status reports

Communication - how much is too much

In one of the companies I worked for, we had a ritual where every person sent monthly status reports to all his or her stakeholders. In that status report, an employee would write about his wins and accomplishments of that month, the challenges he was facing and plans for the following month.

The ritual had its merits. This was every employees’ chance to showcase his accomplishments for the month and to let the stakeholders know if he or she needed any help. It helped keeping status of the work that he or she was doing and above all serveed as a record of accomplishments that could be used during the year-end performance appraisals.

Having said that, this ritual was not without its flaws. As the saying goes - “the devil is in the details”. In the overenthusiasm of bragging about their accomplishments, people started writing long verbose status reports. Each status report started having at least one full page of accomplishment “stories” and then at the end just a few sentences of challenges and future plans. And as expected, people would spend 2 to 3 hours every month in writing, re-writing and polishing these reports.

Since the ritual was to send the status reports to all stakeholders, each individual contributor in the company would receive at least 20 such reports from various stakeholders. As a manager, I used to receive at least 30 of them! Very soon, I realized that it took a huge amount of time to go through all these reports and then to comprehend actual accomplishments from these long verbose reports was even more daunting.  

I had an alternative and often better (more relevant and up-to-date) route to get updated on current status and that was through my staff meetings. So I started skipping the long accomplishment part of these status reports and instead would go straight to the “challenges and future plans” part. This was to understand if that person needed any intervention from my side and then I would archive the status report in a folder.

One day while reflecting on how I use these status reports, I had a doubt if my stakeholders were reading the status reports I was sending them. Instead of just asking around, I decided to play a small trick. In the next status report I had to send, I copied the accomplishments from the previous month and sent it out! I had the current one ready so that in case someone pointed out the error, I would just say it was an inadvertent mistake and promptly would send out the current one.

My fear came true when not a single person came back to me asking why I sent old accomplishments! To convince myself it was not a one-off oversight, I repeated this experiment three times during that year, with same results.

Bottomline, each employee of the company was spending 2 to 3 hours every month on an activity that was getting wasted because no one was reading those reports. In a 100,000 people company that’s a wastage of 300,000 hours of productivity!!

I had three key takeaways from this small experiment:

1)      While lack of communication is harmful, over-communication can lead to wasted effort and we need to understand what is the right “dose” of communication.

2)      Communication is a two way process. If the receiver is not “receiving” the information, no amount of polishing of the content will help the sender.

3)      We should challenge our assumptions – in this case, the focus was on creating the report and it was assumed everyone was reading them. There are times when we need to critically look at our rituals and prune the unproductive ones.