How to Write a Progress Report

Everyone does it, but few do it well. Here's how.

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In any given month, Sue Schade sees 20 to 30 progress reports, and she needs to digest the information as quickly as possible.

Schade, CIO at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, knows what she wants to see and how she wants to see it, and she makes her expectations crystal clear to those who report to her.

She expects to know what has been accomplished, which key decisions have been made, what's going on now, what's on the horizon and which issues are in play. She also wants to know whether projects are on track to meet their original deadlines. And she wants it all in a standard format. "My folks know what they have to put in," Schade says. "I don't want to look at a lot of different formats and ask, 'Where's this? Where's that?'"

Progress reports are essential tools for tracking projects and initiatives, but if the writers and readers aren't in sync, reports can be hit-or-miss exercises for everyone involved. Here are some tips on how to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time.

Set Expectations

Different people want different kinds of reports. One CIO might want a page of narrative, while another might want "a set of graphs and two bullet points," says Kevin Doyle.

"It depends on the situation, what the receiver is comfortable receiving and how you can best communicate with him," says Doyle, an associate professor of business administration at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill.

Doyle, who has overseen corporate IT initiatives, says project managers should establish expectations at the start by determining who will get reports, how often and in what form.

Jason Fortier, director of the CRM service line at Adjoined Consulting Inc. in Miami, agrees. He's currently working with one company on a project that affects five business units, so he built a report template early on, shared it with division leaders and asked each whether he'd need anything else in the reports.

Fortier says a project's size, scope and phase help determine the frequency of reports. Projects in the analysis phase, for example, don't require weekly reports, but initiatives in the middle of implementation usually do, he says.

Nail Down the Essentials

It's up to you as project manager to find out what executives want in progress reports. When Rosalee Hermens reads a report, for example, she wants to see updates on the technology, finances, schedule, design and management, and she wants to compare those items over time. "I want to see those exact same things evaluated every week," says Hermens, principal at Hermens & Associates, an IT management consulting firm in Newton, Mass.

Former CIO Rick Swanborg, now a professor at the Boston University School of Management and president of Icex Inc., a Boston research and content management firm, says he wants to know what has been done and what needs to be done, how much time that will take, which issues remain and how they are being resolved. He also wants a qualitative assessment of the project.

More-sophisticated reports will also include information about risks, including details on how the team is mitigating them and how the risks are changing, Swanborg says. For example, a hospital IT department installing tablet PCs might list insecure data as a risk early on. But as staff addresses that risk, another one -- perhaps the possibility that a vendor could go out of business -- may take its place.

Comprehensive reports may include information about the talent pool, too. "How am I going to make sure I retain my people in the project or get the resources I need when I need them?" Swanborg says. For example, the company may have 20 projects that need database managers at some point. If those managers get hung up on one project, it's important to determine how it will affect the schedule.

Similarly, some progress reports should include relevant information about other projects. The hospital tablet PC project, for instance, may depend on successful implementation of file management software. Project managers should include a line on how such ancillary initiatives are progressing and whether the schedules mesh.

Good status reports can highlight early-stage problems, required changes and areas that need improvement before any of those reach the crisis stage. "You're really looking at status reports [as a way] to improve your ability to deliver services," Swanborg says.

Keep It Simple

Many managers say that the best reports don't exceed one page and go light on narrative and heavy on graphics that clearly show progress and problems. Hermens looks for color-coded updates on key points. The colors -- green, yellow and red -- loosely correspond to "going fine," "needs attention" and "problematic."

Fine-tune to Your Audience

Good progress reports balance summaries and detailed analysis in a way that works best for the people receiving them. Andrew Galbus, an IT manager at a large Minnesota health care institution, suggests that you give the level of detail that most people would accept as enough but be prepared to answer questions that might arise.

And don't assume you know what your audience wants; ask them.

Know Your Media

Finally, check on the preferred method of delivery. Some managers may want updates via e-mail, others may be more comfortable with paper reports, and some may prefer a conversation.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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