Conveying Project Status – The Simplistic Approach

Needless to say, when project/program managers are managing their projects and their constituent products and deliverables, they are monitoring a whole slew of various items to ensure things are proceeding smoothly. That can involve keeping an eye on work queues, following and monitoring the status of fixes, gauging the movement of the project against the timeline, and so forth.

There is by no means, a shortage of data when it comes to gauging project health. And depending on project complexity, scope, geography and demographics, the data set that signifies whether a project is moving along well or is running into problems can be cumbersome. For a project manager, this is part in parcel with their job. They are meant to be able to view all the various pieces of data denoting the movement of their project and be able to effectively determine how well things are proceeding.

With that being said, what may seem obvious to the project manager, may appear as foreign as Klingon to anyone outside of that space. Afterall, when one is inundated with a swath of different sets of metrics, task lists, status reports and documents galore, it is the veritable needle in a haystack when attempting to gauge how all these pieces fit together and their data aggregate signifies project health.

From the standpoint of conveying project health to those in the higher brackets of the company or organization, a deluge of various and often confusing data sets is clearly not going to be well received. Remember that those at the portfolio level of any company have numerous projects within their sphere of influence and they cannot possibly be expected to perform deep dives or drill downs into disparate and often inconsistently formulated data sets. So when it comes to conveying how things are proceeding with any project, keep it simple.

Conveying Project Status Visually

Humans are very akin to recognizing patterns. We have evolved that capability over millions of years and as such, any human can easily recognize a particular shape and its inherent color scheme and be able to draw conclusions about what that shape signifies. That is why warning labels and traffic signs are often so ubiquitous and universally utilized, even when crossing borders. As such, taking that same and simplistic approach when it comes to conveying project health provides a very quick and easy mechanism that anyone, from the CEO level to the manufacturing level can understand at a glance.

With that being said, here are a few simplistic (and some would argue ‘cheesy’) visual quantifiers that one can use to provide anyone with a quick status of a particular project:

1. The Traffic Light

Universally utilized even across different countries, the simple yet effective traffic light is an easy way to demonstrate how a project is progressing. As one would expect, Green is good, Yellow is a warning and Red means bad.

2. The Speedometer (or Tachometer)

Anyone who has driven a vehicle (or been in one) is quite familiar with the displays inherent to motion of the car or revolutions of the engine. As such, another effective way to denote how a project is ‘speeding’ along, is to visualize it with that mechanism in mind. Note that the speedometer can also be broken down into constituent pieces (as shown below) for further granularity:

3. The Trend Chart

Another standard and fairly intuitive method to convey project progress is the simple trend chart. Generally speaking, this is usually a line graph that demonstrates movement towards a particular goal or milestone. Deviation from the trend in a negative direction is easily extrapolated to demonstrate a potential project slippage. A chart of this nature is a good way to convey the need for additional resources or changes in scope to accommodate the timeline. An Agile burndown chart is an effective means of this type of representation:

4. The Simple Checklist

And finally, sometimes a great way to denote progress is to dumb down things to the level of a grocery list; a simple checklist that can show what has been done and what still needs to be accomplished. The ordering of the checklist also provides a way to indicate dependencies and priority of tasks:


Beyond the aforementioned mechanism, there are of course, other ways to convey information regarding a project’s status. The key take-away is that simplicity is the predicating factor. Stick to basic imagery and do not overload the target audience. If they ask for details, have those available, but keep drill down data sets in concise, easy to read formats. A deluge of data points on a graph or a massive table with task assignments, work breakdown structures and a plethora of graphics will just lead to confusion.

Below is a summary of some of the previously mentioned graphic types one can use along with a few additional examples.

What makes a good Program Manager?

They come in all types: the rock star program manager. The cerebral yet reserved program manager. The process focussed program manager. The more easy-going and aloof program manager. And of course, the completely ineffectual and downright worthless program manager!

So how does one quantify the distinction? What are the factors that make a project or program manager ‘good’? What factors make them ‘bad’? And what factors make them, frankly, ‘ugly’?

In many cases, rating one’s effectiveness is often subjective. How can you actually quantify certain traits, whether they be personal or professional? What baseline does one use as reference and what factors of measure can one leverage to quantify this in a decent yet reasonable way?

To start, I think it is important to try to catalog some of the key things that make a project/program manager good at their job. I recall once in a job interview being asked: “what would you say are the top three things that make a really good program manager?”

This was a fantastic question and as I thought about it, I came up with the following success criteria based on my own experience in the field:

  1. Communication Skills – Without a shadow of a doubt, the most important factor in the good program manager’s arsenal. Being able to convey oneself in an articulate and effective manner is an attribute without which a program manager cannot function. From my perspective, if I was interviewing a candidate, this area to me would be the biggest deal breaker should I notice lack of effective communication skills in our dialog.
  2. Organizational Skills – This may seem like a no brainer, but many might be surprised just how often this quality is lacking in those within the program management space. But being that program managers are responsible for so many factors and various disparately and often geographically dispersed projects and team members, being able to get all entities to function cohesively and staying on top of progress as the project or program moves forward is absolutely paramount to the success of those initiatives.
  3. Technical Skills – Now often, I get a lot of pushback when I mention this skill set. The general argument is that program managers are not supposed to be experts in their field since being a PgM is supposed to be agnostic to the project type. But honestly, does anyone give credence to this argument? Technical skills span more than just the various aspects of the project; they can also be part and parcel of the tools and techniques a PgM might use to accomplish their job. Whether that be having knowledge of some particular tool, like MS Project or Excel, some programming skills to be able to automate aspects of their work, or even a background in the technology of the projects they manage. Knowledge, in any guise, is still power.

With the above criteria in mind (and there are, of course, other factors that people might mention in similar lists), what factors might make a program manager ‘bad’? Frankly, from my perspective, it would be the exact OPPOSITE of the criteria listed above. Poor communication skills lead to bad interaction with team members and inability to effectively disseminate information. Poor organizational skills will lead to things being missed, thereby jeopardizing the success of the overall project or program. And poor technical skills may lead to inefficiencies, such as the PgM taking far more time to accomplish a task than would otherwise have been necessary had they possessed more working knowledge of the tools and techniques in a good PgM’s arsenal.

So that’s the good and the bad. Now what about the ‘ugly’? This is a little bit more difficult to quantify. Like before, many of the aforementioned success criteria of a ‘good’ PgM that is lacking in another can also be part of the ‘ugly’. But from my perspective, the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ also begins to cross the threshold into other factors, such as genuine personality traits that are caustic to the environment. Some examples of that might be:

  • Bad Tempered – Easily emotional individuals who cannot maintain a level head can be catastrophic to a program’s success. Especially if they display frustration on a regular basis.
  • General Apathy – Indifference in individuals with regards to their work or just a poor work ethic in general can be very damaging to the project and the team. If the PgM is not pulling their weight or is approaching their job with a certain ambivalence, that doesn’t do anyone any favors.
  • Back Door Shenanigans – Office politics are not new. And they can be damaging in all areas within any business. But for a PgM, trust is one of the most important aspects of their job. Without the trust of their team, the project is likely not to succeed. Especially if the program manager is far more concerned with the games they feel the need to play in order to stay employed as opposed to the actual progress of their programs.

So there you have it. The ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’. Many other factors of course also exist when it comes to the genuine success of the program manager. And arguably, some may think the success criteria listed above needs to be either re-ordered or adjusted. Good program manager’s exist. And so do bad ones. The demarcation between them may not be that easy to quantify. But more often than not, at least based on my experience, the success factors listed above will often be cited in many cases where that evaluation is being performed.


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