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Project status updates – how often do you need them?

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Status updates can be ordinary, but they are a vital part of any project. They are an opportunity for a project professional to hear from their team about progress to date, such as achievements, completed activities, planned activities missed or delayed, planned activities for the next period and any issues or topics for the project manager’s attention.

Programme manager Richard Samworth believes regular updates are a major driver of project and programme management success and the bedrock of stakeholder engagement.

“It’s surprising how quickly a project can go off the rails without a constant flow of information to and from the project team,” he explains. “PRINCE2 describes a world where management occurs by exception. Project managers assign tasks, team members get on with it – presumably in total silence. But projects are noisy and sometimes messy.”

How regularly should updates be scheduled?

Mark Graham, lead project manager on the fast-paced Vaccine Taskforce, says it had daily stand-up updates at the height of the pandemic, but now holds them twice weekly. He believes the norm should be fortnightly or monthly.

Programme manager Ian Koenig goes further: “On one project, which was an offshore pipeline cut-over that linked several oil fields and needed to be done in one day, there were updates required from every team member every 15 minutes!” he recalls. “It was a very high value project with big penalties involved if we didn’t meet the deadline. The criticality of a project can be a huge push factor in having very regular updates.”

He also sees scope for daily updates if a project professional is working on a global project and handovers are needed between teams situated in different parts of the world when starting and ending shifts.

More regular updates can also depend on the maturity and effectiveness of the team involved in the project.

“It is something people often don’t think about, but if the team is together for the first time ever, you have to increase the regularity of the updates. You have no choice, and you end up having more regular updates with some than others based on experience. You can’t leave a beginner for a month and then pop up and ask, ‘How are you doing?’” Koenig says.

Waterfall and agile

For more experienced workers, as long as there are clear milestones and performance measures in place, then weekly or monthly updates should be enough, argues Martin Samphire, owner and director of 3pmxl Ltd.

“An inexperienced worker may need daily updates just to see how they are coping and to provide the opportunity for mentoring. But the danger of a daily update with every team member is that it runs the risk of micro-management. If you are doing daily on a waterfall project on a long timescale, then you have lost the plot.”

For Samworth, the frequency of updates is, to some extent, driven by approach. Agile project management methodologies favour frequent, short stand-up meetings – ideally daily. Waterfall approaches favour weekly project team meetings, with weekly, fortnightly or monthly project board meetings.

“Typically, these days projects use a hybrid approach adopting a mix of agile and waterfall. This requires a mix of meeting frequencies,” he states.

“For example, sections of the project plan, such as design, build and test, may involve intense activity, divided into sprints, with daily stand-up meetings. Other sections of the project plan – start-up and close-down – may require fewer meetings with a weekly or even monthly cadence. A colleague of mine once likened projects to ski-lifts. They run slowly when you get on them, speed up, then slow down again at the end so you can safely get off.”

The rhythm of an Italian opera

Koenig agrees, stating that the project manager must use their rhythmic tacit knowledge to make ‘personal calls’ on when updates should be held. He moves from ski slopes to the world of Formula One and classical music.

“Project managers need to ask themselves – are the current updates too regular and ineffective or are they not enough and do we need more? It is about identifying whether the project tempo matches what is required. Do you aim for allegro, fast and bright; adagio, slow and stately; or presto, very fast!

“It’s a little bit like Lewis Hamilton having that instinct to know when to go faster or slower at any given time in a race. It is a personal instinctive call that has to be made by the project manager.”

So, if you thought receiving status updates from your team was just an ordinary part of the job – then think again. This is your chance to adopt the style of a seven-times Formula One world champion, mirror the rhythm of an Italian opera and carry off the ‘savoir faire’ style of any trendy European ski resort.

Well… sort of.

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