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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8 Comments

  • Gen Hendrey

    Cool! The repeat comments on this article have been removed. That was fast!

  • Gen Hendrey

    @Bruce Baker (and anyone): Maybe someday Fast Company will get around to fixing the bug that leads to frequent, multiple repeats of a single comment. I know I've written to them a couple of times, and I frequently see other users commenting similarly. In the meantime, one thing that's helpful to know is that when you submit a comment, and the page either freezes up, or cycles for several minutes, and eventually produces an error like this:

    Proxy Error
    The proxy server received an invalid response from an upstream server.
    The proxy server could not handle the request POST /blog/dan-heath/switch/ask-dan-heath-problem-monthly-reports
    Reason: Error reading from remote server
    VoxCAST Server at www.fastcompany.com Port 80

    ...in such a case, your comment has probably been recorded. Navigate back to the article, refresh the page a couple of times, and your comment may show up. Why Fast Company doesn't just fix this is beyond me. It's been like this for months.

  • Fred Nickols

    Behavior is our means of achieving and maintaining control over certain aspects of the world about us. People do or don't do what works for them. That suggests two possibilities: (1) not turning in the report has some kind of payoff and/or (2) turning it in on time doesn't. Finding out which is the case is the stuff of managing performance.

  • Chris Reich

    People like to do work of value and meaning. I often work with companies that want me to help set up sales reports. Then they want procedures for emailing in the reports.

    Salespeople love that. They love to document their every activity, every sales call, every conversation. And they especially enjoy documenting every quote so the boss can see their rate of failure.

    They have the most fun on a sales trip doing reports.

    Travel and meet all day, spend the night in a hotel room doing reports. What could be better than that?

    Consider the value of the data. Say a business has good salespeople and lousy salespeople. You can get all the information you need from the actual SALES report. Right?

    Sure, there are reports that just have to be done. Maybe you work in a government agency and have to document every person served in order to justify the budget of the department. So be it. We have to do some things just because we have to.

    Back to value. Can you show, through your own monthly report which you will dread having to do, what the value of the data are? For example, from the reports I see the close rate has dropped by 15%. You guys are doing great in a rough market, is there anything marketing can do to help raise the close rate? What are the objections you are hearing?

    Or...

    The call center reported a 10% decline in calls last month. Looks like sales is getting the answers out there so customers have less need to call. This is a great trend. Thank you.

    See? Most resistance to completing reports is not laziness as much as failure of management to express the value of the report.

    1. Eliminate reports which are not truly meaningful (if my sales are great, do you really need to know how many people I talk to every day?)
    2. Be wary or eliminate reports that compel me to make myself look bad. OK, I only made 3 sales calls last week but I WAS tied up with that big screw-up accounting made with our best customer.
    3. Express the value of data. Because of last month's feedback, we're going to reduce pricing by 5% on orders of over 100 units. It's the information from your reports that is helping guide operations and marketing. Thanks for taking the time to get those in.

    I don't see too much reporting very often. I do see too much reporting of useless data and too little reporting of meaningful data. And I rarely see creative reporting. (Pictures from receiving of incoming damaged goods?)

    Chris Reich, Business IS a Science
    www.BizPhyZ.com

  • Barron Collodi

    Dan, another thought: perhaps they get nothing in return from the task. Do you do anything with the information or is it a one-way street of communication? They may have no idea what you do with their contribution or get no synthesis of what you have understood or think of their information. try giving something back to complete the cycle.

  • David Molden

    When I was a young rookie manager I used to send my regional managers a league table report showing the various levels of productivity. It had no value for them and half of them ignored it. I soon learned to involve my managers in deciding what data they needed to run their business, and what format to create it in. The result was a more meaningful report we all agreed to work by.

    David Molden, FCIPD
    www.quadrant1.com

  • Tony Mayo

    Dan makes good points worth pursuing. Another fundamental cause of late and incomplete reporting is people's reluctance to confront reality, to engage in conversations about what is actually happening. Writing a report makes explicit what we have and have not done, makes clear how well we are contributing and keeping our promises. Damaging our reputation and the risk of losing our place in the team is looms large when reporting. A path to the solution is here: http://tr.im/2truth

  • Bruce Baker

    Great post Dan. You hit on W. Edwards Deming's positive intent or what practioners of the Toyota Production System call respect for humanity. When people have problems with "a thing" you should examine the "the thing" for problems before blaming people. You also hit on the lean manufacturing concept of visuality. Make performance viusal - publishing it at the meeting - and performance will generally improve or at minimum the issue will become part of the public space.