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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“!

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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