focus on what is, then what to do about it

One of my wonderful (and very self-reflective) colleagues reached out to me to ask;

I tried to explain something in a PR, but I can see from the next question they asked that they hadn’t understood my first explanation. What should I say to explain the problem to them?

most misunderstandings come from not being ‘in-sync’

In “connecting to dots” I explained a little about my definition of ‘in-sync’. To me, in-sync means :

In-sync: having a shared understanding of what is true, and what to do about it.

In-sync is a concise way of identifying when two of us have the same, or different, context. When we are in-sync we understand the background that informs each other’s opinion. When we are in-sync we both operate from the same set of facts, and believe each other’s understanding of the facts.

Pay-rise example

If your manager doesn’t agree that you should get some figure as a pay-rise, it might be because you and your manager are not in-sync on:

  1. the value you bring to the company
  2. the market rate for the job that you are doing
  3. the salaries of other team members
  4. the salary budget of the company
  5. other pay rises that are being given across the team/company

I would not expect that you could know all these individual pieces of information. But you can see how being not in-sync on any one of these points could lead to you and your manager having different views on your pay rise.

So, most misunderstandings come from not being in-sync. This also applies in the origin example; trying to explain a PR to a colleague.

To explain something to someone else, there’s a two step process:

  1. what is (get in-sync)
  2. what to do about it (agree)

first focus on what is..

When explaining, you should first make sure you are ‘in-sync’. This means explaining the what is. You should describe the background to the problem you are working on, and how you think about fixing it.

For example in the case of a bug, you should focus on:

  • what the customer needs
  • the original change made
  • how the original change doesn’t meet the needs of the customer

… these are all what is. By sharing what is, you are getting in-sync with your colleague.

Explain the what is – the context of the decision you have made – to get in-sync.

then what to do about it..

Once you are in-sync, you can describe what you are going to do about “it” (the problem you are solving, or discussing).

For example in the case of a bug, you’ve already established the “what is”, and now you can talk about the specific change that you made to fix the bug. This is important because:

  • Your colleague can now more easily judge the quality of the change that you have made based on the shared understanding that you both have.
  • Your colleague can spot anything you missed in your understanding of the bug, because you first focused on what is. Your colleague knows reasoning and assumptions, and can point out anything that you have got wrong.

First focus on what is, then what to do about it.

in principle

Explaining why is more important than explaining what1

Giving people the tools and principles within which to make decisions is more effective than telling people the answer. Explaining why explains the reasons. The reasons are more flexible and universally applicable than the what someone should do in any situation.