What is a project status report?

What is a project status report?

A project status report? Again?!

This is a typical reaction from both stakeholders who need to read project status reports and project managers who are responsible for writing them. No one likes spending time reviewing when they could be doing something more productive.

But project status reports are vital to maintaining good project hygiene. 

Status reports are critical communication tools that keep all interested parties informed about:

  • How the project is progressing, 
  • Whether there are any growing issues, and
  • If yes, what they can do to help resolve them.

Without status reports, stakeholders can’t make informed decisions about the future of the project, which inevitably leads to pitfalls and unpleasant surprises down the line. It’s a project manager’s job to make sure those reports are written, and more importantly, read.

This guide will teach you:

  • What project status reports are, in more detail,
  • Why they are important for the overall health of the project,
  • How you should write them to make sure everyone reads them, 
  • What you should avoid when writing status reports, and
  • What is the best way to distribute them.

Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Table of Contents

Project status report definition

A project status report is a document that lays out the current state of the project and measures its progress against the baselines provided in the project management plan

The purpose of the report is to update all stakeholders on how the project is going and keep them informed about any emerging threats or project risks. It should be to the point and concise — ideally, no more than two pages long.

Depending on the project manager and the type of project they are running, project status reports are typically handed out:

  • Weekly,
  • Bi-weekly, or
  • Monthly. 

Some PMs like to leave a bit more room between their reports to allow more things to happen. However, Michelle M. Campbell, Senior Vice President, MBA, Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), and Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM), prefers to distribute them on a weekly basis to keep everyone up to speed.

I recommend weekly release of a status report, especially on a rapidly changing project.

What’s the difference between a project status report and a project performance report?

The project performance report and the project status report are two terms that tend to get mixed up. But, if these two terms sound like they might be the same thing, it’s because they kind of are. 

Let’s elaborate.

What is a project performance report?

The project performance report is an umbrella term that encompasses the following reports:

  • Status report — It informs stakeholders about the project as a whole, the current status of the budget, time, risks, dependencies, and how they fare in relation to the project baselines.
  • Progress report —It shows how the project has progressed since the previous report. Along with the forecasting report and the earned value report, the progress report tends to merge with the status report to create a single document, simply called a “project status report”.
  • Trend report — It tracks performance and productivity and shows how performance has improved or deteriorated compared to the last measured period. Project trend reports also help identify recurring issues or successes, predict how the project will unfold in the future, and help project managers learn from past mistakes.
  • Variance report — It shows how a project’s actual performance compares to its initial performance estimates.
  • Forecasting report — It shows what the project manager expects to happen in the near future. It sets predictions for the project status, cost, and deadlines in the coming period. 
  • Earned value report — It combines the cost, schedule, and scope baselines to the project’s actual performance to determine whether the project is ahead, behind, or precisely on schedule.

— 

So far, so good.

As we can see, the project status report is only one type of performance report. As the famous saying goes — all project status reports are performance reports, but not all performance reports are status reports.

How can we distinguish between project status reports and project performance reports?

Well, while there’s a clear distinction between the two on paper, the problem arises when project managers refuse to follow the established naming and reporting conventions. 

We mentioned before that progress reports, forecasting reports, earned value reports, and status reports are often merged into a single document. Together, these documents are still called the “project status report”. 

So are these reports separate performance reports or have they merged under the umbrella of the status report? 

At this point, the namings are arbitrary and each project manager has their own way of doing things. So, it might be best not to think about it too much and simply follow the conventions set by the company or the project manager you work for.

What makes a good project status report?

While enthusiastic greenhorns might be tempted to create pretty and detailed reports listing all the amazing things they accomplished over the previous week, this isn’t what a status report should look like.

Status reports are created for stakeholders. As such, they should contain information the stakeholders want to know, in a way that they want to see it, and with respect to their time and schedules. 

According to Michelle M. Campbell:

While aesthetics is helpful on a status report, it is more important to have the informative essentials that will guide the reader to arrive at a comprehensive, but concise understanding of the state of the project.” 

With this in mind, a good project status report should be:

  • Structured and clear,
  • Tailored to stakeholder needs,
  • Consistent,
  • Concise, and
  • Objective and honest.

A status report should be structured and clear

A report that’s easy to read has a greater chance of actually being read.

An easy-to-read status report has the following characteristics: 

  • Provides all the necessary information at only a glance, 
  • Is structured in a logical manner,
  • Contains graphs and tables that allow the readers to skim it and still gather everything of importance, and
  • Breaks down complex information into easily digestible pieces.

A status report should be tailored to stakeholder needs

Status reports tend to be slightly different depending on the project. 

So, it’s good practice to talk to individual stakeholders at the beginning of the project to get an idea of what it is they want to see reported. 

This saves everyone’s time in the long run.

A status report should be consistent

Once you’ve determined what your status report should look like, stay consistent. Don’t mix up the order of reporting elements, or switch them out for different ones. 

Consistency will help with comparing reports and it will also help stakeholders know exactly what to expect and where to find the information they’re looking for.

A status report should be concise

No one wants to read ten pages of detailed notes on what you did last week, what problems you encountered, and how you solved them. 

A gamer waiting for a new game to be released will want to know that the release date has been pushed back, but they won’t be interested in reading about the specifics of the problem. 

Likewise, your boss doesn’t need to know the exact number of hours your third-party contractor spent on doing a specific task — they only need to know that it is done.

This can, and should, be relayed in as few words as possible.  

A status report should be objective and honest

Project status reports should state the project status as it is, not as you wish it to be, or as you think it is. 

Opinions and personal estimates that aren’t backed by facts have no place in this document. 

As we’ll soon find out, subjectivity and dishonesty in status reports can have destructive consequences.

The benefits of effective project reporting

When done right, project status reports are a valuable tool in a project manager’s toolbox that help PMs maintain a firm grip on the reins of their project by:

  • Identifying issues and risks before they escalate,
  • Tracking productivity,
  • Keeping everyone on the same page, and
  • Leaving a clear paper trail.

Effective project reports prevent issue escalation

Major issues rarely crop up overnight. 

There are usually warning signs weeks, and even months before they blow up. 

The problem is that they sometimes get overlooked.

When status reports are done regularly and diligently, it’s very easy to spot potential threats to your project and address them before they become a bigger deal. 

Or, at the very least, you can buy yourself more time to prepare for their imminent arrival. 

Effective project reports help track productivity

Just like a status report can identify potential dangers to the project, it can also detect the level of your team’s productivity over time. 

With enough data, you can easily detect overachievers and underachievers, the reasons for their level of performance, and make more accurate predictions about the future of your project.

Effective project reports foster transparency

Since status reports concern everyone involved in the project, they are an important means of communication and a good way to keep everyone of interest in the loop about the project’s progress.

They may be shared directly with the interested parties. 

But, it’s even better if they are shared on an online dashboard or a project management tool used across the organization. 

After all, two heads are better than one. Imagine what two hundred heads can do when they put their minds to it. So, keep everyone up to date with project status reports.

As Craig William, CEO and founder of WebFX said for Forbes, the reward of rigorous transparency is “a more thoughtful and innovative atmosphere where employees feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to solving problems creatively.” 

Effective project reports leave a helpful paper trail 

Paper trails, be they digital or analog, are an incredibly valuable asset in project management. 

In the case of project status reports, leaving a paper trail means being able to go back in time and analyze old reports in search of clues that might help you perform better in a similar future project. 

They can also serve as proof of a project manager’s competence or incompetence at grasping what is going on in their project.

The pitfalls of writing project status reports

We’ve established that, when done correctly, project status reports are an important asset for everyone involved in the project. But, let’s take a look at some examples of poorly-written project status reports.

Some project status reports go into too much detail

As opposed to high-level reports, or reports that contain high-level (surface-level) information, low-level reports deal with what’s under the surface.  

As we mentioned before, status reports should contain high-level information. In other words, they should provide an overview of the project’s status without delving into the details of the project. 

If a status report contains detailed information, it completely misses the point. Low-level status reports are often long, incomprehensible walls of text that no one will ever want, or have the time to read. This means that your stakeholders won’t ever have a clear idea of what’s going on in the project, and won’t be able to offer any assistance if it becomes necessary.

Some project status reports are biased

In 2009, a group of researchers from Wake Forest University published a paper on selective status reporting, where they tried to determine the causes and effects of conscious misreporting of project statuses. 

The research identified two types of selective reporting: 

  1. Optimistic biasing, and
  2. Pessimistic biasing.

The study found that both of these biases have a negative impact on project performance. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.

Optimistic biasing in status reporting

The study explained optimistic biasing as deliberately avoiding reporting on critical issues, or glossing over them to make them seem less threatening than they actually are. 

Researchers found that this is a common occurrence among project managers whose supervisors have a history of unwelcoming responses to project setbacks. This concealing of important information for fear of being yelled at, or blamed for the issues can lead to serious problems down the road.

This kind of biasing usually serves the project manager’s self-interest to avoid the blame for the issue. However, it can also stem from the higher management’s poor downward communication skills — so it can’t be entirely blamed on the project manager.

Regardless of who is to blame, optimistic biasing is a dangerous element in status reporting that can lead to critical issues passing under the radar and being neglected until it’s too late.

Pessimistic biasing in status reporting

Conversely, pessimistic biasing refers to intentionally making the project seem to be in a worse situation than it actually is. 

The above-mentioned research on status reporting claims that this kind of misreporting can be a means of securing additional funds for the project. 

However, it later suggests that pessimistic biasing is more likely to be connected to project-supported concerns, and is, thus, less dangerous than optimistic biasing.

Some project status reports involve “inconvenient truths”

A related research paper published in 2014 in the MIT Sloan Management Review, titled The Pitfalls of Project Status Reporting, lists five “inconvenient truths” related to status reporting. 

According to the study, these five inconvenient truths are:

  1. Executives can’t rely on staff to speak up about problems.
  2. A variety of reasons can cause people to misreport project status.
  3. An aggressive audit team can’t counter the effects of project status misreporting.
  4. Putting senior executives in charge of a project may increase misreporting.
  5. Executives often ignore bad news.

As the authors claim, accepting these truths can “greatly reduce the chance of being blindsided by unpleasant surprises” — meaning that executives should prepare in advance for what is inevitable. 

5 Tips on how to write an effective project status report (+ templates)

Now that we’ve established the qualities of good project status reports, here are some tips on how to write them.

Tip #1: Get to know your audience

We explained this before, but it’s worth another mention. A status report isn’t a document meant for project managers. It’s a communication tool written by project managers for stakeholders. As such, it should contain information that the stakeholders want to see, not the information the project manager thinks is important.

To determine what that information is, it’s best to talk to stakeholders at the beginning of the project and hear it directly from them.

Doing this will save you a lot of time by eliminating any guesswork from the get-go.

Tip #2: Summarize the information

A project status report goes out to all stakeholders. However, not all stakeholders need the same information. This is why it’s good practice to summarize the main information from the report at the very beginning. 

Michelle M. Campbell recommends that the summary do the following:

 “Include a short scope and color-coded health/condition of the project by using the RAG status:

Red = off track 

Amber = at risk to go off track 

Green = on track.

She also suggests requesting help from key stakeholders to use their sphere of influence at this point — if that’s what’s necessary to push the status from red or yellow back to green.

Tip #3: Streamline the process by using project status report templates

It’s difficult enough to compile the data for the status report every week, you shouldn’t also have to waste time on writing the whole thing from scratch every time — that’s what editable templates are for.

Project status report template preview — Microsoft Word
Project status report template preview — Microsoft Word

Templates are incredibly helpful tools when it comes to creating any kind of project plan or report. Not only do they save you time, but they also help maintain the consistency of your reports over time.

Project status report template preview — Microsoft Excel
Project status report template preview — Microsoft Excel

To help you get started, we’ve created an editable project status report template in Microsoft Word, Excel, and Google Sheets that you can download right now by clicking the links below.

Project status report template preview — Google Sheets
Project status report template preview — Google Sheets

Download editable project status report — Microsoft Word

Download editable project status report — Microsoft Excel

Download editable project status report — Google Sheets

Tip #4: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

It’s your job as a project manager to lead a project — but that doesn’t mean that everything should rest on your shoulders. 

Your executive managers, sponsors, and other key stakeholders have the ability to help you resolve issues more quickly and efficiently than you’d be able to do alone. 

However, they aren’t directly involved in the project on a daily basis, and they won’t know that their help is needed unless you specifically ask for it.

Tip #5: Verify before releasing

Never release information to a wider audience that hasn’t been confirmed beforehand. 

Even if you don’t have much time to compile your report, avoid including opinions and guesses.

If you’re unsure about how a certain aspect of the project is progressing, ask your team members.

It’s always better to ask and confirm rather than unintentionally downplay or exaggerate the situation.

How should I present my project status reports?

There are many ways to distribute and present your project status reports. Some of the most common ones are:

  • In-person,
  • Via email,
  • Via a collaborative platform such as Google Sheets,
  • Using other digital resources such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel templates, and
  • Using a company-wide file-sharing platform.

Presenting project status reports in-person

In-person status reporting goes hand in hand with project status report meetings. While this used to be the norm a few decades ago, digitalization has helped us move away from what The Business Journals calls “the biggest waste of time in business today”, and toward a more modern and considerate reporting framework.

As you may already guess, these in-person status reports are welcomed by few. However, if your supervisors still insist on holding meetings in person, there are ways that can make everyone hate them a little less, according to Ross Snyder’s PMI article.

Snyder suggests the following:

  • Turn status report meetings into planning meetings by distributing the status reports to all relevant parties beforehand, and 
  • Instead of going through the entire report at the meeting, simply do a brief planning session on how to proceed further.

“The weekly meeting should not be used to report status!”, says Snyder, “The meeting may be used to discuss status, but never to report it.”

Presenting project status reports via email

Distributing project status reports by email is a little more common occurrence in this digital age, but it’s certainly not ideal. 

According to research, an average person receives over 100 emails a day at work, not including spam! 

Distributing such critical reports via such a cluttered platform, where it’s nearly impossible to sort out important information from unimportant information, can be irresponsible.

Presenting project status reports via collaborative platforms

Collaborative platforms such as Google Sheets are a good way to reach everyone who needs to see the report. 

Collaborative platforms also help project managers to take a load off their chest by allowing the team members to update the project in real-time and constantly keep it up to date.

This way, project managers don’t have to go through the same cycle of collecting information and writing reports every week or two. 

All the information is available for everyone to see and update at any time, further improving communication and transparency among colleagues.

Presenting project status reports via non-collaborative digital resources

Some project managers like to use Microsoft Word, or Excel to create and distribute their status reports. These documents can then be distributed by email or clipped to a digital dashboard for everyone to see. 

While not as collaborative as Google Sheets, Microsoft Word and Excel offer a level of control to project managers who don’t like others meddling with their reports.

Presenting project status reports via company-wide file-sharing tools

Finally, there are digital file-sharing tools that are used by everyone in the organization and ensure that notifications are sent out to everyone who needs to be involved in the status report, to make sure no one misses a thing.

This can be an ordinary file-sharing platform, or an all-encompassing project management tool like Plaky where you can safely share an unlimited number of documents and always be sure that everyone who needs to see the files has seen them.

File-sharing interface in Plaky project management software
File-sharing interface in Plaky project management software

Conclusion: Reporting project status is a crucial aspect of overall project health

Project status reports are meant to inform stakeholders about how the project is progressing in comparison to the project plan. It’s an important document that helps identify problems and root them out before they escalate, or at the very least, reduce their impact.

But, if status reports are to be used to their full potential, stakeholders first need to read them and understand them, and making that happen is almost an extreme sport. However, with a little careful planning and utilizing useful digital tools, this no longer needs to be as difficult as it used to be.

References

  • Chang, J. (n.d.). 56 Email Statistics You Must Learn: 2022 Data on User Behaviour & Best Practices. Finances Online. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://financesonline.com/email-statistics/
  • Craig, W. (2018, October 16). 10 Things Transparency Can Do For Your Company. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/williamcraig/2018/10/16/10-things-transparency-can-do-for-your-company/?sh=28e2004d25d0 
  • Iacovou, L. C., Thompson, L. R. and Smith, H. J. (2009). Selective Status Reporting in Information Systems Projects: A Dyadic-Level Investigation. MIS Quarterly, 33(4), 785-810. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20650327
  • Keil, M. et al. (2014). The Pitfalls of Project Status Reporting. MIT Sloan Management Review. 55(3), 57-64. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2786f52352.pdf
  • Milojevic, N. (2022). Downward communication: What you need to know to make it successful. Pumble. https://pumble.com/blog/downward-communication/
  • Snyder, R. M. (1999). Read this if you hate project status meetings. PM Network, 13(8), 45–46. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/hate-project-status-meetings-5045
  • Swanson, S. A. (2014). Anatomy of an effective status report. PM Network, 28(6), 52–61.https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/anatomy-highly-effective-status-report-2198 
  • Waagen, A. (2014, July 30). The biggest waste of time in business today: The status meeting. The Business Journals. https://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/human-resources/2014/07/status-meeting-is-huge-waste-of-time.html

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