If you’ve ever got yourself in a pickle on your projects because you didn’t have written evidence of your discussions with your clients, then this episode is for you! Ben Aston talks to Robyn Reynolds about the often forgotten status report and how they can save your bacon. Find out what you should put in it, how you can make them less of a pain to create and make them useful for you, the client and your project team.
This podcast is part of an article published on The Digital Project Manager.
You can read the article here.
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Ben Aston: Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston and this is the Digital Project Manager Podcast. This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise project and portfolio management software. Visit Clarizen.com to learn more. Today, I’m joined by Robin Reynolds, one of our resident DPM experts, at the Digital Project Manager, and Agony Aunt for Dear DPM, our ask our digital PM, whatever you like. Robyn, thanks so much for coming on the show, again.
Robin Reynolds: Hi, Ben. I’m so excited to be back. I always enjoy chatting with you.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. I wonder, have you ever found yourself in a pickle, because you were pretty sure you were doing a really good job at keeping the client up-to-date with everything on the project, but then one-day disaster hits the project, and all those e-mails, the messages, the texts that you’d thought you’d sent the client about the project just seem to have magically disappeared? That, my friends, is why you need a status report. So, today, we’re talking all about those dreaded status reports. Are they really necessary? And, if they are, what should we put in them? How can we make them less of a pain and what can we do to actually make them useful?
But if you’ve not yet met Robin, let me introduce her properly. Robin lives just down the road from me, or that’s kind of what I like to think, and she lives in Portland and she likes emojis, lists, and puppies. So, we’ll talk more about that in a minute but just to say as one of our DPM experts, Robin is also going to be making an appearance on our upcoming course, which is Mastering Digital Project Management. And if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, and you need some PM training, check it out.
It’s a seven-week crash course that includes some interactive video sessions, weekly lessons, assignments, group discussions, and also there’s the option of coaching sessions too. So head to digitalprojectmanagerschool.com and get yourself signed up. We’ve just got a few places left.
But Robin, you’ve recently moved jobs. So, tell me about your new gig.
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, so I’m just wrapping up my first couple of weeks at the quote new gig, and it’s been absolutely fantastic. I’m now working for 10Up, and essentially what we do is help to make the web better by finely crafting websites and tools for content creators.
What’s really fun about 10Up is that everybody is remote – 100% of us. And we work with the likes of AMC, NBC Universal, Time Inc., etc.
Ben Aston: Cool, so if everyone’s working remote, what time zone are you working in? Is it just, is it North America or is it, is it other countries too?
Robin Reynolds: Well luckily we have such organization in that we’re in different groups and pods. So, I’m technically in a pod that’s all Pacific Coast Time. And then there’s a European pod and so on and so forth.
Some days, I’ll have a meeting maybe a little bit earlier than I’d like, but those are pretty few and far between.
Ben Aston: Cool. And so do you get the opportunity to switch pods if you think, “Oh, hold on, I’d like to go to Europe for the summer.” Can you do a pod trade?
Robin Reynolds: You know, what’s so funny is one of our team leads just did that. And now she’s over in Europe having the time of her life and traveling and also managing her team.
Ben Aston: Well there we go. Sounds pretty cool. So, what are the kind of challenges that, I mean, you’ve done remote project management before but have you worked in this kind of environment where everybody is remote all of the time? Is there any kind of unique challenges that you’ve found from that?
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, so, you know, I’d been working remote in my previous gig but what’s really fabulous about 10Up is that they really encourage everybody to work within their own timezones and we’re huge advocates of using Zoom as a video tool. So that’s really great for working with clients and connecting with your team is that video is the expectation – it’s not just the phone.
Ben Aston: It’s not just an optional extra.
Robin Reynolds: Right, you’re exactly right.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and people do that? That actually works?
Robin Reynolds: So far, yeah. Definitely. But, you know, it’s also, I’m just in the beginning stages and the new girl. So, right now I’m just trying to own that I don’t know it all and I’m really trying to learn and listen and get to know my teams and clients and build those relationships.
Ben Aston: Yeah, so what, is there anything that you’ve found from, in moving to a new role, that you’re like, “Oh, I really need to get better at that.”
Robin Reynolds: You know, I think it’s just being, owning the fact that you’ve done this job before, and there’s always a little bit when you start a new role of imposter syndrome where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, have I done this before?” And it’s like, “Yeah, no duh, it’s just a different environment.” So, I think, you know, just trying to be more confident in owning your projects.
Ben Aston: Yeah, yeah I think that’s so true when you’re starting out in a new place suddenly you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to do anything here.” Like how do you do…
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, like I’m the stupidest person. Yeah.
Ben Aston: I don’t know how to get any resources for my project. That is an interesting stuff. How do they do, how is resourcing done? What is the toolkit that they use there?
Robin Reynolds: Sure, so we are using a combination of 10 Thousand Feet and we also have our own proprietary sort of scheduling tool. So between those two things every, everybody plays nicely and I tend to get the resources I need for my projects. We also do a lot of you know, future planning several months out so we can avoid conflicts pretty well in advance.
Ben Aston: That sounds, that sounds very grown-up. So, and what are the kinds of projects that you’re actually working on? Can you talk about any of those?
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, well I can’t tell you exactly what the client names are, but I can tell you that it’s a mix of web maintenance retainers and full-site redesign and rebuild using WordPress.
Ben Aston: Nice. So, it’s tough? That’s very, that sounds very general. WordPress stuff. Cool. So, let’s talk about status reports. Now, at 10Up, have you written your first status report yet?
Robin Reynolds: I certainly have. And we have our own format and approach for it just like every agency, shop, person can do it differently.
Ben Aston: Yeah. So, I mean, what’s your take? Obviously, you’ve just written an article on status reports but sell them to us. Why do you think status reports are worth doing?
Robin Reynolds: Well, Ben let’s face it. Nobody likes status reports or creating them. It’s pretty, it’s like the worst part of the job, right? It’s not very sexy. It’s a lot of times viewed as like, “Oh I have to do this but nobody’s going to read it.”
But they are so important. And the best project status reports create accountability and ownership with your team. They overcome issues, they mitigate risk, and most of all, they ensure that you’re on track towards your project goals.
So, with not only your internal teams but for clients especially, it provides value. It’s giving your clients confidence that their money is delivering on the project and it can make them look good to their bosses because they can forward it up to different stakeholders.
Finally, status reports can totally save your ass in that you have a paper trail in case things go off the rails. You can say, “Yes, we up-leveled this risk to you, here is our mitigation for it, here’s what we’ve done to correct it.” And hopefully that way it’s not like, “Oh this was coming down the chute for a long time and we forgot to talk about it.”
Ben Aston: Yeah, yeah I think there’s a, I mean, when we’re doing status reports the temptation can be just to be like, “Ah well, I’ll just let it slip this week because I don’t think the client is actually reading these anyway because last week I sent it to them and I included a little Easter egg in there where I said, ‘I think we’re going to go over budget.’ And they didn’t say anything. So, now that I said that last week, I’m not going to update them this week just in case they read it.”
Robin Reynolds: Right. “I told them, so now it’s over.”
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Robin Reynolds: And it’s really about managing expectations on a regular basis.
Ben Aston: So what are kind of the essentials then? I mean, my kind of perspective on status reports is, “Well let’s make them as simple as possible.” Because you don’t want this thing to take two hours to update and if you’re working with four different clients, that’s going to take you a whole day just to do your status reports. So, for you, what are the absolute essentials that we’ve got to include within it?
Robin Reynolds: Absolutely. So, Ben, I’m with you. I think the simpler a status report, the better. You can really spend a lot of time on these things and turn them into project plans or just iterations of your project plan. But I recommend you don’t do that. So, the essentials would be your project name, client name, your project vision or summary – that should be a one sentence thing – project health. This is very very important as you mentioned. There’s a lot of different ways you can approach this on your status report, that you can find out more about in the article. But it absolutely needs to include hours or how you’re tracking on the project. If you’re on track in terms of timeline and budget.
Also what you need to include is what was recently completed on the project. So, typically what I like to do here is link out all of the recent tasks that I’ve completed and then direct them to the PM tool if that’s shared with the client.
Below that, what you’re going to want to include what you plan to complete next. So, likely it’s like in the next month or maybe in the next week, but it’s giving the client a heads up that these are the upcoming priorities and this is what we’re going to tackle. And that way the client can come back and say, “Actually, this isn’t a priority anymore.” Or “Let’s up-level this one instead.”
Finally on your status report you want to include issues and roadblocks. This is essentially where you’re going to be up-leveling any potential risks that could happen and try to mitigate solutions with the client during your status review.
Ben Aston: Cool. So that, I mean, if those are the essentials, that still sounds like a lot of stuff.
I mean, it’s all important stuff obviously. I don’t know, maybe a third of that is kind of static every week. There’s some things that aren’t going to change, but then how do you, how much detail is enough detail? And how much, you know, when you’re, I like what you’re saying about task completion and tasks coming up and linking out your tools so it’s just a, it’s just kind of like a snapshot where they can deep dive if they want to, but in all these kind of descriptions of what’s going on and risks, how much detail are you including to make it useful but also making it so it doesn’t take you hours to complete?
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, I like to make sure that my project status reports don’t take more than about 20 minutes. Definitely, they’re going to take a little bit longer up front when you make that first one. But also, as project managers, I use this time to really sort of meditate on the project and make sure that I am understanding where everything’s at.
So, a lot of times I may put in, I may do a first draft early in the morning or maybe the day before I want to issue it, and just kind of dump all of my ideas and thoughts and notes. And then, I’ll come back to it and edit all that fluff out to make it super concise.
So, can you say it simpler? Can you just link to the task? Right? And then discuss it over a call. You want to make sure that you’re not trying to solve all the issues in your status report, only identify and then direct, and discuss.
Ben Aston: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point because I think there’s one way of looking at status reports says, ” Well, we have to do them because, you know, they’re documentation that the client asks for but never reads.” But the flip side of that and the other way of looking at it is, “Actually, this is a really important tool for us. As we’re really trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the project.”
And having that rigor of actually taking the time out of each week to really do a deep dive into what’s happening, to kind of reassess the risks, reassess your kind of your mitigation strategy against those risks, to think about, “Okay, what have we done this week? What do we need to go next week?” And kind of get one step ahead of the team, is actually a really useful exercise in that kind of ongoing project planning that we need to do to keep our projects on track and to really know where a project is at.
I think we can otherwise sometimes just me tempted just to, you know, a project can just kind of bumble along and we can kind of forget to see the bigger picture of where our project is heading. Do you find that too?
Robin Reynolds: Absolutely. And, you know, for thinking in terms of RACI right, it’s like project managers are responsible for creating that status report. But our team and our clients are accountable for being informed and reading and up-leveling any questions or asking for clarification based upon that status report.
Robin Reynolds: We do a combination of both. So, it depends on the project. We’re not married to one or the other.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Cause I think one of the things that I’ve seen as well as the, a temptation on more agile projects where there’s sprints. You know, where there’s a huddle or a scrum everyday and you’re working in sprints and there’s a sprint review and then the sprint retrospective. The temptation can be to be like, “Oh, well we don’t need to do status reports cause everyone kind of knows what’s going on, right?”
But I think there’s one thing of people kind of being engaged in the project and kind of, and knowing what’s going on on a day-to-day level. But then it’s that taking a step back and saying, “Okay, guys, do you realize how many hours we’ve got left? Do you realize where they budget’s at?”
Robin Reynolds: Right.
Ben Aston: Do you realize, kind of, how much more there is to do? And the scrum is great at providing – if you’re reviewing, like, the burndown chart, it’s great for kind of taking a quick look at that – but actually giving the client all the information and having all those project details on condensed into a page or two, is a really helpful exercise. Even if you’re running agile projects.
Robin Reynolds: Absolutely. I can totally agree with that. And also, as I mentioned earlier, your client may share with their boss or some other important executives or stakeholders that could potentially bring in more money to your business.
Ben Aston: Yeah, always useful. Do your status reports!
So, after you’ve done your status report then, what’s your kind of, what do you do with it? Do you stick it in an email? I think this is what the temptation can be: you finish your status report, and it’s Friday at 4:00, and you’re like, “Okay, well I just stick this in an e-mail and disappear. Send it off to the client and hope for the best.”
What do you do with your status reports after you’ve made them?
Robin Reynolds: Well, number one, I try not to send them on Friday afternoons because that’s pretty much-guaranteeing nobody’s going to read it. I know I’m not very enthusiastic to get an important e-mail on Friday afternoon and then I’m kind of checked out for the weekend and then Monday morning, I don’t know that seems kind of bothersome to start my day with that.
So, typically I like to issue my status reports mid-week. Right, so maybe I’ll have my internal on a Tuesday, I’ll draft up the client facing status report and issue that on a Wednesday. And when I issue that status report, typically I like to deliver during a status meeting with the client or the team.
And so, I will not – potentially, I’ll send the status report through prior to the call, or maybe during the call and I’ll screen share and just kind of walk them through everything and then follow up with that send and action items following that report.
But it’s really, you’re not there with the client to sort of read it out loud to them. It’s more to, a framework for that dialogue. Right? Where you can say, “Okay, here’s what we did, that was really great. And then here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s where we’re at on timeline. Let’s talk about this – it looks like we’re ahead of schedule.”
Ben Aston: That’s happened to you?
Robin Reynolds: Well, theoretically.
Ben Aston: Nice. So yeah I think that’s really sound advice. I like the idea of doing a screen share and controlling what the client gets to see, rather than just sending it over to them and kind of hoping that they’re looking at the part of the status report that you want them to look at.
From my perspective, I mean, you’re obviously doing more remote project management. Typically. I’m doing not remote project management. So, for me, what’s really important is actually, the status meeting is a chance to actually get to hang out with the clients and develop that rapport, develop the relationship. So, as much as it is sharing information and level-setting on where the project is at, it’s also, you know, a chance to have some bouncer about the stuff outside of the project so that you’re beginning to develop more level of trust and friendship so that when you do have bad news to share, it’s not like you’ve got nothing to fall back on.
So, I think that’s probably harder when you’re remote, but I don’t know how do you develop rapport with clients when you’re remote?
Robin Reynolds: Well, I mean if you have your video on you can see each other, there’s a lot of body language that happens and you still talk about the same things. We still ask what they did on the weekends, and whatnot.
So I think it’s still just as effective. But, you reminded me too in that I used to host an internal status report meeting with my team and I would literally print out the status report for them and now in hindsight that seems pretty extreme.
But I just learned from my team that that was the only way that I could get them to read it was by putting it in front of their faces and then we would walk through it.
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Robin Reynolds: So, there’s no right, perfect way to do it. There’s a few wrong ways you can do it. But it’s really important to understand what your client prefers and adapt to that as well as your internal team.
Ben Aston: So have you got any tips for making sure your client actually reads your status reports? Have you found anything that works?
Robin Reynolds: Well definitely that status call, right? And then the other thing I’ve learned is, as you mentioned earlier, never miss a status report. Because once you do that, it’s sort of like a bad restaurant review. Like you can have one bad review but you need to have like seven more positive reviews to get it right. And they will always hold that against you that you missed that one week.
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Robin Reynolds: So just make sure that you’re always on time, that you’re prepared, and that that status report is of substance. It reflects, you know, the work that you guys do as well, so don’t hustle to get it done. Make sure that it’s clear of errors. Make sure that you’re not calling anybody out for poor work on that thing and that it’s of substance.
Ben Aston: Yeah. So, one thing you mentioned just now was making it kind of, tailoring it for the client. So, you know, making it useful to them, giving them the information that they need, but I’ve had some pretty, I’ve ended up in some situations where the client just goes nuts in terms of asking for all kinds of different pieces of detail in their status report.
So, like particularly when you’re working on more of a time and material space project, and the client wants a breakdown of every hour of every person that worked on the project and how they spent every moment of time. And that was a pain in the ass to produce, because then you have to edit everyone’s comments as well. So, what’s kind of your take on how much tailoring for the client is too much detail versus where do you sit on that spectrum of too much detail and tailoring versus not?
Robin Reynolds: Yeah, I’m just sitting over here nodding my head because I have been there too, Ben. I think a lot of times you’ve got to follow your intuition, right? So, say for example, it’s a small time and materials contract and it’s just not very efficient for you to track all of the hours and tasks and then regroup them and do all sorts of crazy spreadsheet work.
And then you just need to educate and inform the client as to why. If they’re still very insistent – like, for example, maybe there’s business reasons why they need to track that way, you need to work with them potentially to increase your funding. Or it means that we don’t, we might not be able to get as many tasks done because we have to be spending our time on this report versus the actual project work.
Ben Aston: Yeah, I think that’s really sound advice. Obviously, if the client wants something done like producing status reports is work and clients might not like to see it as work, and in fact, I have worked for clients before and somehow in the contracts they made it so that they didn’t pay for the production of status reports which is crazy. But, I think clients need to understand that if we are going to produce lots of detail in the status reports, and all this extraneous reporting, which isn’t really necessary to delivering the project well, then they should pay for it. And that should be a change request if they start asking for more detail in the status reports or we need to say yeah like you said, something else has to drop out of the scope.
Otherwise it will very quickly eat away at our budget. But,
Robin Reynolds: Absolutely. And I just want to jump in and say to that, always ask your client and your team for feedback though on these status reports because I know sometimes I may put something out there in my template format and I think it makes total sense but to them, maybe my engineers are like, “I have no idea why you phrase it this way.” Or “Why do you have this section?”
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Robin Reynolds: Or “Can you include this instead?” So, you should be tailoring, but not like, you know, in a very inefficient way. Trust your gut.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Cool, well, I think that’s really helpful. Thanks, Robin. And I think we’ve, if you go to the, Robin’s post, on thedigitalprojectmanager.com, you’ll see not only a status report example for a, it’s a fictitious client I believe, Killikum Bucher. A great brand name though if someone’s looking to procure that domain name.
There is a sample status report which you can take at and also we’ve included a template for you to download as well. So go and check it out and start doing some status reports.
So, there we have status reports covered off. Before we go, Robin I just wanted to chat to you quickly about our Dear DPM section of the Digital Project Manager, which now we’ve been running for, what nearly
Robin Reynolds: A few months.
Ben Aston: Nearly six months.
Robin Reynolds: Wow, that long?
Ben Aston: It’s nearly that long and we just actually released a new question. And Robin, you told someone to leave their job. Was that wise?
Robin Reynolds: I did. It sound very extreme when you phrase it that way, but this person who wrote in, I mean, they so eloquently wrote about a pretty distressing situation where they were just struggling at work, they didn’t seem to be getting the support, or the leadership or the mentorship that they needed to grow in the role.
So I think if you, if anybody reads this question, it’s going to be pretty obvious that they should seek a new opportunity. Right? That’s immediately where my gut was going. But, you know, you can’t just like quit your job and peace out. I don’t know. In my positions usually you can’t do that, I have a family. But, you know, I gave her some tips about what to do in the meantime, he or she. So it’s about channeling your energy and frustration elsewhere, hitting the gym. It’s about not engaging and trying to fix the situation with a certain person in the office. Like, stop trying to make them cooperate when they’re not going to.
And then, obviously, giving some pointers about HR. Right? So, in the meantime, while you’re looking for your next opportunity, make sure to write down when these instances happen in case there needs to be some escalation to HR.
Ben Aston: Serious stuff. It wasn’t you that wrote in was it, Robin?
Robin Reynolds: No.
Ben Aston: You’ve recently got a new job. It’s suspicious.
Robin Reynolds: No. I feel like I can identify with every question that comes in so I don’t know. I can…
Ben Aston: Sorry.
Robin Reynolds: They’re all me.
Ben Aston: This is all you. If you have a question that you’re dying to ask, and you want to ask it anonymously, head to the resources section of the Digital Project Manager and you will find a section called Dear DPM. Just in, near the top of the page and you’ll find that you’ll be able to ask whatever questions you like. And your question might just be selected to be answered. So ask us a question, tell us what you’re struggling with, or what you need help with, and we would love to give you some advice. And Robin’s great as dispensing that.
But Robin thanks so much for joining us, it’s been great having you with us.
Robin Reynolds: Aw, thanks Ben. This has been fun.
Ben Aston: And if you’d like to contribute to the conversation about status reports, if you’d like to ask a question on Dear DPM, head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com and make sure that you join our slack team too. Head to the resources section and you’ll find more than 1,000 other PMs talking about this kind of stuff. And there’s lots of interesting conversations going on there that you should be a part of.
Ben Aston: Until next time, thanks for listening.