Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I've spent the last two weeks grinching and groaning and generally boring people with updates on my car, as that sad tale unfurls in a leisurely fashion. Bumper sticker version: My car got badly damaged by hail, and was declared a total loss - but only after it was declared worth repairing, and I'd gotten my hopes up.

This morning it dawned on me that I was dealing with this sudden, forced change - give up my sweet car? no no no! - exactly the way people "down the food chain" in organizations deal with sudden, forced change; which is to say, exactly the way four-year-olds deal with it.
I want my doll back! Make her be not broken!
I want my car back! Make it be not broken!
I want my business process back! Make it be not broken!

The irony is that I'd just told someone "You need to let go of this process you use; it's broken."
And of course I'd gotten back, "No no no! I want my process! It isn't broken, its head is supposed to come off like that!"

For years I've known in my head that you have to manage change carefully to introduce it successfully. You've got to get people excited and happy about what's going to be different; otherwise they'll resist it in every way they can. Over the last two weeks I've been absorbing that lesson into my heart.

I should go give blood while my irony level is up so high.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Packaged on: 05APR09 Sell by: 04APR10

I just looked at the date on my last post - it's very stale material by now. I'm sorry. There were reasons for the silence; chief among them being that sometimes it's the better part of valor to sit down and shut up. (Natural disaster, badly damaged car, much to-ing and fro-ing with insurance company and body shop, if you must know.)

But I'm back now.

Recently I saw some product documentation that clearly needed work. Certainly it needed the deft touch of a good technical writer; but what struck me first and hardest was that it needed to look like a product of this millennium. It seems the company had designed their documentation and the process for creating it some time in the mid-1990s, and had been using early documents as templates for later ones ever since. Meanwhile the world kept on advancing; and with it, documentation conventions, tools, and best practices.

With few exceptions, we need to step back and look at our organizations' product documentation about every three years, or every time our colleagues the marketing specialists update the appearance of the company web site and marketing materials. During these periodic reassessments, we need to ask ourselves, "Does this material reinforce our organization's main message? Does its appearance reinforce and expand upon the first impressions that our marketing material and web site create? Does this look like it comes from the same company?" We also need to consider whether we still deliver our material in the way customers expect to see it. Are we still writing software manuals instead of providing help? Are we still using section numbering when all our competitors have stopped doing so?

Marshall McLuhan said "The medium is the message", and that's far truer now than it was when he said it. The words and pictures are not the sum of your product documentation. The words, pictures, look and feel, and delivery method all work together to produce a powerful message about the product and the company. It behooves us to ensure that the message never becomes "We have been doing it this way for the last fifteen years and we're not about to change."