Everyone participates in information flow, although they may or may not realize it. Information flow is the act of consciously pushing information to the people that need it. It is an important part of any job, and I am going to share two techniques for being successful at it.
- The first is a common technique, but often one that is poorly practiced: a weekly email.
- The second is a new method I use which tracks what to communicate out to whom: infobits. It’s made a huge difference in my communication, to the extent that my colleagues seem blown away by the level of communication.
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 caught flat-footed.
A colleague gave me some great advice: “don’t ever let your boss be surprised”, and suggested I send a weekly email summarizing things that were important to my boss.
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 his 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 him 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.
What I do now is to 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:
- Consider how 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 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.
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.