Best Practices for Project Reporting: Decorating and Annotating (Part 4/6)

Our next installment in the best practices series focuses on how to decorate and annotate your project report. These types of decorations are probably not quite as fun or flashy as the ones you might put on a cake, but I can guarantee you that decorating project reports is healthier.

Unlike a cake, the decorations you include in a project report are intended to be more informative than they are decorative. There are many different graphical decorations and textual annotations that you might choose to include in your project report:

  • Progress (percent complete)
  • Baselines
  • Critical path
  • Relationships or dependencies
  • Deadlines or milestones
  • Key dates
  • Important comments

Depending on the nature of your project plan, you may find yourself making use of some decorations or annotations more than others, especially if you find that certain decorations resonate better or are requested more often by your audience.

As a result, this post will focus less on which decorations are appropriate, and more on how to optimize your annotation skills regardless of what your audience wants to see.

Use Graphics Instead of Text

Should you annotate your project report with text, or should you decorate it graphically? While you’ll probably do a little of both, we strongly recommend using more graphics than text whenever possible. This is because text will clutter your report, while graphics will not. Clutter is the enemy of simplicity, so if you want your audience to grasp the highlights of your project quickly, graphics are the way to go.

Not convinced? Take a look at the sample project report below. The presenter wants to track the start and finish date of each task, plus track each task’s progress. This can be done using text, but it borders on illegible:

Project report with text annotations

The text-based dates clutter up the page, and the percent complete information down the left-hand side doesn’t really add much. In fact, there is so much information being squeezed onto a single page that some of it is bleeding off the left and right edges.

Let’s replace the text-based annotations with graphical decorations instead. We’ll do the following:

  • Convert percent complete from text to progress bars
  • Remove the date text and insert a time grid instead

Project plan with graphical decorations

The result is much cleaner. By using graphical decorations, we’re presenting the same information without all the clutter. Granted, graphics make it more difficult to tell whether something is 49% or 51% complete, or whether a task starts on August 28th or 29th, but generally, this isn’t the level of detail you’re aiming to provide in a project report anyway, and the payoff in terms of readability is worth the slight loss of detail.

Call Attention with Comments and Curtains

Don’t let the disparagement of text-based annotations in the previous section turn you off text completely. The fact is that there are some elements of your project report where text—used sparingly—is the best answer.

Two annotations, comment boxes and curtains, are very powerful ways to draw your audience’s attention to tasks or periods of time that are critical to delivery.

Comment boxes give you the ability to call out a specific task or milestone with additional text that may not be stored in your project plan. It is a good way to indicate risk, call attention to an important item, or highlight a delay or acceleration in the schedule. Comment boxes are anchored to the task so that no matter where the box itself appears, it’s clear which task is being identified for discussion.

Curtains serve a similar purpose in that they draw your audience’s eye to a particular part of the schedule. Instead of focusing on a specific task or milestone, the curtain focuses on a period of time, such as a code freeze, quiet period, or budget cycle. Curtains should appear somewhat transparent on the page so as not to obscure the detail of the project plan itself.

The following chart shows two comment boxes and one curtain, which have been added to focus the discussion:

Comments and Curtains

These annotations call attention to the items that need discussion during a client or executive review. As with all annotations, use them sparingly. A project report with 23 comments isn’t going to lead to a very focused discussion.

The same holds true for curtains. We once had a customer who inserted a curtain across every weekend for six months saying “Not Working” because she wanted to make it clear that she wasn’t working on the weekends. I can’t blame her for trying, but it probably wasn’t the best message, because now she’s not working at all!

Use Links, but Fewer is Better

Links are the easiest way to show relationships or dependencies between different tasks, or even across different projects. Our eyes have a natural tendency to follow the path of an arrow from one place to another, so these types of graphics are a simple way to help the audience understand causality and other relationships that may otherwise be difficult to explain.

In this example, we’ve selected a few key dependencies from the project plan and have highlighted them in the project report. It’s very easy to see which items are dependent on others:

Project plan showing dependencies and relationships with links

It’s important to resist the temptation to show every predecessor or dependency. Just like you need to filter your project plan overall for the relevant tasks and milestones, you need to decide which dependencies are truly relevant to your audience.

The reason for this is that links can cause a lot of distraction as your audience’s eyes travel from one end of a link to another. Think back to how we showed percent complete as a column of text in the original chart. Associating the percent complete text column to the Gantt chart itself was disruptive because the eye had to move back and forth to connect the text to the graphics. The same basic principle holds true for links.

If you don’t want people’s eyes zooming all over the page while you’re trying to hold a meeting, keep the distractions to a minimum. This means figuring out which links to show, and which ones to leave out. Otherwise, you may end up with a mess like this:

Project plan with too many links

Do us all a favor: try to make your project presentations easier to follow than the Tokyo subway map!

Every project report is different, of course, but these pointers are broadly applicable, no matter what type of project or program you are managing. Remember to make use of graphics when you can and to keep it simple! Next up: standardization.