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Reports don't solve problems

Four reasons that commissioning a report is worse than a waste of time, and what you can do instead.

Recently, I came across a process improvement solicitation that introduced its scope of work this way:

"The County receives feedback from service providers that the current process for contracting with the County is unnecessarily complex. We want to decrease barriers for timely reimbursement, improve the timeliness of contract creation, and increase the number of service providers applying for County solicitations."

So far, so good. And then I read this:

"The County seeks a consultant to evaluate the process and draft a report with findings and recommendations."

Look, public sector execs, can we talk for a minute? When is the last time you said, "Gee, our team was really backlogged, error prone, overworked, and stuck in the 90's... until that consultant wrote us a report! Thank God for those two pages of bullet point recommendations!"

At PPI, we are allergic to reports. The reason is simple: They don't work.

Here's four pitfalls with trying to solve problems by writing a report:

1. They generate defensiveness.

Whether they're written by an internal auditor, a Council commission, or a consultant, a report is coming from someone outside the department peering under the hood and saying what's not working. No one likes to have some outsider come in and tell them they're doing their job wrong. Wouldn't you be defensive in the same situation?

Even if leadership welcomes the report, the middle managers and line staff experience it as something happening to them. They resist it, they come up with reasons the report is wrong, they justify their current practice.

When's the last time you heard someone say, "Thank God my department was audited! It really helped us get back on track!"

2. They get used to blame and point fingers.

Sometimes a report is commissioned because there's some obvious problem (e.g., procurement is slow), people external to the problem (e.g., the Mayor's office) are frustrated by it, and they think that by highlighting the problem in a report, they can hold the responsible department accountable (e.g., the Contracts division).

In this situation, most of the parties involved already know the major problems ("findings" in report-speak), and chances are that they already have a pet solution or three they want implemented (which will magically show up in the report as "recommendations"). So why the report?

The report becomes a way of exerting leverage on the department that's being blamed for lack of progress. It becomes a weapon -- a way of forcing a director to explain herself to an auditor or a public meeting. But aside from triggering massive defensiveness (see above), the energy this dynamic creates mostly gets channeled into political maneuvering, not problem-solving. (Besides, you can't fix other people.)

3. They get bogged down in wordsmithing.

Because reports are usually public documents -- they're discussed at the Board of Supervisors, written about in the paper, require a formal audit response -- people have A LOT OF OPINIONS about exactly how the report describes what's going on.

Before we developed our lean approach, I once wrote a report for a client who came back with ~300 track change comments that they wanted to discuss one-at-a-time. Some of them were simple changes, others were substantive disagreements. All of it was a waste of time.

But when you're feeling defensive or looking for someone to blame, those words all feel very important. They start to feel like an indictment, or they get watered down into some mealy-mouthed non-finding. And so we argue, and edit, and edit again.

Can I tell you a secret? No one is going to read your 100-page report, so it doesn't matter what it says on p. 82. You'll be lucky if they read your executive summary. Which leads me to...

4. When you're busy writing, you aren't busy solving.

Even in the best case, writing reports comes with a substantial opportunity cost: Every minute you spend writing up a long narrative, formatting a table, or wordsmithing a recommendation is a minute you're not spending actually working on the underlying problem.

Do you want a document about your contracting process that ten people will eventually read? Or do you want a better contracting process?

I've spoken to SO MANY public agencies who, after receiving their report, still don't know how to implement the recommendations. I have a theory that commissioning reports is often a form of work avoidance: Usually people mostly know what the major problems are, and they have at least some sense of what needs to be done to solve them. But something is keeping them from solving -- they don't know how to get started, they think it's someone else's problem or fault, they don't know how to ask for help.

If reports don't work, why does everyone ask for them?

So why do people ask for reports? I think it's because they don't know how to ask for something better.

They have a problem and don't know how to solve it, so they feel they have to either...

  • get a consultant to tell me what to do OR

  • get someone to do the work for me (e.g., process my procurement backlog for me)

(If someone does the work for you, at least you're working on the problem directly... but it ultimately just kicks the can down the road. If you don't understand WHY you got to the broken place you're at and HOW to do better in the future, you'll just be back again in a couple years.)

Here's the bottom line:

Writing a report is easy. Making change is hard.

We largely abandoned reports with findings and recommendations a decade ago, in favor of work with teams to solve problems directly. But it still takes education to help public agencies even know this is possible!

A recent client started our engagement by -- you guessed it -- asking for a report. But after hearing our usual approach, they said, "We have a long track record of reports and audits about this issue, but it never changes. Maybe it's time to try something different."

So what's the alternative?

Writing a report is the government equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking: Sitting on the couch and saying, "Our team would've won if the coach just called a pass on that last play." The alternative is to actually coach the team to do better.

At PPI, we say that our primary deliverable is an improved process. We don't want to write down all the things you're currently doing wrong (which you mostly already know anyway) to just have a report collect dust on a shelf. We want to coach your team to solve their problems, continuously improve, and improve their daily work lives.

We've learned that, for whatever reason, some clients just have to have a report. Even then, we prefer to develop -- not a list of findings and recommendations -- but a summary presentation that tells the story of the solutions and results that the team has already achieved.

And crucially, it's not our staff who present it! We get the staff who do the work every day to develop solutions and present them to leadership. As coaches, our appropriate role is on the sideline, cheering on the superstars who do the work every day.

See how we do it!

Want to know how we work with teams to get real results? We've detailed our approach in our playbook below!

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