Insight from Agora Consultants

Are your reports hurting project success?

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Webinar - Effective project reporting
21 July 2015, 1pm EDT

Recently, on a flight home from our Toronto office, I read a very interesting piece from Harvard Business about blindly trusting reports. 

I still remember enough from university stats classes to know that, with the right manipulation, you can make the tamest numbers sing any tune you want. But the article took that notion one step further, saying that reports can lie too.

When visuals detract

Figure from Harvard Business Review Article: Vision Statement: How to Lie with Charts

Take a look at the geospatial report above; the report depicts voting results of the Obama vs McCain 2008 election

If you were to just look at this youd be inclined to believe Republicans were a sure thing. Obviously that wasnt the case, the Democratic Party won. To understand how all you need to do is look at the votes by volume.

Were we to do that, organize the map to show votes by population density, wed see exactly how the election played out:

Figure from Harvard Business Review Article: Vision Statement: How to Lie with Charts

A good report can summarize data so succinctly that we can process a complex situation instantly. Also if a report depicts something in a slightly different way (say, votes by region instead of votes per capita) we can come away with a completely different understanding. 

          And perhaps make some disastrous decisions.

Do project management reports lie?

I have the opportunity to work with many different people across a variety of industries. Its refreshing to meet new people and tackle different problems, but even more thrilling to discover connections between client needs. Makes me feel like Ive learned something insightful.

In the case of project management, I have found one distinct over-arching issue:

When a project status report gives a green standing across the board then suddenly flips to red...


... everyone has a moment of panic as they scramble to fix the issue, due to insufficient foresight to handle the issue before it went critical.

The phenomenon is usually explained away using the project management cone of uncertainty concept. Which roughly argues that, we can never anticipate everything that could go wrong until the project is 100% complete.

I'd challenge this is not always the case, that these issues are usually a result of miscommunication, deficiency in clarity, and lack of metric definition.

Realistically we cannot expect project managers to know every potential issue within a project from the start. However, in this example, when we talk about reports that lie, the issue stems from how the status report displays project health. Most notably, visual cues from reports today often give a false sense of security.

For example, if everything is on track, under budget, and staffed its green. But even if thats not exactly the case, its never forest green to signify that its projected to be healthy for a long time, and its never unripe lime to suggest that the project is healthy today but has potential future problems.

Now Im not suggesting that we dip into the colour spectrum to improve our project reports (even though Ive always been a fan of cerulean blue). Rather, I strongly advocate for the use of clearly defined metrics and setting triggers to alert users when possible problems might be forming on the horizon.

By setting up measurable metrics we can reduce the frequency of surprises. By detailing triggers that alert decision makers of possible issues, we can provide enough time for calm, calculated action.

I would love it if after reading this blog you'd take a moment to write down a shorthand explanation of every report your PMO produces and what those reports are used for. Pull up those reports and think about how well they detail information.

Are they all clear? Did some reports only feature half of what you needed to make a decision? Did you have trouble explaining the purpose of a certain report?

Admittedly not every report is meant to be a bombshell blasting insight from your screen into your mind.

But, they should be simple enough to understand quickly, detailed enough to help you make thoughtful decisions, and none should ever leave you scratching your head worrying about reports that lie.

If you want to learn more about best practices in project management reporting, sign up for our upcoming webinar (details below). During the event we will take a dive into these best practices with actual customer examples.

Webinar - Effective project reporting

Date: 21 July 2015, 1pm EDT

Location: Online Webinar

Register Here

Download this insight: Agora - Webinar - PM Reports Lie - PDF.pdf (742.9KB)

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