Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.

“Did you get that memo?” ~Dom Portwood

I’ll be the first to admit that I was adamantly against weekly status reports.  It felt like no one was reading them.  It wasn’t fun or interesting to do them.  They definitely weren’t challenging or mentally inspiring.  And there was no sense of accomplishment when I completed them.  The complete opposite of a good, juicy coding problem that required my undivided attention for days to solve.

And yet, reporting is the most critical of all my responsibilities and a direct reflection on my ability to successfully manage a project.

Why?  I am glad you asked…

Pointless?  Mindless Paperwork?
“Yeah. I got the memo. And I understand the policy. And the problem is just that I forgot the one time. And I’ve already taken care of it so it’s not even really a problem anymore.” ~Peter Gibbons

This is from the cult classic (and personal favorite) Office Space.  They’re talking about TPS Reports which essentially mean “pointless, mindless paperwork.”  Yikes!  Oftentimes, sharing progress updates feels like a distraction from the real objective of actually solving the problems.  And that was my natural instinct when I was asked to provide project status reports.  I did them because I had to.  I wasn’t very consistent and eventually just stopped doing them because it didn’t feel like the best use of my precious time.

One day, I raised my concerns with my boss.  We had an enlightening, open conversation about their purpose, why they’re important and how I needed to approach them with a different perspective.  I think a light bulb came on that day.  In fact, I started looking at everything I was doing with a critical eye.  I realized my developer tendencies were holding me back as a manager.  From that moment, I started writing down observations of how I was doing this role…and thus we have this blog.  Hashtag true story.

Reports declare your ownership of the project.
“Samir and I are the best programmers they got at that place. You haven’t been showing up and you get to keep your job.” ~Michael Bolton
“Actually, I’m being promoted.” ~Peter Gibbons

Perception is an important component to the inner-workings of an office.  You can’t deny it.  Regardless of content, weekly project status reports are a single communication point that very definitively, and broadly, state:  I got this.

This is MY project and I know what’s happening to it.  I am actively working to ensure its success.  I am escalating when risks threaten it.

When you build strong, concise reports that you consistently relay, your stakeholders’ and peers’ trust in you will skyrocket.  It does not matter if they read them or not.  In fact, it’s safer to assume that they actually will not read them.  More on that to follow.

Reports allow busy people to be busy people.
“Not right now, Lumbergh, I’m kinda busy. In fact, look, I’m gonna have to ask you to just go ahead and come back another time. I got a meeting with the Bobs in a couple of minutes.” ~Peter Gibbons

Once they know you’ve got it under control, your leadership can comfortably back away and let the project run its course in your capable hands.  There’s no need to micromanage.  Good reports usually answer the most important questions leadership has at the onset.

When your team sees these reports coming from you to leadership and stakeholders, they see you actively communicating the state of the project.  It sends a message to them that you’ve taken ownership and, more importantly, accountability for the entire project.  They will realize you are dependent on them to do good work.  It will encourage them to make sure they accomplish things that can be shared regularly.

Side note:  really good reports can backfire if you solely depend on them for relaying communication.  When trust goes up and people start thinking it’s safe to put the project at arm’s length, they may not be fully absorbing the details of your report.  Make sure to follow up and double down on critical information in one way or another.

Reports document the project’s evolution.
“It was a ‘Jump to Conclusions’ mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor, and it would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.” ~Tom Saykowski’s and his million dollar idea

I have been in the situation where I’ve skipped a few reports right as the project’s risks came to fruition.  Suddenly, I’m scrambling to tell the story of why the project went off the rails.  Time is fickle and people easily forget.  Consistent reporting permanently tells the story of how you got from point A to point B and how point C even came about.  The devil is in the detail, so to speak, and should the day come where you need to explain your project’s devil, your reports have the details.

Everything that I have only in my head is a huge problem. Not only is there the Bus Factor, but the stress factor of trying to retain all these details.  I want (and this is an underlying theme to this blog) to walk away from work stress-free and disconnected, allowing my reports to be the source of information and truth.

Summary
“This isn’t so bad, huh? Makin’ bucks, gettin’ exercise, workin’ outside.” ~Peter Gibbons

Finding peace is a constant journey for me.  I don’t want to be doing “pointless, mindless paperwork.”  I want to accomplish something every day and I want to actively be living.  At first glance, reporting doesn’t seem so important, but can be crucial to keeping powerful forces at bay that allows you that peace of mind.  Effective communication is a key responsibility of a project manager and your reports should operate as the crème de la crème of that skill.  I now respect and prioritize my reports and cherish the opportunity to briefly grab my peers’ attention to remind them of the awesome things we’re doing day-in, day-out.

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Four Simple Goals of the Desired Project Manager

When I switched from a team member (i.e. “developer”) to a team leader (i.e. “TPM”), I really had to think about what value I bring and how I can excel at this role.  I no longer needed to get in the weeds of tracking down a race condition caused by a multithreaded solution or how to properly validate a form in ASP.net.  I took a walk to clear my head on a sunny, summer day.  I remember the cool breeze.

Listening to the ambient sounds of nature, I thought about why I was here.  I thought, “I want to leave work each day feeling like I brought needed value, did the honorable thing and helped my team succeed.”  This has made my life much more fulfilling approaching work with this mindset.  The big challenge, the dumb question, the personal problem, the tedious task…I would respect it all and give each my full attention.

But that’s a lot of stuff.  It’s not really well defined either.  What do I need to do to make sure I am the team leader my team needs me to be?  Back at my desk, I broke this down into four simplified, overarching daily goals:

1. Make the Team Happy
If you want your life to mean something and contain as much happiness as possible, is it so hard to believe that each and every one of your team members also want the same thing?  Do not underestimate the value of a happy team.  A happy team wants to work with you especially if they see you fight for their happiness.  It can be as simple as minimizing external distractions or being a soundboard for their various frustrations.  Or simply allowing yourself to be the butt of a joke.  People have bad days all the time, be able to respect that and motivate your team forward without adding to what’s already got them down.

And bring donuts from time to time whether you have a reason to celebrate or not.  Never lose the pulse of your team!

2. Ensure Stakeholders are Satisfied
My first thought was to say “Satisfy the Client”, but that comes off cold.  That sounds like an artifact of my old development days.  I rather like the broad stroke approach of “Stakeholder” as defined by the PMBOK.  Thinking this way makes me care just a little bit more about my project.  Consider some of the following groups:  your main client contact, other clients within other business units associated to your project, the people who use your software, your technical leadership team and so on.  Anyone who cares about your project such that its success has a direct impact on how they perceive you is your stakeholder.  Might want to read that one again!

Also, if you are keeping them satisfied that typically generates more opportunities for you.  You work hard each day (…right?), receiving a hint of their satisfaction gives you a much-deserved (…right?!) sense of accomplishment.

3. Create a Quality Product
Quality may be the underlined word in this objective, but don’t skip over the “Create” portion.  What is more validating as a human being than being able to create something?  I could spend a lot of time discussing “quality”, but it basically boils down to everything.  Everything about your product matters, from the color and placement of the cancel button to increasing sales to optimizing algorithms that speed up the application.  Everything.  And just because your hands aren’t in the clay as a developer or designer, you are still very much a part of the product’s creation, guiding the vision through implementation to deliver what a business both wants and needs.

Maintenance is a part of the product too.  I said “everything”, right?  If anything, maintenance is imperative to sustaining/improving a product’s quality.

4. Deliver On Time and On Budget
The above three goals are like the golden rules of being a good project manager.  But, quick sidebar, what happens when two elderly women in opposite directions fall at the same time?  You can’t help them simultaneously.  Number 4 brings us to reality.  We only have so much time and so much budget to work with.  If you can accomplish the above three goals and deliver your product by the deadline without going over your budget…I’d call you a successful project manager.

So you will have to make some hard choices and figure out how to maintain the above three goals under increasing limitations and pressure.  I find prompt honesty and transparency are the keys here.

Also, don’t find yourself simply laughing at the two elderly women who have fallen and can’t get up.  That’s just ineffective…and mean.

Summary
On my morning commute each day, I tell myself:  “Happy Team, Satisfied Stakeholders, Quality Product and On Time/On Budget.”  It’s a simple thing to remember and guides my energy in a way that influences my projects positively.  Throughout the day, I pause and ask if what I’m doing is actively pursuing these goals.  Challenges will occur and these metrics of success can often conflict with each other, but as long as I don’t lose sight of the project holistically, keeping these goals in mind, I can shape the project as a success and in turn be successful myself.