This is a blog post about status reports. Yep. And I’m not going to lie to you – the fact that I find this interesting enough to write about is simultaneously disturbing, disappointing, and unpleasantly enlightening. I’m not proud, but it was something I was thinking about, and I thought I’d share. You see, I’d written my Monday morning status report for the previous week, carefully going over the reports from my various teams, picking out the information I thought would be of interest to senior management… And then twelve hours later, I was writing up a completely different status report to send to the same person. It got me thinking about the ways in which I communicate, and the different purposes of different types of reports.
- The Five Thousand Footer
I once dated a woman who had been an economist on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. Her job was to help distill everything important that happened in the economy, every week, into a single page of information – which they knew the President would read. This was a huge deal, and they agonized over what to put in, what to leave out, how to present it, etc. In the same way (but perhaps with lower stakes), every manager is going to have to communicate status up the ladder on a regular basis. Your boss’s boss isn’t generally interested in who’s doing what, the results of individual projects, or any of the minutiae of daily life – they just want to know the headlines, most importantly including anything likely to derail a major initiative. Anything else is just an implementation detail, something to be worked out at a lower level. In this report, every major initiative gets a bullet point, with important updates included as sub-bullets.
- The Gossip Column
Alice has been doing a great job on X, and could use some high level recognition. Bob’s project got cancelled, and you’re concerned that he’s started interviewing. You’re planning on making some changes on the team, and you want to give your boss a heads up before you go any further. You’re pursuing some promising candidates for your open reqs, and even though there isn’t anything concrete yet, you want your boss to know you’re actively working on it. You’re concerned about the progress of project Y, and are thinking of moving some resources around to give them some backup.
This report is about going open kimono, giving your boss as much detail about the hidden life of the team as possible. Maybe this is a regular report, maybe occasional, but it’s invaluable for creating context so that your boss isn’t caught off guard if someone quits, or asks for a raise, or a project blows up (for example). It’s also a good way for organizing your own thoughts, and coming up with a bullet point list of things to think about. And, of course, if you go on vacation, or move to a different team, or leave the company, it gives your boss (or successor) a leg up in understanding why things are the way they are.
- The Deep Dive
Sometimes, a new opportunity or risk appears that needs some research or deep thinking. Your boss gave it to you, and expects for you to take care of it, whatever it is. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on your own, but the degree to which you can evaluate the situation quickly and come up with a reasonable plan is a large part of how your performance is going to be judged (the other piece being how you actually deal with it, of course :). It should go without saying that communicating the results of your investigation, and recommendations, is generally highly appreciated. I recommend starting with a quick overview of the issue, then going into the details of your findings, and ending with recommendations or conclusions.
It’s true – I like bullet points. They focus the mind, forcing (ok, ok, encouraging) the prefrontal cortex to stop thinking about the sandwich in the fridge and to grok one very small, easily digestible quantum of information. Just about everyone hates long prose (speaking of which, I hope this post hasn’t rambled too much), so breaking it into bite-sized snacks is an easy way to help your reader.
Well, here we are, I having written, and you having read, a post devoted entirely to status reports. Let us never speak of this again.
What do you think about status reports at an invidividual contributor level, Dan?
I’d say it mostly depends on the degree of autonomy the developer has. Someone who’s working remotely or on a long-term project without well-defined internal milestones is going to have to be proactive in providing detailed updates on progress. In these situations, the easiest way to fail is to disappear into a cave and not communicate with other stakeholders – both because understandings of goals can start diverging, and because they’re going to lose trust in your ultimate ability to deliver (no matter how well you’re actually doing) unless they know what’s going on. Daily reports can be too much, but weekly reports that describe the major accomplishments, and plans for the following week, can be very effective.
For people on well-defined, short-term tasks, process around completion of the task can provide most of the information necessary. But it’s still helpful to have a weekly update. This can provide information to go into the manager’s 50k foot report, or help answer questions when senior management drills down into a particular area and wants more details. Another overlooked reason is that a manager is sometimes called on to answer questions about what happened one or two months previously, and it’s incredibly helpful to have the information in an email in one of your folders. This could be to provide information for tax purposes, or to back up an assertion about the team’s productivity, or to answer a question about a project’s progress.