An Effective (And Maybe Even Useful) Recurring Status Report

In my previous article, I detailed a series of reasons why traditional, scheduled (e.g., weekly or fortnightly) status/progress reports provide low value to clients. Project managers, of course, already know that they’re a royal pain to produce.

Today, I’ll describe an effective status-report format that’s easy to produce, valuable to the project manager as well as the client, and useful to (most of) your clients. Clients might even read it. [1]

It’s called the 3×3 (“three-by-three”).

It consists of three headings, each with no more than three bullet points:

  1. Progress This Period
  2. To-Do Next Period
  3. Action Needed/Alerts

For some matters, you might add a fourth heading with a single bullet:

  • Approximate Spend to Date

Above them all, of course, go the period covered, the name of the project/matter, and the name/email/phone of the person to contact about this report, presumably you.

Each bullet point should be short, generally no more than a single line, definitely no more than you could include in a single tweet – without the Twitter-like shorthand, abbreviations, and smileys. Don’t overcomplicate this update, or make it time-consuming to write – or read.

1. Progress This Period

Include up to three (yes, this is a hard limit – never four or more) things the team actually accomplished in the reporting period.

These have to be actual movement of the ball – a forward pass that gains yards, not just the effort involved.[2]

In physics (you went to law school to learn all about physics, didn’t you?), the definition of “work” is force times distance. If the distance is zero, work is zero, since anything multiplied by zero is zero. No matter how much effort you expend pushing on a wall, you do zero work unless the wall moves.

Focus on three accomplishments: you completed the privilege log, the other side finally agreed to negotiate, etc. Talking to the other side about possible negotiations or noting that you’re halfway through the priv log doesn’t count.

But Steve, you say, the other side has been totally resistant to negotiations until this week, when they finally stopped humming loudly whenever we mentioned the word. And we’ve identified 17,482 privileged documents, so getting halfway through them represents a lot of work.

The first item might go in the Alerts section (see below). On the other hand, if the client’s key strategy is a negotiated settlement and your discussions actually represent a possible breakthrough, then you truly may have accomplished “work” worth noting here.

As for the priv log, it’s highly unlikely the client cares unless they hired you specifically to handle the e-discovery back end or LPO (legal process outsourcing) work. For an e-discovery specialty firm doing solely that kind of work on a matter, progress on the priv log (or, more meaningfully, on the document backlog or reluctant-custodian collection) might indeed represent significant movement of the ball down the field.

And remember – whatever you’ve done, report on it tersely, not expansively. Keep in mind the object of a 3×3: minimal work for the project manager… and the reader.

2. To-Do Next Period

In this section go up to three brief statements of what you intend to accomplish during the next period. Remember, these bullet points should be sentence fragments, not sentences – or worse, paragraphs.

Ideally, these bullets, too, represent work that will move the ball down the field rather than effort. However, on occasion you won’t be sure how far you’ll actually move the ball, so it’s okay once in a while for a to-do item to represent exertion rather than projected accomplishment.

Note that the client – and you – will be able to compare last period’s to-do list with this period’s achievements. These won’t always be in synch, since life intervenes and stuff happens. However, regularly misaligned bullets tell you, the project manager, that someone is changing your priorities too often. If that someone is you, stop it. Now. If that someone is the client, it’s time to discuss goals, “Done,” and the business problem with them. By the way, it’s quite possible that you have these wrong rather than the client taking you over the hurdles. Either way, the sooner you get on the same page, the happier you both will be.

3. Action Needed/Alerts

This section may be the most critical part of the 3×3.

Remember my previous (October) column where I mentioned a sign on a bridge giving me information long after it was too late to do anything about it? This section contains the sign – while there’s still time to choose an alternate route.

What do you need the client to act on? What do you want to alert them to, or warn them about? This section is not the place for legal disclaimers or repetitious caveats. Avoid the project equivalents of “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

One type of alert might be a time-commitment requirement – e.g., for a matter strategy meeting.

Another might include a due date for client action – e.g., identifying custodians in time to meet a deadline. Other alerts might include the need for a client decision – immediate or near-future – on some aspect of the matter.

It might also include alerts as to availability, such as a note that the lead lawyer will be out of the office next week (include contact-instead info as needed). While this type of alert will likely lead to no immediate client action, it is still action-related in that it will inform any action the client does choose to take.

Approximate Spend to Date

You might add a fourth one-line section to keep the client current on budgetary issues. If so, make clear that the practice hasn’t vetted this number and that it is but a rough estimate. Some clients approve individual bills without maintaining the necessary full awareness of the total cost of the matter. Spending totals can become an issue at the end of fiscal quarters, for example. A prepared client will be better positioned to offer guidance as to how to meet her fiscal needs along with her legal needs – and will be more able to defend the project/matter budget to the GC or law department controller if she has this information before she’s asked about it.

Finally, given that you don’t know who’s going to be a first-time reader with any given report, you might – but don’t need to – add a fine-print explanation at the bottom.[3]

[1] Not all project managers consider it a good thing for clients to read progress reports, especially if there’s been no real progress. Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t get better with age.

[2] Think of it as “delivering the pizza.” It doesn’t matter how well you toss the dough, how fresh the tomato sauce, or how thick the toppings. If you don’t get it to the person who ordered it, it’s useless.

[3] I mean it – small print. Not parking-stub small or in bottom-of-a-movie-ad condensed type, but noticeably smaller than the body of the report. And use a medium-gray font. You’re not hiding anything, but you don’t need to distract regular readers with this stuff. It’s useful only to someone new to a 3×3 report.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    This is directly related to the kind of one-minute stand-up reports used in “agile” projects, directly aimed at informing fellow team members, rather than customers.

    In such a scheme, I expect to say
    – what I did yesterday
    – what I’m blocked on (and who can unblock me later)
    – what I’m hoping to do today.

    I then expect my PM to use that information to
    – help get me unblocked
    – report to the people paying for the work