Of all the management tools I recommend, one of the most effective is both very simple and very unlikely to be consistently employed—if it is used at all: the written progress report, completed on a consistent schedule.
The power of progress reports to promote results and reduce anxiety is demonstrated daily, on matters titanic and trivial. The U. S. Constitution requires that the President “from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.” Public companies are required by law to present results to shareholders, at fixed intervals and in specific formats. Schools send regular reports to parents, our GPS tells where we are, and UPS sends a text when a package arrives.
Still, managers and employees resist implementing this simple process.
Who cares about why? Just grow up and start doing a progress report. Declare your goals. Confront your results. Adjust to living in reality. Enjoy the benefits of clarity while the less disciplined fail and fail in a fog of vague expectations and inchoate regrets.
Before I explain how to format and prepare a good progress report, let’s deal with some common excuses questions.
Q: I don’t have a boss.
A: If you have a board of directors or advisors, investors, business partners, or clients deliver the report to them. If you do not, write it for yourself. Recording results will focus your effort and a written historical record reminds you of past progress when you seem to be making none and warns of misdirected efforts to eschew.
Q: I don’t have employees.
A: Why are you reading the blog of “The Business Owners’ Executive Coach”? Just kidding.
Do you have subcontractors, suppliers, clients, associates, teaming partners, et cetera? Ask them to prepare a report for you. Or, maintain it yourself by speaking with them on a regular schedule about progress and plans.
Q: I tried this but my boss/partner/client/et cetera does not want/read/respond to it.
A: Do it for yourself, both for focus and motivation but also as CYA. If doubts arise about what has been accomplished or why something has not, you have contemporaneous notes and a documented “I told you so.” A sheaf of progress reports is a firm basis for price negotiations as well as salary and performance reviews. (But you don’t still require reviews , do you?)
Q: This feels a lot like doing my taxes. I hate being confronted with the stark facts of what I have accomplished.
A: Good luck with that. Reality offers no exemptions for ignorance. Keep pretending that you are more productive and valuable than your circumstances indicate. Maybe The Secret will work for you.
A simple design
I suggest four sections, in addition to the date, salutation, and signature. Name them what you please but the basic parts are worked, working, waiting, and worries; what’s done, what’s doing, what’s next, and what’s wrong; or produced, processing, proposed, and problems.
Pick your own words but four categories seems to work in every situation.
How to prepare a powerful progress report.
1. Choose a reporting interval. A day, a week, or even two weeks but no more than a month.
2. Enter the future date on which you will deliver your report. Save the document with a name which includes that date at the end of the file name in this format yyyy mm dd, e.g. Progress Report Sally Smith 2016 01 07. Do this each time and your reports will sort in date order.
3. Pull up the report every few hours and record in the appropriate section the tasks you have been working on or have accepted.
Be specific, tangible, and observable. Use numbers, names, and dates.
Report only essentials. Reference other documents if necessary but leave out definitions, descriptions, and B.S. A progress report is just the headlines, not a Sunday edition.
Try to move items upward, from “in Process” to “Completed” and from “Planned” to “in Process.”
Try to formulate “Delays or Impediments” as requests. Who must do what by when to resolve this and get your results back on track? Be clear and explicit about changes to promised delivery dates or specifications. No one can always do everything they promised but everyone is better off knowing that replanning is necessary.
By the time the due date rolls around your progress report will be complete enough. Don’t try to be perfectly thorough the first time, just get something down. It will improve over time.
4. Discuss your report with the people you work for and with. A fresh progress report is a great foundation for regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings with your manager, subordinates, or executive coach.
5. Enter the next reporting date and repeat steps 2 through 5.
Do not include every action you take. This is not a “To Do List”. Include only significant outcomes that are crucial to your success. Leave out maintenance and waste. If it goes beyond one page reconsider the import of what you include. If it goes beyond two pages reconsider your career options.
Want to take it up a notch? Put a delivery date and time beside each item in “Deliverables” and “Planned Items.” Ready for another notch? Call this a progress report but think of it as a promise report. Treat this like a binding contract, your word and your bond. Treat this report as though your integrity and reputation is at stake and see what happens. It’s a game. Play.
Willing to take this tool to its maximum effectiveness? Post it in the lunch room or on your company intranet. Let everyone affected know what you can be relied upon for and—this is gravy—what you need their help to accomplish.
How to read a progress report.
When someone hands you their progress report, look at the last section first. A big part of your job as a manager or client is remove these “Delays or Impediments” to help produce results. Consider how the delays might impact other deliverables and whether a shift in priorities is required.
Next, see if there are outcomes abandoned in section three, “Planned” or marooned in “In Progress.” Is there an unnamed impediment? Are the outcomes beyond the skills or capacity of the person? User the report to redefine, reallocate, reschedule, or just discard plans that are just not going to happen.
I wish you much satisfying–and duly reported–progress.