Four Bad Reasons for Building Monstrous Reports

January 16, 2014

Occasionally, I get asked to create a report that looks a little bit like this:

Monstrous Report With Charts

Or even worse, a report that looks like this:

Monstrous Report With No Charts

This is always a bad idea because no human being can reasonably makes sense of that information in one go; and reports exist principally for human beings to be to look at and make informed decisions. If looking at a report leaves you wondering “what does this mean”, then the report is badly designed. It is costing your organisation money every time someone looks at it and wastes an hour pondering whether they should do something because of it.

If you dig into why you’re being asked to produce one of these monstrous reports you’ll usually get to a better outcome than if you just implemented it the way you were told. Asking the awkward questions can be a hard though, here are some of the things I've heard more than once when I started digging:

  1. “This is the Information that Requested”
    In my experience, this is the most common cause of monstrous reports. Some other department elsewhere within the organisation has requested information, and just to be on the safe side, they've asked for more than they need. Over time, the interaction between these two departments has been formalised into the production of “the report” and if ever a new piece of information is needed, someone in the receiving department requests that it be added to “the report”. If it’s possible to speak to the department or group that receives this report, you’ll either find someone who applies a series of checks, adding up and comparing to other data sources, or someone who copies, pastes and transposes the useful bits of your report into their report, before they send it on to it’s ultimate destination. Which will leave you to wonder, why not just tell some piece of software to do the necessary checks and raise an alert if they fail, or output that final report in the first place?
  2. “The Information is Entered into  ”
    Occasionally, a report is actually used as a sort of interface between two IT systems. Someone faithfully inputs the figures in the report from system A, into system B. Despite that being error prone, slow, expensive and something that computers are really really good at. Sometimes you even find that both sides have built software to generate/upload the report at either end of the process, and yet the communication technology being used is still a PDF/Excel file sent over email. What’s actually required here is an automated interface between the two systems. But getting this done may require a lot of cross departmental organisation, and the introduction of an inter-dependency between two separate IT projects - something a lot of project managers will resist doing.
  3. “ Looks at This Information Every Month and Decides What to Do”
    My personal favourite. “Person X” tends to be quite an important person within the organisation. Maybe the Financial Director, or a Programme Manager. They haven’t so far been able to articulate what they’re looking for, so rather than glancing at a dashboard full of green blobs indicating everything’s OK, they've asked to see a raft of charts and numbers every month so they can look for things that seem “unusual” or “out of the ordinary”. Sometimes it’s possible to sit down with Person X and work with them to pinpoint what it is they look for in all the numbers and what “ordinary” means. If you’re in a position to do that, it’s definitely worth doing, because the end result will be a clearer and more efficient report, and probably less work for everyone.
  4. “The Government/Regulator Requires the Information in that Format”
    Basically, you’re screwed. Just implement the report as specified and move on. Although this is most likely a case of either reason #1 or #2, you have zero chance of influencing a governmental body and explaining to them that their report is a monster, and frankly, it’s not in your employer's interests for you to do so either. It might be in the government body's interest to have a clearer report, but seeing as they face no commercial pressure, and you are forced to work with them, you might as well just do what they tell you and get on with your life.

Reports that swamp you with information are never a good idea. They are costly to build, slow to run and drain people’s time whenever they’re looked at. Whenever possibly, I try to avoid building them, because doing so is not serving the customer - even if it’s explicitly what the customer has asked for.