So, last week I talked about Just in time reporting – getting the information to the right people while it’s “hot.” This week, I want to talk about getting the right information there. This can be tricky! There are some serious pitfalls. There are problems with giving useless information, presenting the information incorrectly, giving too much, too little and so on. Let’s start with the quantity of information.
You will rarely hear your stakeholders ask that you give them less information; because of this it is your job to start with a little as possible without giving so little as to be meaningless. Ha – that was easy to say! It has been my experience that every time I present information I get good comments about how the information can be used, and am asked if I could include “a breakdown by month”, or “a list of projects over $1million”, or…. This means that if you start with a lot, you will end up with too much information and the associated excess of work. So what is enough?
Let’s look at it this way; you are usually producing reports for some level of management. So what do they want to know? In my experience both as a provider and recipient of these reports, the primary questions are: How are my resources being spent (time, people, money)? Will we do what we said we would do? What can I do / what do you need of me? Although these are all closely linked, let me address them individually.
How are my resources being spent? Any project is an investment by your stakeholders and they want to know how their investment is doing. Did they spend the right amount? Are the resources the right ones? Will the investment pay off? In order to answer these questions, you will focus on the past and the present. These metrics or measures are often seen in dashboards. So some examples would be milestones, earned value, budget, time spent, adherence to schedule, utilization and other similar measures. The purpose here is to say – you (the stakeholder) have invested this (money, people, and time) in the project and we have created this (value, product, service).
Will we do what we said we would do? This relates to commitment and promises. Each project is a promise to meet a need or want of a stakeholder. Those who are receiving the end result of the project want assurances that they will get what they want. While those contributing to the project want assurances that their investments will produce the desired results. This information will focus more on the scope of the project than on the cost / time aspects. Measures here might be number of requirements met or forecasted to be met. Change control information, quality measures, achievements and deliverables demonstrate that the project will achieve what is expected.
Finally, management wants to understand what is needed of them. Everyone wants to contribute to the success of the project, but it is not always obvious how this can be done. Most of those reading your reports do not have intimate knowledge of the projects and do not know immediately what is needed. It is then your responsibility to simply ask for help as needed. Do not assume that any fool seeing this report would know to do such and such, simply ask for the help and explain what is needed and why. If you need more time, money, resources ask. If you are stalled because of a particular problem, call in the big guns. That is what they are there for.
Well, that’s all well and good, but what does a “just enough” report look like. Here is my criteria:
1. KEEP IT TO ONE PAGE LONG AND NO LONGER !!!!!!!! (I can not stress this enough) – if you can’t say it in one page then don’t expect anyone to listen and it is YOUR FAULT – management does not have time to read excruciating details about everything they are involved in or responsible for. That’s why they hired you! Give it to them short, accurate and ON ONE PAGE!!
2. Use illustrations and diagrams whenever possible. This is not because words and numbers are too complicated for pointy haired managers, it is because pictures communicate more information in less time and with greater accuracy. If you haven’t studied work by Edward Tufte then do so. The expression of information is vital in our work for so many reasons.
3. Answer the three questions above. If you don’t, you will be asked these questions every time. Take care of this up front.
4. Tell a story. Make your report more that a point in time snapshot, show the past and predict the future. Some models are good at this – EVA has a lot of potential. One that I use is to show simply actual expenses against budgeted. I use a graph with a line showing actual expenditures up to the current date with a colored in area showing past and future budgets. Bind the past, present and future together in a consistent flow that tells a story of your project(s).
5. Keep the format consistent – same things at the same place on the page every time. Do not make the recipients of the report search for the information every time.
6. KEEP IT TO ONE PAGE – oh – you get the idea – really if they want more they’ll ask. Trust me – you don’t get to Senior management by being shy – keep it to one page, everyone’s life will be better for it – and you will rise to the challenge of presenting just enough information just in time!