Asking for advice
Recently I’ve been working on team strategy, and have been finding it really useful to get advice and input not just from the rest of 80,000 Hours, but also from others. I find it challenging to get advice on complex strategic questions from people with little context of the work I’m doing in a way which is minimally time consuming for them. I think it’s something I’ve gotten better at over the years, but I don’t remember having read much about it. Since it’s so useful to get feedback on projects, I wanted to write down some of the things which I try to do when soliciting feedback, and ask others to share what’s worked for them.
Why think about this?
How you go about asking for advice on a project can make a huge difference to the people you’re asking. The experience of giving input can vary from costly and annoying to incredibly rewarding. A lot of that depends on factors like how much someone feels their time is being valued, and there are some straightforward ways to affect that.
I find putting time and thought into getting feedback can be frustrating, because it feels so far from the object level of getting useful work done. In my recent case (how to structure 80,000 Hours advising), the project itself is already one step removed from actually talking to people about their careers. And then thinking about how to get feedback on the plans feels even further from the part where I’m actually helping people! But I find it useful to remember that not only will it make it a nicer experience for the person whose time I’m asking for, it’s also going to make it more viable for them to give advice both this time and in future. One of the things I love most about the effective altruism community is how collaborative it is. People support each other not just within their specific organisations, but across the whole community. I really appreciate the feeling that we’re all part of a global team. I want to assist that by allowing people to give advice in a way that’s quick and easy (and pleasant!) for them.
Before seeking feedback
Think carefully about who I’m reaching out to and why:
There are a lot of smart, knowledgeable people out there. So sometimes it feels tempting to ask lots of people for advice at once. But that’s typically a worse use of their time than asking the one or two best placed people. I often find it hard to explain what I’m doing and what advice I’m after to people with less context, so their comments are less useful yet it takes them more time and effort to give them (since they have to put in more time to understand the project).
It’s also useful to convey to the person why they’re the one being asked for advice. For example, maybe they’ve done similarly risky projects in the past and you want to know how they mitigated the risk—if you tell them that they’ll know where to focus their advice, so you’ll hear more about the specific thing you wanted. It will also help them feel you value their time.
Figure out what I most need help on:
What are the key assumptions I’m making I most want to check with others? What are my biggest uncertainties with the project, or the parts where I most think people might disagree with me? I have a tendency to want to check everything, and to ask for advice before I’ve gotten clear in my own mind what the crucial uncertainties are. But that makes it very difficult for people to give constructive comments. It also means when they do comment, sometimes the comments are about a part of the project which isn’t that important anyway, whereas maybe a crucial part ends up overlooked because they spent their time on the other part.
Write a concise document summarising my key uncertainties and what I’m looking for feedback on:
Sometimes when I’ve clarified my thinking, it turns out I just want to check a specific assumption with someone. But for cases where I want comments on a whole project, having a write up which is clear and brief is often really useful. This is typically more helpful for the reader than sharing my internal write up (which is usually too long and makes assumptions about context which the reader doesn’t have) or trying to do it all verbally.
Making the ask
Check in with them about how they would most like to provide feedback.
If I know their preferences, I try to make it easy for them respond in the way they’d most like. For example, I have a friend who dislikes reading long documents, but is always happy to talk.
If you’re not sure, give them a number of different options, and try to make them as low cost as possible.
On the other hand, it’s also often useful for people to get a sense of what kind of feedback would be most useful for you—would you like their overall reaction? Detailed comments?
Another crucial piece of information is the timeline you need the comments on for them to be useful.
If you’re going to have a call with someone, ask them when would be convenient, and make an agenda before you talk.
You might send them the agenda beforehand so that they know what you want to focus on.
Try to make the conversation concise, and to avoid going over the time allocated. I really appreciate when people do this when I’m talking to them, because it means I can focus on thinking through the ideas rather than also making sure that we’re sticking to the agenda and get to everything.
Focus on understanding their points, rather than arguing back. I always find myself wanting to explain why I chose the particular way of doing things I suggested, but often that’s not a good use of time for the person I’m talking to, and I should just be focusing on getting their opinion.
Make notes so that you remember their advice and can action their suggestions. I think people sometimes feel it’s rude to take notes when talking to someone, but my impression is that (maybe particularly amongst effective altruists?) it’s actually considered more polite to take notes because it shows that you’re taking the person’s advice seriously.
Thank them for their time!
Think carefully about the advice: Consider how it fits with what you’re doing and don’t jump to change things based on suggestions from someone who hasn’t spent much time thinking about the project. On the other hand, make sure that you’ve thoroughly considered it rather than quickly writing it off. It seems too easy to me to either react defensively to feedback and try to justify not changing things, or to feel mortified about someone finding holes in what I’ve done and rush to make quick changes. Better to wait and consider the feedback in a cool moment.
Follow up with the person: Let them know what you changed because of their advice. I often hesitate to do this because it feels like I’m just taking up even more of their time. But when I’ve given input on a project I enjoy hearing back about it, and I find it useful to know whether and how my comments were helpful so that I can calibrate on how much time to spend on similar cases in future.
I’d love for people to comment with their thoughts about how they seek advice, and what has gone well (or badly) for them in the past.