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I have been handed a project that has been kicked around for 4 or 5 months with ~zero progress made. The project is to implement a new tool that was chosen before I got here. It seems like a good product, and the vendor is very helpful, but I don't really think it fits our needs or use case. I made this clear to my boss and went forward after being told "I know, it's not great, but it's better than what we have now."

I recruited one of our part-time interns to help me out, as the front end of this project is going to include a lot of manual data entry and parsing from multiple sources. My boss asked for a status on this Friday night, and I told him that I was making slow, but steady progress. He offered that knowing the product better, he could do some work over the weekend. Knowing that his vision of this project didn't really match with what the vendor could supply or better business practices, I said that it might be better if I do it myself, as a learning opportunity. He dismissed this saying he wants the project to start moving and said he would do some work this weekend (I estimated another 12 hours worth of work.)

Fast forward to 0900 this morning, my boss comes into the office announcing that he is done, and bragging that the work only took him an hour and a half. Full of trepidation, I open the Excel file I had been working on for two weeks, and which I had painstakingly laid out to be visually representative, and eventually parse-able by the accompanying script I am going to have to write. I was correct about my trepidation: my boss has compacted columns that should not have been, I have three different header row sections (Excel skills are not strong here), and he has partially or completely misunderstood the meaning and intent of a number of columns and key/value pairs.

I fortunately have a backup of this file, and some of the data he added is actually very helpful, so he may have saved me some time/looking, but the spreadsheet as it is now isn't usable for its original purpose, and is outright wrong in some respects. I probably have 10 hours of work now in stead of 12, so he saved the company a half hour of work by working over the weekend.

Questions:

  • Should I tell my boss the work he gave me isn't usable, and why?
  • How should I present this? He is something of a serial offender in this area, and while it didn't cost me more work this time, it easily could have.

TL;DR My boss claims to have finished a task he gave me in 1.5 hours that I projected would take 12 hours. I now have 10 hours of work to do to "fix" his work. Should I tell him and how?

Edit: For some more background, my boss is the CEO of the company, and ~30 years my senior. We have a good working relationship, but I would say we are more acquaintances than friends. He is generally open to criticism, but quite headstrong, which is probably why he made these changes that I was trying to avoid. I have made it clear that what he wants to have happen is not possible without going back to vendor selection, which he has categorically ruled out. I am a senior manager of a ~50 person company located in the US.

  • @agentroadkill yeah... we definitely need to know more about your boss's character and your relationship with him. Knowing which country this is wouldn't hurt. – Ben Barden Mar 11 at 15:31
  • @agentroadkill As it happens, I tried re-wording the answer to address the three points. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 11 at 15:51
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    @agentroadkill Hey, can you please mention whether there were any documentations/ guidelines present or not? If yes, did your boss used them or chose to ignore? This will help me to improve my answer, thanks. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 11 at 15:59
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    How much overlap is there in your and your boss' skills? Could you make the case that your boss' work product isn't suitable for the next phase you'll have to do (it's easier to make the case that the work doesn't meet your specific needs than that it was objectively worthless, even if the latter is the case). – Upper_Case Mar 11 at 16:01
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    @Upper_Case there is fairly little overlap in our skillsets - I think the project was handed to me as a way to get it assigned to someone and to give me something to do that he could understand. I think your framing of "this is okay now, but there's work I need to do for the next part..." is probably correct. Could you turn that into an answer? – agentroadkill Mar 11 at 16:50
190

The short answer: No, you should not tell your boss that his work was worthless. Instead, express that it's not what you need.

My rationale is that worthless is emotionally charged, maximally judgmental, and very much subjectively based. Worthless implies that there is literally zero underlying value to the way your boss arranged the information, and further suggests that your boss is foolish for having done such a bad job, and foolish again for failing to realize what a bad job it was (despite his not being involved with, or possibly even qualified to fully understand, the next phases of the project).

It's not generally a great professional move to demean and degrade, and in this specific case I don't see much upside to your boss knowing that you think so little of him (even if that's too strong to describe your actual feelings, it's a plausible message for someone to draw from being told that the work was worthless).

But critically, your assessment of the work is not really necessary here. That the work was bad, full stop, provides very little useful information to anybody. That the work is not what you need it to be for the project to continue, on the other hand, is valuable information both as an update for the project's current status and as a comment on what your boss did. It's also entirely defensible-- if your boss wants to be a cheerleader for his work, he will have to explain how it will meet your needs. If he can do so, then you've avoided making an inflammatory claim that isn't true. If he can't, your point is made but there are some face-saving ways out for your boss.

Saying that you need something other than what your boss produced places the emphasis on the work requirements you're facing (rather than the skill or quality of any particular person), describes what you will be working on next (despite the "complete" work your boss provided), puts the project timeline into clearer focus (your boss saved you little time or effort here), and reiterates what all of this effort is for (you're not nitpicking something with your boss for some petty reason, you're just focusing on the functional requirements of the job).

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    You are, of course correct. Diplomacy counts. – agentroadkill Mar 11 at 17:23
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    Also, "worthless" is actually factually incorrect here. OP has already mentioned that part of it saved him a couple of hours of work. – Ben Barden Mar 11 at 18:42
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    @BenBarden I am in heavy agreement. I am reminded of this quote attributed to Thomas Edison - "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." – emory Mar 12 at 1:19
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    It would probably be good to go through where your understanding of what's needed differs from his. If he has the wrong ideas about how the software works, this will be a problem in the future. There's also always the possibility you've misunderstood something. – JollyJoker Mar 12 at 8:15
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    @agentroadkill It's not just about diplomacy (or really, in this case, basic interpersonal skills). It's about actually providing useful feedback, rather than a dismissive statement (or really, in this case, an outright insult). Think about your goals - you're trying to find a way to do your job and communicate with your peers (and superiors) better. Does saying "The work you did was worthless" help that in any way? – Luaan Mar 12 at 8:40
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Your boss worked over the weekend with the intent to help. Unfortunately, his work does not fulfill all the project requirements. Be grateful for his willingness to help, but be clear about how his work does not suit the project requirements.

I would send the boss a quick email stating precisely which which requirements are not fulfilled. This will keep the discussion objective and business-focused, so that you and your boss can stay on the same team. Remember, you both have the same goal here.

Hey boss, thanks for your help with the XY project. It looks like there's a little more work to be done: combining columns A and B means that we can no longer distinguish which customers have cancelled their orders. And we still need to implement a "Submit" button. I'll work on adding those features. I expect to have a new version for your review tomorrow afternoon.

Just don't call his work "worthless." Harsh words like that can severely damage your relationship.

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    It would also be good to mention what work was helpful. - "some of the data he added is actually very helpful, so he may have saved me some time/looking" – David K Mar 11 at 15:48
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    Based on OP's statement, "his vision of this project didn't really match with what the vendor could supply or better business practices", I'm curious who is setting the requirements? If it's the boss, perhaps OP is missing them. – zr00 Mar 11 at 17:37
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    This approach is good because it also allows the boss to (hopefully gently) correct OP if OP's understanding is the one that is off (not saying it is, just allowing for that possibility). – bob Mar 11 at 20:11
  • though "worked over the weekend" should not have any impact on objective evaluation of his boss' work. There are many bosses/supervisors who work overnight or over the weekend, thinking that the fact that they went extra miles should also imply that it should be treated worthier than it should be – senseiwu Mar 12 at 20:16
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You should go over the requirements, point by point. Highly emphasize the things he did that helped, and downplay the things that did not. Give him an opportunity to save face by writing them off as misunderstanding's and miscommunications.

Then, go over what needs to be done, and show him. He did what most people wouldn't which is jump in to help, and he did save you SOME time. Be grateful, thank him for his help, show him some details of the complete fix, and if he jumps in to help in the future, he will be more valuable.

Considering that most people complain about how their bosses are no help at all, this manager is a rare find, do all that you can to cultivate a healthy relationship with him.

  • Praise his strengths
  • Thank him for his input
  • Minimize his faults
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    This advice would be appropriate if it was the manager training a report on how to do a regular task better, but unless your manager is going to be "helping" you with the same task regularly, trying to coach them is both risky and unlikely to be useful. – jpatokal Mar 12 at 3:07
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    @jpatokal It's not really training them to do the task better - it's about explaining what kind of work is left, so that the manager doesn't feel that his two hours of work actually solved the 12 hour problem. This is something I've faced many times over my career, and it is something that needs to be sorted out so that the manager doesn't simply think you're incompetent, slacking off etc. Especially in small companies (where the manager might even be the owner etc.), you'll find plenty of people who feel like they could do all the work better themselves - explaining your added value is good. – Luaan Mar 12 at 8:44
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If he reduced to work to be done from 12 hours to 10 hours, and he did that in 1.5 hours, it's certainly not worthless. In fact, it's more than you could have done in 1.5 hours.

10 hours of work seems to be too trivial to make a fuss about. I suggest you thank your boss for his work, and spend the 10 hours fixing "the loose ends". Document in the ticket (you do have tickets to keep track of what you do, don't you?) the steps required to finish the task. That way, you can point to them when asked about them.

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In addition to the other answers, it may be helpful for you and your boss to have a sidebar discussion entitled "Make Excel Useful to Other Programs".

Reading through the lines of your description, it sounds like your boss made some typical "heavy Excel user" mistakes, and reformatted lots of your data to look nice in Excel - while you need the data to be in a flat format to facilitate loading it into another system.

You probably will want to take 10 to 15 minutes to talk to him to simply explain why a heavily formatted worksheet is not helpful in contexts where Excel data isn't going to stay in Excel. The typical non-database-developer Excel user often fundamentally just doesn't understand this.

Given the fact that you say that some of the information your boss added to the worksheet was useful, you just need him to better understand how to structure that information so that you don't have to parse it into a useful format all over again after he creates or updates it. If it happened in the context of this project, it will eventually happen again.

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    As someone who made a database export driven Excel sheet: keeping your data on secondary sheets from the primary/presentation sheet makes a world of difference. (As an aside, I recommend never doing such a thing!) – Booga Roo Mar 12 at 7:46
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Should I tell him and how?

Most definitely, if you don't then the work will either not be done or your boss will be wondering what you're spending your time doing since he believes the task is complete.

How?

Just tell him how it is without giving any form of "I told you so". Hi x, the work you've given me isn't usable. This is why...

Then say that you will get to work on redoing it immediately, should only take about 10 hours. If he has any objections to this and thinks he can do it quicker again then let him get on with it.

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