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How to be an information flow superhero


Information flow is how you communicate with the people around you

How do the people around you know what they need to know? I am going to share two techniques that you can use to improve information flow with the people you work with.

  1. The first is a common technique, but often one that is poorly practiced: a weekly email.
  2. The second is called infobits. With infobits, you track what to communicate out to whom. Experimenting with infobits has made a huge difference in my communication.

Don’t ever let your boss be surprised

My first introduction to information flow was when I screwed up. I didn’t tell my manager about an important change to a project I was running. Someone asked him about it during a meeting, and he was unprepared to respond.

After the meeting, a coworker gave me this advice: “don’t ever let your boss be surprised”, and suggested I send a weekly email summarizing what my manager needed to know.

The weekly email

Writing a periodic summary email to your boss is an excellent practice — a sort of baseline of information flow. The way I have done it is to keep a log of my work and thoughts, and then at a specified time of the week, I summarize, edit, and send the email.

The biggest mistake people make when sending a weekly email is to neglect to consider their audience. A log of your work may be interesting to your boss, but it is far more likely to be useful if you ask yourself, “what does she care about”. Typically, she wants to know:

  • A high level view of progress.
  • Any risks or changes.
  • Areas you need help.

Even though it takes time to organize the information in this way, I’ve discovered many benefits:

  • It helps my manager do her job more effectively.
  • It allows me to explain context for my work, and highlight challenges and risks.
  • It allows my boss to have enough information to be able to talk about my work. I’ve found this helps her be a more effective advocate for me.
  • As a side effect, it also gives me a sense of accomplishment to look back on the week and what I’ve accomplished.

An email isn’t the only way to flow information, however — for example, daily standups are a way of doing much the same thing verbally. But email is an excellent way of flowing 1:1 information up to your manager.

The problem with a weekly email

However, a summary email flows information in only one direction: up.

Most people work in a richer environment: with neighboring teams, people on related projects, stakeholders, outside customers, and others who may be affected by your work.

The challenge can be keeping track of all the people around you and who you’ve told what. And everyone has different information needs.

Introducing Infobits

Here’s how I work when I use Infobits. I keep a log, just like I did in the past. Throughout the day, I write down little tidbits to remind me of things that happened. For example:

As the day goes by, I record more and more items in that list. Periodically, often several times a day, I go through that list, and copy and paste it to the name sections I have further in the document, to specify who the information is most relevant to, like this:

Then, I edit them based on that particular person’s information needs:

Considerations as you edit Infobits

  • How do you want people to respond to the information? Do you want it kept confidential? Do you want them to broadcast it to their team? Make that clear.
  • Consider whether this is for their information, or whether you want them to act upon it. If you call it infobits, the default is FYI.
  • You can often reinforce information flow from multiple angles. For example, tell the manager of the team what you’d like them to reinforce, but also send the team the information they need. People often need to hear things a couple of times, so this can be a way to reinforce that.

After editing, I periodically sweep through the list, and cut and paste each person’s section into an email addressed to them.

Why not Slack this info to them?

I have done an experiment with doing this by Slack. I prefer the email, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Doing it by email made me pay more attention to what I was doing. It helped me build the skill. Why? The email and the notes were closer to each other, so editing the notes to get them into email form seemed closer to what I was looking for.
  2. With Slack, the tempatation can be to do it as it comes up. I found part of the benefit was from batching and editing. This gave me time to think about what each person needs, and also the relative importance of what I was sending. This allowed me to filter out more, making it more valuable to my reader.

Doing it by Slack is fine, but I recommend doing it on a cadence: daily, biweekly, or weekly.

Why you should try Infobits

Writing Infobits takes a little more time than the weekly email. Is it worth it? I’d encourage you to try it out for a couple of weeks, and see what kind of response you get.

My experience was that there were three surprises:

  • Surprise #1: I started receiving thank you notes. Lots of little email responses like this: “I like these write-ups. This is a good model to use. I definitely appreciate these!”
  • Surprise #2: Suddenly everyone seemed to think I and my team were doing better work than we had been doing previously.
  • Surprise #3: Infobits also help build important business relationships. People really appreciate it when you are helping them to do their job better.

I personally don’t always do Infobits. There is a cost to spending so much time on communication. But practicing Infobits gave me a new skill. Whenever I notice information gaps, I can pull out Infobits and use it to improve information flow.

Information flow as a system

As you get more experienced in your career, you will have more latitude to influence the system of information flow. You can design the way people communicate by default. And you can see larger patterns in the way people communicate and influence improvements.

For example, if you see that managers are always asking their team members for information, you can add demos or standups to ensure the managers are kept more abreast of things. Or you can emphasize different aspects of the management role.

One use of Infobits is to trace the information needs throughout the organization. Look at what information you’re learning, think about where it came from and who needs to know it. With a lot of experience, you may not need to do the exercise, but early on in your career, it can be a helpful way to analyze the information needs of the people around you.

Thanks to @Lariar on Twitter for archiving this content so I could repost it. This was originally hosted on Kate Matsudaira’s popforms. Also thank you to Bjorn Freeman-Benson, who taught me many of the techniques in this blog post.

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