If you ever led a professional activity in an organization, you either felt compelled or were asked to share a periodical status. The larger the team involved and the more complex the activity is, the need for some way to sync and align everyone on where we stand increases, and with it, the amount of attention these status reports steal.
Many people already understand that status meetings are a waste of time. In most of these meetings, one person presents the status while other participants are mostly silent. Status meetings are mostly passive. Most items on the agenda are relevant to a subset of the team, and some are already known to most. When a discussion is needed, it will usually be postponed to a dedicated meeting. And if you happen to be invited to a couple of such meetings every week, it is hard to think of them as anything but a productivity black hole.
That’s why many people adopt what appears to be a more effective way to share the status: an email.
Email creates the perception of an agile and lightweight medium, especially when compared to a meeting. And while it could theoretically be better, it still imposes a considerable overhead and a costly distraction.
When you share a status report over email, you broadcast many details to many people. Unlike a meeting, which is typically limited in time, an email report can contain much more information. The more information you add, the greater the chances additional people will be added to the distribution. But the fact remains that each part of this information is relevant to a different subset of people, which means most people will have to read much more than needed to find the relevant data.
But it doesn’t stop there. Soon after you send the email report, someone will have something to say: an insight, an opinion, a question, a correction, or a follow-up. Whatever it is, the default action would be, unfortunately, to “Reply All.” It is not uncommon for a status report to be shared with dozens of people, in which case each reply also finds its way into dozens of inboxes. And if then someone picks up the thread and replies again, another tsunami of emails ripples throughout the organization. An innocent status report can create hundreds of distractions; again, most of them are arguably irrelevant to most people.
The accumulated cost of an email thread could be higher than that of a meeting. And if several such reports are sent by different activity leaders each week, the impact on the project — any project — is unbearable, even if it is barely noticeable in real-time.
So, if email reports are not the solution, what is?
When it Comes to Status Reports, Pull, Don’t Push
The solution is surprisingly simple: don’t push your status reports; let people pull them.
All you have to do is define a shared location where the current status can be viewed. Instead of sending the report, you’d update that shared page or file. The people who would typically be on your distribution list will know that whatever they need to know about the status of your activity is available there. Nobody gets distracted by you pushing a report over email, but everyone has access to the data relevant to them.
That’s not all, though. A shared status report, whether in a file on shared storage or a page in your organizational wiki, could be designed far better than your typical email. In particular, it is pretty easy to create it such that anyone can find the subset of information relevant to them more quickly than they could in a linear email. A smart modular design can also provide various levels of details, so while some people will settle with the high-level status, others could easily drill down into the bits and bytes and derive more operative insights for their teams.
When multiple reports are shared each week by different stakeholders, a well-thought-out structure can make the various bits of data more consolidated. Instead of opening numerous emails and jumping back and forth between them, each manager and team member will be able to navigate the entire status within a single location, maybe even with cross-referenced pieces of information.
If additional people should be added to the loop, you won’t need to forward anything or, even worse, reply all plus one. Having a well-known fixed location allows anyone to access the information. Restricting sensitive information is also relatively easy on most systems built for pull-based collaboration.
If all this sounds like a fancy project dashboard, it’s because it kinda is. But this doesn’t mean you need any fancy tools or capabilities. Even if your entire status is textual, your organization will immensely benefit from a pull approach to status alignment. Of course, this doesn’t mean the information goes only one way. Discussions, feedback, and follow-ups are likely and desired. However, with a pull approach, they are more likely to happen one-on-one between a reader and the owner of the data. Any change to the report that might be required following such discussions will be done on the same shared resource, so everyone will see it as it happens.
Push-based reports give control to the publisher — a radical control over the time and attention of many, sometimes dozens of people. A pull-based approach gives back control to the consumers of the report. They are in control over their time and attention. They are in control over the deep work they have to attend to. They can have the information they need when they need it.
The pull approach to sharing information is the only way to bring focus and attention management back to the organizational playground.