Inconvenient Truths of Project Status Reporting
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Long time readers of this blog may recall that I subscribe to the high-brow MIT Sloan Management Review. They may also remember that I’m never quite sure it is worth the rather high subscription fee. But once in a while an article comes along which is worth a year’s subscription. The “Pitfalls of Project Status Reporting” is this year’s article.
As the title suggests the article looks at why project status reporting, specifically for IT projects, so often fails to alert companies of the problems in project work. (Clearly the authors are unfamiliar with #BeyondProjects/#NoProjects but I suspect most of the same problems can be found in the false-projects so beloved of IT organizations.)
If you want the full story you will need to buy your own copy of the article (Amazon have it for £2.50) but for the rest of you here are the highlights, the 5 points the authors called “Inconvenient Truths” plus some of the text and a couple comments from from myself. The comments are all my own but the quotes - and the headlines in bold - are from the article which is research not conjecture, something we could do we more of!
1. Executives can’t rely on project staff and other employees to accurately report project status information and to speak up when they see problems.
“[software project managers] write biased reports 60% if the time and that their bias is more than twice as likely to be optimistic.”
Basically people don’t like reporting bad news and worry that reporting it will reflect badly on themselves.
2. A variety of reasons can cause people to misreport about project status; individual personality traits, work climate and cultural norms can all play a role.
“employees who work in climates that support self-interested behaviour are more likely to misreport than employees who work in climates based on ‘rules and code’.” Why do I think of banks and bonuses when I read this?
3. An aggressive audit team can’t counter the effects of project status misreporting and withholding of information by project staff.
“Once auditors are added to the mix… a dysfunctional cycle that results in even less openness regarding status information.”
“Diminished trust in the senior executive who controlled their project was associated with an increase in misreporting.”
More reporting will make things worse, if auditors arrive then people don’t feel they are trusted and guess what? They might not show the auditors the dirty washing and might tend to paint things as good.
4. Putting a senior executive in charge of a project may increase misreporting.
“research suggests that the stronger the power of the sponsor or the project leader, the less inclined subordinates are to report accurately.”
I find this suggestion very worrying because some people in the Scrum community insist that the Product Owner must be an executive (“the real product owner”) who has real power to secure the resources and changes a make the project a success. This research suggests that having a strong, senior, Product Owner could make things worse.
5. Executives often ignore bad news if they receive it.
I am reminded of one client where my own attempts to raise a red flag have gone no-where. On my final visit to the client I spoke with the senior architect to again voice both my concerns over the work and the failure of anyone to listen. Unfortunately he had the same problem. He saw the same problems but couldn’t find anyone willing to listen.
My initial thought on all of this is that this is all the more reason to base reporting on deliverables, i.e. what has actually been delivered that is working and in use, that is rather than reporting on proxy “status” criteria, report actual progress, actual deliverables.