Show Your Work

I remember my high school math classes where the instructor insisted we show our work. For most of you, I bet you have a similar memory in your head from the title. It didn’t make sense back then. This is easy, and who cares if I show my work or not if the answer is right? And now, in the workaday world, it’s all about getting the right answer, and more than ever, we have no desire to share. This time, though, the way to get the right answer is to show your work.

I didn’t think this way back when I was getting some momentum. I would write an evaluation or instruction, some training plan or schedule, and I’d labor over it for days or weeks. I’d sharpen each phrase and think deep thoughts until it was finally perfect. Then, probably closer to the deadline than necessary, I’d turn in this work of art so my boss could be duly impressed by my mastery of the subject.

So, I hand it to the boss. He glances over it, nods, and without even a comment on my obvious literary talent, starts changing things. There are two very logical responses to this:

  1. Dismay – How am I not writing these things well enough?
  2. Offense – How dare he change that sentence? It was perfect!

And sometimes, just to keep things interesting, we go through both of these emotional responses, one right after another. Pick the order yourself, it’s the same either way.

I’ve done both these things, and now I see both in some fairly senior people under me who are moving up the same career ladder. Those who are dismayed, I tell them it’s completely normal and they’re progressing at the right pace. For the enraged and offended, I tell them to get over it. It’ll happen again.

When it comes to most of the things we do on paper, just accept that the people above you will change things. They don’t do it to prove they know more. It’s more likely that they understand how to communicate at the higher levels more effectively, and they’re doing what they can to move something upwards. Rarely do I see some intent that I need to change, just the way it’s communicated.

Giving a good product is important, but I’m telling you now that it doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect. If you invest that kind of energy into the placement of each word in each sentence, you’re building yourself up to be disappointed when it gets changed. Once you’ve gone over something a few times and have it pretty darn good, resist the urge to go over it one last time, or two, or to bring it home and spend the weekend on it. Show your work to the person you’re supposed to deliver it to.

– But it’s not 100%!
– It’s not ready!
– How dare I submit something perfectly good to my manager earlier than expected?
– Okay, that last one was a little leading. Sorry.

Most people in an administrative job, especially when we get started, have three or four levels between us starting a document, notice, or evaluation, and the person at the top who will sign it. That document you’ve lost sleep over will get changed, probably twice at a minimum. At the very top, if the boss is supposed to sign that piece of paper, he or she will make changes as well. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s the intent of the organizational structure. Here’s the point: Show that darn good draft that’s basically finished to your manager, and then learn how to perfect it for the next level up the chain.

When you do this, not only do you get things moving faster, you also start learning how your manager communicates upwards, which is good for both of you. You’ll start writing to that standard, and the boss will have an easier time editing your work. More importantly, you’ll be giving your manager more time to do it, which may turn into more time to teach you how it’s done.

I still do this today even though there aren’t so many levels between the boss and I. As I get the schedule drafted, I show that work to the people both above and below me. We talk about it, revise it again, and a week later, I’ll show it again for another round. If I try to just keep it to myself and perfect it, I wouldn’t get the right information and wouldn’t start thinking of the consequences of some of my great ideas. I would essentially be making decisions in a vacuum, and by the time I did finally show my masterpiece to the world, it would likely be too late to invest real time and energy into making the right changes. No matter what I create alone in a room, it will change at first contact with my boss. Why should I wait for the last minute for that? Instead, I share each draft along the way.

So please, share the drafts, talk about them, and ask for feedback. The sooner you show your work, the sooner it will improve.

– What piece of paper are you laboring over, and how many more times will you go over it before showing it to your manager?

– How many ideas looked great on paper but didn’t survive contact with reality, and how could that have been prevented?

Have a great week out there, and thanks for reading.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.