What are Status Reports and Why are They Important?
The status report: at once humble, mundane, necessary, and misunderstood. Often seen as a trivial exercise undertaken by PMs primarily (I get the sentiment; I am a PM after all), it’s easy to gloss over if the contents are irrelevant to recipients, if they only rehash of information everyone on the list has, aren’t tied to objectives, or if they are poorly written. But what seems like a tedious communiqué that “nobody reads” can actually help teams increase substantially in the following ways. They:
Save time recalling information: If your stakeholders are constantly reaching out to you for the same kind of information, status updates save you time. You can always point people to the report whenever they want to know what’s going on, and if your team is asked to put together a presentation or report, you’ll have the content readily available to pull from.
Increase visibility to high impact projects: If your team’s work isn’t well understood, or if your team is struggling to get attention on a project, a status report can bring that front and center by explaining the project’s goals, intended impact, and documenting progress to date.
Keep the team focused on objectives: It’s easy to “set it and forget it” when it comes to team OKRs, but referencing your team goals consistently in status reports and tying your work back to those objectives helps your audience understand what your team’s priorities are and how they align with business goals.
Track important metrics: If stakeholders depend on your team for reporting metrics, a status update is a great way to share those out frequently.
Open the door to collaboration: By creating visibility, you invite others (including teams/individuals you haven’t worked with before) to collaborate on projects that may also align with their goals.
You may be thinking: we already have dashboards/project boards/backlogs/decks that contain this information. That may be true, but one sobering truth is that many stakeholders don’t refer to these resources frequently. Why? Because these assets don’t provide necessary context and don’t tell a narrative about your work. Dashboards, charts, backlogs, and even decks give information in its raw form; they are the what, not the why. No one wants to read a report that sounds like a copy/paste of a spec in a Jira ticket. People want to know what a team's output means in context: does this work impact a larger initiative? Does it affect work downstream? Are we blocked by another team upstream? Status reports turn this information into insights that stakeholders can use or take action on.
In this post you’ll learn what a status report is, who reads them, what questions status updates can answer, and how to format them for your audience. The goal is to help you identify the types of content and structure that will provide the most value for your report’s recipients.
What’s a status report?
A status report is a summary of a team’s deliverables, projects, and priorities in the immediate term. They provide progress on deliverables, plans, decisions, process changes, and blockers. They answer key questions stakeholders have and they point stakeholders to where they can find more information about projects, requests, and programs owned or managed by a team. They include key metrics that stakeholders care about. In other words: status reports are snapshots of what your team is working on and the primary audience is anyone who works with your team directly.
For status reports to be an effective form of communication, they should be published on a regular cadence. How often depends on many factors, like project velocity, roadmaps, and scheduled planning. There’s no right or wrong: they can go out weekly, biweekly, or monthly. But ensure your stakeholders know when reports will go out.
Who reads status reports?
Like any other communique, a status report has multiple audiences, each with a different level of interest and interaction with your team:
Primary audience: your team, direct stakeholders, and partner teams. You collaborate with them frequently and they depend on your team’s deliverables for their own work streams.
Secondary audience: “sister” teams, program managers who work with your team indirectly (they’re cross-functional and maybe they reach out to ask for reporting), your manager’s manager (and maybe their manager).
Tertiary audience: potential partner teams, leadership at a much higher level.
Expect your status reports to get forwarded and read by people outside of your primary audience. It doesn't mean you have to explain every small thing for people who are unfamiliar with your domain, but you should expect to provide — or point to — information that explains something in more detail.
What should status reports contain?
The report should satisfy the needs and frequent asks you get from your primary audience. Here are some questions your status reports can answer:
What do my teammates need to know?
What were we able to accomplish in the previous period?
What was the outcome?
What are we working on next and why?
What changes have been made to our workflows, processes, or programs that impact our stakeholders?
What questions do we have for stakeholders?
What are the problems we’re facing and why?
What are we doing to solve those problems?
What information do we get asked to provide most often?
What metrics do we care about? Do we report current performance against our targets?
The type of content your team chooses to highlight will depend on your team’s goals and your stakeholder’s needs. Don’t be afraid to ask your primary audience for feedback and to iterate on your status reports to make them more helpful for stakeholders.
In terms of structure, here’s what you should keep in mind:
Layout: Status reports should be structured in a way that is compatible with how your organization synthesizes information. If you’re in a company that uses email extensively, a newsletter format may work best. If your company instead prefers sharing updates in a news feed (think Yammer or Workplace), post a short summary highlighting a few key items and link out to a more fleshed out report that’s hosted somewhere accessible, like your team’s drive or Wiki.
Format: Make it easy to skim. Use bulleted lists in lieu of paragraphs with multiple clauses, bold or italicize important information, and use section headers where appropriate. Consider organizing longer items into tables for better readability.
Drafts: Save every status update draft to a folder in the team’s shared drive for quick reference, and to point people to it if they want to pull information from a specific period of time.
Reference material: Where appropriate, link out to dashboards, briefs, or tickets and backlog items for further reading. Include your team’s preferred contact information (like a distribution list, Slack channel name), and mechanisms for requesting work from your team (like a link to your team’s project board with intake questions).
Who should write the status report?
PMs (of the project, product, and program varieties) are usually responsible for crafting status reports, but if your team doesn’t have a PM, anyone can write it.
For engineering teams, I recommend creating a template that everyone can follow and rotating who is responsible for writing and sending it out. Someone else on the team can review the update before it’s sent. This gives everyone on the team the chance to write a report and to play the role of team spokesperson. (Bonus: creating a status report is one way of practicing your business writing skills, which is increasingly becoming important for engineers and developers. Learn four more ways to flex your writing muscles at work.)
Tip: Gergely Orosz offers a project status report template for paid subscribers of his newsletter.
In conclusion, status reports are communications that include summaries of team activities, a program/process announcements, and metrics reports. They also contextualize the team’s output by tying them to company/organizational goals and objectives. Finally, they describe the team’s rhythm of business and point stakeholders to references like documentation, intake forms, dashboards, and places to get in touch with your team.
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