Posts Tagged ‘Solid thinking’

In our last post we talked about what the organization can do for the new Gen Y hire, to help ensure a successful entry into the group.  In this last of a series of four posts we will see what Gen Ys themselves should be doing to quickly become a valued contributor and team member?  We suggest focusing on six key behavior clusters:

  1. Listen and learn. You almost never learn when you are talking. And in any new job you have a lot to learn.  But most people don’t listen well – – –  they merely pretend to listen while they compose a response to what they are hearing.  To break this habit, take notes while others are speaking.
  2. Know how your boss likes to communicate. HBR still has available online the classic paper “Managing Oneself” by Peter F. Drucker.  Every boss, employee and new-college-hire should read those 11 pages. New GenYs should ask how their bosses and peers want to communicate.  Is your new boss a listener, talker or reader?  This is crucial information.
  3. Join the team for the long haul. One mindset likely to frustrate you and your management is to overly focus on having a sudden intuitive brainstorm that changes the company or launches a new product and catapults you into the President’s office!  Understand that the financial success of rappers and Hollywood stars and others who, with seemingly limited talent have secured nearly unlimited wealth is very, very rare.  Seth Godin calls this phenomenon “The Purple Cow” and his book, same title, is a great read check it out at).  Focus on helping others, learning all you can about your job and becoming a valued member of the team.
  4. Be tactful. *This is the exception to the previous advice to always “Say what you mean”.  Words are powerful things especially when spoken to or about people.  The key here is to separate a person’s behavior from the person.  Only correct a person’s behavior, never labeling the person as problematic.  Another rule that helps me is to never say something about another that I haven’t already said to them.
  5. Be open-minded. Look for things you can learn, not just from other Gen Ys but from Gen X, Boomers and Traditionalists.  These other generations have seen and done things you won’t get to do for decades, if ever.  Some jobs in an organization require experience and that takes time:  you cannot assign three women to the job and grow a baby in three months instead of nine!  Learn from the unique perspectives, experiences and stories of the other generations.  Keep a journal of ideas, possible projects, ways to improve things, etc. and use it in your employee performance reviews with your boss.
  6. Be reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, every time.  And if an unforeseen (and hopefully unforeseeable) problem looks like it will derail your plan, advise anyone who needs to know.  Give them an early heads-up of the possible change in plans.  Under promise and over-deliver.  Control the expectations of others and then surprise them.

Now here is a last-ditch technique for any deeply entrenched Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists out there, stuck in their old ways of thinking and unable to accept Gen Ys into an organization. If nothing else works for you, not the sensitivity training, not the classes arranged by HR, the great videos by Jason Dorsey nor even your boss’s warning that you need to “get with it and learn to play nice with the new-hires”.  Then try this: Train yourself to think of Gen Ys as belonging to a foreign culture.  That’s right, think of them as being from another country entirely.  You don’t expect foreign nationals to behave like you do.  With their different cultures, values and standards for behavior, we expect them to behave differently.  Do the same for Gen Ys.

We have seen this little mental trick prevent the eye-rolls and other knee-jerk reactions some older people have to some of the occasional stereotypical behaviors of Gen Ys (showing up late for work, telling established managers how to do their jobs, texting while you are conversing with them, jumping across multiple layers in a large organization, etc.).  And if we can break the older person’s stimulus-response chain by adding an interim “thinking” step that says “hold on a minute, this Gen Y person’s brain is not wired exactly like mine”, we can perhaps help older workers accommodate the newcomers.  We are going to need Gen Ys’ outlandish ideas and bold thinking to tackle challenges in the years to come because none of us is as smart as all of us.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Last week I told you about my passions and I described what a mess they make of my life and of our house and office!  But how do baby birds fit here?  And how do YOU fit here?  Those college students I mentioned are the baby birds.  They seem to always be waiting for the next college class to feed them information, the next semester of study that will give them what they need to be good . . . and so on.  They seem to be intentionally ignoring information on medically-related subjects because . . . well . . . I am not really sure WHY they are doing that.  Here are four possibilities:

  1. Other Plans. They are secretly planning to go into car repair instead of medicine and they just haven’t told anyone.
  2. Embarrassed to Admit: They have already secretly earned their PhDs in their chosen fields and are embarrassed to admit that they have already read those articles, or maybe wrote them.
  3. Hedging. They are hedging, not allowing themselves to get excited about a career, not digging in and investing time now, because they are afraid they may not make it into the medical field they have set their sights on.  And they don’t want to set themselves up for disappointment later.  If this is the case, they need to snap out of it.  Viking ship captains burned their boats on the beaches so the message to the disembarked troops was clear:  We are STAYING here, boys, so make it work!  Same for mamby pamby students – – – get committed, get resourceful and make it happen.  Immersing yourself in the subject now could teach you something arcane (look it up) and give you just enough head start on other more hesitant colleagues that you might beat them out of a slot in medical school or in that nursing program you want.  Being hesitant or unsure now might keep you from learning that one item which, in a competitive interview, could actually have WON you the admission slot!
  4. Waiting to be FED. Like baby birds, they are just waiting to be FED all the information required for their profession, as part of upcoming college and medical/nursing school courses, and they see no reason to try to learn any of that stuff now.  (This is my current theory to explain their behavior, although I also like the second one.)

I am the opposite of those people.  I am voraciously hoovering-up information like a human vacuum cleaner, wherever I find it.  I am “going for it” and sucking the marrow out of the bone, licking up every tidbit of info I can find on the subjects that interest me.  And I have waded in with both feet, by DOING those things, not just reading about them.  I saw a great T-shirt that read:  “When I have money, I buy books.  When I have extra money, I buy food.”  That’s me.  The family usually will not enter a bookstore with me because it is so hard to get me out of there.  And now that they all have coffee . . . oh . . baby.  Plus, the family gave me a Nook Color so my nose is going to be welded to that thing!  I’ll be LIVING at Barnes and Noble, surfing through the e-books there!

And I have news for any baby birds out there.  Wake up! Get out of the nest and get up to your EARS in your chosen field.  Make it a job/profession that people are (or will be) making a living at.  Whatever it is, you can spend an (enjoyable) lifetime in it, if you just will get all the way IN IT.  Business, retail, real estate, banking, dentistry, chiropractic, farming, nursing, appliance repair, EVERY FIELD can provide you with a lifetime of thought and involvement if you will just dive in and commit to being the best at it.  Commit to a lifetime of learning, and staying current, and pushing the edge of the enterprise.  Plus being the go-to person makes YOU the expert.  It means other people will come to YOU on that subject.  And here is the good news – – –  the years will FLY by, you’ll travel and meet great people, and you’ll feel GOOD about yourself.  An entire profession will be indebted to you, as well as all the professionals in it!   And on that pillar of respect and success, my friends, you can build a great life and support a family.

As we asked in a previous blog, do you have a “fire in the belly”?  Three years ago I saw a plaque on the wall of a castle in northern Germany that said:  “Most people believe they need money to be happy.  But all you really need is something to get lost in.”  Go find that subject (or two or three) and get yourself lost for life!  Trust me, It’s great!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corp.

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Leader driven Harmony #9: Don’t Be a Baby Bird (Part I)

by Mack McKinney on January 28, 2011

Have you ever watched birds feed their babies in the nest?  As the parent bird swoops in, the baby birds open their beaks and the parent plops a juicy worm or insect right into junior’s gaping mouth.  The baby just sits and eats.  The parent does all the work.

I recently met some people like that:  They were college students headed for careers in medicine.  I subscribe to Science News and there were some medically-oriented articles in the current issue (new theories for brain repair, a new blood component that physicians were concerned about, etc.).  I handed the magazine to one of these young folks and said “look at this”.  I expected a reaction such as “THAT is interesting” or “Wow, how can that be?” or at least “I’ll read that later”.  But instead I got an expressionless gaze and no response at all, followed by the magazine being laid onto an adjacent table.  I asked if the articles were of interest and got a “yea, I guess” answer.  I hope my expression didn’t give me away but I was horrified: A future physician was unmoved by medical news articles that could change the profession forever.  But then I thought back and realized that this has been a common expression from this person whenever I have offered similar magazines or books: Ho hum, I might read that some other time.  But then they don’t.  Not ever.

Bizarre!

Now here is why that seems so bizarre to me:  I am an aviator.  I have been flying since 1983.  I enjoy reading, talking and thinking about all things related to aviation.  Some things interest me more than others but I at least scan EVERYTHING that crosses my path that deals with aviation: civilian, military, airplanes, pilots, radios, radars, airfoils, airspace, weather, legislation, etc.  – – – Everything – – – .  In my bedroom there are seven books partially read (five of them about flying) and about 20 magazines beside the bed (I have flagged articles that I want to copy, things I want to act on, people I want to contact about something, etc.)  I also contribute articles to flying magazines and have several in various stages of completion.  I belong to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association.

I also fly young people (for free) in introductory flights every chance I get, including at fly-days sponsored by the Young Eagles organization. I also fly and maintain our corporate airplane including oil changes, engine tune-ups, minor repairs, refueling, etc.  So there are aircraft maintenance magazines everywhere in our house and in Solid Thinking’s offices and the hangar.  And we live in a residential airpark and I serve on our property owners association’s Board of Directors, so there are government regulations and county runway easement proposals laying on chairs and tables throughout the house this week.  And I am working on my next rating so there are instrument flying study plans on the kitchen table and flight-in-clouds checklists near the potty (I know, TMI).  But wait, there is more!  These aviation-related things are only one of my passions.

There’s more…

I am also a practitioner and teacher of advanced Project Management techniques.  I write and teach courses on the subject and am interested in a number of related areas: how to portray complex data in easy-to-grasp ways; ways to get engineers, scientists, program managers, marketers and other disciplines to collaborate on project teams; and ways to get Generation Y-ers, Generation X-ers and Baby Boomers to stop sniping at each other and come together on project teams.  I have just finished reading four books on that last subject and plan to write one this spring with my friend and colleague Ken Pardoe.  I have begun teaching advanced collaboration techniques in our Project Dominance courses so I have notes and articles on that topic laying all around the house.

So what?  Big deal.  Are you asking “What does that have to do with me, or with baby birds?”  Next week I’ll tell you.  And it will probably scare the crap out of you.  And if it doesn’t, THAT will scare the crap out of me!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corp.

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Leader driven Harmony #8: Get a FIRE Going in Your Belly!

by Mack McKinney on January 21, 2011

Let’s pretend you have a major, life-threatening disease and are seeking treatment.  Do you want to be treated by a physician, physician’s assistant or nurse who just kinda likes their job?  Who just muddles through the day?  Who is about as good at the job as most other physicians?  OF COURSE NOT!

You want to be seen by someone who lives, eats and breathes medicine!  Someone who is a voracious reader of all things about the diseases he/she diagnoses and treats.  Someone who is sought out by other physicians for their in-depth understanding of people with your disease.  You want an expert who gets patients from other doctors who are unable to help them.  So how will you know when you have found such a specialist?  Well you should look for these unmistakable signs:

  • They have a visible and tangible passion for the subject (in this case, the disease).
  • They subscribe to every journal, newsletter, bulletin or other publication on the subject.
  • Their name is mentioned by several reputable sources, not just one.
  • They seem to have read every major book on the subject and may even have written (or be writing) one of their own.
  • They frequently talk (in person, on the phone, on email, etc.) with other specialists and recognized experts on the subject and can hold their own in discussions with anyone on the subject.

What does this have to do with you or with your business or your job?  Well, aren’t YOU providing some service or product to someone?  Don’t YOU help people solve problems?  Then this same level of engagement, commitment and proficiency is what other people expect of YOU!  Whether you are a plumber, IT specialist, car mechanic, piano tuner, grocery clerk, investment banker or military officer, people expect you to be the very best at your job!

How do you get to be the best?  How do you rise past the others in your field and become the “go-to” person?  You discriminate yourself, that’s how.  You set yourself apart from the herd by doing what they don’t (or won’t) do:

  1. Being Passionate: You decide that you are going to become passionate about your job and that, for at least awhile, you are going to let it dominate your life (this is why you want to choose careers that excite you – – –  it is hard to get passionate about a thing you are not fascinated by).
  2. Get Excited. Even if you have not been really excited about your job until now, decide to GET that way.  As Hollywood says, fake it until you make it.  (In a future post we’ll explain why this actually works, but take my word for it, it DOES!)
  3. Get fired up.  Get what the venture capitalists say they see in the people who come to them for investment money and walk away with a check for their new business enterprises – – – they have a “fire in the belly”.  The investors want to see someone so bursting with sincere enthusiasm for their idea that the subliminal message they transmit is “I believe in this idea and I am going to make this a success with or without your money!”  People can sense this passion and it is infectious.
  4. Infect others:  For a new venture, find kindred spirits who can get excited with you, and get them to help spread the word!
  5. Do your homework, everyday. In every field there are new advances, new technologies, new things to learn.  Get plugged in to those sources. Learn everything you can.
  6. Join professional organizations that let you commiserate with your fellow wizards.  From landscaping to electrical contracting, there are technical seminars and conferences that let you learn about the latest and greatest products and techniques.  Join and attend.

Some of the above advice applies to you if you are planning to stay in your existing career and just need to kick it up a notch.  But if you are pondering a major career change, you need to add a few actions to your to-do list:

  • Try on a career like you would a pair of shoes:  You slip shoes on and walk around in them awhile to see how they feel when you are walking, turning, kneeling, etc.  Do the same mentally with the new career you are considering.
  • Mentally place yourself in the job. Envision what you’ll be doing, your daily tasks and the people with whom you will interact.  See how it “feels”.
  • Read everything possible about the new career:  Pay scales, legislation that impacts it, what existing practitioners think of it and their forecasts for the future.
  • Talk to people actually doing that job right now. Ask if they would do it again and what they would do differently.

Most importantly, make up your mind to be a lifelong learner!  You cannot be the best at anything unless you commit to constantly learning, for the rest of your life, everything you can about that field of endeavor.  Every job can be stimulating if you examine each aspect to see how you can do the work better, faster, with fewer mistakes, and with better customer service.  And every job can be challenging if you decide that you are going to do that job better than anyone else on the planet earth!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Leader driven Harmony #6: Failure is required (Part I)

by Mack McKinney on January 7, 2011

Failure is Required!

If any of the following is true about you, you are in danger:

  • Your parents worried a lot about your self-image when you were growing up, so you got lots of encouragement
  • Your parents helped you with homework and projects so you could get a better grade or win the grand prize (and you often did!)
  • Everyone on your sports teams got a trophy for something (best helper, trying the hardest, etc.) so nobody would feel left out at awards banquets
  • Your parents set you up in your first business(es) and made all the tough decisions for you so you wouldn’t fail

These actions by loving, caring parents and coaches and teachers throughout the 80s and 90s have inadvertently helped create a generation of emotionally-dependent Generation-Y people (aka Gen-Yers or “Millennials”).  If you grew up during this time, you are likely affected.  But the condition can be corrected and no surgery is needed.  You just have to fail at a few things and you’ll be OK.  But you need to carefully choose the things at which you might fail (sounds bizarre, doesn’t it?).

In his outstanding book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell talks about his discovery that seasoned professionals (airline pilots, doctors, etc.) don’t really get good at their craft until they have accumulated roughly 10,000 hours doing it!  That is the equivalent of 5 years of five-day weeks, 8 hours each day.  And you can bet that, hidden in those hours are many successes and many failures.  Let’s look at just one profession, aircraft pilot, and talk about the training possibilities and we’ll look at two types of students:  those allowed to make mistakes and those prevented from making mistakes.  We’ll then compare the training they get with the way YOU have been treated by your teachers, coaches and parents and show you why that puts you in danger of being a failure in life!

When you learn to fly, your instructor’s technique is absolutely crucial in preparing you for the real world of safely flying an aircraft around the sky, navigating from place to place and talking to controllers and other pilots.  Most flight instructors, military and civilian, use a combination of teaching techniques, pushing students when their proficiency permits, allowing students to make small mistakes and learn from them, etc.  But unfortunately there are also two extreme teaching styles that we should avoid:

  1. The “Nanny Instructor” who intervenes constantly and prevents the student from making any mistakes
  2. The “Deep End Instructor” who teaches flying like some people teach swimming:  throw the student in the deep end of the pool and don’t intervene unless they are about to die.

We will leave the “Deep End Instructor” discussion for another day.  But a quick examination of the “Nanny Instructor” and a comparison to some parents and teachers and coaches, is interesting.  First, what do we see when students trained by Nanny Instructors finish their training?

  • They are not Prepared. Since they have not been allowed to make many mistakes and have a tiny mistake insidiously multiply into bigger mistakes, they are not prepared when that happens to them when flying alone.  So they are not prepared for many things that can go wrong in the air but more importantly they are not mentally prepared with the confidence they will need to think through the completely unexpected problems they will sometimes face.  If all mistakes are preceded by the instructor saying “now be careful – – – your airspeed is dropping” or “now the needle is moving so let’s start our turn to the runway” then the student will never hear the stall horn on approach (scaring the crap out of you as it warns of an impending, possibly deadly approach stall).  And the student will never have the scary experience of flying through the course to the runway and having to then figure out exactly where he is and then remember that he hasn’t started his descent on time and then overflying the runway and having to call the controller and embarrassingly ask for another approach.
  • They Panic: These students are more likely to panic when a series of problems hits them in rapid-fire succession because they have not been allowed to see those big problems develop in training because the instructor always intervened.  Unfortunately, panic can cause the brain to almost shut down, often leading to fatal mistakes (the aircraft crash of Robert Kennedy Jr. comes to mind).

In the next post we will show how YOU may be like my pilot friend John, who could have killed himself had it not been for the excellent training he had received.  We’ll also see if YOU are in danger because people have NOT let you fail sufficiently as you grew up and why you now may be perfectly set-up to fail big-time in your life. It is like an earthquake:  experts don’t worry about the geologic fault zones that rumble and shake frequently because those faults are releasing energy all the time.  Instead they worry about the quiet fault lines, where pent-up energy is increasing and could let go with catastrophic effect.   Are YOU that pending earthquake?  Are you being unknowingly set-up, by well-meaning family and friends, for a major failure?  And if you are, what can you do about it?  We’ll show you in the next post.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Why should you read this post?  Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

In this series we have discussed Purpose, Audience, Content and Style and how each works with the others to determine the utility and readability of any document you write.  We will close this series with a discussion of writing “Mechanics” in the form of a simple list of annoyances readers complain about most often.  If you want to make sure you never experience these annoyances again, we humbly suggest you Tweet the link to this document to your family, friends and everyone you work with.  Once they see what they are doing wrong, their writing will improve and your stress level will drop!

Mechanics

Here is a partial list of our students’ and our pet peeves, assembled through the years.  As a reader, if you find that a major aggravation is not listed here, email me at Mack@SolidThinking.org and we will consider including it in the next update.

This is a collection of the most common mistakes we have observed (and periodically been guilty of) in writing and assembling technical reports, CONOPS, proposals and other documents:

  1. Spell-Check. Failure to spell-check the final version, just before the final printing. Simple typos will lead some readers to conclude you are lazy, careless, stupid or all three.
  2. Total reliance upon a spell/grammar-check program, which will not necessarily catch improper word usage, for example the accidental use of “form” instead of “from”.  Read the document   s-l-o-w-l-y   and be certain every sentence makes sense.  And get others to read it.  Microsoft’s automated “help” features often are not of much help, especially with punctuation choices and grammar decisions.  Do not trust Bill Gates to protect your reputation.
  3. Failure to include a list of acronyms or failure to define every acronym the first time it is used.  Assume nothing about what your audience knows.  DOD (Department of Defense – – – see, we follow our own rules) workers, government and contractor, are especially guilty of this.  An example is “CONOPS” which, depending upon the agency, can mean Concept of Operations, Contingency Operations, Continuity of Operations, CONUS Operations (an acronym and an abbreviation within an acronym – “Continental United States Operations”), Continuous Operations and others.  Define it or don’t use it.
  4. Failure to define complex technical terms.  Don’t assume all readers are PhDs.
  5. Incorrect graphic/figure/table numbers. When these are manually input and another graphic/figure/table is added later, there is the ripple effect whereby every subsequent graphic, etc. must get a new number.  Instead, let the application (MS Word, Word Perfect, etc.) assign the numbers.  It precludes the ripple effect and automatically lets you later assemble a Table of Contents, List of Figures and List of Tables.
  6. Incorrect page number references in the text, making it difficult or impossible to find referenced sections.  This is usually caused when text or graphics are added somewhere in front of the page being referenced, causing the referenced section to slide onto the next page.  If sections are numbered as they should be and section sizes are less than a half-page in length, reference the section by name and number.  But if sections are large and referencing them would require the reader to search through several pages to dig out a referenced passage, cite the actual page number but double check all such citations for correctness just before publishing.  And be aware that a web-based document, especially an Adobe pdf document, may have page numbers that do not correspond to the hardcopy.
  7. Changing text color in the main body of the document.  Keep it black.
  8. Failing to italicize non-English terms (fait accompli, ad hoc, coup de grace, blitzkrieg, etc.) so people can mentally pause to remember what the term means or using the terms improperly (and we are not talking here about commonly used terms such as “via” or “vice versa”).  If you cannot pronounce a foreign term properly, or don’t know exactly what it means in the native language and how it are used in the native culture, it is probably not commonly used here in the US.  So don’t use it.  And a special caution to Francophiles (lovers of all things French):  We have found that ad nauseum – – –  Latin for “excessive to the point of causing vomiting” – – –  use of French phrases is often the hallmark of a person flaunting a writing education they never received, insinuating an intelligence they don’t actually possess or adopting a French perspective which, by itself, may upset some Americans.  Politics and cultures aside, English is a fine technical language with plenty of precise, descriptive terms.  Use them.
  9. Beginning sentences with “but” or “and”.  This is common use now.  Increasingly, people write like they speak.  It isn’t the death of English as we know it.  Get over it.
  10. Assuming that the reader can mentally keep track of where all the pieces of a CONOPS reside.  In the case of a CONOPS or proposal that has components classified at various security levels, this assumption is folly.  Give the reader a roadmap showing where all the components are, their classifications, etc.
  11. A document manager’s failure to provide a style guide and then complaining about all the work he/she must do to pull the final document together.
  12. Failure to provide references in support of key claims, instead hoping the reader just accepts the claim.  As in medicine and science, the bigger the claim, the more solid the proof needed to substantiate it.  And be certain the trip is worth it for the reader: make certain the proof you cite is directly related to the claim, not a peripheral issue!  Remember that technical professionals do not spin findings or conclusions.
  13. Failure to cross-check every text reference to a table or figure to ensure
    • The reference is correct, i.e. such a table/figure a) actually exists and b) adequately discusses the subject indicated in the text
    • The table or figure follows the reference
    • The references in the text are sequenced properly (for example Table 3-2 should be discussed in the text before Table 3-3 is discussed)
    • Any referenced document is the most current version available.  And be sure to cite the revision number and date or just use dates as revisions (rev 15 Feb 09).
  14. Reliance upon complex graphics to make a key point instead of to support a point.  Excessive use of graphics throughout the document/section is often an indication of a poor/rushed author or an unskilled writer attempting to use graphics in place of text.
  15. Misuse of the forward slash (/).  The commonly accepted meaning is “and-or”.  If you cannot substitute “and-or” then the slash is inappropriate.
  16. Beginning to write the report without an outline and letting it meander. This is often evident to even a casual reader of the resulting document.
  17. Misuse/absence of embedded links in a document.  In our web-based world, most documents are reviewed in softcopy.  So use hyperlinks to take readers to key sections and appendices. But be sure that each linked page has a “return to previous page” link so the reader can quickly return to the previous page being read.
  18. Starting the report too late and then rushing to finish. The resulting report almost always suffers with sections obviously written by different authors, key conclusions glossed-over, graphics overused and unaccompanied by explanations, typos, etc.  The typical excuse that managers hear most often is “I was too busy DOING the work and did not have time to REPORT on the work!”  My advice is not to use this excuse.  It marks you as a rookie who cannot plan his time properly.
  19. Use of vague terms like “recently”, “some” and “few”.  Quantify!  Use numbers wherever possible.  Imprecision invites varying interpretations.
  20. Use of hidden assumptions.  I’ve heard writers say things like “Everyone knows that quartz is preferable to glass in this infrared application” or “Well, the sponsor obviously knows why we are changing our technical approach because he directed the change.  So we don’t need to say that in the report.” Wrong!  Assume nothing! In the latter example, the sponsor is only one of potentially several dozen (or hundred) eventual readers of a report, most of whom will never know why your firm abandoned a perfectly reasonable technical approach in favor of a very risky one, unless you tell them!  Omit that single detail and you are likely to be labeled foolish in later meetings where neither you nor your sponsor is present to explain your actions.
  21. Excessive use of the passive voice which makes for difficult reading and complicates a document.  Here are a few common examples:
    • “The system will be capable of  . . .”  or “the system will have the ability to . . .”  (just say “the system will…”)
    • “. . . consider implementation of . . .”  (say “implement”)
    • “It was decided that . . .”  (say, instead, “Our team decided . . .”)
    • Other examples to be avoided include “…is favored by . . .” and “it was concluded that . . .”
  22. Use of “shall” in place of “will”.  You aren’t writing a specification so don’t use “shall” which is typically a legal term in business agreements and has a “binding” connotation. Write like you speak.  Use action verbs and an active, future tense.
  23. Lawyer-talk:  Don’t try to use lofty words when a common one will do, for example obtain (use get), accede (use agree), aforementioned (use already discussed), subsequent (use later), cognizant of (use know).
  24. Run-on sentences. A sentence should have a single, main point, not several.  Take a meat cleaver to long sentences.
  25. Lengthy paragraphs.  Most technical writers use fewer than ten lines per paragraph.  Robert Gunning even has a “Fog Index©” that quantifies how easy a document is to read, based on length of words, sentences and paragraphs (see reading list item #3).  Even when you have no page-count restriction, strive for conciseness.  While perhaps not as crisp and unambiguous as German, English is still a wonderful technical language when used concisely.  (This one sentence, written in formal Arabic, could require 3-4 lines of text!)
  26. Excessive use of “which” when “that” would be clearer.
  27. Use of expletives leading to wordy sentences
    • There are, is, were, was, will be . . . .
    • It is, can, was . . .
  28. Awkward page breaks.  Hold thoughts together in the text, forcing a page break to occur where it makes the most sense to the reader.  The worst infraction here is to allow a table/figure caption to become separated from the table or figure. Almost as bad is allowing the first sentence of a section to begin at the bottom of a page: push it to the next page to be with its friends!
  29. Commas inserted where they aren’t needed at all and absent where they are needed.  If you would not actually pause there when reading the text aloud, then you should think twice before putting a comma there.   If in doubt, leave it out.
  30. Lack of proofreading by anyone other than the writer.  Silly mistakes are not caught.
  31. Lack of white space: paragraphs crammed tightly against paragraphs/graphics, with very few blank lines.  Even page-constrained documents need some white space to improve readability!  The human mind appreciates occasional white breaks in the monotony of black text – – – it seems to provide time for ideas to sink in before new ideas show up in the text.
  32. Use of 10-point type size, to cram text into a page-count-constrained document.  Use 12-point or larger and cut the amount of text to make things fit.  Many senior people cannot comfortably read 10-point type and may get annoyed if you force them to use their bifocals.  And an annoyed reader may not even know why he dislikes your report (and hence, your firm), just that he does.
  33. Inconsistent use of abbreviations, terms, capitalization, etc. within the same document.
  34. Overuse of underlines versus italics.  Don’t be boring.  Mix it up but be consistent within sentences.
  35. Failure to add page numbers.
  36. Failure to insert a blank line between paragraphs.
  37. Inconsistent use of indentures.
  38. In a CONOPS, failure to number the sections, making for difficult discussions about paragraphs/sections of interest.
  39. Inconsistent depth in the outline, with some sections a shallow 2-alpha and others at an almost microscopic 5-alpha.  The temptation is to include lots of data for areas where you have it, leaving other areas barren.  Don’t do it. Balance the outline and the body of the document, putting details in an appendix.
  40. Use of “e.g.” (for example) or “i.e.” (in other words).  Since many readers don’t know these definitions, and high schools don’t seem to be teaching much Latin these days, let’s stop using these terms.
  41. Pairing people with “that” or pairing objects with “who”.  Do not write about anyone “that” did something or said something.  Use “who” when referring to people.  Use “that” when referring to anything else (objects, organizations, etc.)
  42. Use of “reiterate” when “repeat’ would do fine.
  43. Excessive use of questions as the opening sentence in a paragraph.  Occasional use of this technique is fine but be aware that it forces the reader to move out of the passive-reception mental mode and actually think, which annoys some people.
  44. Excessive employment of “utilize” when “use” would work fine.
  45. Don’t use “in order to” when “to” works just fine. For example, instead of: “In order to complete the signal processing chain the filter must be tuned to…” use this more succinct and directed version: “To complete the signal processing chain the filter must be tuned to…”
  46. Lifting Power Point ™ graphics and plopping them into Word ™ documents without regard to complexity, applicability or suitability.  In these hurried times this is common but still criminal.  Build graphics from scratch with a pencil and paper, outlining them first to answer the two questions “what do I want this graphic to accomplish” (inform, persuade, explain, motivate, etc.) and “what would be the most effective, efficient possible graphic for that purpose?”.  Then search existing graphics for candidates and give STRONG consideration to using pieces of them to custom craft a crisp hybrid.
  47. Confusion of compose and comprise.  Roget’s Thesaurus© even has this wrong.  Compose is a verb in the music business and in specialized writing such as poetry.  Elsewhere the phrase “composed of” describes a single thing and is often used in place of “made up of”.  A single, complex thing can be composed of many smaller things. But Comprise describes an assembly of multiple things and means “make up” or “add up to”: multiple things can comprise a larger thing.  But published definitions for these two terms overlap so we suggest only infrequent and careful use of them, especially of comprise, to avoid confusion.  Instead of saying “The items inside this bag comprise all my personal effects” (which is correct usage) instead just say “This bag contains all my personal effects” and hand it to the jailer.  He probably won’t believe you and you’ll be strip-searched anyway.

Crisp, clear technical writing is a learned skill and increasingly in demand.  Crafting a crisp, well-worded section in a blog post, book, proposal or report is very satisfying.  And like any other difficult-to-master skill, becoming a good writer takes practice and effort.

Lastly, remember to submit your writings early to peers and others for review because none of us is as smart as all of us.

Suggested Reading List:

  1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, 4th Edition (a classic reference book, over 10 million copies sold, available at any major book store)
  2. Systems Engineering Handbook, International Conference on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), California, 2006
  3. Technical Writing, Process and Product by Steven and Sharon Gerson (Prentice Hall, 1992)

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Why should you read this post?  Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

Last week we discussed the importance of understanding the purpose of anything you write, long before you hit the first key on the old laptop.  This post discusses the crucial importance of understanding the likely audience of your document, the main content and the most appropriate style for your purpose.

Audience

Do not begin writing, or even outlining main points, until the main target audience is chosen and then include a little something for everyone.

Will the report be read by seasoned technical staff or by program management people whose technical backgrounds are unknown?  You will, of course, want to report at a level of technical complexity that mirrors your primary customer’s level of technical comprehension.  Even then, you should introduce your key points in plain speech, followed by detailed engineering discussions about why you chose the approach you chose, how your conclusions were reached, the trade-offs you performed, etc.  And if you expect your report to be read by a multi-level audience of lay and technical people, making your main points early in each section is even more important.

This is also a good time to think about the access your competition is likely to have to your report.  If the audience is the US Government, then SETA (Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance) contractors, perhaps even your competitors, are likely to read it.  If you have Intellectual Property (IP) that needs to be discussed in the report, you should try to discuss it in sufficient detail for the customer to get a feel for its significance, but not in so much detail that you lose competitive advantage to a competitor.  Consult your company’s Marketing and Intellectual Property staffs on these issues, before you write those sections.  (If you write those sections first and they are later rewritten or deleted, and if the authors of other sections have referenced your earlier [now nonexistent] paragraphs, you may cause lots of confusion.)

Content

Rookies talk mainly about the format of a document.  Professionals talk about the content.  Ensure that the content and technical/operational level of detail matches the customer’s expectations.

How deeply does your sponsor expect you to discuss key topics and important findings in this report?  How much support for your findings will she expect?  If in doubt, ask her! One hint can be found in the proposal that won you the job to begin with, and the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in your proposal/Statement of Work (SOW): how much funding did you/he allocate to do the report?  A report for which 10 hours were allocated in the WBS should look very different from a report that was to consume 120 hours of the team’s time.  A study that changed its main thrust in mid-stream also probably needs a little more explanation/support than a study that remained true-to-proposal.  If you already know the report will be used to convince/persuade others, then you must be certain to provide sufficient rationale to carry your arguments.  Include possible objections and arguments that may occur to the reader and address those crisply and thoroughly. One way to do this is to offer those arguments as ideas that occurred to your team as well, and which were then considered during the course of the study.  Psychologically, the reader may then feel vindicated that he thought of the same issues as your technical team.  And he may also begin to believe that you and he think alike, a very important psychological milestone in your relationship!  And all of this is made possible simply by how you worded your findings.

A cautionary note:  If you are working from a document that originated elsewhere, you may not want readers of the finished document to know its detailed lineage. One US prime contractor was writing a proposal to a NATO RFT (Request for Tender) back in the 1990s only to discover that the NATO RFT’s Statement of Work actually had originated months earlier at a competitor’s facility.  Previously just pasting a document into a fresh shell document was deemed sufficient but not anymore.  Lineage data is still available to a determined sleuth.  Software plug-ins are available that can permanently erase the originator, editors and record of changes for a document.  Converting MS Word™ and Power Point™ documents to Adobe™ pdf documents works well and also makes alteration more difficult.

Style

Do not permit the concept of writing style to become an excuse for poor writing. Have trained technical writers review important documents before release.

Writing style can determine to a large degree how well the author’s information is conveyed.  Our personal writing style is the product of our education, experience and training.  A person may have a deep technical education and lots of experience in a given technical/other field, but unless they have been trained to write clearly and succinctly, their writing style is likely to be confusing and verbose.  Writing is a skill.  It must be taught (even self-taught), practiced regularly, and its impact fine-tuned via feedback from readers.  Typically, much of that feedback comes from the writer’s peers.  This is why After-Action Sessions are so useful to proposal and report writing teams.  These sessions examine what could have been done better and often solicit the opinions of other employees (preferably from varying disciplines) regarding improvements needed in writing style, content, format, etc.

When confronted with recommended changes to a report they authored, technical writers sometimes get defensive, saying “well that is just my style and I cannot change the way I write”.  But often the claim of a “unique writing style” is used to mask poor writing skills, plain and simple.  There are generally accepted standards for English usage and they should be followed.

Writing user manuals is both a science and an art form.  When you need user manuals, do not let the hardware and software teams who built the system/device also write the manuals.  Employ people who are trained to write these or risk having your system unfairly maligned by every user who struggles to understand the directions.

When you write a report on behalf of your employer, you are representing the employer.  In fact, your report may be the only thing some readers will ever know about your firm.  Readers may draw all kinds of conclusions based solely upon that document, far beyond an opinion about the writer’s likely grade in English 101:

  • Clarity and Decisiveness. If the document makes clear points and does so quickly, your company will be seen as a team of clear thinkers and decisive managers, as opposed to a bunch of hand-wringers.
  • Careful, not Convoluted. If the conclusions are well supported, the firm will be seen as comprised of careful thinkers, as opposed to a group of convoluted thinkers who draw conclusions from thin air.
  • Sparingly and Effectively Detailed. If the entire document hangs together well, with short write-ups where warranted and longer sections where needed, your firm will be viewed as being able to communicate complex ideas, with a good appreciation of where the reader might need supporting detail.
  • Thoroughness. If there are no typographical or grammatical errors, the reader will feel that the writer cared enough about the impression he would make to thoroughly proofread the entire document. It probably means the company pays attention to detail.

In the next post we will provide a rogues’ list of the main offenders in writing; we will discuss many of the mistakes, large and small, that keep writing from being as clear and crisp as it should be.  And if you do nothing more than just read about the mistakes that aggravate others, you will become aware of those errors and I guarantee you will become a better writer!

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share

Why should you read this post?

Because this little crash course in effective writing is the collective intelligence of thousands of people just like you.  It is a living document and benefits from ongoing improvements suggested by our students.  Their suggestions and observations, especially in the final section, make us all much better writers.

Clear, sharp writing is almost a lost art.  And it is sad because to get along in life you must be able to explain yourself clearly.  Texting and its shortcuts and abbreviations let us communicate simple thoughts quickly but texting is not suited to explaining complex issues, refuting others’ positions or reporting on a technical approach.  In business if you cannot craft a grammatically correct, well-written document that people find pleasing to read, you will always be working for someone else who can.  Heck, if you cannot write, you may not be able to get a bank loan for your business or even get a letter-to-the-editor published in your local newspaper!

Once you get the basics right, it also helps to write in a flowing, friendly style that makes people want to read what you write.  But why are some documents, even long and involved ones, easy to read while others are difficult to get through?  It turns out there are five key considerations in writing: Purpose, Audience, Content, Style and Mechanics. In discussing the first four considerations we will give you some basic rules for creating effective, efficient papers of all kinds (especially the fear-inducing technical reports and business studies).  Then in the “Mechanics” section we will help you avoid the wince-inducing writing errors often found in popular articles and papers.  The goal is to prevent readers’ getting balled up finding annoying mistakes, and to instead relax, understand your points and enjoy reading the things you write.

Why should you listen to us?  Our company, Solid Thinking, teaches short courses in building Concepts of Operations or CONOPS.  These documents are combinations of systems descriptions and user’s manuals, brought into one document for use by end users and systems engineers.  CONOPS are hard-hitting documents that provide continuity for multi-year (and multi-million $$$) systems development projects, ease reorganizations of major enterprises, and help describe the operational uses of things.  CONOPS are read by senior people who have little patience for long, meandering, wordy documents so we have learned to write crisply and succinctly.  You will find references to CONOPS throughout this document but in each case, the lesson also probably applies to any written document.

We also teach Project Dominance courses which are basically Project Management courses on steroids.  Project Managers are constantly writing and reading, editing and enhancing documents.  Our courses teach people to sort out, structure, organize and manage major projects of all kinds by helping them make the best possible use of the talent on their project teams: young and old colleagues, rookies and grey-beards, scientists and business managers – – – everyone has something to contribute.  And crisp, clear, unambiguous writing by each person on a team can save time, avoid frustration and help achieve the workplace harmony we all seek.

Note that this paper uses masculine and feminine forms interchangeably.  Some people like it, others don’t.  Also, a friendly warning: Please do not edit this paper.  Editing will cause you to focus on the minutia and you will miss the learning value.  Just relax, stay at the 50,000 foot level, read for meaning and content and resist the perfectly human urge to improve everything.  But if we have entirely forgotten something really important or we have gotten a concept or technique completely wrong, please tell us in an email.

In our classes we find that just about everyone gets something beneficial out of this paper.  But if you are working in a large company or in a government organization (Federal, State or local), or you plan to someday, you will really benefit from reading this paper and applying the no-nonsense lessons.  Now let’s get into the meat of effective writing!

Purpose

Decide on the ultimate purpose of your document and make the main points up front. Make your key point in a single sentence, succinctly and in plain English, in the first part of every section/book.  Then support your conclusion/results with as much detail as needed to meet the objective of the report (inform, persuade, support, etc.).

Is the report intended to inform a sponsor (via documentation) about work recently completed?  Is it intended to persuade a sponsor to support a new idea or to award a follow-on contract?  Or will the report be used by other people, perhaps people in the sponsor’s chain of command, to secure funding for additional work?  Perhaps all three uses are foreseen for the report: it is usually safest to assume as much and then write for a technical audience but introduce each major section and key point with layman-language.  After the main point has been made, support your contentions with text and graphics and with the appropriate technical depth.

This writing technique of main-point-first is the reverse of how many scientists and engineers tend to write.  Most judge each other professionally on the thoroughness of their reasoning and on the extent to which they thought-through the various aspects of any given problem.  Consequently, when they write down their solution to a problem, they tend to present their solution using progressive-discovery.  This involves disclosing a little bit of information at a time, to lay the groundwork for their assertions and arguments.  This is supposed to convince the reader of the author’s qualifications and reasoning skills before the assertion or conclusion is unveiled.  The hope is that the reader will then be more inclined to accept the writer’s conclusion or position. Here is how this typically unfolds: First the scientist or engineer defines the problem they faced then they discuss aspects of sub-areas of the problem, weaving a web of complex interrelationships.  Then they discuss key issues associated with each aspect they uncovered.  Next come the assumptions they had to make (because nobody ever has a 100% complete data set) and then the trade-offs they made and why they made certain choices.  Lastly they describe the various conclusions they could have reached, and only then do they tell you their actual conclusions.

Why would people write this way?   It is human nature.  People inherently fear rejection of their ideas so they lay a supporting foundation prior to springing their solution on the audience. This minimizes the chance of initial rejection.  But if an entire section of a technical report is written in the discovery-style, it will inevitably have an unintended consequence: managers, technical and non-, who are reading for conclusions will be forced to wade through the entire document to understand the writer’s main conclusions.  Similarly, scientific and engineering professionals from disciplines other than that of the author must also wade through the text, and the often-unfamiliar acronyms, to get to the nuggets.  These readers will also find the detail too tedious.  Do not do this.  Use an “elevator speech” to state your conclusion up front and then support it as needed.

Always be clear, blatantly so if possible.  Whenever your chosen approach will result in clear benefits to the customer or user, say so! If faster processing will display results faster, or higher fidelity information will aid decision makers, or fewer boards will lower acquisition and life cycle support costs for your system, say so and do it up front in the section where you also present your conclusions.  But do not exaggerate: whereas engineers are likely to omit key competitive discriminators in technical reports (a serious mistake), marketers are likely to lean too far the other way (almost as serious), sometimes embellishing the benefits of a study’s findings.  To a technical reader, this may appear as an exaggeration of the facts, a “sales pitch” at best and dishonest at worst.  One way to highlight your competitive discriminators, without alienating the technical reader, is by quantifying the benefit and couching the description of the finding/result in terms of the benefit to the user. You can also write about how your approach reduces program/technical risk or reduces program cost.  An example might be in the case of a redesign effort that permits an assembly to be built using two processor boards instead of three.  One way for your team to subtly take credit for the positive aspects of this redesign would be as follows:

“While not required in the government’s Statement of Work, our team wanted to decrease the board count and believed it would be worth the 15 man-hours spent in redesign.  Our initial calculations were born out in the cost reduction assessment that followed our redesign: dropping from three to two boards in the receiver will have four major benefits – – – the initial acquisition cost of the prototype will be reduced by $3K (and each subsequent system will be $2K cheaper); we will save at least 110 man-hours in software development for the prototype because we eliminated a very complex board; one entire module can be deleted from the user’s maintenance training sessions; and a chapter can be removed from the course manual we will write as part of our contract.  Perhaps most importantly for the users, the system will now be much easier to configure and maintain.”

Remember a business or technical report may be initially written to inform but 80-90% of the time a technical report will be eventually used somewhere as a proposal to sell an idea.  Often this reuse of your report will take place without your knowledge or involvement and a later audience may be very different from the original one for whom you wrote the report.  Since the intent of a proposal is to persuade or convince someone to take an action, write every report with that possibility in mind.  Write the opening part of every document and every section with the assumption that the audience will be relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter.  Then dive as deeply as needed into the technical discussions.  Just remember the old Sears© slogan: “Something for Everyone” (technical and non-).

Next week we will discuss the critical importance of knowing your audience.  Mess this up and you’ll be writing for . . . well . . . nobody.  And we will briefly discuss content and style.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Mack McKinneyMack McKinney is on a personal crusade to eliminate conflict and stress in our lives. Mack’s mantra is “People treat you like you TRAIN them to treat you!” His company Solid Thinking Corporation teaches creativity, concept development, relationship management and high-performance project leadership to major US corporations and the US government
Share