Talk about Impact, not Effort
Imagine your friend is renovating their house and you ask how it’s going.
“It’s all great!” they say. “We’ve stripped 3 rooms, put 7 tins worth of emulsion on the walls, sanded 9 sq m of floorboards and assembled 2 of the bookcases plus a desk. The only hitch is that the builder’s going to be late with one of the deliveries next week so we‘ve had to rethink the plan.”
This might be accurate, but it doesn’t tell you much at all! It has far too many small details, and doesn’t really reveal anything about how well the project is going. Is 7 tins of emulsion a lot? What even is emulsion — is it the same as paint or do they mean something else? How much furniture is there to assemble? What does it mean to rethink the plan? You have to ask your friend a lot of follow-up questions about what exactly they mean, and bring your own guesses and assumptions about the implications. You don’t know where to offer any help, or indeed if help will be welcomed. In short, you have to bring a lot of your own thinking to interpret the status of the project.
A more informative reply from your friend might be “It’s all great! We’ve finished sanding & painting the living room & dining room, and started assembling the furniture. Just one snag — the builder will be late delivering our kitchen cabinets. But if we paint in there first, we can still manage to finish only a couple of days later than we’d planned.”
This is far more informative. You understand that some of the rooms being renovated are almost completed because the furniture is being assembled. Even though you don’t know how much furniture there is still to assemble, you get a sense that nothing is going wrong in those rooms. It’s clear that the main delay is going to be in the kitchen. And while the whole project is slightly delayed, it’s under control and will only overrun by a couple of days. You also know exactly where to offer any help. If you happen to be a whizz at putting together kitchen cabinets you can offer to help here, knowing it’ll almost certainly help speed the project along.
At work, it’s common to fall into the first pattern of status updates. People carefully report the details of their work and time they’ve spent on tasks, leaving their manager and colleagues to do the work of interpreting and understanding the bigger picture. Inevitably, things fall through the cracks and misunderstandings arise. In a field like machine learning, where there’s a lot of specialised language and in-domain knowledge, detail-filled updates can be even harder to interpret.
The best way to talk about your work is to tie it closely to wider team or company goals. Succinctly summarise the achievements, progress you’ve made towards goals, the problems that came up along the way and how you’re working around them. Identify any impacts on timeline and deliverables that need to be known. By doing this, your message becomes easier for people around you to understand. When colleagues are confident that they know what you’re doing and why, they’re more likely to trust you. And as a bonus, the story you want to tell is less likely to be mistranslated as your colleagues and management take your updates into discussions where you aren’t present.
In summary – rethinking the way you talk about your work can have an outsized impact on how you’re perceived.