Watermelon Reporting

Watermelon Reporting

Wherever I consult, there is always a problem of Watermelon reporting.

Watermelon reporting is when the communication about a project status is green on the outside, yet red on the inside. The status is “all okay” but the reality is far from that.

I’m of course referring to RAG status reporting: Red, Amber, Green that is so prevalent in business - and something I always advice against using in the first place. It’s a shortcut way of communicating status, and it’s typically extremely unreliable.

The problem with most RAG status reporting is that it’s often subjective. It’s easy to game. It’s easy to lie. It’s easy to assume the best. It’s easy to paint a brighter picture than the reality. It’s easy to “miss” information.

The powerpoint says everything’s green, yet the team doing the work are barely holding it together.

And why wouldn’t people do this, when often they are working in an environment where “red” will get you into trouble? And so they adjust the truth. They go Amber, or Green, when the reality is they’re heading for a total disaster.

People don’t do watermelon reporting with ill intent, they’re merely trying to avoid getting into trouble. Thankfully, there are some companies where “red” is merely a flag for help. But trust me, most companies don’t operate this way. And even better - there are some companies that don’t use the RAG status at all - and focus on deliverables and value - and real time metrics (we’ll come to that).

Watermelon reporting is a communication failure and it happens in many ways.

The official Leadership update, the reporting system, the ad-hoc conversation in a hallway (“Everything’s going well!”), the systems of record fudged with fake numbers, the excel spreadsheet modified to show green. It’s endemic.

I’m reminded of Edward Deming when it comes to Watermelon reporting. He said:

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”

This applies to insights, strategy, decision making and more, but it also applies to reporting the status of progress.

Watermelon reporting is an opinion. It’s subjective. People often tell you what you want to hear. People lie to avoid the consequences. People sometimes only see the positive. People hide. It’s human nature.

And so, my recommendation is to communicate the truth. Early.

Sure, only you will know what the consequences are for that but if you keep delaying, and you keep doing Watermelon reporting, it’s only going to get worse. You may believe you can claw it all back and deliver before it’s too late, but I rarely see that.

Even better is to tie as much as you can together with data. To let the data, stats and evidence do the talking. Talk to the evidence and real insights. It’s not easy connecting the dots in a work system, between investment, activity and real value delivered, but it is possible. And it helps to avoid Watermelon reporting. (I say “helps” as in extremely toxic environments people will even fiddle the data from the reporting tools).

If you’re a manager or leader, try to avoid using RAG status in the first place - and get to the data quickly. If you must use RAG demand evidence to support the colour choice. Try to avoid reporting being done through Powerpoints and reporting grids….they breed Watermelon reporting.

Use the dashboards, insights and data feeds from the work tracking itself. Even better - go see for yourself.

When you ask people how things are going with a RAG element, you open the door for potential Watermelon reporting.

Communication in business should be specific, truthful and accurate. It’s important leaders start with this stance and weaken it depending on the challenges of gathering this data. And if you do have to use RAG, build a culture where “RED” is a flag for help, not a chance to reprimand someone. Develop the behaviours and culture where not being honest about status updates has consequences.

Watermelon reporting seeds false hope and invalid timelines that could result in decisions being made on subjective insights, all concluding in the risk of bigger commercial delays to the delivery of value.

We’re all managing some form of project at work - and the 101 of project management (whether agile or anything else), is to reflect reality. What’s really happening? What are we struggling with? Are we delayed? And why?

Communicating honestly and openly avoids Watermelon reporting. When we report accurately (and often), we get a chance to pivot, adapt, resource fully, make changes or at the very least, manage expectations. When we resort to Watermelon Reporting we open up a whole host of business, commercial, reputational and decision making risks.

Call out watermelon reporting. Find ways to avoid it. And if you’re a manager or leader, insist on evidence and data-informed reporting.

And if you ever work with me, you’ll find plenty of people talking about how to avoid watermelon reporting.

Communication problems in business are rampant, and watermelon reporting is often one of the main causes.