Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 4;   January 28, 2015: The Limits of Status Reports: II

The Limits of Status Reports: II

by

We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
The cockpit of an A340 Airbus airliner

The cockpit of an A340 Airbus airliner. Airbus cockpits, like most modern cockpits, are designed along the lines of the "dark cockpit" principle. This design paradigm limits interruptions of pilot attention. Essentially, if all is well, the instrumentation refrains from announcing to the pilot that all is well. And when an anomaly arises that requires pilot action, the annunciator itself is the device that the pilot must use to take that action.

We can't do quite that well with status reports, but removing from the stream of reports all those reports that do not require management attention would be a good first step. A more advanced, but just as worthy, second step, would be to remove from reports that are filed any materials of the "all is well" type.

Photo by Timo Breidenstein.

In Part I of this discussion of the limits of status reports, we emphasized the experience and emotions of report authors. Let us now examine five more needs of report authors that arise from somewhat more concrete origins.

Situationally driven report cycles
The report cycle is the interval between successive reports. Calendar-driven or clock-driven report cycles are probably most common. Situationally driven report cycles are those in which events in the project trigger reports.
In relatively quiescent phases of projects, calendar-driven or clock-driven report cycles inevitably lead to reports that contain little useful information. When report authors are repeatedly compelled to generate such useless documents they sometimes develop a cynical attitude toward status reports generally, which can blossom into disrespect for supervisors, policy, and project governance. To reduce this risk, require reports on a calendar-driven or clock-driven schedule, but only if the situation warrants — that is, only if the report has useful content.
Adequate time and resources
Useful status reports highlight important information, distinguish new items from previously reported items, and include projections of future conditions and the assumptions that justify those projections.
Authoring status In relatively quiescent phases of
projects, calendar-driven or
clock-driven report cycles inevitably
lead to reports that contain
little useful information
reports that are actually worth reading requires time and effort. If time and effort are unavailable or severely limited, authoring reports conflicts with other efforts related to the task for which status is being reported.
Budgetary consistency
Projects already underway are operating with existing budgets, which were developed under assumptions regarding status-reporting procedures that were in place when the budgets were last revised.
Revisions of status-reporting procedures that create time and effort burdens significantly greater than those that were assumed in those budgets will compel report authors to reallocate time and resources, or worse, to find ways to circumvent the intention of the new status-reporting procedures. Budget revisions should accompany any changes in status-reporting procedures that require significant additional effort.
Necessary tools
Authoring status reports can be as simple as composing text documents — or not. If high quality reports require access to data, or data analysis, a lack of appropriate tools can make authorship a real burden.
If people lack the tools that would aid them in producing reports with data-related content, the quality of the reports will undoubtedly disappoint. Be certain that the necessary tools are available, and that report authors (or their assistants) know how to use them.
Necessary knowledge
In large projects, status reporting can require compiling reports from component elements of the project. Report authors can be completely dependent on cooperation by the leaders of those component elements.
Such cooperation is possible only if the conditions described above are met at every level of the project that must contribute to the higher-level status report, and if organizational leaders make clear that cooperation is expected.

If status report quality in your organization is disappointing, investigate. How many of these conditions are satisfied? How many are not? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Bottlenecks: I  Next Issue

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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