Best Practices for Project Reporting: Snapshots (Part 6/6)

Our sixth and final installment in this series will cover the importance of creating snapshots, or versioning, of your project reports. In short, as your project progresses, you need to make sure that your project reports remain up-to-date without losing sight of where the project has been in the past.

At the risk of sounding trite, managing a project is a lot like building a skyscraper. Every day, something new is going on: new floors are being poured, wiring is being installed, and many other jobs are starting and finishing.

If your project reports are out of sync with the actual status of your project, it’s analogous to taking a still photo of a three story building when it’s already 35 floors up. The picture doesn’t say anything about the 32 new floors you’ve poured, and it doesn’t mention that you had to lay a foundation and connect a bunch of pipes before putting in the first three floors in the photo. Projects aren’t static, so your reporting shouldn’t be either: project reports need to be able to look both forward and backward.

The time-lapse photos in this video show a new condo tower as it’s being built in downtown Denver. Each frame tells a story, and when put together, you can really get a feel for how the project is progressing.

Of course, you can’t make a time-lapse video of a server migration or a defense program—at least in the traditional sense. However, your project reports can adopt elements of the time-lapse video to help people understand the progression and status of your projects. These date-specific versions of your project plans are called snapshots.

Using snapshots in project reporting

The following two snapshots were created from the same Microsoft Project plan at two different points in time. In the first snapshot (February), notice that the Engineering Team 2 task is about 40% complete, and is on track relative to the baseline:

First project snapshot

Now, let’s move forward two months to see the project status in April instead of February. The task has made some progress, but the finish date is now several months past the baseline, indicating tha that it is behind schedule:

Second project snapshot

This is a simple example of how you can take two snapshots of the same project to give a view for how the project is changing, and where risks might need to be addressed.

Creating project snapshots successfully

Snapshots work best when you can maintain consistency from one version to the next. This makes it easier for your audience to see which elements of your project are changing, and to make comparisons from one snapshot to another. When creating snapshots of your project, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Filter forward: In order for snapshots to be successful, you need to look at the same set of tasks and milestones from one period to the next. When you create the first snapshot of your project, you should be thinking not only of what is important now, but what may be important down the line. Include all of this information in your initial project snapshot so that you can easily compare it as you create future snapshots.
  • Format consistently: Comparing the same set of data doesn’t do you any good if it’s presented inconsistently. When you create your first snapshot, think about how you want your report to look, and then maintain that format as you create future snapshots. Things like swimlanes, colors, and decorations are important to establish up front and then maintain throughout your series of snapshots.
  • Maintain frequency: Decide on a good frequency between snapshots. Weekly and monthly snapshots are the most common, but each project will vary as to the frequency that is most appropriate. Once you’ve determined the update frequency, be disciplined and stick with it, as users will come to expect updates, and may be thrown off by revisions that come too early or too late.

All three of these tips boil down to being consistent across snapshots. If you can maintain this consistency, you’ll have an easier time of communicating your project or program status to stakeholders, because you won’t have to take time re-training them to look at different views.

Snapshots create value

Snapshots are one of the most important aspects of good project presentations because they provide a lot of value to the project team.

Snapshots are a great way to facilitate project post-mortems. Instead of thumbing through piles of old schedules to understand when a project went off track, you can simply browse through a series of sequential snapshots to identify the elements of the project that need attention.

Scenario planning is also easier with snapshots. If you get to a point in your project where you need to make a decision, snapshots give you an easy way to visualize the outcome of each scenario. Once you have created the scenario in Microsoft Project, Excel, Primavera P6, or your PPM tool of choice, you can create snapshots side-by-side that show the projected outcomes. Difficult decisions can be easier to make when you can visualize the result.

Most importantly, snapshots are a time-saver. If you’re making updates to a PowerPoint-based project plan each week as your schedule changes, you are wasting a lot of time, and potentially introducing errors into your report. Snapshots are designed to quickly and accurately update the project report so that you don’t have to sanity check your schedule line-by-line or redraw your reports by hand each time the schedule changes. The time you’ll save by using snapshots adds up quickly—you’ll be surprised how much time you actually get back to do other things!

Wrapping Up

This post marks the end of our six-part series on best practices for project reporting. Hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate a few of these suggestions into your team’s reports. All of the best practices mentioned in this series are supported by Chronicle Graphics’ OnePager Pro and OnePager Express reporting tools for Microsoft Project and Excel, respectively, though you are certainly not required to use OnePager to generate your project reports.

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About Safford

Safford is a versatile technology professional with a solid history of empowering emerging growth companies in a broad array of industries. His employment history includes energy industry consulting at Quorum Software, Senior Manager of Client Services and Technical Sales at telecom service aggregator GetConnected, and Vice President of Strategic Partner Management at electronic payment processor IP Commerce. Prior to his tenure as OnePager's COO, Safford was the company's Vice President of Marketing and Alliances. Safford holds a BA in Psychology and management from Rice University.

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