The Perils of Excessing Reporting

“I need that report on my desk first thing in the morning!”  While this sounds like something out of an 80s movie, how much time are you spending on status updates?  Is your organization getting the business value out of these updates?

Many organizations spend upwards of 60%of their energy reporting on the work they do the other 40% of the time.  What would happen if they spend less time reporting, and more time doing?

Consider this scenario, you report to your boss that you are behind schedule for a project. What action does this spawn? Perhaps they simply tell you that you need to catch up. Or maybe they intervene and go pull people off something else to help.  Another possibility is that they approve a plan update to adjust the deadline. Did any of these actions create business value?

Why are reports such a black hole?  What can we do about it?

Executives aren’t getting the information they need.  Excessive reports are usually driven by executives who can’t get the information they need.  In an effort to get control, they ask for as much information as possible. This creates a huge administrative burden and puts the onus of interpreting the information on the executive.  

Use status reports to spot problems, not to solve them.  Status reports are indicators on where to look for more information.  For example, a sales report doesn’t need to show reams of data on every account, it needs to show me which accounts are declining.  Once I know this, then we can analyze just those accounts.

Status reports are not proof that your team is working hard.  In an era of layoffs, many people feel that status reports should show that you are busy and working.  I’ve heard the comment “we need more stuff to show.” No, please don’t show a lot of “stuff”, just show what’s relevant and where you need action.  If your executives don’t feel like you are working, that’s a different discussion.

Make a list of questions the reports need to answer.  A great way to start is by sitting down with the report recipients and ask them how they use the reports.  What’s missing that they wish they had? What actions or decisions do they make based on the reports?

From my experience, these are the top questions that status reports seek to answer:

  1. Are we getting better? What can I do to help us improve? This question seeks to assess the overall organization as a system.  For example, are we delivering/selling/etc more widgets this month than we did in prior months?  Is our quality improving? The executive then looks for decisions or actions they can take to improve the business.  If the actions are simply to tell people to fix it, the reports will quickly cease being authentic.

  2. How are we tracking against specific commitments?  This is close to the traditional status report, with a few subtleties.   First, we are only tracking to the next milestone. Second, it’s all quantitative.  “We have 10 features to deliver by June, we’ve burned half the time and we’ve delivered 6 features.”  There is no partial credit here, it’s done or not done. Too many teams report 80% done week after week.  Third, targets are not signed in blood, teams are focused on outcomes, not specific deliveries. However, it’s fair for executives to expect to have transparency to how they are tracking.  What actions will they take? They may need to reset expectations with a customer or business partner, or they might decide to launch early.

  3. What are the risks and impediments? Impacts?  What possible risks are we facing? What is getting in the way of faster, better delivery?  And what is the impact? Sure, it’s annoying that you have to enter your time in 2 systems but what is it really costing us? It is the executive’s job to manage risk and clear impediments.  If you have a culture that says “Bring me solutions and not problems” your executives are missing out on the opportunity to mitigate risks and clear impediments. They will also be surprised by problems and delays.

Real-Time, Self Service Reports.  Once you have your reports designed properly, automate them!  When people are updating their information daily, reports can be updated real-time. Executives can go and pull them anytime.
I often hear people say that no one wants to make daily updates.  If your executives start looking at the reports on-demand, they will make their updates daily. It creates a virtuous cycle.

How are reports adding or detracting value in your organization?  Let us know!