…because some thoughts are worth remembering
At an Internet startup I co-founded, we nurtured a culture of open communication. Not only because we believed it reflected our vision for our company but it was also necessary to be able to stay abreast of everyone’s progress. The level of complexity, the number of people involved, and the pace we had to keep, demanded we check in with each other on a regular basis. One of the staff introduced a reporting format called Fifteen-five (15/5). I now realize that it is more commonly referred to as Five-fifteen. There are several websites that provide you with the history of the reporting format, and how to use it, such as CNN Money and ContractingBusiness.com. The most comprehensive page on how to write it, including a template can be found on a student resource page (disclaimer: the author of that page is my husband).
The idea is simple: it is a weekly report meant to assist you with time management and team communication. It should take you 15 minutes to write it, and for 5 minutes for others to read it, hence the name. Filed on Fridays before leaving the office, it is a list of tasks you completed for the week (possibly grouped by projects), and a future last list for the coming week.
For us, the circulation list for the report usually included the immediate members within your project or department as appropriate, and your supervisors. We wanted to keep a flat hierarchy, so as president, I read all the managers’ reports. The 15/5 format allowed me to appreciate the details of the work without having to be involved with them, in less than an hour.
Our 15/5 evolved to contain features such as using an asterisk to denote a particular activity/task if it did not get completed. The asterisks served as an acknowledgment to the staff writing the report that they did commit to something and they did not deliver (so they can use that data to improve their time estimate for future tasks, or to “right-size” the task so it can be delivered within a week). To the supervisor, it’s an opportunity to check in on the staff to figure out if there are obstacles. I have often found trends with specific staff members. For example, a conscientious system administrator, pretty good about providing realistic time estimates, would routinely mark some tasks as not completed. Although he didn’t realize why he couldn’t get those tasks completed on time, it became obvious after several weeks and how we should address it: they all involved direct customer contact. In this case, we realized these tasks could be bundled with routine contacts the sales folks were making, so we fine-tuned our procedure. With this particular staff, I was especially cautious to be on the look out for other tasks on his plate that required direct customer contact. I would sit down with him ahead of time to devise a strategy so these tasks did not become a choke point for the overall project he was working on, and gave him a system to tackle this otherwise emotionally draining category of tasks.
We added a “On the Radar” section to jot down things they want you to be aware of that are relevant to what you are reporting but do not fit in the time frame of the current and the following weeks. We also added an optional “Rant and Raves” section where staff can get things off their chest, or to acknowledge someone for their help. The section served as a place they can be reflective about their work. Some staff didn’t use it, others on a routine basis. This feature was a good way to accommodate personality diversity in the group.
The deadline of Friday before you leave the office is important because you force yourself to create some planning time for the following week when the current week’s progress is still fresh in your mind. Supervisors can skim through the report first thing Monday, and meet with relevant staff if the tasks they set for themselves for the week requires adjustments.
15/5 cuts down the time of face-to-face reporting during staff meeting, when we can’t possibly be expected to remember all the details people are reporting on. More of the face-to-face meeting time can be used on actual discussions, decision making, sketching out ideas together, and other activities that moves projects forward. The written record also comes in handy as they can help you recall specific examples to praise the staff in their individual or group performance evaluations.
Unless I had questions or concerns, I didn’t necessarily respond to each report, as not to start an unnecessary email thread. However, once in a while, I will make sure to respond to individuals that hadn’t heard from me or who tend to shy away from meetings, because it’s important to acknowledge someone’s work for keeping the ship running rather than our attention drawn to brush fires or obvious achievements.
The system worked so well that I even instituted it at the government agency I led. The newly promoted managers seemed to appreciate having a structure, to the point that even if they didn’t particularly like filing 15/5, they would insist their staff file one.
The first few weeks of implementation can be crucial for successful adoption, so the supervisors should be on the look out to fine tune the submitted 15/5 and provide immediate feedback. Common tendencies include overcommitment and listing of routine work that doesn’t have to be mentioned (like “took calls from customers”). These tendencies are a reflection of staff mistaking the 15/5 report as their tally of things they do, to make sure their bosses think they are working enough. Other set of gotchas include not “right-sizing” the task to be completed in a week, and not using specific action words so that at the end of the week, you know if the item can be checked off or not. For example, “improving the shell script for adding customer accounts” is vague. It’s better to phrase it as “add feature x to the customer account creation shell script”. Expect some push back from the staff who might want to argue, “of course the task couldn’t be completed because it takes more than a week”. But part of the exercise in writing the 15/5 report is for the staff to take a whole project and break it down into manageable pieces that can be completed each week.