On Information

Years ago, a friend’s parents told me a story of when they decided that he could and should start taking responsibility for his own decisions. At the end of winter break, they decided to let him make the call of when to leave for the airport for the plane back to Boston. They asked him what time to leave, and, when he named a time, they knew it was too late. However, they didn’t say anything. He missed his plane, of course, and had to work with the airline to get back to Boston.

I mentioned this to him later (they told me the story in his absence), and his response was, “You’re kidding! I honestly thought the plane was an hour later! I wish they’d at least said something about the time so that I could have known. That really pisses me off.”

To a large extent, I know how he feels. Somehow, geeks often expect their leaders to know about things and act upon them, but they haven’t told us the time of departure. Likewise, users will sit on a problem for a long time and expect geeks to fix it. Their (usually irate) conversation goes something like this:

User: As you know, this has been a problem for a while.

Geek: Uh… I’m sorry; I didn’t know. For how long has it been a problem?

User: Since I called you six months ago and told you about it.

Geek: I’m sorry; I thought we resolved it at the time.

User: Well, you fixed it for me that once, but it keeps happening, and I’m just at the end of my rope!! Why are you so incompetent!?!?

At this point, the geek gets off the phone and drinks heavil–er, fixes or escalates the problem appropriately.

Geeks and leaders of geeks aren’t mind readers, and we’re not perfect. Sometimes, especially if things have been stressful, we completely forget to follow up on a problem or assume it’s fixed. That problem was one of 40 or so that the geek heard or found and fixed that day. (That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.)

Leaders are often treated similarly to the geek above. Maybe I forgot to return your phone call when the systems crashed. Maybe I didn’t get back to you about that great project idea you had. Please tell me. Please remind me. I’m sorry if I dropped the ball, but I can’t fix something if I don’t know it’s broken.

By giving me information, you help me to know the following:

  • The problem still exists.
  • The problem is important to you.
  • I need to either take or facilitate action to resolve the problem.

If I cannot address the problem immediately, I need to manage your expectations such that you know I haven’t forgotten about it. As I often say, if I don’t know about something, I cannot fix it. Or, to put it another way (as my Help Desk often hears me say after they get off of a call like the one above), “Help me help you.” I cannot do that without information.