Knowing the purpose behind not just our roles, but the work we are doing, is an essential and meaningful way to connect to what we are doing. It also lets us know what we need to deliver, and assess how best to accomplish the work. It also begins to point us in the direction of what the finished product needs to look like.
Knowing what done looks like is fundamental. It can also be challenging, particularly when we are principally responsible for the deliverable being produced. It’s one thing to be assigned an activity, and to receive guidance on what the result needs to look like. It’s another thing entirely to generate it for ourselves.
This is often the case when there is some creative component to what we need to do. There is discretion and choice there, much of which is subjective. We get beyond technical specifications, and into questions of style and personal preference. And we can absolutely tie ourselves in knots working through and figuring out what the optimal result should actually look like.
In a perfect world, we figure out these questions, arrive at reasonable and logical answers, and move forward. We get the deliverable done, we submit it to our manager or sponsor or client, get showered with praise and go home to celebrate our accomplishment.
In the world we actually live in, we wrestle with, avoid, question, change, change again, ignore, confront, hide from and ultimately cautiously settle on what needs to be done. We struggle further with doing the work, and with our own hang-ups, biases, preferences and fears along the way. We eventually get to a point that we can’t put off the inevitable any longer, put pen to paper, make some attempt at reviewing and proofreading, and finally submit it. We tick off one small accomplishment from our list, and move on to the next thing.
If this in any way sounds familiar, you are not alone. Not by a long shot. The challenge of getting any (significant) deliverable done involves envisioning what it can be, figuring out the intersection between what is possible and what is practical, and managing the process of getting yourself through the work as efficiently, humanely and sanely as you reasonably are able.
For the simple and straightforward deliverables, this is less of an issue. Status reports rarely take a psychic toll (unless your project is doing very, very poorly, and it’s politically unacceptable to turn in a report with a status of “red.” But that’s a subject for another post). Memos are usually easy. Information updates, communications and even many presentations. But get into something that’s big, complicated and involved, and this requires a little bit more toil. There are a number of forces that emerge that can make it more difficult to get to done.
What’s important to recognize is that there are reasons for these challenges, and there are ways to work through them.
One of the biggest hurdles in any deliverable is figuring out, “what does it need to look like?” Structure is critical. It defines how the story of your deliverable (and every deliverable has a story) will be conveyed. More importantly, it shapes and structures how you take your audience through your thinking process, from background to conclusion. If your organization has standard deliverable templates, this decision is already made for you. Provided they are good templates, that makes life easy and takes one level of stress out of the way. If they aren’t well designed, however, we can find ourselves fighting with the deliverable structure to figure out how we tell our story.
Of course, structure is only one part of the battle. Then there’s what goes in to the structure. And content is where the process of writing often starts to hurt—determining what you are going to say as message. And figuring out how to say it in a way that is clear, compelling and prompts our audience to take action. This is especially difficult when there is a political dimension to what is being presented, where there is a risk—or likelihood—that some will take exception to some of the content. When those individuals are in positions of power and influence, that gets all the more complicated.
A frequent obstacle is determining the appropriate level of detail for a document. In theory, this is defined by the audience. It is generally perceived that an executive audience wants a higher-level presentation, with progressively more detail needed as you work your way down the org chart towards where specialist responsibility for the subject matter actually lives. In reality, expectations vary considerably. Executives will poke and challenge for detail—if only to see if you have an answer to their question. Those with a bent towards micromanagement can be particularly demanding. But even in known audiences where preferences are generally understood, desire for greater information and data can increase as uncertainty goes up.
The other challenge for anyone developing a deliverable is their own preference for detail. Even though we are developing for an audience, we often get bogged down in our own preferences and wants. The risk is that we develop something that doesn’t respond to our audience, but instead is based on the detail we think that they should want. This is in essence a discomfort on our part with someone actually making a decision based upon different information requirements than we believe are appropriate and responsible. What’s important to recognize is that we are getting in the way of our audience’s needs and preferences by imposing our own wants and desires.
Sort through all of the above, and there are still issues of writing style, tone of voice, spelling, grammar, proper tense and word choice to work through. Truly, the complexity never ceases. Interestingly, many don’t even give this conscious thought. They simply write down what they think needs to be said, using whatever words pass through their brain at the moment that they apply hands to keyboard. Everything else is left to spell-check and the appearance of red squiggly lines to sort out.
The consequence of not paying attention to these things is that we hide good ideas behind awkward and impenetrable writing. Just the simple choice of writing in active rather than passive voice can transform how accessible and understandable a document is. Not to mention employing good paragraph and sentence structure. And while word choice is often a personal thing, making sure that the words we choose are clear and get to the heart of what we are saying is essential.
Being clear and comprehensible in our writing is a bit of an art form. It requires balancing a number of choices as a document develops, and doing so on a regular basis. We’ve acknowledged voice and sentence structure, as well as word choice. Those dimensions all factor into the readability of what is written, and the reading level the deliverable is targeted towards.
In case it hasn’t been readily obvious in the past, I enjoy words. I marvel at how structure and sense can create meaning on many levels simultaneously. I can be extremely precise in my word choice, and inordinately nuanced in conveying meaning with the words I do choose. This doesn’t mean the average bear—or the average executive—is going to know, care or even register what I’ve done. Hours and days can be consumed building a document that will be considered for all of a few brief minutes. But interpretation within those minutes is critical. Miss the mark and they miss your point.
All of which is to say that often the only person that I’m amusing and entertaining by my choice of words is me. And while I might delight in some clever subtlety, if it’s lost on my audience then its relative contribution to the overall result is still zero. If it detracts from the reader’s ability to know what is being said, though, that is a problem. Clarity, meaning and comprehension is—and needs to be—the entire point of the exercise.
Given all of the complexities involved and choices to be made, it’s a wonder that deliverables get completed at all. And yet they must, and they do. In large part, that requires knowing what done looks like. It means being able to separate what you are striving for from what a document needs to be in order to be considered complete. Most particularly, it requires declaring “done” and submitting it, even when there is more that you can do to enhance or perfect or proofread.
I have wrestled with all of these questions over the the last few weeks, as I’ve finalized a plan document. Now, you would think that producing these would be straightforward and easy at this point in my career. I’ve been building plans—project, strategic, business and otherwise—for some time. I know the essentials and I know the essence of what needs to be there. I’ve produced umpteen different deliverable templates for same, and have worked through the templates and standards of many more organizations as well.
None of which in any way stopped me from struggling with this particular plan. I wrestled with structure. I belaboured content. I fussed over word choice, tense and sentence structure. And while I spent a reasonable time reviewing and proofreading before finishing, I would have liked to have done more.
What was the issue, you might reasonably ask? There were actually a few. The first—and possibly most significant—was the level of uncertainty embedded in the subject matter. The plan was conceptual, and ultimately would need to be elaborated on in more detail in the future, as choices were made and priorities determined. And yet I recognized that there was a desire—and even an expectation—on the part of many recipients that this detail should be there now. There was a tension between what intended readers expected to see, and what was possible to provide.
There was also a great deal of political tension at play. The plan has some significant strategic implications for the organization, and there are several factions at play. And while a direction has been defined, not everyone in the organization is happy with that direction. There is a risk of writing to a moving target, should any of the opponents of the current strategy actually gain traction.
All of this is wrapped up with a need to build something that is comprehensive, but at the same time simple and clear and straightforward. The organization is new to plans like this. The contents of the plan are significant, and the work that it defines is more complex and complicated than people within the organization are used to dealing with. The maturity of the organization will evolve significantly over the life of the plan, but today they are still early on in their journey.
The consequence is a temptation to refine, evolve, revise and review for an extended period. And that way lies madness. For many of us, deadlines become the de facto break point when we declare done. We do as much as we can before the deadline, and when we can’t do anymore we press send.
This is also arguably the largest single reason why work expands to fill the space available: perfectionism and a fixed date. It also means that more effort gets expended on a deliverable than necessarily should be. And when that effort does not produce incremental and necessary gains, it keeps us from moving other priorities forward. Greater effort doesn’t necessarily mean a better project. And sometimes it is simply a way of distracting ourselves, or at least highjacking our attention.
The way of resolving this is arriving at a clear definition of done before we start. The challenge here is that this isn’t something we can always negotiate with our client. They may not know or be able to articulate fully their expectations, especially when our role is to guide them. And when there are multiple perspectives and views, getting to a single point of alignment can be complicated.
Even if we may not be able to negotiate with our client, we still need to negotiate expectations with ourselves. The efficient way to develop difficult deliverables is being clear on what they need to become by the time they are done. We need to get clarity on structure, content and level of detail. We need to map and plan the information collection, analysis and presentation of the content. And we need to consciously think about and address who our audience is, and what that means in terms of reading level, voice, tense, grammar and overall presentation.
Getting a clear picture for ourselves means we can tell a compelling story to our audience. Anything less than that does us—and them—an extreme disservice.