The Art of the Status Update

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What I did, what I’m doing, and where I need help

Delivering a status update is a tricky thing. It’s really easy to overwhelm people with too much information, to leave things unsaid when you need more detail, and to leave out the “I need help” part of your message. So here’s a simple proposal, modeled off of the status updates my former CEO T.A. McCann asked team members to share at Gist.

Sharing Team Information

Having a regular schedule for sharing status updates helps a lot – at Gist, we shared these updates three times a week, right before our “standup” team meetings. T.A. wanted this information because he needed both tactical (what’s going on today) and strategic (what are the larger themes) feedback to know how his team was doing. We wanted these updates so we could know what other team members were doing. The system wasn’t perfect, but it made sure that everyone who came to our Standups was ready to share (at least some of) what was going on.

So how can you write a great status update? You should write the update quickly – spending just a few minutes to summarize and share the high-level information that matters – while also identifying any blockers that you need to discuss.

A “Cookbook” for a Status

In your status report to your team, make sure you answer these three things:

  • What did you do?
  • What are you doing?
  • Where do you need help?

A great update shares enough information for team members so that they can know what you’re doing, but not too much information so that it takes a long time to process the information and respond. If you share status in this way (usually in just a few lines) you can also think about larger, more strategic questions that relate to these everyday tasks.

A Longer-Term Status Update

Because simply writing a status update every two or three days isn’t enough to answer other questions that you ought to consider, you should ask bigger questions too. These might include:

  • What’s one thing I’m doing that I should keep doing?
  • What’s one thing I’m doing that I should stop doing?
  • What’s one thing I’m doing that I should start doing?

When you take a step back and name things you should add or remove from your typical tasks, you get better at valuing your work objectively and are more likely to see it from an outsider’s perspective. Getting into the habit of keeping and delivering a status report to a team is a great way to document what you do and gives you a consistent way to check what you do.

“Spot it, got it!” – Begin with the answer in mind

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This is the 11th in a series of posts on Agile Marketing – the working definition of which is to “Create, communicate and deliver unique value to an always-changing consumer (or business) in an always-changing market with an always-changing product.” (See the the original post here.) One of the main tenets of the Agile philosophy is the idea of knocking down barriers that exist around the project – and that the knocking down of barriers alone can often be the difference between an unsuccessful project and a successful one. You can get better at identfying and removing barriers by adopting a mindset affectionately nicknamed “spot it, got it.”

“Spot it, got it” – begin with the Answer in Mind

Quick – what’s the difference between a successful team and one that flounders when faced with a challenge? It’s likely that the successful team contains people with a “spot it, got it” mentality who are willing to identify the tasks that need to get done, determine what needs to be done to solve them, and then just knocks those tasks out. Notice that I didn’t say “the best team” but “a successful team.” It’s hard to know what the best team is going to be before they become the best team, but a successful team has a good shot at being “the best team”

What does it mean to “spot it, got it”? Let’s start by thinking about what it doesn’t mean. “Spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out all of the problems that the team has and never will have time to solve. It also doesn’t mean dumping the laundry list on your boss’s doorstep without a solution. And “spot it, got it” doesn’t mean pointing out a problem and then stepping away.

“Spot it, got it” means making yourself a valuable member of the successful team by identifying an issue, clarifying what it means and how important it is to solve, and then proposing a solution for the issue. If nobody responds, then Just Do It and let people know what you did and why. You might get yelled at but – as my ex-military friends often say – it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Identify some barrier, explain to the team why you’re knocking them down, and then go and do it and you’ve created a blueprint for everyone on the team to be the CEO of their own job.

“Spot it, got it” also means clearing the decks for the rest of your team by clearly communicating ownership and resolution of an issue. If you reassure your teammate that you are going to solve her problem, it’s also your responsibility to go do it and to tell her at the appointed time that you are ready to deliver what you promised. And there’s an important corollary here: sometimes you can’t just do it. So when you hit roadblocks you’ll do much better if you inform your co-workers and your boss that you need help. The daily scrum (if you run one of these) is a great place to say what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and where you need help. And a phone call or IM to your team can also uncover the help you need.

What’s the takeaway for the “Spot it, got it” idea? You can make life better for your team by suggesting a solution, not just pointing out a problem. Your guess is as good as anyone’e on the team, and provides a “straw answer” for everyone else to test. So get cracking – find the things that bug you about your workflow and the work you’re doing, propose and broadcast a solution, JFDI, and then tell people you did it. You’ll be happy you did.

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