Friday, February 24, 2012

Building Excellence: Tips for Knowledge Workers

Being a manager, I often found myself struggling with helping my coworkers to acquire two basic skills that are fundamental in knowledge intensive jobs: report writing and sensible reasoning. 
Since I was a child I have always had a curious and analytical mind, some sort of natural inclination to solve problems by decomposing them into simple elements. A few years ago, I decided to look for a simple yet effective recipe that could be used as a guiding light in the production of high quality knowledge outputs.

First of all, I had to find a way to succinctly define excellence. The first word that came to my mind was: compelling. The choice was linked with the polysemic nature of the word allowing to capture with a single term two concepts: 1.evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way (Oxford Dictionary) and 2.convincing  (Merriam Webster Dictionary). The problem (and the opportunity) was that the tool had to be used in Italy where the beauty of such word would have risked to be lost in translation. To the best of my knowledge, in fact, there is no Italian equivalent of the word compelling. Therefore, I had to create a recipe based on more than one word. So I came up with a framework based on three pillars listed in order of importance: beautiful, clear and smart. 

You may wonder why I put smart at the end, let me give you a brief explanation.
I once received a very good piece of advice about writing: "Remember: apart from your mother, nobody else in the world will ever read a report just because you wrote it. You need to convince the reader that your report is worth his/her time". This is something many people lose sight of and that represents the foundation of my reasoning. 
Good manuscripts need to solve three issues: 1. Convince the readership to take the time to look at what is inside the document (time and attention are the real scarce resources here), 2. Put a message across, 3. Produce value by offering a message that makes sense for the target audience.
Moreover, one of the problems many writers struggle with is about what to write, how to find something clever to say. The fear of emptiness [a.k.a: horror vacui] makes everything else look less important - while - putting the creation of a beautiful and clear output at the top of your priority releases a little bit the pressure on finding something clever to say. In addition, you should not forget the importance of first impressions; remember: people often prefer to bend reality rather than changing their minds.

Going back to my three-pillar framework: if you write a report that is clever but unclear, most readers will not get what you are trying to say and drop the document ASAP. If, instead, you write something that is clever and clear but in a document that does not look good, very few people will look at it and, even if they do, you will have to fight against a bad first impression. The best case scenario is when you write a document that looks beautiful, that contains very clear sentences and that conveys sensible concepts (if smart, even better!).

You may now rightly say: "Easier said than done! How can this be operationalized in practice?". Although I still have to find a final answer to this question, I can say I have produced a first actionable work in progress that I have inserted in the slide set you may find below.

I would like to hear what you think about this post and your suggestions to improve the framework.
Don't be shy, share your writing experience. Thank you. 

Enrico Ferro


Engineering Excellence

View more PowerPoint from Enrico Ferro

PS: If you are interested in the topic, you may want to have a look at these three books:
1. On Writing Well
2. Bird by bird
3. Simple & Direct

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1 comment:

  1. For translators "compelling" is one of those words that you hate or love: just one word and so many meanings! Personally I find it fascinating and stimulating: a perfect point of departure toward excellence.

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