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  • Writer's pictureBrett Simpson

In my experience…status reports are soul-crushing progress-killers

Status reporting is a way of life in most organizations.  It seems like everything is tracked all the time.  I’ve seen thousands of status reports in my career…some I created, most created by others.  While they come in many forms, they largely serve the same purpose, which is to convey information that enables decision-making.  Usually this includes one or more of the following related to scope, schedule, budget and / or people: Metrics / KPI’s, accomplishments, issues / risks, escalations, $ / time burn down, FTE changes, key milestones and next steps.

Status reports have many names.  We call them dashboards, scorecards, trackers, updates, progress reports, etc.  In my experience though, status reports are soul-crushing progress-killers.  Many status reports and the processes to create them suck the life out of those involved.  They’re overly complex, take too long to create and are rarely used optimally.  In many organizations there’s a mentality or simply a resignation that “this is what we’ve always done (or what the rest of the organization does) for status reporting, so why change it?”

In that case the status report is the antithesis of what it is supposed to be.  I challenge leaders to throw out their old status processes and reports and start from scratch, focusing on two things 1) the information and 2) the roles.

The Information

Information refers to what’s presented when, and why.  Useful information is powerful, but it’s elusive.  Data is death by a thousand cuts until it becomes information.  What’s missing in most status processes is the acknowledgement of the difference between information that’s available and information that’s relevant.  Leaders (i.e. consumers of status reports) must be able to articulate this difference to their teams (i.e. creators of status reports).    

Leaders tell me that “what’s relevant” changes frequently.  However, most status reports are static in terms of format and content from week-to-week, month-to-month…decade-to-decade (ok, maybe that’s too far).  Doing the same thing day-in and day-out results in laziness and a rote approach to the task of status reporting.  There is something to be said for consistency, but not if it hinders progress.  I see too many status reports with information that no one actually uses for decision-making.  I also see reports that are missing information and have empty cells / quadrants / slides.  Clearly room for improvement exists.

The problem with status reports today is that they appear to be created based on a fear of missing out (FOMO).  I’ve observed leader behavior that values quantity over quality of data and information.  The issue with this approach is that there is so much data available it overwhelms those creating, summarizing and consuming the information.  Rather than view status reporting from a scarcity standpoint (i.e. hoarding, more must be better), leaders would be more effective if they based status reporting requirements on the decisions they’re accountable for making.

When creating a status report and the process around it, consider the following:

  • What decisions does the leader make each day / week / month / ad-hoc?  Why?

  • What information does the leader need in order to make those decisions?  Why?

  • Is the information needed available?  If not, why not and how can it be made available?  

  • What format and frequency best fit the leader’s decision-making needs?

  • How can the systems and processes be designed / configured to provide the needed data / information at the right time?  

  • Who are the right people to be involved?

  • What is the status reporting feedback loop?

The answers to those questions will be the framework for a real-time, relevant approach to status reporting that enables leaders to make informed decisions.

The Roles

The roles in the status reporting process must also be examined.

  • Status Users:  Any leader or manager who makes decisions based on status updates; There could be several layers of Status Users depending on the size of the organization

  • Status Reporters:  Anyone who sifts through data to create recurring or one-time reports; These people could have dual roles, by also being mid-level Status Users

  • Status Makers:  Anyone whose work is status-worthy, but they don’t have to do the formal status reporting

A big issue with status reporting is a lack of communication, which is ironic since communication is a key status report objective.  Typically, there’s plenty of communication about the status itself, but very little communication between the three roles as to whether the status is relevant.  

The complaint I hear from Status Users is, “They don’t know what’s important to me and the organization.”  The complaint I hear from Status Reporters and Makers is, “I don’t know why we do this. No one ever looks at it or does anything with it.”  Clearly there’s a disconnect that communication would go a long way toward solving.

Organizations occasionally modify status reporting methodologies because of new leaders, new initiatives or changes in focus.  Unfortunately, these modifications are largely limited to formatting, timing and / or the delivery mechanism.  The entire approach to status reporting needs to addressed.  As with any significant organizational change, it will only work if embraced from the top down, from the Users to the Makers.

An interesting parallel to this is that organizations are drastically changing their performance management practices from static, repetitive, legacy processes to flexible, on-demand capabilities.  Status reporting is an organizational function that can and should do the same.

Special thanks to Alex Collmer and Jason Donnell, who motivated me to examine the underlying relevance of information and roles in my own reporting practices.

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