Why solving writing issues starts at the top

Updated May 11, 2016

What’s the problem?
Large organisations all produce large amounts of information, but how much of it is useful and how well is it being produced?

The documents are typically generated by a committee of sorts, not a lone writer. The quality of outputs is usually variable, but the cost is almost always high. This is because the core writing process is bloated with accumulated layers of well-intentioned contributions (from multiple briefers, reviewers, and authorisers).

Because our ability to usefully consume information is limited, a lot of information today is unusable but still costly.

Producing too much information increases cost and makes the extra information unusable. Most organisations ignore the fact that humans cannot usefully consume unlimited amounts of information.

In government agencies, it is common for more than a dozen senior staff — in addition to the writer(s) — to contribute to the production of even a relatively simple ministerial briefing (see the tables below). This explodes costs without a commensurate boost to the quality of outputs.

In corporate environments, it is also common for large teams to produce exhaustive documents (such as business cases, sales documents, or board papers) in which the audience’s need for critical and concise decision-making information remains unmet, or is buried in swathes of non-essential ‘padding’.

Instead of all this effort leading to excellent outputs, the busyness usually obscures responsibilities and leaves writers confused about what they should write, for whom, and to whose satisfaction.

What’s the solution?
Office workers, like all of us, work within systems whose influence cannot be overestimated.

…the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in — W. Edwards Deming

When managers determine documents are costing too much in relation to their usefulness, they often respond by sending their colleagues to a business writing course (such as my Writing Essentials course). But the performance of those colleagues is bound by the quality of the document production system they work in. Until the system is improved (or, more likely, transformed), the outputs of the system cannot consistently improve.

For example, a system that allows loose briefs is one that forces writers to guess and ensures costly rework (drafts, edits, reviews).

So, before you send your writers to a writing course, I encourage you to attend Nakedize’s new, leader-focussed Managing for Optimal Documents course. In one day you will learn how to design and operate an optimal document production system. Clever knowledge workers transformed the manufacturing sector decades ago (think Toyota and Total Quality Management) with this kind of approach, and it’s long overdue for the knowledge sector to take its own advice.

Save 15% on the next public course at Victoria University, Wellington

Victoria University iconManaging for Optimal Documents is available as a Victoria University Professional and Executive Education short course. We are delighted to have secured a 15% discount for our readers. Just book here and enter the code Nakedize15 on the checkout page.

New: Visualising document production lines

For optimal efficiency, a document produced via a managerial commissioning and review process would have only two participants. The writer writes for the audience to the satisfaction of the manager. Simple.

Table of optimal efficiency in roles for document production
But what typically occurs in large organisations is a much costlier process with many more chefs in the kitchen. This is a real-world example of the production line for writing a briefing paper for a minister. (CE stands for chief executive and DCE stands for deputy chief executive.)

Table of typical inefficiency in roles for document production in government
In a system like this, writers are (not surprisingly) unlikely to be certain of the goal and audience, and of who actually decides if their work is satisfactory or not. Thankfully, restaurant kitchens don’t have ‘loose’ systems like this. If they did, we would all be paying a lot more for our meals, waiting a very long time for them, and never being quite sure what we would actually be served.

It’s time for transformation.

Posted in Information design, Information strategy, Systems strategy.

Simon Hertnon

Simon is the founder of Nakedize. He is the author of several books and is an Associate of Victoria University Professional and Executive Education.