Accurate and timely reporting is the lifeblood of any growing, successful organization, and the larger it gets the more and more important reporting becomes. Imagine steering a nuclear submarine without knowing the depth of the sea you're in or buying stock for a large department store without knowing what's selling on the showroom floor?
Reporting is also a necessity in any Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Data should be quickly gathered at the end of each building cycle so that learning can commence and building resume again. In unpredictable environments this will want to be more often. It is a trap to let the measurement take too long and too much detail or too much data can swamp this process, so keeping it light and prioritizing what is important only is essential to keeping momentum going.
Whole To Parts
When trying to understand any large pool of information it is best to start with the big picture and then break it down into smaller, easier to digest parts. In reports, we always begin with the whole and then proceed to the parts. We can then go deeper into parts of parts if necessary, but usually only if we need to illustrate the root of a problem or an opportunity. When working with monthly and quarterly reports it is important to paint a story of how the forest is growing and how different groups are contributing to it. It can throw off our picture if we dive down to talking about moss growth around the conifers in a corner of the forest just because it's interesting or meaningful to those in the day to day.
I find it particularly helpful to think about our editorial content as products in the same way as a department store manager would think about sales. If we want to know how the store did in January, the manager might start off by saying that sales were up over the previous month as well as year over year, and that she was happy. To explain where that growth came from, however, she'd next walk us through the next biggest pieces, the departments that make up floor inventory, and describe their performance, looking particularly for those that drove the unusual growth. Perhaps the biggest growth department was the kitchen housewares department, while there wasn't much change in the others. Then she would dive down into this department, break it up into its categories and show the deeper origins of the monthly growth. Perhaps china and table top were the break out in this department. Perhaps this was because of a new wedding registry campaign that had been run. Whatever the root cause, we might find it down at this level. We might not highlight any other data in the month. This same whole to parts discovery would also be run for a losing month.
From the sales movement, she would then form an insight, one which would guide her decision making for the next few months. In fact, as a manager, this insight might turn into a strong directive to the company owner to change the buying strategy completely or it might confirm a bet that had been previously placed to make this growth in sales happen. Perhaps the insight is that recent research was correct that their shoppers were younger than they used to be and the experiment of adding a wedding registry was dead on. This would then not only explain the good monthly sales, it might confirm earlier demographic research and a larger strategy.
Data - Picture - Insight
While the movement of report discovery is from the whole to the parts, the from the report takes should always include three elements: the numbers (data), modeled into a picture (usually a graph), and then followed by an insight. This gives us the raw numbers, but also allows us to picture it in various ways for easy comparisons to earlier periods (month over month, year over year) or other categories, departments or verticals.
Data only gains meaning when one piece is compared to another and patterns can be shown to emerge. One single month of data alone can have no meaning and can't inform strategy.
Whenever possible, graphs and pictures should remain consistent, not pack too much in, cover a good amount of time so seasonality can be seen (usually one year), and maintain the same axis measurements (usually starting from 0 on the X axis is best). This will allow for "apples to apples" comparison when looking over a wide range of data.
Additionally, for most businesses looking at ranges shorter than a month runs the risk of getting lost in too much detail. Most businesses are measured on their monthly performance. It is good to stick to a monthly view and show the current month against the previous as an unfinished bar. If an estimate of the current month's finish is available as a gauge of veloctiy, this is also very valuable to show.
Feeling to Thought to Action
All conscious thought starts as a feeling. You feel something - an emotion or a physical feeling - first and then your brain engages to figure out what is going on. Our reports should do the same.
All good reports start with a feeling. You look back at your month and you just know you had a good month or a bad month. Sometimes not much happens and you have a feeling about that. This is your gut. Data then becomes an exercise in uncovering the root of that feeling. It is a journey to confirm what you already know, and then to transform it into a learning or an insight that will inform your actions.
(Note on Vanity Metrics: If we try to cover up a bad feeling with sunny data, we are engaging in vanity metrics. While it's good to be optimistic and "see the bright side", reality is best and only achieved when metrics line up with your true original feeling.)
Insights come next and they are really two things: conscious thoughts that explain why something happened AND a movement towards what to do next.
This is thought to action.
So you feel that the month went really well, and then after a lot of digging - whole to parts - you can isolate and explain through the data why the month went well and WHERE it went well, which leads you to your crystallized insight: the wedding registry program gave the month a crucial lift and it was executed at exactly the right time AND we should not only expand it next year, we should look to launch other campaigns directed at this new demographic.
This last is the most important moment in the reporting process, because now we're not talking about the past, but the future.
I Intend To Do
You know a report is done and ready to be presented when your intentions on what you want to do next are clear. In this way, the report becomes just supporting evidence to what it is you intend to do or are asking approval to do.
With this in mind, start your report with an overview of the month, but also with the intention up front. Then proceed from whole to parts to discover and prove your thesis so that we all end up at the same place in the end, with not just a report on the past month, but a clear plan for the future one.
If Everything is Equal, Then Nothing...
A month is a long time and there can be every reason to believe that pulling all the data and mulling it all over and then putting it into a presentation form can take a long time, but most things happening in any month will not be that important. If you look at all your data as being meaningful, then nothing will be.
Knowing what is most important about the month and prioritizing your report and your time around that is essential. While you cover everything with your overview, you want to spend your time diving down into those two or three areas where there was truly important movement, drawing your insights and your intend to dos from those.
Always Be Reporting
While our monthly and quarterly reports are our big ones, we naturally take in information every day and are shaping reports to ourselves in our minds constantly. With our OKRs we are really pushing a light weekly reporting cycle and this should be the foundation of all your thinking that you pull out at months end. In fact, the monthly report should be totally unsurprising with regard to the data and general movement. What should be exciting are the thoughts and insights you've been gathering over the month and now have a moment to share.
If we watch our data on a daily, weekly basis, pulling it for the month should not be time consuming, and thoughts and insights should all be at the ready to share.
Estimates & Goals - Looking Forward
Finally, the best thing a report can do is end by placing an informed bet on the future. In other words, you've reviewed the past, set forth an intend to do, and then you leave the meeting with potentially more data, but this time it's a projected upswing in the future if you are given approval to shift more resources in the service of your insights.
For example, if our store manager is really excited about the growth of the housewares department due to the new demographic and feels that more is possible in the future, she might propose a plan backed up by estimated data that shows even more growth in the next few months. In this way her report, and all the other managers who might be reporting, are not only reviewing, they are driving the business forward.