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How To Write Great Project Status Updates

Leonardo Federico · July 17th, 2020

If you've read this blog before, you know how many times I've talked about the idea of context building.

In an essay wrote last year, I said:

The job of a great leader is not to entertain people, but to ensure that all team members are high performers who do amazing work and challenge one another. The actual questions are: How can leaders motivate people? What’s the actual driver for individual motivations? And what actually encourages alignment and enables the best individual work? The answer is clear and continuous communication about the context of the work to be done.

What is context in a nutshell? It's the surrounding knowledge that drives behaviors, plans, and decisions of an organization.

When an organization is only 10 or so people, context sharing is almost natural. When everyone fits in the same room, everyone knows who's working on what, and the founders can easily walk between desks telling the team the company's top priorities.

But once a company starts to grow, teams get formalized and silos start to appear everywhere.

Context sharing is one of the first things to fall apart. The paradox is that the better the company is doing, the more acute this problem is.

Not only does it gets harder to know what the other people in other departments are doing, but even in your own small team, which can be quite challenging.

As the organization grows, everything is more siloed and feels compartmentalized

Essentially, the intersection area keeps getting smaller and smaller over time.

The toll of this effect can be quite high over time. Serendipity and knowledge spillovers decrease as teams or departments get larger and more siloed making the organization less nimble and agile. What's the best way for the founders to counterbalance this effect?

While it's not something that can be fixed overnight, there are measures one can adopt. One key measure is the humble status update.

The compounding effect that a well-written status update has over time can be the difference between a well-aligned and high-performing team who acts as one and a poorly coordinated one.

Despite being one of the most common forms of communication, I've always found most of them are confusing and hard to read. As we've seen in greater detail in how to effectively share written ideas, this has very little to do with the prose itself and more with the logical sequence of the information you're presenting.

A great status update is a combination of three elements:

  1. A summary,
  2. A body,
  3. And an outro.

The Summary of the Status Update

A good summary grabs the reader's attention. If this sounds easy to you, trust me, it's not.

Think about all that times you started reading something and half-way through the page you still have no idea what you're reading.

It happens because the author did a poor job of getting your attention. He didn't make you put aside the ideas that are already in your mind to strictly focus on that one thing he's about to say.

Sharing an update is no different from telling any other story. You need to get the reader's attention and make him focus on what you have to say.

The initial summary is fundamental because it establishes the relevancy of your update.

A good summary is a combination of three sub-elements.

  1. A situation (S),
  2. a complication (C),
  3. and a solution (S).

Sounds familiar? It's the same Minto's pyramid principle which we've analyzed in how to to effectively share written ideas.

How to write an internal status update leveraging the Minto SCQA framework by Barbara Minto

Let's look at a skeleton version of it:

Situation: we decided X because of Y and Z.

Complication: we started to work on X on date J. We're now two weeks in, and we have some progress Z to share.

Solution: Our progress are: 1, 2 and 3.

The situation summarizes the broader scope of the update. It doesn't just give a general idea of what you're doing, but it also explains why you're doing it.

The goal of a summary is not to inform, rather to remind the audience of why this matters.

The complication is the framing of the update. It leads to the obvious question that you're going to resolve in the document. Bear in mind, what we call a complication is not necessarily a complication in the literal mean of the word. It's more alteration that begs the questions in the reader's mind.

In the status update, the question is a complication that is often implicit.

The solution is the main answer to that question. It's better to structure it in bullets points. These points should be structured from the most important updates to the least.

Bad Status Updates Intro

Project Summary Updating our on-boarding for new hires. Updates below.

Good Status Updates Intro

Onboarding is one of the important areas for candidate success and retention. On March 1st, after receiving the results from our most recent candidates, we realized that we weren't performing as expected. Results showed that we were lacking in specific areas like information sharing, assets and team guidance. Two weeks into the work for this project, here's the status update for the Onboarding Revamp Plan.

Main priorities for this project:

  1. Onboarding Sessions approved by Executives. [Completed]
  2. Team Leaders Onboarding Path [Completed]
  3. Remote Workers Onboarding Policies [In-progress]
  4. Onboarding Software Purchase [Delayed]

A good SCS introduction looks like a map that the reader is going to use to navigate your update.

As you can see, you have a remarkably clear map of what you're going to read in the update. You know what this project is about (additional clicks are only required if you want to further unpack). You know (1) what are the most important items by titles and (2) where they stand overall. You can keep reading to further unpack each of them individually.

Up to this point, you still haven't said anything new. But what you've offered the reader will make it remarkably easy to comprehend your update.

2. Bad Status Updates Body

In the body, you resolve the update itself.

The best way to do it is with a horizontal topic-based model as opposed to a vertical category approach.

A topic-based model is where you go one-by-one through all the individual bullets you exposed in the summary. You then expand on each of them by giving the reader more detail on the topic.

Vertical topic vs horizontal topic model to resolve a topic

Bad Status Updates What

1. Update and Progress [Commentary] 2. Roadblocks [Commentary] 3. Risks [Commentary] 4. Metrics [Commentary] 5. Next steps [Commentary]

Good Status Updates Body

1. Onboarding Sessions approved by Executives. [Completed] [Commentary] 2. Team Leaders Onboarding Path [Completed] [Commentary] 3. Remote Workers Onboarding Policies [In-progress] [Commentary] 4. Onboarding Software Purchase [Delayed]

3. The Outro of a Status Update

If, after your update, you want to have a final call-to-action, this is the right place for it. If you're looking to gather general comments, have feedback from specific people or other generic action items, this is your chance.

Plus, if you want to keep your updates more personal and not only talk about work, the end is also a good place to share an interesting anecdote from your private life.

Logistics for Status Update

Let's look at some internal logistics related to sharing internal updates.

Where You Should Write Status Updates

1. Emails Email is most common medium for sharing status updates. The bad news is that email is highly decentralized. Meaning after you send your update via email, it will be permanently lost. The email will continue to exist only in the recipient's inbox, its content won't be easy to find or accessible to future readers. Status Updates are gold mines for new employees because they capture how the company operates. Status Update email should only be considered if you're communicating with outside stakeholders, otherwise alternatives like Pulse or P2 can do a better job.

On a side note, Automattic uses P2 for outside contributors and we use Pulse to communicate with people (added as guests to our workspace) who aren't necessarily a close part of our team.

2. Slack Slack is great for ephemeral and casual conversations. Updates typical don't follow in either one of those two categories. You can use Slack, but it's not async and people can miss this. Also, it's not well suited for long-form types of communication.

3. Pulse Pulse allows you to share updates in organized company Streams. Streams provide spaces to keep teams informed and aligned. When you send a new pulse, just choose a stream – for example, @product-updates – and everyone who’s following it will read what you have to say.

The Pulse editor allows you to make updates more rich by embedding content from other providers or by linking pre-existing pulses.

For instance, say you've been working on a new version of the mobile app and you want to share it with the team, you simply embed the original Figma you've been working on.

How to embed a Figma file within in a company wide update in Pulse

Now, say you want to wrap up your progress that you did on the mobile app, you can easily link pre-existing updates to your new one.

How to reference a previously shared company wide update in a new one

The great thing about Pulse is that it keeps track of backlinks, so that you can see where your initial pulses have been linked to.

This is an amazing way to explore your organization's progress.

Cadence of Status Updates

The cadence of status updates depends on what they are about. We can say there are three main types of status updates: project, recurring, and personal. Despite the fact that you can leverage the above framework to express yourself with clarity in all three types, you'll benefit the most from the first two.

  1. Project Status Updates are shared to keep stakeholders informed of the status of a specific internal project. These stakeholders can be people outside the organisation (i.e. external collaborators) or members inside the company (i.e. executives). These updates tend be shared weekly but largely depend on the project itself.
  2. Recurring Status Updates are updates usually written by leaders. These can take the form as monthly updates or weekly updates. I already delved into this category in two essays: Internal Communication and Operations for Founder & CEOs and How to Write CEO Weekly Updates.
  3. Personal Updates are status updates about one's own work. These can be written by anyone in the organization. Personal Updates usually take the form of "Daily Updates" or "Friday Updates". They are either daily or weekly and are used as an asynchronous alternative to the daily or weekly meeting.

Caveats & Conclusions

Well-written status updates are the backbone of internal alignment and team coordination.

Work hard to make some of these rituals part of your culture. It will take some time for you to find the right things to implement. Start by observing what people seem to know, seem to care about and seem to ignore. Once you're aware of these blind gaps, fill them in with the right set of rituals and stick to it, no matter what.

The upfront costs will be high in terms of perseverance and endurance, but it will pay off.