Advice on producing_great_status_reports

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Some advice on writing good progress reports for business managers.

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Advice on producing_great_status_reports

  1. 1. ADVICE ON HOW TO PRODUCE GREAT STATUS REPORTS Selena Sol selena@selenasol.com http://www.selenasol.com/selena http://www.slideshare.net/selenasolBecause my group in the office had some success this year with defining andexecuting a Comms plan, several times over the last few months, I’ve beenasked by business managers from other groups for advice on how to createsuccessful status / progress reports & newsletters. They are usually looking forbest practices that I can share.Frankly, although I can certainly propose a few best-practice / tips and tricks, thereality is that good reporting requires a mindset / organizational philosophychange more than executing “10 best practices”.So, in this thread, I’ll try to communicate the mindset that business managersshould be trying to help develop – and, OK, at the end, I’ll suggest a few tricks.1. STATUS REPORTS SUCKNobody likes to write status reports. Common complaints include: 1. Nobody actually reads what I write 2. I don’t have time 3. I write too many reports alreadyIf you are a business manager responsible for reporting, and you want to get thesupport that you need from content providers, you must first recognize that all ofthese complaints are absolutely legitimate.1.1 Nobody reads itYou know it yourself. The reality is that many, even most, stakeholders will notread your reports. Some just won’t have time. Some just won’t have interest. Andsome have learning / communication styles that don’t benefit from reports. Andtragically, these tend to be the negatively vocal stakeholders – the ones whoreinforce the frustration felt by content providers, the ones who ask for an updatein a meeting after you have already given an update in the report that theyreceived yesterday – arghhhhh!Of course, the truth is that while not everyone reads a given report, it is not truethat nobody reads it. And even if only 10% of the audience actually reads thereport, you can still get clear organizational Return on Investment (ROI) fromreporting - especially for reports that cover big, multi-million dollar projects. If onlyone reader per year finds a gem that leads to a project change, or a cross-
  2. 2. divisional insight, or a risk-mitigation, the impact for the firm can be far greaterthan the time-cost of reporting.I’ll come back to this point later on, but the key to reporting ROI is to make surethat, 1) reporting cost is minimal through process streamlining, 2) benefit perreader is maximized by having strong, engaging, useful, targeted content andactive readership, and 3) your editorial and distribution process ensures that yourreport is engaging enough so that you drive 10% readership to 12%, and then12% to 20%, and so-on.So while the frustration felt by report authors as a result of low readership is real,legitimate, and unavoidable, there is a bigger, albeit subtle, picture and a veryreal long-tail benefit that should not be overlooked, and can hopefully help toease the sense of justified frustration.1.2 I don’t have timeYou’ve got to have empathy. Our teammates really don’t have time. They areworking like mad to keep up with day-to-day firedrills and driving month-to-monthstrategic deliverables – actually delivering stuff - not the cool stuff you want forreports, but all of the gunk that makes up 85% of everyone’s day. So addingeven a 15-minute per week administrative burden is not as trivial for them as itmight seem to you.Now, this is a particularly tough reality for business managers because yourcontent providers are going to be grouchy and they are going to complain aboutyou behind your back. Such is your life as a business manager.All you can do are two things:First, make the process of reporting as easy as possible, and sometimes thismeans extra work for you in templating, editorial, collaborating with other reportrequestors, or creating streamlined content management systems & processes.Second, you have to buck up and live with the grouchiness. Sorry, there is nomagic pill here. You just need to have empathy and don’t take it personally whenyour content providers vent at you. Their pain is real, and you probably can’t helpmuch.Stay positive but persistent. Try to catch yourself when chasing invariablytransforms quietly into nagging. And this process of degradation, from chasing tonagging, is entropic, so you’ll always, for the rest of your career, have to watchyourself and adjust, no matter how good you get.1. 3 Too many reports!And finally, it is true, especially for a regional staff function (ie: CTO, COO, Riskand Security, SCM, HR, Legal, etc) which sits within a 4-dimensional matrix of
  3. 3. stakeholders, each with very different MIS needs, that our teammates will bestuck in a vortex of competing, semi-repetitive, but necessarily and unavoidablyslightly different reporting.For example, in APAC, each of our heavily matrixed team members needs toreport to the 1) APAC staff organization, 2) Global staff organization, 3) RegionalBU-Aligned organization, 4) Global BU-aligned staff organization, 5) individualproject streams and 6) the Regional management. That means a minimum of 6reports, often on different publication schedules, often with different formats, andoften with different MIS requirements and required levels of granularity. If it took30 minutes per week to write, edit, syndicate, approve, and publish each report,then that would be almost 1/3 of a day per week for each of your contentproviders.What’s worse is that this complex matrix of reports cannot be streamlinedbecause of real, unavoidable, legitimate organizational constraints. Each of thestakeholders really does need a slightly different take on the same materialbecause they have different roles in the firm. And every stakeholder really cannotchange the scheduling due to dependencies. And finally, every stakeholderneeds a different format because medium and message are linked. So we’re allstuck with it. That is why matrix management, though powerful and probablyunavoidable for a multi-national company, is expensive.All this is to say that, at the end of the day, from the perspective of a contentprovider, the one who has to write the report, status reports suck.2. BUT STATUS REPORTS ARE REQUIREDAt the same time, if you sit down with any individual content provider over abrew, most understand the need for status reporting, both for themselves andtheir careers as well as for the team and the firm.So, while status reports will continue to suck, there should be an understandingthat they need to get done.In fact, there are 4 real, tangible, organizational needs that justify reporting andwhich you should remind your content providers about as much as possible: 1. Compliance, audit, and governance 2. Organizational learning 3. Personal discipline 4. Marketing2.1 Doing things rightMore and more, firms need to be able to demonstrate to regulators and tointernal / external auditors that their governance and project execution are wellcontrolled. As a baseline, this means consistent and meaningful documentation
  4. 4. and communication. Reporting forms a minimum acceptable standard thatauditors and regulators require. Without consistent and complete reporting,teams expose the firm to fines, or worse.Any auditor’s first port of call will be communication and decision-makingmechanisms. And this makes sense. If one understands the core function ofgood corporate governance and controls, it is easy to understand why regulatorsand auditors are looking for this collateral. Proper reporting is key to a matureorganization’s ability to do, to decide, to reflect, and to learn (think CMM,TOGAF, PMBOK, CoBIT, etc).Reporting is one of a few foundational mediums needed to create and fosterconversations – they are a mechanism to drive accountability and allowopportunities for stakeholders to challenge. Without reports, inter-organizationalteams are blind, uncoordinated, and prone to bad group-level decision-making.Of course, this is not to say that team meetings, townhalls, enterprise socialnetworks, or other mediums are not also required. Good conversations in anyorganizational require a multi-media approach to reflect the diversity of learningstyles and interests of stakeholders.But at the end of the day, reports must be in place as a baseline control.Reporting is just a part of doing a good job these days. It is not something ‘extra’.2.2 Organizational LearningBut communication is not just about accountability and decision-making.Perhaps more importantly, communication is about making the organization moreeffective by facilitating information flow and maintaining organizational memory,independent of people.The velocity and quality of information flowing through an organization’s veins isa powerful predictor of innovation, cross-silo efficiency (leveraging) andeffectiveness (synergy), client focus, employee engagement, and ‘network’effectiveness.Simply put, the more we share, the more creative, empowered, and smart we arein our jobs, and the happier we are doing them.But, and we’ll talk more about this later, turning communication intoconversations requires active effort from the reporters and the readers. If welecture to a sleeping lecture theatre, then we lose a significant portion of potentialvalue. Reporting only works effectively if we have active and engaged readers.2.3 Personal Discipline
  5. 5. Listen, writing a report is kind’ve like eating your veggies and doing those 20more sit-ups. It’s annoying and unpleasant, but we all have this deep-downrealization that we need to do it because it makes us more healthy.Reporting makes us more healthy because, when done right, it forces us toreflect.Reporting requires that we take a moment to pause from doing and askourselves critical questions like, “Of all the things I am doing, what actuallymatters the most? Am I spending my time on those things, or on other, perhapsless important, things? Who are the stakeholders (readers) that I am working for?Is what I am doing aligned to their goals or have I accidentally strayed? How canI explain what I am doing to someone who might need to know, but who currentlydoesn’t know anything about what I am doing?”Reflection is key to being a human because once sufficiently fed, animals needto learn. I caution against an organizational philosophy that says, “Don’t wastetime reporting. Just get on with it!” People cannot simply do. They need toreflect. They need to reflect.Now, that does not mean that people become reporting machines, chugging outvolumes of bullet points. But it does mean that some reporting is good. Withoutit, and I know you know this is true, we would get caught up in the firedrills andfail to take time to reflect. As a result, we’d be much less effective as individualsor as a firm.2.4 MarketingLast, but certainly not least, like it or not, all organizations are politicalenvironments. As such, marketing becomes a key tool in developing a team ordeveloping an individual’s organizational power and opportunities for expansionor for developing an individual’s career.When people ask the inevitable question, “So what has team X done for thebusiness lately,” whether it is time for promotions & compensations or time forretrenchments, you want to hear loud and consistent cries of, “they are busydoing meaty, meaningful, mission-critical things” from the throng.While good stakeholder management is much more than reports, good reportsare a key tool in the activity, especially when it comes to secondary or tertiarystakeholders.Now, just a note. Be careful that reports do not become a justification foremployment. We’ll discuss this later, but “good’ reports are the starting points (orcontinuations) of great conversations with stakeholders. I’d rather have a contentprovider give me 3 really interesting sentences rather than a whole slew of
  6. 6. meaningless page-filling bullets. It is perfectly fine for reports to be short, so longas they are sweet. It is never about quantity of items.Finally, from a less Machiavellian perspective, reporting is also importantbecause it allows you to drive out messages, make sure that your function isunderstood, solicit feedback, engage the larger firm, and attract collaboration.Especially for a team like CTO which is almost always misunderstood, reportingaffords the opportunity to make the team real and tangible to all the other teamsout there beavering away at their little corner of the universe. When peopleunderstand you, not only are they less threatened, but they understand when toengage you and they feel more encouraged to do so.3. GIVEN ALL THIS, HOW DOES A BUSINESS MANAGER GET GOODREPORTS?At this point, I hope it is clear that while seemingly sucky, reports are necessary,even, dare I say, good, for an organization. So the real question is how do weachieve “good” reporting?Returning to a point made above, good reports are all about Return onInvestment. If we were analyzing the ROI of a business, we’d say: Profit = Revenue - Cost.In the case of reporting ROI, maybe we can say, Value = Benefit – CostIn addition, if we understand Cost as Cost to Produce + Cost to Distribute + Costto Consume, then we have: Value = Benefit – (CP + CD +CC)Further, if Cost to Produce is actually the Cost to Write plus the Cost to Rewrite(as needed) across each content providers plus the Cost to Edit and Cost toFormat and the Cost to Manage the whole production process for the editor, wehave: Value = Benefit – [(Σ(CW + CR) + [(CE + CF + CM) + CD + CC]]Then, if Cost to Consume includes all the consumers, you would have: Value = Benefit – [(Σ(CW + CR) + [(CE + CF + CM) + CD +(Σ(CC))]Now, if we also understand Benefit as a function of quality and a function ofrelevance across the summation of all the report consumers, we then have: Value = Σ[f(Q) * f(R)] – [(Σ(CW + CR) + (CE + CF + CM)) + CD +(Σ(CC))]
  7. 7. Once you understand this basic formula, you should have a good idea of whatyou need to do as a business manager. That is what I meant when I said earlierthat good reporting is a philosophy, not a collection of best practices. As abusiness manager, there is no best way to get good reporting. The goal is tooptimize the formula above, and the method depends on your context as thevariables in the formula will depend on your situation.As such, as a business manager hoping to get high reporting value, you need tobe optimizing the following variables: Σ (1) & Σ (3) The total number of content consumers is a balance between value and cost. You need to find the right balance that gives you maximum returns. f(Q) Quality of submissions. The contributions follow business writing best practices f(R) Content is relevant. It is written at the right granularity, with the right amount of detail and cover strategically aligned content that drives good conversations and decision making Σ (2) The total number of content providers should be minimal while still achieving quality and relevance CW The Cost to Write is minimal CR Cost to Rewrite is minimal CE Cost to Edit is minimal CF Cost to Format is minimal CM Cost to Manage is minimal CD Cost to Distribute is minimal CC Cost to Consume is minimalHowever, as promised, I have a few ideas from our experience in APAC CTOthat may, or may not, be of value.  1. Report readers must be active 2. Editors must add value3.1 Report readers must be activeFrom my experience, and this is a hard truth for an organization and its leaders,the reason most reporting is bad is because the readers, not the writers, are lazyand passive.Imagine that you are in a conference room, laying your heart and soul on thetable, going through a presentation that you worked hard to complete about aproject that reflects a good chunk of your time at work. Now imagine that as youspeak, everyone in the room is busily tip tapping on their smart phones, totallyignoring you, at least seemingly. How would you feel? How well would youprepare for the next presentation?
  8. 8. Well, reports are the same. If the audience is silent and unengaged, reportwriters will quickly disengage as well.So if you tell me that you are having a hard time getting your teammates tosubmit content for a report, I will tell you to stop pestering your team, and insteadgive your team manager a smack on the back of the head – because theproblem probably lies there.If management wants good reporting, managers must visibly and consistentlymake reporting a priority. Here are some good ways to do so… 1. Leaders should make good reporting a formal, compable, objective of every individual on the team. It may be a small % of everyone’s comp, but it needs to be recognized as a priority in people’s formal objectives, and it needs to be part of the comp discussions at the end of the year. At the end of the day, people are fairly simple creatures. They need to know in black and white terms that reporting is a priority and they need to see that the organization is not just paying lip service to the idea. 2. Leaders should hold middle managers accountable for the quality of their reports. I’m not personally a big fan of scolding those who don’t deliver. Instead, good reports need to be publically praised, often. Leaders should be publicizing good reports because it re-clarifies what we’re all trying to achieve with practical, tangible examples of what a good report looks like. It also makes the authors feel really great and motivated to continue doing things right. Note also that the publicizing activity needs to be done in the trenches, with content providers, not just with middle management. 3. Middle managers should actively challenge. There needs to be a review process that is executed religiously. During this review process, every week, middle management should be sending updates back to authors for clarification / improvement. Content providers need to be reminded month-to-month not to slip into triviality or bureaucracy. Middle management should be responsible for messaging and a consistent team voice and needs to take its editorial role seriously. 4. Leaders need to listen and ask smart, informed questions. It’s not just about proving that reports are being read, and we don’t want to turn this into a time-consuming inquisition. But the purpose of reporting is a conversation that leads to a more honed, strategically-aligned operation. That conversation must be two way or it doesn’t work. Leaders and other stakeholders need to play their parts by reading reports critically and reaching out to use the information.
  9. 9. 5. Leaders and managers should personally forward, liberally. Of course, the report in question will be sent to stakeholders as part of the standard process of syndication. However, to reinforce the import, and to facilitate a more meaningful discussion, leaders and managers should be personally forwarding the report, with commentary, to relevant individuals who might not have read the report the first time around (cc’ing relevant content providers). We need to respect the fact that in today’s information ocean, it is natural that people put up barriers to protect against organizational SPAM. A personal approach such as, “Hey John, I wanted to draw your attention to the 2nd bullet in Section 2. Is this something you can help with?” has dramatic power to break through the natural defenses against email that lead to the false negative habit of “delete without reading”.In short, don’t ask for a report unless you are prepared to spend the timerequired to engage and make use of it in a dialog.3.2 Editors must add valueAs the business manager, it is your job to make sure that the leaders, managersand other stakeholders reading reports are critically digesting them and engagingin meaningful discourse as a result. For that to work, you cannot allow yourself tobecome a nag to content providers or a mailman to stakeholders. You need tobe a conversation facilitator.In that role, you have a few important tasks: 1. Edit, cull, and challenge. The business manager is the immediate editor. Far from being a dumb collator, the business manager is the on-the- ground shepherd of the team’s messages. In this role, business managers should be making choices about what is publish-worthy and what is inappropriate as well as what is ready for prime time and what requires another round of word-smithing. If a content provider submits a report that doesn’t make sense to you or doesn’t have a clear value, send it back and ask for a better update. 2. Be clear about quality expectations. You should publish your expectations for the team and include examples of good reports as reference material. The key comms messages should be defined in a publically available Comms Plan that includes a description of stakeholders and an analysis of what we want those stakeholders to “think, feel, and do” as a result of our communications with them. If possible, make sure you send all of your content providers to a good business writing class.
  10. 10. That said, although I think everyone should be fluent in business writing techniques, my personal view is that content providers can write “well enough” by just following 2 simple rules: 1) Make sure that you report only what really matters. Create conversations that need to happen in the organization. Don’t fill up the slide with bullets to prove that you are working hard. Explicitly explain why the reader should care about the update. Reference actual business value. 2) Assume readers have no idea of what you are talking about, Avoid acronyms and take a bit of time to explain basic background so that the update is stand-alone. Oh, one more thing. As a business manager, you should be a master of business writing and editorial yourself. Buy a book, go on a course, just master the art and craft (98% craft) of good business writing. It’s not actually that hard. 3. Remove barriers. For one, have a clear, transparent, and unchanging schedule and format. People need to plan around communication. They need to juggle other communications streams, they need to schedule time to syndicate with the right people, and they may be so far downstream from you that you don’t even know they are doing this! Same goes for reporting templates. If possible, remove style sheet decisions so content providers need only worry about text and can repurpose their text without a bunch of formatting work. Remember, your job is to remove barriers. Take away anything you find that gets in the way of fluid conversations. 4. Be patient and positive, but persistent. People are going to miss deadlines, forget about you, not read the comms plan, ask FAQ questions despite the big FAQ link on the team reporting website, get cranky, slip quickly into trivial bullets, and do any number of other fairly frustrating things. Give them a break. They are human and they are really, really, really busy. At the same time, don’t let your content providers push you around. Make sure that they know that the best way to get you to stop chasing them is just to deliver the work. And, be very careful with name and shame. Use it only when it is absolutely necessary as it is a powerful weapon that can easily backfire.Alright, that’s all I’ve got to say for the moment. Remember, it is not about anyparticular tip or trick, but about a change in mindset that involves more than justyou. Good luck.

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