Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Should Have Written It Down

Ooh how I love to see things written down.

First of all, I have a rotten memory. Check that. I have a great memory, but that memory is kind of like the hard drive on my computer – filled with current affairs mixed with memories mixed with bits of songs and commercial jingles with some really important stuff buried deeply but with other, non-important stuff channeled into E-Z Recall circuits for review any time my brain decides it wants to, like the time I was sitting at church and had to sneeze and then had to find the wad of gum I shot out of my mouth when I sneezed and how I had the ENTIRE bench shaking with my muffled laughter as I tried to find the gum I sneezed out. My brain loves to revisit moments like this. I did find the gum, by the way.

But I like Lips’ suggestion of writing out proposals and progress reports. Because, for me, when I see something like this written down, I get reminders of the things I need to do, I remember what I’ve forgotten and, in reviewing the written records, I have sudden flashes of intuition on where I need to go next to make the project even better. Most of the stuff that’s written down is stored in my brain somewhere, but re-reading it from the printed page (or, indeed, the glowing screen) helps my muddled brain pull things together sequentially and enables me to visualize the bigger picture.

Seeing things written down also helps me figure out where I have holes in my memory and helps me come up with questions to ask – and people to ask – to fill those holes. Writing things down forces me to think things through clearly and to recognize where my thinking or knowledge may be lacking. If I rely on memory too much, I’m more liable to filter out the gaps and believe, erroneously, that I have a complete picture of what’s needed.

But it’s more than writing things down. We have to have things written down, but put together in a way that makes it easy for anyone to pick up what’s written and get a clear picture of what’s going on. For instance, the communications and marketing team at Uncharted is fabulous at writing things down. But, here’s a bit of writing here, a bit of writing there, and it’s hard for a dim bulb like me to figure out how these bits of information fit together in the company’s communications and marketing plan – of which, I’m told, we have one, but it hasn’t been updated with new information and nobody has the time to do it because they’re too busy communicating and marketing to fix the plan. I’m no expert at communicating or marketing, but it makes me a little uneasy to know that I’m not on the same page as this team because I haven’t seen their plan as a whole, I’ve only seen pieces of it. (Maybe I have seen the whole plan, cut into various pieces. But it’s my perception that I have not.)

On a related note – I’m helping the business team at Uncharted write the business plan – which has existed in a few scattered documents here and there, but mostly as a philosophy inside heads more than anything else. It’ll be interesting to see how we can pull all this together in a way that helps us all land on the same page, businesswise.

What’s ironic here is that a lot of the stuff I’ve read for web design, publishing, texts, et cetera, leans toward getting people away from written documentation. It’s almost like they’re trying to reproduce that scene from “Spaceballs,” in which Dark Helmet makes fun of his adjutant, Col. Sanders, for always saying things like “Prepare to leave!” “Why are you always preparing,” Dark Helmet asks. “Just go!” So once, Sanders just goes without preparing, and Dark Helmet falls on his butt because he wasn’t prepared. (I haven’t really described this adequately. I’ll try to find a YouTube video.) The logic behind avoiding written documentation to a point, I suppose, is sound – they don’t want projects to get bound down by documentation, or be forced to eliminate innovation because it doesn’t fit in with the written plan. But nobody says (OK, the anal retentives say) you have to stick with the plan. You want these kinds of proposals to be living documents, than can be thought out, altered, changed, or just referred to. The spiral programming model, advice given by 37 Signals (the group behind Ruby on Rails) all want to avoid massive amounts of written documentation. I think it’s a mistake – and a misnomer, because they still rely on the written word (on whiteboards, e-mails, and such) to track progress and to pose and answer questions. A written proposal, a written update, doesn’t have to be a novel. Some of the best proposals and updates I’ve seen have been five pages or less, with pictures. But it all gives everyone in the group something they can easily refer to to know where the project is at a given point. That’s invaluable.

Writing things down and sharing what’s written with others is critical in making sure everyone involved in a project knows where the project is headed and what needs to be done to meet project goals. I have a higher degree of confidence of finishing a project to the satisfaction of everyone involved if things are written out beforehand, and if updates are written out as well. That means for fewer surprises, better planning if things are delayed and the opportunity to ask questions.

A few more things I found pertinent from the Lips chapters this week:

Responsiveness: My job hinges on how responsive others are to the questions I have. When texts I’m working on are in the “critical path,” meaning that they have to be done for work to continue, responsiveness is great. On other texts where the sense of upper-management urgency is missing, responsiveness for some reviewers disappears almost completely. And that I understand – these reviewers are incredibly busy with their own work duties, and with answering questions from all sorts of other people. I find I have to tailor my requests for information based on my perception of how busy they are, and how involved they want to be in certain document reviews. With some, a short e-mail is sufficient, allowing for a few weeks for them to get to their computers. For others – and when urgency is increased – phone calls work. But they can’t be off the cuff phone calls. I prepare a script beforehand, so I can quickly summarize my questions and needs concerning the texts, so they know what they need to know in a minimum amount of time.

Client involvement: Some clients want to be heavily involved. Others want to be involved only when they absolutely have to. This means a tailored approach to updates and such. For those who want to be involved heavily, they get lots of status reports, office visits, phone calls, et cetera. For those who want minimal involvement, they get contacted when their discipline is in the critical path. They don’t want to be bombarded with excess information.

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