Management Filter: How to ask for project and task updates?
July 20, 2018 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to consciously build good systems and habits as a manager. My current effort is to think about how to ask for task and project updates without sounding demanding or making people feel defensive. Any favorite strategies or phrasing?

I've noticed that I hate it when my supervisors ask for task and project updates with phrasing like "have you done X yet"? Because it makes me feel like I have to offer some justification for why I haven't done it yet, when the reality is often that there was other more urgent work.

So, I'm asking for anecdotes and structures to ask for updates and status in a way that gets good information and builds team communication,
posted by mercredi to Work & Money (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a manager but I've had good managers and bad managers.

Good managers build in opportunities for regular updates into the structure of the week. So we have one weekly team meeting where we update everyone on a particular major project and a twice-monthly one-to-one with my manager where I update her on every other project I'm doing. It's not exactly fun but it feels much less targeted and naggy when it's just something that everyone has to do within the framework of the team.
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:14 AM on July 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Basecamp 3 has the option for scheduled (default is daily) check-ins which sends an email to everyone with the following questions:

What are you working on today? Are you blocked on anything?
posted by andreinla at 9:17 AM on July 20, 2018

One thing you can do is ask for a weekly update email from your reports. This can be a simple list. If it's just a passive thing that you ask them to do every week on a schedule, and not a direct ask and response, it's not going to feel like an attack or put-upon.

Here's the thing though: make this a useful exercise for them. You're the manager, not an overlord. Don't ask for status updates if you just want data. Ask for status updates so you can act on them.

If you want good information and you want to build team communication, use the update lists as a way to find problem points and then do something about them. If everyone in your group has a bottleneck with department Y, use your position to address that with department Y's manager. If you find that people can't X done because other, more urgent work always pops up, use your position to get a handle on why it's urgent and advocate for your team's workload to be better delegated so they're not always on fire. If someone is always closing projects and has a great track record of communication, use that with upper management at bonus time so that those employees see the benefit of their work. Etc.

Your reports will be MUCH more open with you and MUCH more ready to provide detailed and clear status updates if they know it's useful and their manager will act on it and advocate on their behalf. I know that the quickest way I grow to resent check-ins, etc, is when it feels like I'm just feeding information into a black hole, never to be spoken of again.
posted by phunniemee at 9:24 AM on July 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

+1 to regular, scheduled check-ins. I prefer to ask "Where are you on X project?" Then, the way to encourage communication and avoid panicked excuses is to have gentle reactions. Show that you're OK with the answer of nowhere/not started (within reason, of course). Set expectations and clear deadlines, right away. If a deadline changes, let your employee know right away. Show genuine interest in what the barriers are, and help to remove them.
posted by Fig at 9:24 AM on July 20, 2018

If you use a project management system like Trello (or Basecamp as mentioned above, or Airtable, whatever), you can ask people to keep the status of every project updated. Then you won't have to ask- you can just look at what's going on and go from there.
posted by pinochiette at 9:25 AM on July 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Agree with doing this as a scheduled, routine thing. Also, if you need a status update out of schedule, explain why: “we’re planning on releasing the widget to production on Friday, and we need your package done Wednesday for that. Are you on track? Is there anything else you can think of we need before we release?”
posted by adamrice at 9:28 AM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Basecamp allows check-ins, but they are public view and I find that my staff don't like to post updates in that way when they are running behind. Having regular, scheduled check-ins regardless of where or who they are helps staff see it as routine rather than intrusive, I think. Some of it also comes done to general company culture and your image, i.e. are you perceived as being flexible and approachable on the whole.

Specific language: I usually go with "How are you doing on X?" or Fig's phrasing, or sometimes "Do you need any help with X?" when they're visibly running late.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 9:36 AM on July 20, 2018

While program management systems are a big help, nothing replaces human contact.
People can make mistakes in systems, there will be different interpretations of what "progress" means (this is normal/human), and occasionally you'll get the rare intentional misuse, whether to cover for an emergency or... to cover for not actually working. The last one's rare, but it happens. If you rely on a system to the detriment of in-person contact, you won't catch any of this until it's too late.

The best approach is a good balance. Use a system and do regular check-ins. Progress and status meetings are good for this (keep them focused so they are indeed useful!), and also give people the opportunity to see how their tasks contribute to the larger project.

It's hard to stress how important real-life contact is in a comment on a website. Everyone has their own style, but if one thing is true across the balance of personalities and work needs/goals, it's that talking to people is vital.
posted by fraula at 9:41 AM on July 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

For projects with some priority to keep moving, 2-3x per week 15-minute stand-ups can be good. I think better than 30 minute weekly check-ins, which I feel like are more of overall status.

Also, are you working from an already established project schedule? I think it's easier to ask for updates if you're like "Are we on track to finish Phase A by end of week as planned?" or "Our schedule has us a 25% last Friday, are we tracking to schedule?"
posted by vunder at 10:22 AM on July 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of my old managers used to advise us to “get it out of your head” whenever possible. This meant setting up individual task and item tracking processes, which are easily passed along informally via checkins, or added to a broader, more formal team tracking system.

The real benefit of getting it out of your head is that when it’s in your head and only there, it’s blocking you from moving forward. Once your reports recognize that getting it out helps them perform better (and feel better!), they’ll help you come up with low overhead ways of doing it.

Today I use a combo approach: low overhead tracking with a couple redundancies built in and some error trapping (I work in online publishing and there’s a lot of traffic to manage) with informal updates during weekly brainstorm and metrics meetings. We’re remote and in different time zones, so the redundances help everyone see at a glance where we are on whatever thing (ie, if yer in the calendar you can see it, and you can see it if yer in the doc, or if yer in the tracking spreadsheets, or if yer in the folders). “Getting it out of our heads” early and often means we don’t have to count on someone being available on slack or email to find out what’s up.
posted by notyou at 10:26 AM on July 20, 2018

I think the frequency and format depends on how many people report to you (3? 15? 25?), how many projects or activities they are working on (2, 5, 20 each?, and on the timeframes for those projects (client paid for expedited work, regulations require responses within a week of getting a request, or managing ongoing projects that need ongoing but low-level work). It also depends on what you want from reports - are you reporting up or out to others? Are you making sure things are running well with regard to deadlines? Are you offering help?

More direct (or indirect) reports, the less information you'll likely want, unless you have to be able to report to someone else on the status of all those projects all your reports are managing.

Context: I'm in a small, multi-function team within a larger division, within a very large state agency, and this system works well for us - nothing fancy, just in-person meetings (with one person calling in, but that's because they work in another office), emails and MS Word "reports" (really bulleted lists of items, not a lengthy write-up).

My office has weekly meetings (Tuesday mornings, typically), where we go down the list of active projects and update each-other on how things are going, which is great because we're a small, collaborative office where we can often assist others with public presentations or shift burdens of various tasks, or just understand the critical deadlines our colleagues face and consider what we ask of them based on that. We also get ideas from our colleagues in these meetings - in short, I really like them and find them helpful. This also where our manager reports down on new priorities or directives from the division director and above. And we often share snacks, or celebrate birthdays here. We like to snack together, which surprises other offices.

We each produce a one-page weekly report of the status of what we're working on. My format is Topic: Action next steps or summary, and I'm trying to get my reports to regularly provide this to me, because I want to know what they did and what's next. But to them it might feel silly, as we work closely. Personally, I see it as a good reminder of what I've done and what I said I would do, if I need to look back.

Managers then report up bi-weekly with a more succinct list of the active projects or efforts, identifying major issues in need of Director support, announce their teams' achievements, and give succinct summaries of projects and activities in each program section.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:48 AM on July 20, 2018

We have to send our boss a "15/5" every Friday afternoon. It should take 15 minutes for the employee to write, and 5 minutes for the manager to read. It's actually set as a scheduled calendar event for us.

1. What's going well? Any personal wins this week?
2. What challenges are you facing? Where are you stuck?
3. What were some great contributions made by other members of Marketing or the company?
4. What do you want to discuss in our next 1:1? Nothing's too big or small.
5. What are your big priorities next week?
posted by radioamy at 11:41 AM on July 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

I ask my employees to use our project management software to keep me updated on the status of projects. (For us, it's JIRA, and the status field should be correct, while any longer updates go in a comment in the ticket.) I ask that they post updates at least weekly. That way, I'm always updated, and I never have to bother anyone. Win!

(I ask them to use 1:1s for more complex discussions, like talking through project plans or fussy aspects of a project, discussing career goals and plans, having larger strategy discussions, etc.)
posted by woodvine at 12:21 PM on July 20, 2018

I find listening to Manager Tools podcast to be extremely useful in getting the right language and a sense of what are the right principles to guide your behaviour in this situation.
posted by Albondiga at 1:53 PM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Instead of "have you done X yet"? it's better to say, "How is X going?" I've had bad managers and good managers, and I think good managers set clear deadlines and clear expectations for you so you know exactly what you need to do. I also think good managers accurately communicate what will then happen on their end. Nothing drives me nuts more than sending something to a manager and having it sit with them forever and no sense of when I will get it back or when I can see my work payoff. Then I feel like I am harassing them just to get an update.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:05 PM on July 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I ask every direct report to keep a running “spreadsheet” that lists each of their projects. It’s to be updated 48hrs prior to my 1:1 status meetings with senior mgmt. If a team member spends more than 15 min on a task even if it is routine, it goes on the sheet or it’s dead to us. It’s the only hard and fast rule in my toolkit, but it has served me well in a number of different circumstances.

48hrs gives me time to review and ask for clarifications, as well as respond to questions posed. If I need something from sr mgmt to keep projects going — or if I want to call out someone’s great work — it’s easy to do. A year’s worth of these updates is an incredibly powerful tool for traing new team members, to reference for writing self-reviews, and for building resumes.

Build a standard template for everyone to use. On new tab open, add a macro that copies the previous report and adds the check-in date. Set it to auto-save often and save somewhere NOT the team member’s drive.

Limit the amount of data requested as well as the characters in each field. If something takes more space than that to list, it’s a conversation that needs to happen, not a document.

I try to stay with these: project/task name, project/task objective, description of progress since last update, identified roadblocks, checkbox for “need help moving roadblock,” and a red/yellow/green for progress against project schedule. As tempting as it is to automate this thing, buy an app, build an app, etc., all you need is a simple spreadsheet file.

Note: in a technical/build environment, this is likely a redundant strategy. If you don’t know what’s happening from your PM tool, there’s a utilization issue of some kind.
posted by Kalatraz at 10:12 PM on July 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

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