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Quarter Principle in Project Status Reports
By Elrich Linde

What is it about quarters? Why do we have to report quarterly? Why are some sport games broken up into quarters and why do certain countries even have quarters as a coin?

Over hundreds of years people have come to realize that if you summarize or break something down, one of the best way to do it is by quarters. It is interesting to note that if you summarize or break something down into thirds, it appears to be too high level. Fifths sometimes work, but you run the risk of becoming too detailed and in the process losing the value of what you are trying to achieve.

I like quarters and I like to apply this Quarter Principle often. One place that it works beautifully is with Project Status Reports. Does it mean you have headings stating Quarter one, Quarter two, Quarter three and Quarter four? Not unless you are actually reporting according to quarters! What I have in mind and normally do is to divide a one page slide into quarters. This I use as the foundation for my Status Reports. What makes it even easier is that Microsoft PowerPoint now has a standard Smart Art Matrix that you can use as quarters that works rather nicely.

Let’s think of it in terms of a project where you regularly have to present the Project Status Report. How do you apply this Quarter Principle to Status Reports? What do you think would the project sponsor and other stake holders like to see?

Keeping in mind that you don’t want to waste anyone’s time being too high-level or too detailed, I would use the four quarters with no more than five bullets below each heading in the following way:

Overall Project Status

Overall Project Status is the most important and therefore the first to address. If the project is going well, then this is where you mention it. If the project is in trouble the same applies. Some companies like to use some kind of indicator to help in expressing the overall status, for example a thermometer or rev counter. Often these are color coded using green, amber and red to indicate the overall status as good, average or bad. This quarter is also where you would make mention of any milestones coming up shortly or recently achieved. I also use this area to mention any approaching public holidays and staff holidays that the team might be taking in the near future.

At this stage you could refer to the project plan to show that the project is ahead, on schedule or behind schedule. You might have to remind those present that you are going into more detail in the following sections to avoid lengthy discussions around the project plan.

The idea is that after your Overall Project Status section, your project sponsors should be able to leave the meeting informed and assured. For them it could mean getting out of a potentially lengthy, but at that time a pretty useless meeting, five minutes after it started. They will love you for it.

What did we do last week/month/quarter?

The frequency of your report will determine the length of this section, but I will try to keep it short and summarized as well.

In this section you tell the stakeholders what your team has done since your last meeting/report. This will reassure them that you are continuously delivering pieces of work and that the project is running according to plan. I would normally mention the names of those people involved in delivering the work. Give credit where credit is due, it will improve your team’s morale and put your team in a better light in the eyes of the stakeholders.

What are we going to do next week/month/quarter?

This is the short term roadmap for your project and does exactly what the heading says. Put down what your team plan to do in the time to come before the next Project Status Report meeting. Completing this section will give you a good indication of the status of your project. If tasks our continually delayed it will end up in this section over and over again. This should bring on the warning lights in your mind that everything might not be as rosy as you thought it was. If this happen, revisit your project plan. Start planning again in all earnest to find the best way to keep the project on course.

Risks

The whole idea behind planning is to determine a course of action in a future that you cannot with certainty predict. Part of that are the risks we might be facing in the days to come. Some risks you might have identified well in advance and have already developed mitigation strategies. Others might just arise as the project continues. This is the area where you will highlight any pertinent risks that might threaten the project.

The quarter principle should work fine for most projects. Keep in mind though, each project is different and you will have to cater for the needs of the stakeholders. In my experience the days of writing long detailed reports are over or fast moving out. The Quarter Principle therefore works like a charm.

Elrich Linde is a PRINCE2 Certified Project Manager with nine years worth of consulting experience. Elrich has been working with 8th Man Consulting since 2007, managing and leading Hyperion|Oracle BPM implementations. Elrich has a passion for simplifying life. He believes that humans have a tendency to unnecessarily complicate things, often to their own detriment. Elrich uses this passion to streamline complex processes and systems. Elrich runs professional blog, Simplying Systems and Projects.

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