"5-15 Reports: Communication for Dispersed Organizations"
By Joyce Wycoff

Flextime...telecommuting...field offices...home offices...shift work...project teams: these trends bring major benefits in flexibility, innovation and improved effectiveness to organizations. However, they also carry a definite side effect: the destruction of traditional communication channels. Something as simple as routine staff meetings can become almost impossible to schedule and one hundred percent attendance seems to be a thing of the past.

Flattened hierarchies have increased the autonomy and responsibility of individuals making accurate, timely information more critical while current work trends have made communication of that information more difficult. So, how do we manage communication in an organization where people work different hours in different places, often in different time zones?

There's a lot of high-tech answers to this question but Jerry McNellis, CEO of The McNellis Group, uses a low- tech approach that has worked well for his team of 12 who are scattered around the country. Jerry is a story- boarding specialist who has developed a problem solving and planning process he calls Compression Planningtm. Most of his team of trainers and facilitators have home offices and spend the bulk of their time at client facilities.

About nine years ago, Jerry adopted a process known as 5-15 Reports invented by Yvon Chouinard, CEO of Patagonia, and described in Growing a Business by Paul Hawken. The idea is that every week everyone submits a report that takes no more than 15 minutes to write or 5 minutes to read. The process as described by Hawken has three parts:

  • a simple description of what the person did during the week

  • a blunt description of the person's morale and the morale they see around them

  • one idea that will improve the person's job, department, or company.
After using this process for awhile, Jerry dropped the third part of the report as it seemed to be eliciting more game playing than useful ideas, but uses the basic process as the communication backbone of his organization. "In an organization where we're dispersed, this process is really helpful," states McNellis. "I get a lot of feedback from our field staff about how they feel more connected and more a part of the company.

"We do the reports once a week for full-timers and once a month for part-timers and consultants. They are due by Monday noon and, since we have a relatively small group, everyone receives a copy of each report. We also send them to our key linkages, joint ventures and special clients as a way of staying in touch."

The 5-15 reports talk about what's going on with specific clients, proposals that are being written, sessions that go especially well, problems that come up, new projects, etc. They provide a forum for bragging, commiserating, asking for help, suggesting ideas, venting irritation and passing along information of general interest.

However, the reports are also an important way of staying connected on a personal level. Information that would normally be transferred in cafeterias, passing in the hall or at the water cooler is often lost when people are no longer in frequent contact. In a dispersed organization, this lost contact can lead to isolation and a loss of connection with the organization and the group vision.

A very important part of the reports written by The McNellis Group revolves around personal issues such as children, births, deaths, weddings, graduations, vacations, health, etc. Because the reports are written every week and everyone reads them, there's a constant reinforcement of the group connection and a continuity to important information and human events.

McNellis states, "Over the years we've only been able to get together as a group once because of the difficulty of meshing everyone's schedules, so this report process has become critical to our sharing information and working together. For us, getting together not only means a lot of out of pocket expense, it means losing billable time, so it's critical that we be able to communicate effectively without physically getting together.

"While the reports are designed for information that is of general interest," McNellis continues, "it's not unusual for the reports to stimulate further conversations between individuals. I read the report intently, especially around the issue of morale and often make notes on the reports responding to certain items and send them back to the originator, which makes a very fast and effective feedback loop."

Creating an Information Democracy

One result of the continued use of these reports is a democratization of information. Since all reports go to everyone in the organization, the information flows equally to each person. There's a growing knowledge base that is shared by every member of the organization -- a knowledge base that affects countless decisions and prioritizations. In this democratic flow of information, no one feels left out, socially or organizationally. Everyone has a chance to talk about what they're doing, whether it's working with a major client or setting up a new filing system -- everyone's role is valued.

While larger organizations might not be able to have reports copied to everyone, it's clear that this process builds a strong bond of communication and information and can be used by any group that has difficulty getting together often enough to keep current on organizational information and personal activities.

Joyce Wycoff is the Co-founder of the InnovationNetwork and can be reached at staff@innovationnetwork.biz.

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