A few years back, I was invited to a set of executive reviews of various infrastructure projects, both as a presenter and a reviewer. Two of those reviews stuck in my mind, one for the clarity of the presentation, and one for, well, the lack of. I learned a great deal about contextual communication and what I call Communicate State not Deltas, and later implemented these learnings into my own communication.
In this post, I’ll give a quick example of communicating updates and communicating states and explain why the latter is, in most cases, more desirable.
The Tale of Two Teams
The first review was run by a fairly newly put together team that hadn’t been exposed to reviews much before. They had a long-standing problem with reliability in a critical service. The service would continuously fail, requiring the team to focus purely on fixing, rather than developing new features, and most importantly, slowly burning out the team over an unreasonable amount of on-call stress. As a result, leadership put a lot of focus on the team’s service, offering help, engineering time and requesting quarterly reviews.
I was invited to what was likely the second or third review the team had done. The room would slowly fill up with a handful of senior leadership, both engineers and managers, as well as two representatives of the team. The leading engineer started the presentation with an update on what they had done: “We implemented a monitoring service […], we implemented exponential backoff, […]”, and so on and so forth. They presented a plan for the next quarter and the specific projects. “We will add and improve the failure rate metric by 5%.” By the end of the presentation, people nodded, but surprisingly there were few questions and little to no meaningful discussions. The team was quickly dismissed and the leadership team moved on to the next review.
A few months later, I was invited to another review about a new team to be built. The usual group of leadership would gather in the room, after the lunch break, to start the afternoon session of reviews. The new team was represented by a senior engineer, who had been at the company for a while and had seen and presented their fair share of reviews.
The lead of the team started the discussion by giving an overview of the problem area he was tackling. They went on to discuss the current state of affairs in that particular infrastructure area that the new team was focused on. The engineer talked through why the area is of interest, what the current technology solves, what the shortcomings are, and how it relates to the goals of the infrastructure organisation. They moved on to an overview of one and two-year goals. They finished with an outline of the plans and potential options. As the engineer finished the presentation, an engaged debate started among the senior managers and engineers in the room. “What other aspects of the area have we not invested in yet?” “What options do we have to achieve this?” The discussion went on for quite a long time and had to be stopped as the review was already way behind schedule.
I was stunned. This was a new team and the effort seemed valuable, but it felt less pressing than the review a few weeks ago with critical components being at risk. Yet the discussion was significantly productive.
I prodded a bit on this before realising it was a matter of communication style.
Communicate State not Deltas
The first team communicated updates - the delta since the last review. They showed the steps they were taking and the merits of each project they planned. But they missed a crucial part. What they failed to understand was the perspective of their audience. The other people in the room, besides them, see this team every three months. They don’t remember what was said last time. They forget the details of what was spoken minutes after the review.
Sadly, talking about what we have changed, about the delta, is our default communication style. This is how we think about our own work, how we talk to our partners, to our team members, and generally to the people we communicate with daily. For us, this is the most efficient way. We keep the full state in our head.
Others don’t have that state. They don’t remember every detail of what you or your team has done. The details of the changes the team is communicating are meaningless without the context of where you started and where you ended up with. They are meaningless without the state.
The second team communicated the state of the project. Where are they currently? Where do we want to be in 1-2 years? What are our options and what is the general plan? Communicating the state allows people to understand the full picture. They do not have to fill in the gaps or search in their memory of what was said months ago. They can take a holistic view and communicate their perspective and opinion within that context. The resulting discussion is healthier and more meaningful.
Quickly after this experience, I changed my communication style from discussing deltas to focusing on state. Unsurprisingly, I found this not just easier to reason about but also added a great deal of clarity to my communication.
Of course, this is a specific example within a corporate environment (grumble grumble insert rant about corporate processes), but I found that it generalises.
There are only a few instances where communicating deltas is desirable. Mostly, when you communicate frequently and regularly with someone. For example, with your team, your partner, your friends, etc. If you chat every day, everyone quickly converges to the same understanding and has a very recent memory of the current state of affairs. In those scenarios, the deltas are way more interesting, as people already know all the details. Only what has changed matters.
I believe it is also the natural way of how we think. We have a full understanding of the state we are in. If we think to ourselves what needs to be done, we often think in incremental steps. We don’t have to update ourselves about the state.
The problem starts when we try to communicate this way with others. The other side doesn’t have the state. They are occupied with their set of problems, their stuff, and quite frankly, might not care that much about what you have to say anyway. In that case, communicating the specific “state” of what you want to communicate, the future “state”, and a quick overview of how you go from the current to the future state, is way more desirable.
I found that defaulting to communicating state rather than updates significantly increases the clarity of what you are trying to communicate. It makes it easier to follow and engage.
Of course, there are exceptions. Communication is inherently contextual. You will need to understand your audience, and what they know about a specific topic. However, understanding the difference between communicating state and communicating deltas made it much easier for me to use the right style in a situation.