Pointless reporting

There are few signs of an incompetent manager more prominent than a demand that his or her employees compile weekly reports.

First some clarifications.  If a project manager is responsible for ongoing works in several, geographically-spread locations across multiple time-zones, then regular reports containing pertinent information are useful.  I’m not talking about that.  Also, a single report containing a limited number of project KPIs (e.g. volume of concrete poured, manpower on site, etc.) compiled by one individual each week or month and handed to the project manager is also useful.  I’m not talking about that either.

I’m talking about the phenomenon which I have seen with depressing frequency almost everywhere I have worked.  You have a manager – or rather, somebody masquerading as one – who sits in an office on the floor of a modern building with around 5, 10, or 15 direct reports all of whom work on the same floor mere yards from his own office.  The entire team works right next to each other for 40 hours per week, yet once per week the manager insists each employee fills in a spreadsheet or writes a report explaining what they have been doing for the past 5 working days and, usually, what they will be doing for the next 5.

This is pathetic for two reasons.  Firstly, a decent manager should know, broadly, what each of his employees is doing at any given time, i.e. what project they are working on, the status of that project, and the main issues that have arisen in the recent past.  We’re not talking departments of 40 or 100 people here, this is a dozen or so people working on half a dozen projects.  He should acquire this information not from formal reports but by osmosis: attending the kick-off meeting, being involved in the major issues, but most importantly talking to people.  When I’m working in a department I know what all my colleagues are up to and what the major issues are because I talk to them.  When I was young I tended to get bored easily and so wandered from office to office and desk to desk disturbing people for a natter.  In doing so I learned more about what was going on in the department and who was doing what than my managers.  So when I got older and became a manager, I did the same thing: on an almost daily basis I wander from one employee to another and shoot the breeze (an activity driven in part by the fact I get as bored now as I did when I was a junior engineer).  Within a month or two, you know exactly what everyone is up to and what difficulties they face and, more importantly, you’ve gotten to know each individual as well.  Very few managers do this though, and a common complaint I hear among engineers and other staff is that weeks and sometimes months go by without the departmental manager ever coming into their office (one manager I worked with managed to visit his engineering team – located five or six doors down – precisely once in a whole year).  Yet they receive several dozen emails from him per week.

Secondly, this would not be so bad were the manager just going through the motions of weekly reports because he is compelled to by his own management.  But more often than not the manager genuinely has no idea what his department is doing unless the weekly reports are filled in.  I have seen people occupying middle management positions come rushing into my office demanding I complete the weekly report because he has a meeting with his own hierarchy that afternoon and he needs to know what’s going on.  Anybody in this position should be fired for incompetence, but that would leave few remaining.

It is a good rule of thumb that if you are a manager and you rely on certain information to do your job and that information can be obtained locally, it is far better to go and get it yourself than to try to get people to send it to you regularly.  For a start, you can be sure you are getting the information you want in the form you want it if you go and get it yourself.  And if you have shown enough interest to get it yourself, chances are you’ll be able to spot when somebody is serving up bullshit.  If you are asking people to provide key information as a matter of course instead of going to fetch the information as and when you need it, you’re asking to be duped.

A manager needing his neighbours to fill out reports to know what they are doing is one thing.  The utter uselessness of the reports themselves is another.  A number of years back I questioned the necessity of filling out weekly reports and was assured by my boss that the senior management reads the information therein and as such it is very important.  So I tried a little experiment.  Each week I would change the date of the report but leave everything else unchanged, and submit it as normal.  After three months of this nobody had spotted anything.  Only when I went on holiday did my replacement drop me an email and ask why the information in my last 12 weekly reports hadn’t been updated once.

In another role I once had to stand in for my boss’ boss, i.e. two management levels above me, and as such I went to one of these senior management meetings for which these reports are allegedly prepared.  It consisted of each attendee reading out, line by line and direct from his own report, the entire list of activities his department was engaged in.  The chair of the meeting – a director – followed line by line from his own copy and asked any questions that occurred to him while everyone else sat in silence waiting their turn.  Why the director needed the report and the meeting I don’t know, because one did the same job as the other.  Not that he actually made any decisions based on the contents of the report: all he wanted was to be informed.  I never once heard of a major decision being made based on the content of these reports or any others like it.

I later learned that our subsidiary’s weekly reports, which must have numbered several dozen, got packaged up each week and distributed to over a hundred people ranging from the offshore installation managers to the directors in head office.  I saw one of these combined reports once, it ran to hundreds of pages detailing the individual activities of every department in the subsidiary.  Included were activities such as “report issued for checking” or procedure to be updated”.  The projects’ director in HQ would receive one of these from every subsidiary in the company each week.  For a joke I asked whether he actually read any of them when I was in a progress meeting.  My own manager flashed me a murderous stare and said of course he read them, they were very important because “he needs to know what is going on”.

Which he didn’t of course, and nor did anyone else in copy of the reports.  Because sure as eggs are eggs, whenever any of these buffoons needed an update, or clarification on what we were doing, or was asked to approve something, we would receive an impatient phone call and we’d have to explain the whole situation right from the beginning.  Including to our own department manager.

The short version: if you manager is demanding a weekly report from you, chances are he’s incompetent.  If he says he needs it so that he knows what is going on, he’s definitely incompetent.  If he says he needs it because his own management needs it, the whole hierarchy is incompetent.

“Somewhere in here is our productivity figure.”


4 Responses to Pointless reporting

  1. dearieme says:

    I once wrote a report that began “This is a time for complacency”. Judging from the reaction, no bugger read it.

  2. dearieme says:

    Does nobody study Piper Alpha any more?

    • Jake Barnes says:

      We do, but only in the discipline of technical safety. When it comes to management, the lesson from Piper Alpha seems to be “make sure nothing can be pinned on you”.