Having a data-driven conversation with your boss

Have a data-driven conversation with your boss

Last week, I went to see my doctor for my annual checkup. I was PREPARED. I had detailed graphs tracking my weight, sleep, sedentary time, and the number of steps I take every day. It was laid out all pretty, and easy to understand at a glance.  In my head, it was fantastic. My doctor would be totally impressed that I was so proactive, and have all sorts of expert opinions on how I could best use these piles of data I’ve been compiling.

That’s not how it went down. At all. Instead, he politely listened and looked at what I had, then said “Oh, that’s neat. Was that hard to do all that? Ok, moving on…”

Neat. That was it.

Although I was hoping for a more enthusiastic response, I sort of expected it. My doctor has a set way of doing things, and this new information didn’t really fit into it. Furthermore, he didn’t know much about the integrity of the data (for example, how do I actually measure sleep quality?) From his perspective, it was a lot to take in without an obvious huge benefit. I wasn’t totally crestfallen, though. I know enough about what I’m tracking to see the value in it, and it gives me a complementary framework to improve many of the things my doctor wants me to do. (If you’re wondering, I need to sleep & exercise more)

It got me thinking about how this same situation can happen in the workplace. I think it’s natural for motivated people to want to optimize their productivity. When they find something that works for them, they want to share it. Similar to my experience with my doctor, bringing this information to your boss can be problematic. There are all sorts of reasons that the information you find so exciting and meaningful will fail to make the same impression on your manager.

Here are a few points to consider when having a data-driven conversation with your boss (or other co-workers, for that matter).

It’s easy to get too far down in the weeds.

I’ve personally gotten my share of blank stares when presenting ideas based on some obscure productivity metric. (Hey, check out this 20% drop in my task-switching ratio! We should all be doing this!!!) Sometimes, you’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while, and you have extra context that may be difficult to quickly convey. If you can’t explain it without a 20 minute backstory, it’s probably not going to go over well.

Don’t hit your boss in the face with a data-firehose.

Even if you’re talking about less-arcane data points, it’s still easy to overload someone with data. If you roll into the conversation with 18 different metrics, it’s going to be too much to take in, even if each individual item is easy to understand. When it comes down to it, any conversation about productivity should ultimately be about trying to reduce complexity and not introducing more work. If you’re essentially saying “look at all this new stuff that you weren’t keeping track of before, but you can now!”, then that’s going to be a problem.

Get detailed-enough to be useful, but no more.

Personal analytics are great, because you relate to the information in a way that no one else could. Be careful to strike the right balance when talking to others about your data, especially a manager. If you’re not granular enough, the data may lack sufficient meaning (an example here might be tracking a measure of multi-tasking without the context of why you’d want to alter that metric). On the other hand, if you go the other direction and say “here’s a second-by-second breakdown of everything I spent time on in the last month”, it’s too noisy  Also, you might actually be setting yourself up for an awkward conversation. Oftentimes, when presented with an overwhelming list, someone will scan for the first thing they have ANY context for, and unfortunately, that might end up being the 2% of your time you spent on Facebook, even though the 30% of time you spend in email might be much more meaningful and actionable.

Show some real results, then propose an experiment.

The single best way to impress someone with your personal analytics project is to take a data point that they’re already familiar with, and show how something you’re tracking relates to a measurable improvement. Charts and graphs are nice and all, but if you say “Hey boss, my billable hours went up 15% by me cutting back on the time I spent in email, here’s the data to prove it.”, then it’s going to get people’s attention. Once you’ve found something that works for you, think about how it could apply to others. Propose an easy trial with a couple colleagues to see if your efforts are repeatable with others on the team. (alternatively, skip the manager and set it up with them directly) Obviously, if you’re having this conversation with your manager, it may be their decision to figure out if or how to apply what you’ve discovered to the rest to the team, but laying out a framework is a better starting point than just saying “Here’s what worked for me, now you go figure out something to do with it.”

Maybe the conversation makes more sense for your peers than your boss

There are some hurdles that come with translating an idea that works for you into something that your manager spreads throughout the team. Sometimes, self-tracking projects can take on a bit of an authoritarian feeling when imposed from the top-down. It can really take the “personal” out of personal analytics. Perhaps a more grassroots approach makes more sense. If you’re excited about some self-tracking you’ve done for yourself, share it directly with your co-workers. If what’s working for you will really also help others be successful, then it should be easy to get others excited about it. And if others on your team are finding value in it, your manager almost certainly won’t stand in the way.

What works for you just might not work for the whole team, and that’s OK.

Finally, if it doesn’t seem interesting to others on the team, then perhaps its something that really works better for you than it does for others. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that. That’s the beauty of personal analytics, it helps you understand what works for you. Although if you’re on to something that really works for you, everyone will eventually wonder how they can use the tricks you have up your sleeve. :)

RescueTime aims to give people an easy platform for self-tracking and experimentation with their personal productivity. If you’d like to give it a shot, you can sign up for a RescueTime account here.