Why status reports really do matter

Do a poll: many IT folks regard doing status reports as their least favorite task.  My point here, though, will be that a lot of people, management and workers alike, don’t fully understand the real purpose of status reports, and that status reports should actually be a “must-have” arrow in your management quiver. 

How a person regards status reports is, in my view, a litmus test that tends to reveal one’s basic approach and attitude towards management in general. Let me sketch the two diverging philosophies.

I’m a strong proponent of the first philosophy: the idea that managers and workers collaborate towards achieving common goals, just playing different “positions” in the game plan of how to get there.  The opposite view, one that is held by more people than I’d like, is that the manager assigns work, sits back, and judges how well it was done.  If you look at the status report through eyes colored by that second view, you might tend to approach doing a status report as drudgery, a checklist chore with little real utility, and with lots of potential downsides when your boss reads it and determines what you haven’t done well.  That approach can result in status reports omitting or obscuring any bad news, providing all sorts of detail meant to show that everything is going swimmingly, and in essence attempting to prove that the author is a shining star and a veritable dervish of activity.


Well, that’s not at all how I see the purpose of status reports, and it’s definitely not how status reports can actually help an IT department push forward towards its collective goals.  The key start is to recognize that the status report isn’t principally a tool for evaluating the person constructing it. After all, any given project or area can encounter speed bumps and difficulties; indeed, problems are to be expected, and simply because they’ve cropped up doesn’t mean that the person writing the report is at fault.  To the contrary: mentioning problems in a status report is a good thing, because it demonstrates that the person writing it has recognized the problem and is smart enough to escalate it to your attention.

To that end, for the executive, reading the status reports of your direct reports is a really important way to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your department.  The status reports communicate to you in a regular, structured way; they educate you; they make you truly part of the process rather than an outside observer. It’s worthwhile to spend some time honing them with your staff.

As I’ve said before about writing in general, it’s the process that matters as much as the product.  The value of a weekly report is not in the information it contains; it is in the preparation. When I have to produce a status report, I (and my whole team) are forced to review all due and overdue tasks, and we’re likely to push hard to close as many of these as possible.  Nobody wants to publish a status report that shows things aren’t on schedule, so that provides a little extra incentive.  Would that behavior happen anyway, without the onus of producing a report? Sure, in some cases, but an extra kick in the pants to get some of the little things checked off tends to have a helpful effect. And even if that effect is just with respect to clearing away the little things: as the saying goes, “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.”

What about you, the leader, and your own attitude towards status reports?  Are you possibly one of those “don’t bother me with details” executives?  That’s fine, perhaps, but you still need to be a “do bother me with exceptions” executive.  The best exec is the one who actually wants to hear bad news.  Status reports, at their best, often provide early warning of looming bad news, and that warning should be welcomed, with no messengers beheaded.

Let’s get practical, once again.  Here are some specific tips and guidelines to pass on to your staff about status reports:

  • Make and keep the reports short.  I had one direct report whose report grew by a page a week, it seemed, no matter what I told her about the need to keep it short.  Make the focus of the report the exceptions, and don’t spend much time on what’s going according to plan.
  • Make the report read from the top down, like the inverted pyramid rule in journalism:

“Journalism instructors usually describe the organization or structure of a news story as an inverted pyramid. The journalist top-loads the essential and most interesting elements of his or her story, with supporting information following in order of diminishing importance.

This structure enables readers to quit reading at any point and still come away with the essence of a story. It allows people to enter a topic to the depth that their curiosity takes them, and without the imposition of details or nuances that they would consider irrelevant.”

Assume that the reader will stop reading at any given moment. Have you communicated the most important information thus far, or did you “bury the lede“, as journalists say?

  • Sections I like to see included in a status report, in approximately this order:
  • Highlights of period
  • Topics requiring management attention
  • Major activities in period
  • Near-term milestones and target dates (as originally planned and as now adjusted)
  • Key initiatives/progress towards overall goals
  • Staffing report (hiring, departures, etc.)
  • Planned travel/vacation (4 week forecast)
  • The exercise of writing the report, deciding what merits inclusion, is the most important thing of all.
  • It’s not about justifying your job/role/decisions/work level.  It’s about communicating the most important things so that the exec can understand the key issues/impediments, and then potentially help.
  • No one should need to spend more than a half hour a week on completing his or her status report.  Yet, don’t just make it automatic! It’s a communications vehicle, so you want to weigh carefully what goes into it.
  • Try not to give people a “hallway pass” on their reports, meaning absolving them of having to do one for a given week, even if they’re obviously swamped.  Communication is part of everyone’s job.
  • The target audience (i.e., the executive) should be able to “roll up” the summary (“Highlights of Period”) as-is, into a higher-level report.  Write it accordingly.
  • Don’t put in “gotchas” for your boss, or CYAs.  Again, that’s not the purpose of the report.
  • Do collect information about hiring progress, as well as vacations/travel for you and your direct reports; it’s a logical place to record those things for public record.
  • If at all possible, the report should be public, accessible to all in the department.  If there are sensitive matters (personnel, projects, strategies) that need escalation, communicate those separately.

As with so many important things in IT, you’ll know you’ve successfully ingrained status reports as part of what you do when you stop hearing your staff mention them.

Comments

  1. great article, i can relate comletely. trying to get my team to adopt daily status reports using same concepts as you mention. they are still resistant though, even though I tell them it should not take more then 2 minutes per day. the information collection for me and my execs is of great value.

  2. In this day with the tools we have today, post these on a wiki/blog so they are searchable by anyway and can be read by those far away from the usual email distribution list.

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