Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How to Produce an Effective Report

Many technical professionals fail to appreciate the value of a well-done report. They seem to neglect the reality that the report is their work product, not the expertise behind it. A report that is not well written, expertly presented, and clear in purpose can undermine even the best technical work.

It's time that we gave more attention to the quality of the communication products that serve to deliver our findings, design concepts, and solutions to clients and other key stakeholders. This week, let's focus on reports.

Producing a quality report requires adequate planning and management. It also involves setting a high standard for the finished product. It's not simply documentation of your work; it is your work! So let me suggest some basic steps for producing better reports:

First, define the report's purpose. A common mistake is preparing a report without a clear definition of what it is supposed to accomplish. Every report should be designed with a specific outcome in mind. Rarely is a report simply a repository for data and information. Usually it is prepared to support a specific set of actions. Start the report preparation process by clarifying the document's purpose so that you can plan the content and presentation accordingly.

Identify the key messages. Determine the three to five primary messages that need to be clearly communicated to accomplish the report's purpose. Then for each key message, identify your supporting information. Present your key messages in a manner that they get noticed. This approach helps you avoid the amorphous "data dump" that characterizes many technical reports. Defining key messages early not only serves to guide the writing of the report, but can support determination of what data and information needs to be included.

Develop a detailed report outline. The organization and presentation of the report should support communication of your key messages. Avoid automatically defaulting to a standard or previous report outline that may not best serve your purposes. Your report outline should not only include the overall structure of the document, but highlight the core content and how it will be presented.

Engage reviewers early. Have technical and senior reviewers look at your detailed report outline before the writing begins. This will help you avoid major revisions once the report is drafted. It also allows you to strengthen the outline with the input of these valued experts.

You might also consider soliciting reviews of your detailed report outline from the client and other key stakeholders. Taking this proactive step will preclude problems later in the process, just as in getting early input from internal reviewers.

Help your preparation team succeed. Many of the most serious report problems occur due to inadequate planning. Another persistent source of problems is failing to properly assign, equip, and monitor the people preparing the document. A few tips:
  • Insist on detailed section outlines before writing begins. This is particularly important with more inexperienced writers. The outlines enable you to review the overall content and organization in advance, and to offer recommendations for improvement before the writing begins (when corrections are more easily made).
  • Provide sample or source material. Many reports can be modeled after other reports (assuming they are well done). Additionally, sections of the report can sometimes be taken from prior submittals on the same project. Provide authors with representative report sections, tables, and graphics to guide their work.
  • Communicate adequate background and direction. Make sure all team members understand both the context and relevant details of their assignments. Client requirements and intermediate deadlines should be clearly communicated. It's especially important to provide ample direction to those who may not have been involved in the investigation, study, or design development.
  • Generate tables and figures early. This not only helps eliminate some last-minute rushes, but facilitates better writing and organization of the document. In many cases, if you can draw a clear picture of it, you can better describe it in writing.
  • Regularly monitor the work. The project or task manager is responsible for seeing that all work is performed on schedule, on budget, and in conformance with the report outline. This requires ongoing dialogue with team members, including both individual and team progress meetings. Don't wait until drafts are completed before checking the work.
Establish one "final author." It must be clear who has ultimate responsibility for the content and organization of the document. Typically this will be the PM. The final author determines how various review comments will be incorporated into the document, including which revisions to modify or ignore (all revisions should pass through this person and not go directly to administrative staff). The final author is the gatekeeper for report quality. Obviously, this individual should have a thorough understanding of any special client requirements or standards for the report.

Enforce internal milestones.
Failure to stick with internal deadlines is a significant quality problem and source of stress because it typically results in a harried fire drill the last few days before a client or regulatory deadline. The PM is ultimately charged with keeping the project on track, and should monitor and enforce intermediate milestones.
  • Allow enough time for reviews. This is actually a planning step, but I include it here because the problem often manifests itself when you're up against a deadline and it's harder to correct. Hopefully you've engaged reviewers early so there are fewer surprises and time-consuming revisions later. Tip: Clarify precisely what each reviewer's responsibility is; this can both shorten review times and improve quality.
  • But expect team members to self-check their work. Although formal review procedures are defined to help ensure quality, all team members should recognize their responsibility to produce draft and final products that are accurate and meet appropriate quality expectations. No one should assume that his or her errors will subsequently be caught by another team member or reviewer.
Outline next steps. As noted above, reports almost always support specific follow-up actions. I recommend outlining such steps in your report, and placing them in a executive summary or recommendations section where they won't be overlooked. If for some reason it's inappropriate to include next steps in your document, be sure you communicate them in some other manner.

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