Ask Dan Heath: The Problem With Monthly Reports

office-space-shotDear Dan,

Everybody on my team is required to submit a monthly report. Always have been, always will be. Every single month, though, I have to chase some people down to turn it in, like it's a surprise to them that it's due. I've tried being nice, and I've tried being mean, and neither seem to work particularly well. What can I do differently?

- Report Cop

Dear Report Cop, you're telling me that people are consistently turning in their reports late, even though, by doing so, they'll almost certainly incur your wrath. So what that says to me is: These reports are really hard in some way. Maybe they're long, or maybe they're nitpicky, or maybe they require big-picture thinking that makes people's brains hurt. But, regardless, they are triggering people's procrastination instinct. (And you've come to the right place for an answer: Procrastination is an area where I have virtually unparalleled experience.)

So here's a thought: Stop asking yourself, "How can I improve the character of the hopeless slackers on my team?" and start asking yourself, "How can I change the report so that people aren't inclined to procrastinate it?" I'm thinking you may have a Report Problem rather than a People Problem.

No doubt you collect those reports because they contain essential info. But is every single morsel of data truly critical? Take a fresh look at it and, just for the hell of it, yank a couple of things out. Things that are nice-to-have but aren't musts. Then, just for the hell of it, start filling in a couple of things on the form for your people before you distribute it. For instance, you could fill in their name and the appropriate monthly period and anything else that's obvious. Those two steps are tailor-made to fight procrastination: You're making the overall task easier, and you're giving people a head start on the work.

Can I point out something? You barely mentioned those good soldiers on your team who turn in their reports on time every month. I bet you've even got a majority of good soldiers. Here's a question for you: Do your procrastinators know that they're in the minority? If not, then during your next staff meeting, simply publicize the statistics: 72% of your submitted your reports on time, and 28% didn't. You might find that peer pressure works where meanness didn't. What we know from psychology is that people are very sensitive to social norms. Nobody likes to be the underperformer in the crowd.

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