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Friday, October 2, 2015

Mean It? Then Write It.

     I once had a boss – a general manager – who said, “I never put anything in writing.”
     It was a point of pride for him; he spoke in a tone that suggested we owed high respect to his executive wisdom.
     It also was an index comment to his management philosophy. He was implying that real leaders get things done only through in-person communication. If you were to succeed in that workplace, the way to go would be your direct, personal contact with the boss. 
     As a subordinate of his, I found it disturbing.
     In the abstract, there is something to be said for his point of view. The written word can be rigidly limiting, particularly when it is used to communicate directives and executive opinion. Writing is a one-way medium, both in assertion and in response.  It can easily be misunderstood.
     In the world of nuts-and-bolts management, there are other reasons why my old boss would avoid putting anything in writing.
     At base, it could have been because he didn’t want to tip his hand. His enemies couldn’t interfere with his intentions if they didn’t know what those intentions were.  
     Also, when there’s no permanent record, you retain the freedom to change your position, and it’s your word against that of anyone who questions it.

     My working conclusion was that, in the case at hand, my boss’s antipathy toward writing was a marker for a fundamental attitude of suspicion and wariness. He didn’t trust anybody. Therefore, I never trusted him. Nobody else did, either. What kind of a way is that to lead an organization?
     But, you know what? I have come to believe that his motivation may have included – prominently – his clear understanding that he was a lousy writer. The hard lesson of his experience was that he couldn’t get information through that way, couldn’t convince anybody of anything. It made him look bad.
     Writing also was very time-consuming and agonizingly difficult. People like him avoid writing. They lack the confidence to learn it and/or the judgment to understand its real importance. Most of them hand it off to assistants or other managers, not seeing how they thereby diminish its value – and their ability to lead.
     More than that, they fail to meet a basic requirement: creating credible reason for their people to look up to them.
     Projects, real projects loaded with risk, battered by complexity and clouded by uncertainty, can be successfully conducted only through leadership and teamwork built on trust.
     Trust is really tough to achieve and maintain in such demanding circumstances, but it can be earned. As the collaborative effort is being established, launched and pursued, people have to believe this is going to work, that it is working and that it has worked.
     Excellent documentation is absolutely essential throughout. It is sturdy, stable and permanent. It is trustworthy. If you are to innovate and lead in actions of meaningful value, you must ensure the proper development, preservation and communication of information, commitments and progress.
     You can’t accomplish any of that without understandable, accurate written instruments. In the best management cultures, the boss participates vigorously in the process as well as leads it knowledgeably.

     Of perhaps equal importance, the act of writing has powerful effects on how individual writers work, and how they interact.
     Conversation, including that for negotiating and persuading, is transitory. Words evaporate and are followed by other words. Speech is impermanent and ever-changing. The emotional response to great oratory can be very powerful, but it cannot sustain cooperative activity for long.
     Your writing captures flashes of comprehension and perception, and requires that they be placed in context. As you write, doing so has great imprinting effect on your own memory and intentions.
     When you subject your concepts and intentions to the discipline of organizing them into a coherent document, you automatically create logic, connections, descriptions. You find out much more about what you think, and how it can be developed and advanced.
     You also are forced to see where your thoughts are incomplete, unfounded, contradictory or otherwise inadequate. You are driven to fill in, amplify, fix.
     Amazingly, when you read what you have written, you gain tremendous insight into who you really are.
     If you try to evade or disguise any shortfalls by clouds of verbiage, it is relatively easy for attentive readers – including you – to catch you at it.
     When individuals must work together and, further, must commit to joint effort for a difficult cause, their negotiations must be captured and shared. If they all just agree and leave it at the door, their original differences will surface very quickly in practice. That can harden into disarray and disharmony, and often does so.

      Put two people in a room and have them work out an agreement. Separate the two and ask each of them about it, right outside the room, and you will get two surprisingly divergent descriptions of what they had just agreed to.
     Make it five people, or 25. Imagine the gridlock.
     How could you manage a project well without documentation? I’ve been amazed at my own reaction to a written statement I signed just a week earlier. I ask myself: How could I have agreed to that? The passage of time and the events of the week have changed my outlook.
     I would flatly disavow that statement if it did not carry my undeniable signature.   
     So, when I put it in writing, I make a commitment. You can take that to the bank. Trust me.

See Also:
Project Document Magic


1 comment:

  1. In a previous job we were always told that if something wasn't in writing then it didn't happen and we weren't obliged to act upon it. Any simple conversation would later be put into an email so that it could always be of reference. If not, the conversation never happened. If you needed any work done by anybody then it had to written on their calendar etc. I think it's a good habit to get into!