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.