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Monday, June 4, 2012

Reports and Reporting

Keeping Score

Recently I had the privilege of conducting another autopsy on a poorly managed and an almost failed project. Several million dollars later we have an upset customer, worn out vendor and staff looking for a career change. 
I mention “almost” failed, because no one bothered to define the success criteria for this project in the first place, so there is no consensus about the failure or success of the project, between the various stakeholders.
One of the tools the vendor used to defend their position on scope and budget was the weekly status reports produced throughout the course of the project. This task was delegated to a project administrator who dutifully recorded as per the instructions of the Project Manager subjective information in a poorly crafted project status reporting document.
The customer wanted to know how a project status report can record that all is well with the project the one week, and the next week that the wheels have come off, and the train derailed. Surely, there should have been signs that things are not going as planned before it all turned into a mess.
The customer’s argument is that the project’s poor and inaccurate reporting quality, is evidence of poor management, planning and control, and that the vendor as a result is to be held accountable for the project overrun and failed objectives. 
In this blog entry, I am not going to give you my opinion about this specific project, but rather elaborate about the value of reports in the management of projects, and management in general. 
In the case above, poor reporting played a crucial part in tipping the argument in the client’s favor. The vendor will definitely pay closer attention to their reporting in future. It is a lesson they dearly learned on this one. 
“How do you know you are winning the game unless you are keeping score?”
Reporting Value

Reports fulfill several important functions. In this Blog entry we will take a closer look at three of these functions: communication, learning and recording.
No one can dispute that we produce reports to communicate important information. The PMBOK® highlights a process in the Project Communications Management Process Group called Performance Reporting.
In this process, the main tasks include the collection of data and distribution of information to all stakeholders of the project. The information typically included, covers how the resource of the project are deployed to meet the project outcome objectives. The headings in such a report includes information about scope, the schedule, the quality of delivery, the cost, risks, changes and value delivered.
Each project has some accepted form or template to capture the above information in a standard document. However, we tend to forget that if communication is the primary objective, then we need to understand what role this tool - the status report - plays in the communication process. It is not the only form of communication, it is not the most important, but it has a substantial place in parting with important information. 
A simplistic view of the communication process highlights that it all starts with an intent that is captured in a message by the composer (the person that wants to communicate). 
The composer uses some form of language or semiotics to encode his message. It is then captured in a transponder or medium like a document, web page, video, conversation, etc. to be delivered to the receiver (the person intended to obtain the intent or message). 
When the receiver obtains the message in the medium, he has to decode the language/semiotics and apply context before he can fully unlock the intent from the composer.
By now, you may think that I have lost the plot on reports. 
However, as you can see from the above, that communication is no simple process. Unless the composer is conscious of the limitations and impacts of the various elements in the process, then there is a real risk that the intent, or message is distorted or lost on the receiver. 
The receiver’s own context may also contribute to the message being misinterpreted. “Good” and “success” in one person’s mind may be something completely different in the mind of another.
Therefore, be careful in the value you attach to the communication power of your project status and management reports. Be aware that the way the report is constructed, and the information captured needs to be done with the knowledge of the limitation of both the medium and with the awareness of the context of your intended recipient(s). 
I have often seen that a report out of context (like one studied by an auditor after the completion of a project) can create all kinds of confusion about what really happened, was intended, or communicated at the time of the report.
Management Value

A report also supports learning. 
An old Zen saying goes like this: “In beautiful music, it is not the notes, but the spaces between the notes that matter.”
Similarly, a report is a valuable tool to record and review the information that accompanies outputs from one process and inputs to another - the spaces between processes. 
This information is then used to make adjustments to the delivery and to control the outcome towards the desired results. The report becomes a learning tool that tells you as project manager and your fellow stakeholders, how well you are doing against expectations, and also what adjustments may be required to improve your progress towards, or quality of your process outcomes.
Lastly, a report is also a journal of what happened at a point in time during the project or process. It is a record of things that happened on your project, or in your business activities. You can capture trends and patterns in information in your reporting document or dashboard that shows how the information has changed or evolved over time.
The primary objective of a journal is to serve later scholars to learn what, how to, or how not to do a project or business activity. Contrary to popular belief, it is not intended to cover your butt when the auditors show up to audit your project. If you focus on the key objectives of your reporting, then your auditor will indeed be your friend when reviewing your reports.
Consider that if the report is to serve as a journal, or learning aid for future project managers and scholars, what information should additionally be included and added for value and context when it is read 10 years or 100 years from now.
Tips and Techniques

I have used reports to be effective in all three the above situations. 
Early in an engagement I work with the team to establish the key measurements that will provide feedback on how well we are doing in meeting our objectives. This way, the team owns the measurements, and the data can be collected and reported from source. Everybody buys into the control measures in place, and it is easy to expect them to engage in corrective actions when the measures show something to be wrong.
There is nothing worse than reporting on hear-say. Be sure that you have the originator of the information supply the required detail.
We also measure key drivers that put the above mentioned objectives at risk, and try to include as much trending and visual representations like graphs and pictures as possible on what we report. This way each stakeholder can engage in corrective or preventative activity purely based on the measures captured in the report. 
No one is excited about writing or reading reports. A key focus should be to make it as painless to both compile and consume the information in a report. 
I favor the use of visual dashboards with traffic light indicators (Green, Amber and Red). It makes it easy for the reader to quickly familiarize himself with the content, and where required, the detail can be studied or supplied by request. 
Be careful to revisit each indicator regularly, and ensure that the same measurement criteria determining the color of an indicator is used throughout the project. 
Be factual. Let the data speak for itself. Rather include a section where opinions or comments are included. This way no one can manipulate the content for their own agenda, and chances are that all stakeholders will be able to work from the same set of assumptions, instead of the opinions of a manipulative project manager or sponsor. 
Let me know how you use reports to support the objectives of your projects or business operations, and I will gladly include it in this post.
Your comments are always welcome. Happy reporting.
Hendrik van Wyk

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