Reporting Status to the Client

    One of the critical skills a consultant must have is the ability to communicate.  Those skills are put to the test frequently, but rarely as much as when the consultant reports project status to the client.  This week we will discuss some of the specific approaches a consultant should use when reporting status to the client.reports-folder

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    1. What does a consultant need to be aware of when reporting status to a client?
      1. First of all, they need to have the ability to summarize.  In most cases, you’re talking to an executive, or at least a high level manager.  Although some may be detail people and want to get into the weeds, for the most part, they’re most interested in high level status.
      2. They are in a much more strategic situation where the project the consultant is reporting on is one of the tactical aspects of their grand strategic approach
      3. So it’s important to provide them a status based on how the project is progressing from their strategic perspective – based on how it affects them. They want to know how it affects their strategic direction.
      4. In addition to that, you want to make sure you talk in their terms.  That can apply to using the industry terms that they use.  I was just in a meeting recently where we were talking about health insurance.  Someone used a term and the project management consultant asked what the difference was between that term and another she had heard.
      5. The client manager answered that they’re essentially synonymous, but that he used the other term.  That prompted a mental note that we should use his term moving forward.
      6. Speaking in their terms also applies to their preferences for any other terminology.  You may refer to a project’s utilization referring to how many hours are being used to date on the project.  The client may call it burn-down.  It’s important to use their term to make sure they understand what you’re talking about.
      7. Finally, related to talking to them in more strategic terms, most status reports list accomplishments from the past week and tasks planned for the following week.
      8. In order to make it meaningful for the client manager, do not just list tasks completed.  You need to think in terms of what it means to them.
      9. For example, early in my career, I managed projects based on a Microsoft Project plan and any tasks in the plan that were finished by Friday, I listed in the accomplishments for the week.  I did the same for any tasks in the plan that I planned on completing by the next Friday.
      10. I sat down with the client manager in the status meeting and went through all these great accomplishments and he turned to me and rather bluntly asked “What the hell does that mean to me?”
      11. I was a little dumbfounded.  Well these are tasks in the project plan that we accomplished.  I even started to bring up the project plan in my laptop to show him.
      12. He was quick to explain to me that he wasn’t interested in reading a Microsoft Project plan.  He said, “That’s your tool to manage the project.  You need to translate what the accomplishment of these tasks means to me as far as project completion.  If John Smith finishes a programming task, how much closer are we to finishing the project?  Or, does it mean he can deploy that code for our users to start using it?”
      13. It opened my eyes to the purpose of the status meeting.  I wasn’t just regurgitating facts and tactical accomplishments.  I needed to tell him how our accomplishments translate to value to him.
    2. How is it different than reporting status within any other company?
      1. Many of the differences are subtle.  If you work for the company that you’re reporting status to – instead of reporting as a consulting outsider – you want to consider those aspects of the status reporting.
      2. Consultants are supposed to be in the trusted advisor status.  If they aren’t, that’s what they should be striving towards.
      3. So the consultant is expected to be speaking and reporting status to the client executive as a peer.  And part of that is raising their view by a level or two to say “This is what was accomplished this past week, and this is what it means to you.”
      4. Also, as a consultant, you may be more likely to report to a steering committee level, which is usually comprised of higher level stakeholders.  This audience has no interest in the weeds of the project.
      5. What it really comes down to is knowing your audience and what they need to know in order to make decisions.
      6. So the difference is from a consultant reporting status and a project manager within their own company is often the audience that they usually report to.
    3. What are the pitfalls of reporting status to the client?
      1. You’re an outsider at the client looking in.  This gives you a third-party view of the project and the client.  But it also can put you in the middle of their politics and blame.
      2. For instance, if you are reporting status and there have been significant delays by one group of people at the client, you need to come up with a way to communicate that without throwing that group under the bus.
      3. You want to make sure that group is aware of the status you’re reporting and that you are diplomatic about it.  You don’t want to sugarcoat the issue, but you can’t just say “This group screwed everything up”.
      4. You also want to give that group a heads up to say, I have to report this delay and I’ll be listing this as one of the root causes.  In some cases, this will give someone in a political organization just enough ammunition to deflect the blame – and they may direct it back at you as the consultant.
      5. Part of your preparation is being aware of that and being ready for it if and when it comes.
      6. But as a consultant, hopefully one of the reasons they chose an outside firm is for some objectivity.  If something is wrong, you need to diplomatically call it out.  Consultants need to be transparent and honest with the client on  the status.
      7. Peter Lencioni calls it speaking the kind truth.  That’s actually a big consulting skill of being able to tell it like it is without being accusative or making unnecessary waves.  And I stress unnecessary.  Sometimes you have to make waves to point things out, you just don’t want to do it unless it’s warranted.
      8. One final point about this is that executives don’t like to be surprised.  Status meetings are not the right place to spring things on executives.
      9. I like to use the Red-Yellow-Green approach for, not only the status of the project but of some other major components. I usually give a red-yellow-green status on budget, staffing and dependencies.  That way if the project is yellow or red, it helps to show where that is coming from.
      10. And getting away from the surprises, it’s important to call out a yellow when it’s necessary.  Too many people avoid the yellow hoping it gets better.  Then after, say, two weeks of green, it’s suddenly red, which is a surprise to the executive.
    4. Do you prefer a specific format when you report to the client?
      1. I have a specific format that I use, but it’s more about the various pieces of information that I report.  If a client has a format that they prefer, I don’t have a problem with it.
      2. I just want to make sure it reports the status accurately so that it’s understandable to all of the stakeholders receiving the status.
      3. If they have a preferred status and it’s missing a key piece of information – for instance there’s no section to report the current risks of the project, I’ll ask if we can either add the section to the report, or at least figure out how we can communicate that information within their preferred parameters.
      4. I’ve found that both clients and consultants get hung up a little too much on formats and templates.  What they need to do is step back and realize that the status report and the status meeting are tools to communicate the status of a project up to the client’s executive stakeholders.
      5. And as long as you’re performing that communication and getting the right information across, you’re doing what you need to be doing.  The tool is just a container for the information – the information is the key component.
    5. What are the key inputs that you make sure to include?
      1. I like to start with a red yellow green indicator.  (some people call them RAG indicators for red, amber and green) That’s an easy visual that the executive can look at and immediately know the general status before reading anything.
      2. You can do that for the whole project or my preference is to break it down.  I have red-yellow-green indicators for the schedule, resources and dependencies.  That way the executive can see immediately where the problem is if you have a yellow or red.
      3. The next section I have is an executive summary.  Again, I break it down by schedule, resources and dependencies so that if there’s a yellow or red, there’s an immediate explanation for the cause of that.
      4. Now one thing about the yellow and red.  Yellow should be used when there are big risks that need to be discussed that could cause project delays or additional costs to the project.
      5. I’m a little quicker to go to yellow than most, but I always want to avoid hiding any potential issues and I never want to surprise the executive.  Some people try to avoid yellow because it can just bring undue attention to a project that’s not late.
      6. You want to make sure you’re not always saying that the sky is falling, but the yellow is a warning sign and you need to make sure you’re warning them appropriately.
      7. For the red status, if anything has caused the project to fall behind schedule or if certain resources are pulled way or haven’t been assigned yet, I’m not afraid to set it to red and tell them we’re in trouble.  You should always have a plan for how you’ll pull it out of red, but you never want to hide true issues to the project.
      8. That’s the most important section.  After that, you provide information that supports that section.  I list the accomplishments over the last week – as I mentioned earlier, not just tasks completed, but true accomplishments that show we’re making progress.  I also list our major goals for the upcoming week.
      9. Then I list all of the project risks and issue that the executive needs to be aware of.  I don’t provide every risk and issue in the log, just the ones that should be on their radar.
      10. Then I list any change requests that have been approved or suggested.
      11. You should be able to get all of this information in two pages.  If it’s a huge project with a lot of risks and issues and changes, you may go over that, but in most cases I try to keep it to two pages.
    6. What is the ultimate goal of a status report to the client?
      1. Visibility and transparency.  Many times, this is the executive’s only access to the status of the project.  You need to make sure they know exactly where the project stands and what they need to do.
      2. And that may be difficult because sometimes you have to tell them that you screwed up.  Some project managers try to hide things and just report that everything is fine.  Then when it gets so out of hand, you report red without any reportings of yellow.
      3. With that in mind you need to make sure the executive and any of the interested stakeholders attend the status meeting.  I’ve been on projects where the executive has so many meetings throughout each day, that they bow out of the status meetings.
      4. You need to at least make sure they read the status report and they should attend the meeting.  That’s sometimes easier said than done though.
    7. Any final thoughts on reporting status to the client?
      1. One thing you want to do is avoid surprises.  Yellow should be a warning before you report a red status.  There are situations where things happen that cause a project to go from green to red in one week.
      2. When that does happen, they should not find out in the meeting or when the status is emailed to them right before the meeting. It’s important to get the executives involved so that they’re informed prior to the meeting that they’re facing a red status for the project.
      3. So the more communication you can do the better.  You don’t get anywhere hiding information from the executive, so make sure you’re clear and informative and don’t give them any undue surprises.

    Next week’s topic: Reporting Bad News to the Client

    Recommended Books:

    The Lost Art of Project Status Reporting, by Thomas Ghantt

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.

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