Stop Writing Reports

I remember the very first full fledged consulting engagement I sold. The partners in the firm didn't know what I was up to. It was summer time and they were just glad I had my own work to do. I eventually came back to the office to write up my recommendations and sent a draft to the audit partner. That started a three week ordeal.

My list of recommendations did not fit in any of the pigeon holes identified in the AICPA or PPC guides. And the partners didn't think my two pages were substantial enough. Even after we figured out what kind of report to attach we went 'round and 'round about needing to beef up the package so there were at least enough pages to run through the binding machine.

This is a sickness in many public accounting and law firms. You would think they were charging by the pound instead of the hour (forget about value pricing). And it is something you must address before you start adding a bunch of consulting clients.

Our approach is built around strategic consulting and execution. Aside from one-page strategic plans and quarterly campaigns there is not a lot of "reporting" that needs to be done. But we also do a lot of special projects that require us to document recommendations or findings. And here we have a very specific report writing policy. WE DON'T DO IT.

This is not my idea. I took Alan Weiss's advice in Million Dollar Consulting and stopped writing reports more than ten years ago. If the client wants a report they can provide someone to write it and I'll tell them what should go in it. But writing reports is almost always a waste of everyone's time. Not only is it unnecessary. It's a distraction.

Last week I sat in a dive bar on the island because it was the only place open while Hurricane Hermine blew past Southwest Florida. With an iPad and a couple of burgers between us, I walked the client through several weeks worth of work, presented my findings, and closed with a plan of action. It was 100 times more effective than any report I was forced to write so we could justify that expensive binding machine. Here are the ground rules I try to follow.

  1. Write no reports. I offer to make myself available to someone on the client team (for a fee) so they can debrief me and write the report themselves if they wish. So far no one has taken me up on the offer.
  2. Present findings, recommendations and next actions. "Present" means face-to-face (either physically or virtually). I don't email anything before presenting it. The reason for this is that most of the value for the client is in being able to discuss the issues and what I propose to do about them. From my side I want to make sure my work is put to good use. In a real, live conversation I can gauge the level of understanding and make sure what I mean to communicate is actually what the client is hearing.
  3. Leave behind a succinct, bullet point overview. I don't give this to the client ahead of time because I don't want them reading point #5 while I'm trying to make sure they understand point #1. But I think it is important to give them all of the substantive points in writing before we part ways. Our discussion usually follows a Keynote presentation on the iPad. I never just print out the slides because I think it's silly to leave behind 10 pages when you can fit the same bullet points on one sheet of paper? So I reformat the presentation in Word and give it to the client after we are done going through the presentation.
  4. Close with action steps. The last thing we talk about and the last section of my leave behind are proposed action steps. This is my opinion of what they should do next. Sometimes it includes a bullet point to hire me for help with execution. Other times it's a laundry list of things they need to do to make progress. If you don't tell your client what to do next they will feel cheated and their view of you will be more ivory tower know-it-all than in-the-trenches colleague.

The last thing I usually ask is "how will I know when you've done anything with this?" Resist the temptation to answer for them or to guess. You'll be suprised at the answers you get.