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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Progress reports are noticed when things go wrong

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



If I asked you what type of business writing most often goes unread, what would you say?

Minutes? Annual reports? Junk-mail advertising? Policies and procedures? Instruction manuals?

My vote goes for progress and activity reports.

Of all the routine, dull, tedious documents a reader is supposed to wade through in a dayís work, in my estimation progress and activity reports top the list.

Iím not talking about least important--obviously, these reports are vitally important to the effective management of any business or organization--Iím talking about least read.

Consider your own experience in writing these reports. How many times has your boss asked you for information that you included in your most recent report?

And when is your boss most likely to sit up and take notice of the reports that you dutifully churn out week after week, month after month? In time to help you resolve a small problem before it becomes a major one? In time to offer you a little friendly advice and encouragement?

Or when something goes terribly wrong?

And when things do go wrong, your report better be good. It better be complete. It better be accurate.

Hereís how to write progress and activity reports so both you and the one report in a hundred that is read carefully will survive the scrutiny.

Progress reports provide information about the current status of a particular project--whether it is on schedule, whether it is within the budget, and whether there are problems. According to John Schell and John Stratton in Writing on the Job: A Handbook for Business & Government, progress reports may be organized in this way:

Introduction: Identify the project and director by name, provide an overview of the projectís goals, and give the projected completion date.

Summary of progress: Remind the reader of what went on prior to this report (previous progress); describe activity during the current report period, comment on problems and highlights, and indicate resources, number of employees involved, and other financial matters (present progress); and estimate what is expected during next report period (projected progress).

Conclusion: Offer an overall appraisal of the project, and confirm or indicate changes in the projected date of completion.

Activity reports provide information about the status of all current projects or activities. In contrast to progress reports, activity reports need no introduction or conclusion because they are issued periodically and their contents are familiar to the reader.

Although formats for activity reports vary, Charles Brusaw in The Business Writerís Handbook recommends the following sections:

Current Projects: List every project assigned and summarize its current status.

Current Problems: Explain any problems and indicate the steps being taken to resolve them.

Plans for the Next Period: Describe progress expected on each project during the next report period.

Current Staffing: Indicate the number of employees involved and whether the staffing level is adequate.

Whatever format you decide on, be sure to use it consistently for all reports submitted in a series.

As for the actual writing of these reports, Schell and Stratton offer these tips:

Use a letter format for reports going outside the organization; use a memo format for reports directed to an internal audience.

As with all reports, be detailed and specific.

Beware of the project managerís tendency to stress procedures over facts; keep the emphasis on results and consequences.

Understate rather than overstate your goals.

Use a "strong, vigorous, and optimistic tone" to project confidence.

Progress and activity reports are like grammar and punctuation: No one seems to notice them until something goes wrong.

It isnít fair, but itís life.




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