Give Unsucky Status Updates

Don't give bad status updates.Status updates suck. But communication within your business is critical to success. So what to do?

What Happens Now

The most basic status update includes two sections:

  • What happened since the last update
  • What we plan to do next

This format is simple. But it misses a key element: if the audience for the update doesn’t know the context the information has no real meaning.

A Better Approach

 Present Everything Relative to Objectives

Telling people what happened and what’s going to happen doesn’t hurt anyone, but it fails to answer the most important question: How well are things going?

To answer this question your update has to provide the context around for you are trying to achieve. You have to answer a different set of questions:

  • How are you tracking to the objectives you’ve set?
  • What will you do next to achieve your objectives?

For example, if you say last week we had 25 new customers, we don’t know if we should celebrate or worry. If you planned to have 50, then 25 sucks. (Note, you can also say if your objectives have changed.)

The same approach goes for what you’re planning to do. For example, you could simply say: “Next week we will be finishing and shipping the carbadingulator feature.” It’s exciting, but it’s not exciting if you meant to finish it two weeks ago. Instead, everyone would be better off if you said: “Next week we plan to finish the next 2 features on our product backlog (x and y), which means we’ll hit our next customer release on schedule with the features we planned.”  With that information we know that you are on track to hit a goal.

There are a lot of ways to express this, such as:

  • Write out goal and results.
  • List each goal and show it red/yellow/ green/completed.
  • List the goals and say how much work you have left to complete them (classic scrum burn down chart).
  • Show numeric targets and the achievements (e.g. sales target vs actual sales).
  • Present the update verbally in a stand up meeting.

The point is put everything in the context of the objectives you’re pursuing.

Go Visual

Whenever possible it helps to visualize information. This is especially the case for metrics. Simple bar charts can show progress. Add a line that shows the objective and you can quickly visualize results vs. target. Returning to the new customer example above, you could provide a chart that showed customer acquisition each week in bars with a line that showed your objective. Then anyone reading the update could instantly see if you were on target or if there was an issue, and any narrative you provide can help explain why things went better than planned or worse.

Be Consistent

Finally, consistency will help a lot. First, your audience needs to be taught how to read your updates. If the format and structure changes all the time, readers are forced to both try to figure out what the update is saying and then ascertain what matters.

Also, consistency on time frame makes a big difference. Randomly delivered status updates are hard to follow. You may be very close to what you are doing but other people are probably not, so they lose track of what is happening, which means they lose context to interpret your update. Pick a schedule for you audience: every day, week, month, quarter, etc. Then stick to it.

This matters a lot to board members, investors and advisors. These audiences have to sort through updates from many different companies. If your updates are consistently formatted and on a consistent schedule, they are more likely to be read and absorbed.

This Matters

It’s just not compelling if you get up in front of employees and say: “Last week we did a bunch of stuff and this week we’re going to do a bunch more stuff.” No one can tell they really achieved anything, and worse it’s not clear what you’re actually aiming for next.

If you tell your investors that stuff happened, they don’t know if they should be excited or not. If your mentors can’t figure out how well the business is working, then they don’t know where to help.

As you build your business, you will surround yourself with people who like to set smart, ambitious objectives, work hard to achieve them, celebrate when they’re accomplished, and learn when they’re not. Good updates will motivate people, drive better decision making, and improve collaboration.