Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 17;   April 22, 2020:

Intentionally Misreporting Status: I

by

When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity?
A portion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A portion of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The United States' approach to conduct of the Viet Nam War is now viewed as having suffered from several strategic errors. One of these was the emphasis on enemy "body count" as a metric for engagement success. Pressure on field commanders to achieve high levels of this metric was so great that "body count inflation" occurred, as field commanders took steps to deliver reports that their superiors wanted to receive. The ensuing distorted view of "ground truth" made for difficulties in prosecuting the war. See "Declassification of the BDM Study, 'The Strategic Lessons Learned in Vietnam,'" available here.

Many of us file status reports regularly. Writing them is no fun. When the work is going well, writing the reports can feel like a boring chore that seems to be taking time away from doing real work. And when the work isn't going well, writing a status report can be a dreaded, painful chore that many find difficult to perform with integrity.

Whatever your role, reporting status with integrity is part of being a professional. Management relies on truth in status reporting as the foundation of its decision-making process. Because making appropriate decisions on the basis of misleading or incomplete status information is essentially impossible, misleading status reports are a threat to the enterprise, and therefore they threaten everyone's jobs.

Here's an example:

Jenn manages a sizeable enterprise effort — 85 people and a budget to match, over a period of just over two years. She and her team have divided the work into a set of tasks, each led by a task lead. Late last week, over coffee in his office, Mike told Jenn that Marigold, the module Mike's task team is working on, finally looks like it will pass its tests. Marigold has been a real problem. It's now two months late, but Mike is "very certain" that Marigold is "over the hump," as he put it.

So Jenn was looking forward to Mike's status report, which was due at the close of business last Friday. It didn't arrive. She texted him, emailed him, and voicemailed him, but here it is, 9:05 Monday morning, and he hasn't yet responded. Jenn's status report was due at 9:00. She needs to say something about Marigold.

Jenn has a difficult choice. Mike is a friend and respected engineering manager. Her choices for reporting Marigold's status are "Green" (all is well); or "Yellow" (probably OK pending resolution of an outstanding issue); or "Red" (in deep trouble needing prompt intervention); or "TBD" (I'm still investigating); or "Unknown" (no status report received).

Senior management has previously given everyone guidance: if status is unreported they want to know it. A missing status report could indicate communication system failures, accidents, ill health, concealment of major failure, insubordination — almost anything. Jenn also realizes that reporting status as "Unreported" could make trouble for her friend. She's tempted to report Marigold status as TBD.

I hope the problem is now a little clearer. Misleading status reports
are a threat to the
enterprise, and therefore
to everyone's jobs
Jenn is pondering the TBD choice, because Marigold's status is still being determined. Or she could report Marigold status as Yellow, because she had received an oral status report from Mike that indicated that the test was underway and the results would be available soon. Or she could report Marigold status as Green, because Mike was "very certain" that all is well, and Marigold would pass the test.

All of these choices are "technically" honest in the sense that there exist facts to support each choice. But these choices are also "technically" dishonest, because they would convey a misimpression of the true situation, namely, that Marigold's status is unreported.

The choice one makes in these situations depends on one's definition of "honesty" in status reporting. One test people use to determine honesty is the Evidence Test:

Do I have the facts and evidence I need to support the status I chose to report?

And another very different test is the Reality Test:

Upon receiving my report, will the recipient of my report have an impression of the situation that's actually in alignment with reality, as I know it?

Reports that pass the Evidence Test might not pass the Reality Test. But even though the reports Management needs are those that pass the Reality Test, many people write reports that pass the Evidence Test more closely than they do the Reality Test. Because Reality reports can trigger management actions that friends, colleagues, managers, and executives don't like, some people are reluctant to file Reality reports. Reporting Reality sometimes requires integrity, and it can be difficult at times. But avoiding reporting Reality can be the more difficult course. Why is reporting status with integrity so difficult? I'll examine that question in more detail next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Intentionally Misreporting Status: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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