Believe it or not, collecting status in large organizations is a difficult problem; one that new leaders, in particular, struggle with and spend countless hours trying to figure out.
It’s easy to see why. Managers, and particularly those at senior-level, are expected to be able to represent their team’s work to their peers and upper management. Similar to how engineers are evaluated based on their in-depth knowledge of a particular system or tool, leaders are evaluated on their ability to answer the important questions of the moment about their organization. The easiest way to do this is through status reports. When they work well, status reports enable leaders to demonstrate a deep understanding of their team – inspiring confidence from their peers – and provide the ability to manage expectations, minimize unpleasant surprises, and brag about the great work that’s happening.
The problem is that status reports are boring. And while almost every mature organization has some version of collecting status, oftentimes it is rendered ineffective by inconsistency or indifference as our proclivity for the shiny and new wrestles with the mundanity of the boring and consistent.
What’s not working?
The common arc of the status report looks something like this: for many first-timers out there, myself included, we try to collect status via surreptitious or oblique means. We know our teams are busy. We know we never liked writing status reports when we were individual contributors, so now that we hold the power, why would we carry forward that misery? We spend our time listening intently during standup, diving deep into Jira tickets and dashboards, or trolling through commit logs trying to assemble a coherent picture from the disparate data points being gathered. As our organization grows, the time investment scales linearly with the number of folks in the organization. At some point, maybe around 20 engineers or so, we can no longer keep up. We are now spending hours piecing together a broader narrative from the slivers of context we can glean from commit messages, ticket updates, and Kanban boards. We end up sifting through a lot of noise before we derive a good signal.
Instinctually, you know this broader narrative is important; it’s because our brains are wired for stories and drama, not data points. In order to get your colleagues engaged with your work, you need to craft the highs, the lows, and the greater promise of where we are headed to pique their interest.
Eventually, you break down. It’s untenable to continue to underwrite the cost of manifesting mouth words from data points. You implement a high-pass filter in the form of asking your managers to deliver a weekly report. You’ve been in enough leadership meetings to get a sense of what your peers and execs are interested in, and create a template with three main buckets of information: what’s going well, what’s going poorly, and what’s on deck in the next week. The next few months are fantastic. You have recouped hours of your life. Every week, come Monday, you have a nice report from each of your teams and because it’s in prose and follows somewhat of a story outline, it’s easy to remember. For the first time in a long time, you walk into your leadership meeting feeling confident that you know what’s going on and you can represent your organization. Why did you wait so long to do this?
But as the next quarter or two go by, you start to notice your managers becoming less consistent with submitting their reports. They start coming in late. First by a day, then by two. At three days late is it even worth submitting since the next deadline is just a few days away? Then they stop submitting reports altogether. You mention it to them in your 1:1s and they acknowledge they’ve been slipping. They promise to do better. And they do – for a little while. But, before long, they’ve fallen back into inconsistency.
You have a follow-up conversation with your managers. What’s going on here? You learn that from your manager’s perspective, they’re not getting any value from writing these reports. The hours you used to spend are now placed on their shoulders. They don’t really know who the audience is. Are they writing for you? Are they writing for another manager? There’s no feedback on whether they’re doing a good job or not. Is anyone even reading them anymore?
And this is where many efforts end: in a long, slow downward spiral into marginal usefulness. But, I implore you not to give up! Status reports are still very important – not only for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but also because as a leader they bolster your predictability core need. The day-to-day of running a large organization already has you feeling like you’re not in control; establishing a regular cadence of updates across your teams can actually make you feel safer and prevent you from ceding to the worst expressions of your lizard brain. (You need look no further than the rise in surveillance software during the pandemic to see how easily we succumb to our maniacal tendencies.)
So, what can we do?
Keeping status reports interesting
Be clear about how much time you want folks to spend writing these reports and who their intended audience is. This helps people scope their efforts accordingly. I generally want my status reports to take no more than 45 minutes to write and I hope to need less than 10 minutes to read them. I don’t want a novel. I also make clear that while anyone can read the report, the primary audience is your manager which means folks can assume that the reader has adequate context about their work and so they don’t need to explain it in their report.
Give and take
From the author’s point of view, writing a status review can feel like sending a message into the ether. Finding ways to acknowledge receipt and show engagement in someone’s status report provides that little bit of dopamine that can keep someone writing. There are a number of ways to do this: the easier solutions being centered around using some sort of collaboration platform like Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, to any number of tools out there like 15Five, Fellow, or Range. This is really important. There’s a reason social media is so engaging and leveraging some of that into your status reports can help create sustainability.
Reflection and upward feedback
One of the things I found when implementing status reports was that they disproportionately benefited me and not the author, and so I started experimenting with ways of balancing that benefit equation out a bit more. Early in my management career, I found a lot of benefit in making time for reflection. So, in an effort to provide some return on investment for the author, from time to time I started adding reflective questions and opportunities to give upward feedback into my status report template. Questions like, ‘What’s your proudest accomplishment over the past month?’, ‘Where could we be improving as a team?’, and ‘What problem are you struggling with right now?’
Of course, no one can be forced into being reflective, but for the folks who opted to invest in these questions, I found a treasure trove of information and connection. Adding these questions provided an opportunity for folks to get some personal reward from writing their report that was independent of the primary value I needed to get from them.
Look, I get it. No one likes writing status reports. But please, don’t give up on them. There are very real benefits if you can get them working in a consistent manner. When they work well, they're like an API for getting important information into your brain while bolstering your sense of security, and providing reflection and upward feedback opportunities for your team.