?") is then received and addressed as a separate interactive communication event.
To be effective communicators PMs must be able to "tell it like it is," whether the news is good bad or neutral. Telling good news is easy. Giving bad news, not so easy. In environments that have a history of shooting the messenger, reporters tend to hide the bad news. Since bad news, unlike fine wine, does not get better with age and is likely to come out anyway, hiding it is unskillful.
Project management tools and good planning make candid reporting relatively easy. You don't need a complex and hard to learn tool. A simple tool like Project Insight's PI#team plus some discipline and a well formulated plan is enough. The tool is the center of the communication network. The discipline is enabled by planning and reporting standards and follow-up to make sure the standards are being followed. To support candid project reporting, the plan must include relatively granular tasks with estimated start and end dates. Granular tasks should be easily rolled up into larger activities to enable reporting that is relevant to those who want a more high-level view.
Add to the reporting risks, issues and change management with regular refresh and monitoring, and you are in business.
Let the System Do the Reporting
Good reporting systems take the choice out of reporting bad news. The system reports news – good, bad, or neutral. Input the expected start and end dates and your current status and it becomes quite clear whether tasks are on or off schedule.
If you are tracking budget vs. expenditures, then the same principle holds - tell the system your planned spend and what you have spent thus far to accomplish what you have accomplished and it will tell you whether you are on or off budget. With more sophistication - for example, dependencies, and earned value management - your system can help you extrapolate out and give you and your stakeholders a sense of the way the current situation will impact project end date and expenses.
Task update with current progress information is critical. The system will make it easy to find out who has and who has not updated their tasks. The system will remind stakeholders of relevant events and responsibilities.
Issues, risks and changes are other dimensions of candid communications. Everything can look fine when just looking at task completions and current expenditures. However, you need to have a sense of what risks are lurking on your path to project completion and what issues have come up.
Risks provide the reality check that enables you to manage expectations. This is particularly important when your planned tasks have single dates as opposed to ranges between most likely, optimistic and pessimistic. To be completely candid, you must inform your stakeholders of the risks, their probability and impact.
Risks spawn issues and issues spawn tasks which may or may not make their way into your project plan. They must be tracked. For example, if an issue such as the loss of a key resource who is assigned to a soon-to-begin critical task is identified and addressed, the impact of the loss can be predicted and minimized. Without an organized issues management approach that identifies and communicates issues in writing and assigns them to "owners" who will manage and resolve them, you are not getting the full picture you need to manage your project.
Your system should identify, record, schedule, enable transparent access and notify relevant stakeholders as each issue (like any other task) is being addressed in a timely manner.
Similarly, there is a need for candid, transparent communication about changes and their status.
In short, to have a clear and candid sense of the state of any project, you need a central place where documents, project tasks and their status, risks, issues and changes can be recorded and managed. While the project manager may interpret these to provide a summary report, the more readily available the granular details, the more likely it is that the interpretation will be a true reflection of what is going on in the project and what stakeholders can expect going forward.
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