Project Management

HOW is as important as WHAT when requesting work progress updates

From the Easy in theory, difficult in practice Blog
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Categories: Project Management

Whether we are looking at project or operations, understanding what progress has been made with the individual work items owned by your team is part of a normal day or week's work for most leaders. This information is critical to using tools such as earned value management and information radiators such as burn down or burn up charts.

But how you ask for work item updates will influence the quality of the work performance data you receive.

If the work items are small enough and are likely to be completed within a single reporting period, an effective, objective method is to report status as not started, not done or done. The expectation is that work items which are reported as being in a not done state will move to done by the next status review or would be escalated as being blocked.

However, when work items are not small, greater granularity of reporting for work items in progress might be warranted.

Here are three of the more common ways I've seen this information requested:

  • What percentage of work has been completed?
  • How much time (effort or duration) have you spent on the work item?
  • How much time (effort or duration) is remaining to complete the work item?

Except in situations where progress can be independently and quantifiably assessed, the first method suffers from the Ninety-Ninety Rule of Project Schedules: The first ninety percent of the task takes ninety percent of the time, and the last ten percent takes the other ninety percent!

And even if you are able to objectively measure percentage complete, it still assumes that past performance on the work item will persist till the work item is completed. The second method is even worse as it only considers the past and doesn't educate us on what the future might hold.

The third approach has the benefits of forcing the team member to check if the expected remaining effort or duration for the work item is accurate and if it is not, a re-forecast can be done.

Putting theory aside, I wanted to see what was actually happening in practice.

I ran two similar polls for a week in PMI's LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management group and on I received 239 responses with the following breakdown of votes:

  • How much work is left: 49%
  • What percentage is done: 29%
  • Is it done or not: 16%
  • How much work have you done: 6%

It is encouraging to see that the two better methods are used in almost two-thirds of cases. However, this means that a third of respondents are using the methods which are least helpful in forecasting what may happen in the future.

Requesting useful progress updates is yet another case of "It's not what you say, it's how you say it"!


Posted on: May 01, 2022 07:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Your final comment on what is said vs how it is said is spot on. This also applies to the answer you receive. Sometimes you can ask the right question, but get an ambiguous answer, which is somewhere between fantasy and reality. Knowing when to dig further and ask follow up questions, it a key part. Trust...But Verify when needed.... Thanks for the insightful post.

Dear Kiron
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thank you for sharing, for your opinions and for the results of your research.

Was it worth asking the question here in our community,

It completely missed me :-)

Thanks Mike!

Thanks Luis - yes, I did get a lot more responses by polling both communities, but didn't really find a way to promote the poll here without falling afoul of the community guidelines. Perhaps you know a way to do this so I can use that method for my next poll which is currently running?


Dear Kiron

I am convinced that what you publish is in the interest of the community

When you chose to collect and share members' opinions on topics, you certainly had a greater purpose.

If community rules prevent you from sharing the opinions of project management professionals with us (the more opinions the better), there's nothing like changing the rules :-)

I think it's a topic you can talk to the managers of this community about.

Footnote: Don't turn to ambassadors because those are long gone in cyberspace :-)

Thanks Luis - I'll reach out to Heather to see what's acceptable as far as poll promotion goes!

Interesting article. Thanks for your thoughts.

The tricky part with asking how much time there is left on an activity is the work involved to reflect the information in your schedule. It's definitely more laborious than updating the percentage of work done!

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"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important. "

- Bertrand Russell