4 Words That Should Never Show Up on a Status Report

Project management is about results, not activity. You can be very active on your projects and not make any progress at all. I compare it to being stuck in the mud—your wheels are spinning but you’re not going anywhere. Find out if you are stuck and what you can do to make sure your projects keep moving forward.

The weekly PMO meeting was every Thursday morning. Believe it or not, everyone looked forward to getting together. It was a time to put the week’s frenzy of activity on pause and get on the same page again. Attendees included the company’s president, all functional managers, and all the project managers—on average, 12-14 people. Thursday had been carefully chosen, as it was strategically the best day of the week to hold a status meeting. If there were any surprises that came out of it, we had the rest of the day and all day Friday to get things back on track.

The agenda was always the same. To save time, we would only cover the status of at-risk projects, not those that were doing fine. We discussed any deployments that were coming up over the weekend and new projects in the pipeline. Lastly, we would cover any new process improvements that were implemented in the prior week to see if they helped make projects go faster.

I ran the PMO for a time, and insisted on banning the following four words from project manager status updates: “I sent an e-mail.” I would cringe anytime I heard those words. Another phrase that had the exact same effect on me was, “I left a voicemail.” Why was I so troubled by these seemingly insignificant phrases? Because they communicated insignificant information and were a demonstration of passive project management.

4 Words That Should Never Show Up on a Status Report

4 Words That Should Never Show Up on a Status Report

Passive Project Management vs. Active Project Management

Passive project management is sitting at your desk and expecting the rest of the company to come to you. You feel that having direct reports affords you a high level of respect. That’s true, as long as you have earned that respect.

Passive project managers will sit at their desk and fire off email after email to individual team members, demanding status updates, or to tell a resource how behind his or her deliverable is. They forward email to other people on the team in spite of barely reading the emails themselves and certainly do not add any value to them.

Then, they will include “I sent an email” on their own status report. This is their way of feeling they did their job as a project manager. “I know the deliverable is late, but I sent an email,” they say as if this abdicates them of their responsibility to follow up and come up with a creative way to get it back on the schedule.

An active project manager will get out from behind their desk and pursue information. They will meet with their resources face-to-face. It’s rare that they’ll even have to ask for status because they innately know what it is, based upon their ongoing and multiple conversations and meetings.

Do they send an email to remind their team members about certain deliverables on their project? Absolutely. But, that will NEVER show up on a status report. If they don’t hear back from a resource, they’ll walk down the hall and find out what’s going on. They’ll develop a plan with the resource to get their deliverable back on track and then include that plan in the status report.

Why “I Sent an E-Mail” Is Unacceptable for a Status Report

There are a number of reasons why “I sent an email” or “I left a voice mail” is unacceptable on a status report.  For example:

  • Project Management is Black and White – Yes, there are many gray areas in project management. It’s an art to know when to escalate an issue, or how to deliver bad news to a client without upsetting the apple cart. However, project management is black and white at its core. The bottom line is that you need to know the answer to these two questions: 1) is it done?  2) Is it not done? That’s it. You can’t get any clearer than that.Your status reports should reflect that black and white reality. “I sent an email” doesn’t reflect anything but your unwillingness to dig deep. You need to report out on the fact that the deliverable is complete or when it will be complete.
  • Project Management is Results Oriented – In the spirit of communicating in black and white, each task on the project plan should be results oriented, meaning a deliverable is able to be reported as finished, researched, installed, implemented, solved and other action words that end in –ed. You should NEVER have activities on your project plan that end in –ing as it doesn’t express results, such as finishing, researching, installing, implement, or solving a problem. Do you notice a difference? The latter only expresses activities that cycle around in perpetuity, i.e., sending an email. It perpetuates this endless cycle of things not getting done.
  • Project Management is About Tangible, Solid Steps Forward – There’s the private life of a project and then there’s the public life. The private life is everything that occurs between PMO meetings, i.e., from Thursday afternoon to the following Thursday morning. This includes all of the drama, disappointments, setbacks, breakthroughs, and victories. The public life is what is discussed each Thursday morning. The net of all of the drama, disappointments, setbacks, breakthroughs, and victories should equate to tangible, solid strides forward in the plan. Clearly, “I sent an email” does not fall into the category of a solid step forward.

What If The Client Isn’t Responsive?

“But,” you may protest, “what happens if I sent an email or left a voice mail for a client that is on the critical path, and they are not responding?” A great example of this could be that you need sign off on a particular deliverable before moving forward. Or, they may have to finish some IT work on their side before you can integrate your system into their system. It may sound reasonable to excuse your lack of action on an internal project for this reason, but there is a better way to handle this situation:

  • Let the Account Manager Know What You Need – Typically, there will be an account manager or account executive that is responsible for managing the account relationship. Let the account manager know the situation. Make sure they are aware of the downstream impact of a late deliverable from the client and that you need their help to keep the schedule intact. This is, of course, after numerous attempts on your part to get what you need from the client.
  • Include a Special Status Indicator on the Weekly Status Report – Even the account manager won’t be able to make or force the client to do something they don’t want to do. There are all kinds of reasons why clients fall behind on project tasks. Maybe their resources are too busy to work on the project or they are just plain losing interest. Regardless of the reason, your company needs to know the cause of the delay. Report on the status with a special indicator that communicates the team is “waiting on the client.” Make it red and very prominent for all to see. This will eventually capture the attention of management, who will want to resolve it.
  • Put the Project on Hold – Another option is to let the client know that the plan was developed around the assumption they would turn around their deliverables by a certain date. You have other projects waiting in the wings, and when this project’s estimated completion date arrives another slot opens for the next project to begin. Unless deliverables are completed in a reasonable amount of time, the client may lose their slot and the project could be MUCH later than the delay they have caused. Make sure you have invoiced them for the work that has been done up to this point as well. You need to help them help themselves and get their project done.

The bottom line is that you should never succumb to a perpetual cycle of passivity. Don’t submit “I sent an email” as a legitimate update on your status report. This passive approach to project management will certainly backfire in the long run. Rather, focus on doing everything within your power to complete each project and you’ll really enjoy your Thursday morning PMO meetings!

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