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Deep And Wide May 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

Information, of quality both high and low, is seemingly infinite in supply. Time, however, is woefully finite. I’ve written previously about using the Three Ps as a structure for status reports, in the hopes of sharing more quality information in a shorter amount of time. Coaching your people to focus on the Three Ps certainly can help, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also important to recognize the value of Deep versus Wide.

Many people, especially technical people, take a simple approach when communicating up their management chain: convey a lot of detail about the issue at hand. There are merits to this technique: you can show that you know your stuff; you make sure that your boss is truly well-informed; and you can’t be accused of hiding information. There is little downside for the messenger to use this “deep” communication strategy.

Unfortunately, your boss may simply not have the time to listen to all this data, no matter how much they’d like to hear it. In many cases, they need certain salient details to make a decision; once that decision is made, little further information is needed. Instead, they need to move on to the next decision, which may require a similar quick assessment. Leaders often need “wide” communication, rapidly covering many topics at a low level of detail.

These competing goals often set up disastrous status meetings. Staff members go on at length with tremendous detail and background about each project while the decision-makers patiently wait them out, having made their decision long ago. Not wanting to offend or discourage their team, leaders will suffer through lots of extraneous data, sacrificing precious time that could be spent on other decisions. When they do cut things short, teams come away annoyed that their hard work was ignored or dismissed out of hand.

This conflict serves no one and can demoralize a team. Meetings run long and items at the end of the agenda never get addressed. Without clear direction, people have no idea how to communicate effectively with their bosses.

You need to address your desired level of detail with your staff. I tell my team to approach these meetings in a “wide” fashion first, initially addressing each item at a fairly cursory level. If things are as I expected, either good or bad, there is often little need to go “deep” and request more information. If, however, the initial review seems awry, I want to dive into the details and learn more. I expect my staff to have the details in their head so we can discuss them.

That’s a key item: discuss them. I expect my staff to understand the details and to be ready to engage in a good discussion. I do not want them to whip a stack of PowerPoint slides out of their hip pocket on demand. That’s a huge waste of time on their part, time better spent doing real work. Just be ready to have an informed conversation and we’ll all be better off.

Don’t think that this advice only flows downhill. Many CIOs suffer from the same problem, arriving at a senior management meeting ready to go “deep.” This is a double disaster, since deep dives with CIOs eventually drift into inscrutable technobabble. It’s as if we CIOs need a “stall alarm” in our heads that squawks “Pull Up! Pull Up!” as soon as we mention anything with moving electrons.

Your boss and peers are just as pressed for time as you are. Go “wide” until the questions start, and then dive deep as their questions lead you. You’ll save time, win some points, and shift further into your true role as a business leader, not the technology director.


1. Long Huynh - May 6, 2009

Wise advices from a pro. I myself prefers the rule of 3: no more than 3 things to say/do about any subject. It’s been well known up and down the hierachies so there were few surprises in terms of level of detail or time management issues.

I particularly like your idea of a “stall alarm” in our heads, when we talk/hear not only technobabble but anything not relevant to the task at hand.

Long at http://cioassistant.wordpress.com

2. Joe Williams - May 6, 2009

Wow, if I had a dime for every status report I received that went into excruciating detail, from which I had to pull the salient points for upward communication,… 🙂 Thanks for a well-thought-through and -written post, Chuck.

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