Project Management

How to Write (and Not Write) Reports

Stephen currently works in commissioning projects in the oil and gas industry.

I was once doing a consultancy report for a small engineering firm. I had studied the company and done structured interviews with key staff. I collected information and wrote it down. I showed it to my customer, who said: “This is not a report. It's a list.” They refused to accept it.

This raises the obvious question: What exactly is a report?

I have trained hundreds of project managers, and when we get to the section of the course on project reporting, I ask two simple questions (with a show of hands):

  1. Who here likes writing reports?
  2. Who here likes reading reports?

I have never had a hand raised to either question, so why do we keep writing reports? A well-tried rule to fall back on is one that accountants have used for many years. It goes something like this: Reporting is an activity that costs money. The action resulting from the report must therefore save more money than the cost of the report.

We've now got a rule. A report must lead to an action; that's a good starting point. Let's take reporting in the context of the project, and we can consider the purpose of the report—relating to the process within which it’s created:

  • Initiating: Information that will lead to the approval (or rejection) of project initiation.
  • Planning: Information collected and distributed by the project manager that results in an …

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"I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me."

- George Bernard Shaw