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Framing Conditions, Actions, & Needs in Executive Communication

A simple method of framing your executive communications.

Sean Herron
3 min read
Framing Conditions, Actions, & Needs in Executive Communication

I had the opportunity to learn from the incredible Brent Chapman while I was an Engineering Director at Slack. Brent has spent his career focused on incident response and management. He was pivotal in building Slack's world-class incident response program.

One of the key concepts introduced at Slack was the idea of a CAN Report (Conditions, Actions, & Needs). CAN reports are a succinct way of communicating the status and next steps during an emergency in three sections:

  • The Condition that is affecting operations and subsequent impact.
  • The Actions that are being taken to mitigate or repair the condition.
  • The Needs of the response team to be able to take the action.

CAN reports are widely used in all sorts of incidents across industries - from fire departments to CERT teams to tech giants¹ - to help streamline communications and provide a concise overview of the situation. They also mirror some of the most effective ways of communicating with executives, particularly when you're still establishing relationships with leaders.

tl;dr; as a management philosophy

One of the common pieces of feedback I've received and provided throughout my career is the need to focus on providing clear, actionable communication when interacting with senior leaders and executives. A senior leader looking for an update likely doesn't want to read a 30-message long Slack thread or a nuanced root cause analysis - they want the tl;dr; with more context or information available if required.

When preparing a message to an executive, I first think about what I'm looking for from them. This typically is one of three things:

  1. A decision on which path to pursue in solving an issue
  2. A heads up about something they may hear about or get escalated to them
  3. A request for them to take some sort of an action (such as messaging another leader or influencing a decision another team is making)

In any of these contexts, writing your request in a CAN format can help ensure your message is concise, to the point, and clearly identifies what you're looking for from the recipient.

Example

Let's say, for example, you are running into an issue where another team is pursuing a project that has unintended impacts on your own work. You need them to delay their release so that you have time to update the dependencies you are responsible for without upending your existing work, but they insist that you work within their existing timeline. In this situation, you want to escalate to your management and provide a suggested solution that you feel is the best path forward:

Hey <My Executive>,

Wanted to discuss Project X, which is an effort by <other leader>'s team to redo our public website.

On Monday, they let me know that they would need me to update our infrastructure to a new technology stack. This will take roughly 4 weeks of work from our team to complete. They had planned to release next month, and are pushing us to figure out a way to make this happen within their existing timeline. (Condition)

I've looked at our existing planned work, and we have several key projects this would impact. I think we can make a compromise here - if they delay the release by two weeks, we can still wrap-up Project Y and avoid having to stop and start work. Unfortunately, we couldn't come to an agreement here, and they are likely going to escalate to their leadership. (Action)

Ask: Would you be able to discuss with <other leader> and see if we can push this out, or if we should plan on delaying Project Y and prioritize the new website infrastructure ask? (Need)

Thanks,
Sean

A few key things from this message:

  • We are proactively sharing a potential conflict with our leader and offering them the opportunity to get ahead of the issue rather than waiting on the escalation of a "blocker."
  • We are framing our recommended action (delaying the release by two weeks) but also making sure to be clear that if the decision is to reprioritize, we'll be supportive - these things happen.
  • We've made clear that we have exercised some attempt at resolving the problem first and have put thought into weighing the various options available to us.
  • We're specifically framing the need by prefacing it with "Ask" - that way, if they are skimming the message, they'll be able to identify what you're looking for from them quickly. Some people prefer to start the message off with the Ask - I tend to find that a bit weird and prefer to have at least some context shared in advance.

I find it extremely helpful when my own team uses this framework for communications with me - and consistently find it effective when communicating with my own leadership. Next time you're struggling to frame a problem upward, give it a shot.


  1. https://www.usenix.org/sites/default/files/conference/protected-files/srecon18americas_slides_chapman.pdf