Dashboards and Pumpkin Muffins: A Confession

Meaningful dashboard metrics

Wake Up And Smell The Metrics!

I have a confession to make.  It’s from the days when I was still working for a large corporation and leading part of an enterprise-wide strategic IT change initiative. It was huge and encompassed dozens of programs and sub-projects, all aimed at transforming the global IT organization. It was driven top-down and had strict reporting requirements including a mega-metric that tracked who didn’t submit their weekly report. That particular metric got a lot of attention from the Steering Committee of VPs, who were being held accountable by the CIO to submit a consolidated dashboard.

Every week, I dutifully, painfully, and manually composed the required PowerPoint dashboard slide, doing my best to force-fit my program status into the pre-ordained format—which didn’t really work. I had to choose one color—Red, Yellow, or Green, to characterize the current status of my entire program, which was global and massive in itself. I had already been warned by my leadership that there were no “Reds” allowed, and no getting creative with “Oranges” as some do… so my choices were Green or Yellow. There was a tiny box for a 6 pt. font paragraph commentary on that status, which made me feel a bit better, since I could at least qualify the color rating.

Well, feeling rushed and cranky one November Friday, I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to know who was reading these damned things. So in my comments paragraph, buried in the third sentence, I wrote:

“I will give $10 to the first person who mentions this sentence.”

Chuckling, I clicked the “Send” button and waited. And waited. The next week went by, and it was time to submit another status, and no one had responded. So I got bolder. This time I wrote”

“Hey, anyone have a good recipe for pumpkin muffins?”

Send. And nothing, again.

The third week, I wrote:

“Is there anyone out there who reads this?”

Send. And you guessed it, nothing.

Finally, in Week #4, I got an email from a woman I’d never met, saying “Hey, you owe me $10 bucks and I’ll send you that muffin recipe.” Elated and curious, I grabbed the phone to find out who she was and how she discovered my comments. Turns out she was a junior data analyst assigned to track the metric for dashboard submission. All she was required to do was “check the box”—Pam Stanton submitted: Yes, or No. But she was eager to learn about IT and had started reading the fine print to understand what the hell we were actually trying to do with all these projects. And so she made herself $10, and an admirer out of me.

I could go on about the self-motivation of that junior analyst, but that’s not the point of this story–although there is great irony in that the only person apparently reading my comments was one of the most junior people in the organization who had no real stake in the outcome of the program.

The point is… we really need to be more realistic about dashboard reporting. If a dashboard falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Sometimes I think we are kidding ourselves with a lot of pretty pictures that really tell us nothing. And furthermore, no one wants to say that the Emperor is naked, and so we just go with the flow and keep sending in those reports. That’s pretty sad, and a real waste of an opportunity to communicate. So folks, we have to wake up and smell the muffins! Please take a look at that dashboard you’re working on today and ask yourself two questions:          1) Do these metrics mean anything? and, 2) Who is actually using this as actionable information? If you can’t answer these questions, then just submit a recipe for muffins and move on to something that really makes a difference for your project.


7 responses to “Dashboards and Pumpkin Muffins: A Confession

  1. Pam,

    Could not help but laugh out loud at this. In one of my first non-Tech Support jobs I was helping to roll out a brand new product lifecycle. The senior product manager on the project showed me his, just completed, thirty page document. In the middle of it he’d written “This is a pink elephant, if you read this I will pay you twenty dollars.”

    Well he never paid up on that pink elephant and it is one of the key examples I give when promoting one of my own PM principles. My third Gorilla PM principle is “Process is a tool, not a roadblock.”

    Thank you for the laugh and the great reminder.

    Was it a banana nut muffin recipe? Hogarth love’s banana nut miffins.

  2. Hi Joel! Thanks for sharing the “pink elephant” story. “Documentation” is another one of my pet peeves… exactly for the reason in your example. If it’s that onerous, then no one really uses it.

    I also used to have fun by posting a HUGE Gantt chart on the wall of my office–didn’t matter what was on it, as long as it looked detailed and complicated, the drive-by type of leaders would assume I had it goin’ on! Ahhh.. but now I am sharing all of my dark secrets. LOL!!!

    My apologies to Hogarth that these were pumpkin muffins. I’ll email him a banana! Tell him I am still waiting patiently for a Hogarth T-shirt!

  3. Pam:

    Great read! Thank you for sharing this and keeping me sane. I just started a new gig at Red Hat and learning how they use their dashboards and status reports here. However, in my last firm we would have Exec Updates to the SVP of Global Services and his various functional and GEO VPs would join. The last one I attended was to get their sign-off on the launch of 2 new programs into the enterprise (myself and another PM). Turns out the SVP didn’t show and the next most influential VP didn’t either! Is there any wonder that in our weekly project updates to our department Executive Director, she didn’t show up for the last 2 weeks? These meeting are specifically for them to ask questions and poke holes vs. sending some static report!

    I will keep you posted about RH’s approach. I am already changing the weekly status update…who has a status update with a template 4 pages long? Is that an update or a report?

    • Hey Robert, thanks for the comments. I’ve been thinking lately about using some sort of “opt-in” system for disseminating updates to executives, much like we have in “real life” for blog subscriptions, etc. Rather than have everyone get everything all the time, there could be choices for 1) Full dashboard, 2) Brief weekly summary, 3) In-person update, 4) Emergency updates only, etc. etc. Given the choice, I think we might discover that most execs would opt for the least amount of updating.

      I’m very interested to know what you learn at RH. A 4-page update template? Holy Cow. Time to add some “pumpkin muffins” to that one and find out who truly reads it 🙂

  4. I AGREE TOTALLY!!! This is my biggest issue, concern, complaint,sore point….etc…. I take pride in my work and want to be valued for what I bring to the table. I work very hard to stay on top of several projects and report on them regularly to find out that many don’t read or review, let alone provide updates, that go into the project! I am pondering what to do to satisfy requirements while providing value…I don’t yet have an answer.

    • Hello Becky,

      I feel your frustration! Reporting for reporting’s sake is so ridiculous. I think there’s an opportunity for us to revisit what’s important to stakeholders and then provide that information, rather than some canned status template that they ignore. “What’s important” will vary by stakeholder, and hence we try to jam a one-size-fits all into a template that usually appeals to no one. Is there an opportunity for you to influence the standard reporting format and/or frequency?

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  5. Pingback: The Project Whisperer - PPM Community Project Management Blogs

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