Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cooking up good technical communication

I got home this evening with no idea what I’d have for dinner. I looked in the refrigerator, and didn’t see a lot to encourage me. I opened and threw away a lot of furry things, and ended up with
  • an onion
  • some cherry tomatoes
  • the heel end of a roast
  • a rather dispirited bell pepper
  • a small potato
With about three more ingredients, I’d be able to…
…Beat my head against the wall, because I’d still be facing the problem of “What the heck am I going to make out of THIS?”

Frame the problem another way: What cuisines start with onions and tomatoes? Mexican, Italian, and Indian came to mind. Now add some bell pepper, potato, and meat – to me, this suggests a curry. Add some ginger, cumin, turmeric, and hot pepper. Set it to simmer.
An hour later, it’s delicious.

Technical communication works that way, too. Sometimes you start a new job looking at a collection of ingredients that don’t seem like enough to get the job done – an authoring tool, an intranet used by a few people, a pile of bloated manuals, a kind and earnest subject-matter expert who tells you it has to be done this way because it’s always been done this way. 

With about three more ingredients, you’d be able to…
…Beat your head on the wall, because you’d still be facing the problem of “What the heck am I going to make out of THIS?”

You can see what the last person made, but you need to know whether it was a satisfying dish. What has the process been? Where are the pain points? What are the private frustrations of each stakeholder? What have the customers been saying? The answers will give you an idea of what to cook up with the ingredients on hand.

Season it generously with the things you know will help: An assessment of the library that you’ve inherited, and (if necessary) a redesigned information architecture. Some basic project-management tools, such as a project plan and a project tracking tool. A special category in the bug-tracking tool to let people report deficiencies in the things you publish. 

Let things cook for a while. Let your stakeholders have a taste whenever they ask. Pay careful attention to their feedback; let them see that you want to serve up something to their taste. But remember that you’re the cook.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mockingbirds and Robins: How We Face New Ideas

If you live in the more temperate parts of the USA, you probably see robins during the warm months. Their annual return may be what tells you that winter is over. But I live in Central Texas. This is where robins spend their winters.

This morning my back yard is the scene of an epic battle. The robins are here in force, and the mockingbirds are none too happy about it. Every mockingbird in the yard is chasing robins. It's futile. There are far more robins than mockingbirds. They might as well be trying to mop up marbles – you can move them around that way, but it won't get rid of them. But mockingbirds never, EVER give up. In a couple months, the robins will decide it's time to head north again. They'll leave when they're good and ready. When they do, the mockingbirds will do a mockingbird victory dance, yelling the mockingbird equivalent of "We won! They're gone!"

It won't occur to the mockingbird warriors that it's in the nature of things for the robins to leave when spring rolls around, and all the effort the mockingbirds put into making the robins feel unwelcome had nothing to do with it.

Have we ever seen this before?

A new management fad sweeps in like a flock of birds. We complain about all the stuff plopping down in little splats. We shoo the new thing away, like mockingbirds chasing robins. We think of ingenious ways to avoid it, and when these don't work, we complain some more.

Ideas succeed or fail on results.
After a bad idea fails on results, it goes away as inevitably as robins fly north in the spring. Those of us who have been complaining about it decide we have been successful in resisting it, and feel encouraged to complain and resist when the next unpalatable idea comes along. "Keep on chasing those robins, and they'll go away," we tell ourselves, treating the episode as validation for complaining. But the fad didn't go away because we complained about it. It went away because it didn't deliver the anticipated results.

Try this: The next time a bad idea comes along, see what happens if you don't complain. See what happens if you treat it as a good idea and go along with it as well as you're able. See what happens as the results come in. If it's truly a bad idea, it will fail on results; and if it turns out to be a good idea, you won't be one of the whiners who opposed progress.

The direct damage from a bad idea is usually transitory; the most lingering damage is the fact that so many people take it as a license to complain. Think about it: What kind of workplace do you prefer – one where people give ideas a chance and let results speak for themselves, or one where people complain?

This year, I'm going to do my best not to be a mockingbird. The robins are going to leave in their own time, whether I raise a ruckus or not.