“I need a report.”

That sentence makes me cringe. Not because reports aren’t important – they definitely are. But I’ve been producing reports my entire career that take hours to compile and check for accuracy only to have them looked at for about 5 secs and discarded.

Frustrating? You better believe it.

The ability to collect, review, and interpret data is invaluable. But reporting for reporting’s sake is a colossal waste of time, effort, and energy. A report should inform an important decision or action. If it doesn’t, there’s likely a better way to get at the data you seek – like picking up the phone and asking a question. Or leaving your office and going to see the person. Or having a quick meeting. Sometimes it seems like if we don’t actually want to talk to someone, we ask them to submit a report instead.

“Information only” reports often lie unread and quickly gather dust on the executive’s desk for which they were created. Sadly, we all know this to be true. Yet we toil away asking for and creating TPS reports like corporate zombies. And it seems there’s often a direct correlation between the size of the bureaucracy and the amount of silly, meaningless reports. Big companies like lots of reports.

We should also keep in mind that reports are a picture of the past. Because reports look backwards, we can spend an awful lot of time checking out the rear-view mirror. This is time we aren’t moving the business forward and it is for this reason reports can, and often are, a monumental distraction.

So when asking for a report – either ad hoc or regular – know exactly what decision or action the report should help us make. Reports should be short, sweet, and too the point. Pretty charts, graphs, tables, etc. that carve up the data six ways to Sunday are cute and showcase computer skills – but does anything come of all this “fluff”? Do we actually DO anything after we get the information? Are we giving the business the data it needs to make critical, timely decisions? If not, the report is all but worthless.

Of course, there are those who say if we don’t understand the past we are doomed to repeat it. And I would agree. I’m not saying we should never report. But if we do, let’s make sure we actually do something with it and not just shove it in a drawer.