Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

"Frank, I swear I'm going to put in your record that you do not play well with others." (Col. Henry Blake)
Blogger's Note: More on Effective Publications Management, by Cathy Connor Lips. Thoughts on Chs. 6 and 7, regarding planning and personnel issues.

First impression: Help! I’m drowning in lists!

Second impression: Getting everyone in sync when you’re working on a publication is a maddening experience – but it can happen, depending on how critical the publication is to getting work done.

Bottlenecks change: If you’d talked to us six months ago, our entire writing group at my day job would have said that the worst bottleneck in our publication process was getting reviews out of the Unreviewed Safety Question group. These are the guys who look at our work and compare it to requirements in our safety basis documents. We have to have their signatures on about 95 percent of our documents for them to be approved. The USQ group used to be a terrible bottleneck, where work from multiple groups went to languish or die.

Ask us now, and we’ll tell you – USQ, while still overburdened, is not the bottleneck problem. We’ve worked on improving our communication with the group, letting them know where the priorities lie within our group and within the Operations group, which ordinarily is pushing for document approvals.

Ironically, now it’s the Operations group that is the bottleneck. If it’s urgent to them to have a document approved, they can turn things around rather quickly. If, however, a document we’d like to finish doesn’t excite their interests, it languishes, even though their input is required. Part of the problem here lies with a shift in management focus that has made the operations group much busier than they were in the past, so they have less time for document reviews. Naturally, they let slip what isn’t critically important to them.

Managing yourself: It’s interesting that Lips mentions this almost in passing. She’s shown throughout this chapter that her idea of publications management is a complex thing, with lots of items and variable to juggle, and in this section only mentions that we will want to find a way of tracking all this, “depending on [our] style.” I’d like to see some examples. She mentions calendars, wall charts, excel, a source mentions a FTP site, yes. But how? Because I’ve tried calendars, wall charts, Excel, FTP sites and other management items, from Basecamp to notes scrawled on paper, and I’ve yet to find something that everyone can agree on – because this isn’t something a good project manager is going to keep to himself or herself. Everyone involved ought to be able to see, at a glance, how things overall are working.

For example, I like that Lips emphasizes that the designer should be able to read the copy in order to understand what message to bring across in the design. Conversely, I think it’s important for the writer to be cognizant of what’s going on in design in order to help out with things like bulleted lists, pull quotes, and any other textual information that might translate better as an emphasized design element, rather than as mere copy.

Building the Team: I used to think that an individual’s talent should come first when it comes to deciding whether or not you want to work with them. Experiences – both happy and sad – over the past few years have proved to me that talent is No. 2, right after a good answer to the question “Can you work and play well with others?” This ability comes in degrees. I’ve noticed that the most friction comes from people who insist that it’s their way or the highway. Some people, like me, are able to moderate that feeling, by sticking to our guns on the things we regard as critical, but never ruling out compromise when it’s obvious that compromise is the only way to move forward. Others don’t have that moderating influence, and that leads to trouble in a hurry. Uncharted, for example, has lost two volunteers over the past few years, partly due to uncompromising natures, both in those who left and in those who have remained.

We’ve noted it’s important to be aware of any conflicts that may arise and to have a plan in place to nip those conflicts as quickly as possible. That process is core to Lips’ book: An emphasis on constant and clear communication, in forms that satisfy the varying preferences of individual team members. (For example, I would much rather exchange e-mails or IM than chat on the phone, because being on the phone limits my ability to multitask.) Others, however, prefer phone calls to other forms of communication. Again, the best team members are those who are willing to work past their own limitations and inhibitions to play with the team vibe. Those who can’t adapt are most likely those who will have conflicts.

“A lot of creative talents have strong egos and might exercise them more than most,” Lips says (p. 99-100) It can be difficult for anyone to hear criticism or handle rejection or work he’s created.” Though she writes this about writers, this certainly applies for any creative person you’ll want to include on your team. I find my ego rising and my inability to hear criticism rise when Uncharted’s copy editor is commenting on my copy – and Uncharted’s copy editor is my wife, herself no slouch as a writer, but infinitely more patient and open to constructive criticism than her hot-head husband. Thankfully, I’m learning to moderate my reactions. It’s one thing to get the copy editor mad at you. But when it’s your wife, that’s much more serious.

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