tracking progress at work

How to track progress best

I believe that understanding progress and checking-in on the state of things is everything at work, for ensuring a smooth workday.

You sure can learn a lot from collaborating with people around you, regardless of whether you’re their manager or your a peer, as long as you keep track of 2 types of information: learnings and performance.

The notion of “checking in on progress” is a recurring theme. Even when you apply for a new job, as you’re asked about: “What would you be doing in your first 30 days as a new employee” and “How would you measure your success”. These are typical questions, where the interviewer wants to understand your process of how you “check-in with your report/reportees”.

During your day-to-day, as a manager/individual contributor, it is very common to be asked to report on the progress of certain activities.

Therefore in this piece I would like to answer: how to do a good job at sharing progress?

What’s the best process to share updates

Do you find yourself struggling to share with others, in written or spoken format your progress updates?

I would start from the top - there are 2 key principles someone reading a progress or performance review would ask you about:

  • What have you learned?
    • Have you learned something new that is worth sharing both through failing/succeeding in certain tasks
  • How have you performed?
    • As you performed your duties, executed on some plans, have you progressed and how have you measured this progress and its impact on your main goals.

Finding a balance between answering these questions is not simple.

How to answer: What have you learned?

Logging

This is a trick I have learned from going through school. An expensive trick which is fundamental to me.
Take notes as your day progresses.

It is probably the most undervalued type of task someone at work can spend 10 minutes on, but in my opinion this is the most valuable piece of advice.
I keep a log of what I do every day, highlighting what went well and what did not went well, including any blockers. It is sort of like a mini personal stand-up that I write as a note to myself on Slack at the end of every day.

Putting it all together

At the end of the month I write myself a couple of paragraphs on what went well, similar to a sprint retrospective. I give myself some time to think about what I would do different and if there are any learnings

I can then use this information to share it with any of my managers, my team and/or other collaborators.

As I have a log of everything that went well/bad, day by day, the next step is easy.
I read through them and I put it all together - it seems like a lot of work, but truly isn’t - and the benefits of doing a summary saves you having to go through hundreds of bullet points.

First I remind my audience the goals set, then I explain the progress - highlight any interesting facts learned through the way.
I do categorize the good and the bad things happened in the perspective of the main tickets/issues worked on: for example I will say:

“[…] As part of the effort to develop a better onboarding process, it has been discovered X Y Z”
I always suggest everyone to use a kanban-style management approach to do work. Every objective I discuss is usually subdivided into small achievable tasks that I have worked on.

How to answer: What have you learned?

Where did you fail?

Technically, when nothing goes wrong - there’s very little to learn. That is not fun. It’s better to fail and recover.
Obviously I advocate against simply failing, as it is counter productive and useless for posterity.

“Why did we NOT fail” is actually a hard question to answer.
“What have we learned from failing”, on the other hand, is much more interesting to our storytelling.

Data

It’s really hard to talk about “what I have learned” without talking about data. Everyone loves a little data, and more importantly, people want data that leads to real learnings and not to vanity metrics.
With data we can answer the how and the what.
The best piece of advice is to talk in terms of data that correlate directly with the success of your goals.

For example, if the goal was to hire 30 people over a quarter, I would be focusing on talking about applicants who made it to the first and last stage and how many made it to hired and the various data-points that seem off or too good to be true.
These are better metrics, everything else is vanity metrics/irrelevant to understanding more about the work done and seeing if there are any process improvements that can be applied.

Finding this data can be time-consuming, so setting up periodical reporting on metrics and making sure you can navigate through this data without complications is tactically important.

Conclusions

Sharing insightful progress reports isn’t simple, but there is some tactical advice around keeping a log of what you work on, being able to summarize it and finally using data to show when you have failed why you did and how you recovered.

If you practice being able to share good progress reports you will be able to apply this knowledge to things like:

  • 1-on-1s with your manager
  • Show and tell with your team
  • Company-wide presentations