Month: February 2009

New Manager: How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I recently received an email which asked:

Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.

Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:

  1. How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
  2. How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster docs?)?
  3. What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
  4. How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I’ll break each question out into a new post, so without further ado, onto question #4.

How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?
The compulsion to change or fix things that, from your point of view seem wrong or broken is natural. You wouldn’t be in the position you were in if you didn’t have that kind of mindset. However you must resist these initial urges!

A common suggestion, that I’ve seen elsewhere, is to wait at least 3-4 weeks before making any changes. That sounds like a sensible timeframe to me, providing that you use that time appropriately (see the rest of my posts in this series).

The first few weeks in any new job sets out your stall for the coming years. It can be very hard to change initial reactions so use the time wisely, tread carefully and make sure you set a level of expectation that you can manage. Communicate your ideas and thoughts, making sure to state that you are still getting to grips with things, make sure everyone knows that you MAY change things but that you are taking a measured and professional approach.

And, to be honest, that’s all I have to offer. Hopefully some of the things I’ve suggested over this series of posts is of some use. Many of them can be embellished and taken further, others might only be applicable in my own circumstance, but my belief is that as the manager of a technical communications team you are responsible for letting them do what they do best, whilst managing everything else around them. Technical Communications is still a widely misunderstood field, so a lot of your initial work will be educational, making sure everyone else in the company knows what your team has to offer, whilst proving you understand the restrictions and limitations within which they must work.

So, thanks to Mark for emailing me with the initial set of questions. If anyone else wants to chip in, the comments are open.

Man's best friend

A dog is truly a man’s best friend.

If you don’t believe it, just try this experiment.

Put your dog and your wife in the boot of the car for an hour.

When you open the boot, which one is really happy to see you?

(via my Mum – the woman who tried to answer the ringing phone by holding a remote control to her ear…)

Oll-E

I don’t talk much about our cat, largely because I don’t want to become one of THOSE people who do nothing but talk about their pet but in the year since he’s been with us, and I choose my words carefully for one does not ‘own’ a cat, he’s slowly and annoyingly wormed his way into my affections, the little sod.

There is some pleasure to owning a cat, beyond the occasional dead animal and scratch mark here and there, as they are quietly affectionate in an aloof kind of way. Ollie is very much a people cat, and whilst he won’t sit on your lap he does tend to follow you around and stay in the vicinity, like a slightly disinterested guard dog.

Not growing up with a cat I still find his behaviour a little curious at times. What IS the fascination with walls about? He’ll happily sit there for 5 minutes staring at the wall, glancing around as if watching a fly when there is nothing there at all.

Ollie has a bed in the living room, raised up with scratch poles underneath it, he also has another bed which is floor level and a bit like a tent. He uses both. As well as the sofa, windowsills, the chair in the spare room and our bed too (black cat hairs on my pillow, very easy to spot!). He has a routine for such things, so whilst early evening he will be on his raised bed, he will slope off that onto the nearby sofa for a while then go out for a wander. When he returns he usually sits on the kitchen windowsill and at night if he’s not on the bed at our feet then he’s on the chair in the spare room.

He’s hell bent on tripping us down the stairs, and on getting himself kicked as we walk from room to room, he still nibbles at your fingers to get attention and thinks that tiny red dot from the laser pointer is the most fascinating thing in the world.

Yeah, the bugger is quite fun to have around.

New Manager: What are the first activities you should do?

I recently received an email which asked:

Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.

Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:

  1. How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
  2. How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster docs?)?
  3. What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
  4. How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I’ll break each question out into a new post, so without further ado, onto question #3.

What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
First things first, make yourself a coffee. In all seriousness, fitting into the culture of your office and colleagues is crucial, and one of the best places to get a handle on that is the approach to coffee/drinks breaks.

Then all you need to worry about is understanding the process that your company and team follow. Are you based in a waterfall type system? Are you Agile? And regardless of the underlying methodologies, how do things actually happen? Simple, right? Well it can take a little investigation but it certainly shouldn’t be difficult.

Briefly I’d tackle things in the following order:

  1. Talk to the members of your team
  2. Talk to the people who set the expectations for your team
  3. Audit your content (high level for now)
  4. Manage expectations

If you are joining an existing team of writers, then I’d suggest that the one of the first activites should be to sit down with them, one by one, and try and understand how they work, what issues they are facing and what expectations they have of you, and of their colleagues on a day to day basis. From this you should get an understanding of their process, how they go about creating the information, how editorial and technical reviews are handled, and how that information is published. Collate all of the responses, you’ll revisit them later, although I would take any personal or specific issues to one side and deal with them accordingly.

Next up I’d get a handle on the expectations being set on your team, which will include talking to other departments, and a good understanding of why that expectation is in place. There is a chance that there are unknown expectations on your team so make sure you understand what they are and if they are valid.

Then I would certainly tackle a high-level content audit. Understanding the content you have and learning what the audience of that content requires goes a long way to helping you understand the working practises and decisions made in the past. It should allow you to see if writing style guides are being followed, and whether an editorial review process is working. It won’t help with the technical review phase though but there are things you can do in that respect as well.

To me, a high-level content audit asks the big questions, why does the document exist? Why is the content of the document structured the way it is? Look at the content

So far you’ve talked to the people in your team who create the content, you’ve understood the expectations they have and the expectations on them. You know what type of content is being produced, why it exists, and have a good idea of what it contains and how it is produced.

Now the tricky bit.

Does the process that the rest of the company thinks you are following (their expectations) match up with the process your team is following? If it does then great. If it doesn’t then this is the first thing you need to address with your team.

Rather than try and fix things yourself, get your team together in a room and tell them what you’ve discovered. This is not an exercise in ‘why aren’t you…. ‘ this is the beginning of a collaborative venture, so make sure you pitch it accordingly. What you need to get from your team is the real reasons why the expectations don’t match. From their side it may be that they were unaware of some of those external expectations, or it may be that whilst the expectation is valid the team haven’t been able to progress that part of the process as they would like.

Once you have completed that exercise, and understand the position of your team and (and this is important) your TEAM has a common and understood position and process, you can then revisit the expectations being placed on your team. It may ultimately mean you need one meeting with representatives of both your team and those from the other areas of the company, but this will allow everyone to understand any issues, resolve them and move forward with a process that everyone understands.

Everything else to that is largely secondary. Yes using the right tools makes a difference, yes better knowledge of your audience is crucial, yes there may be improvements to specific areas of the content that could be made but all of those should start to filter to the top of your pile naturally. However, if the expectations both on your team and from your team are not manageable then you are only setting yourself up for a lot more pain in the future.

Fixing Me

I’m sitting at the dining table, the laptop in front of me with a view out of the back garden. I’m being dazzled as the in the sharp light of a crisp winter day bounces off the last of the snow.

Ollie has been in a couple of times to check I’m ok, and to warm up the keyboard of the laptop for me and I’ve just opened a letter from the bank that says they miscalculated a recently settled loan so please would I take this cheque for £400.

My heart is full and light, I’ve lost weight, I’m enjoying work despite the ongoing manic nature of things, and I seem to have hit a productive streak.

Yup, if it wasn’t for the dull ache in my knee I’d have nothing to complain about! Well that and the fact my webhost seems to have been a bit flaky recently, anyone having issues getting to the site? Ohh and not forgetting our flaky Sky+ box (engineer out this afternoon).

Anyway, I was back at the physio this morning where I discovered that, as well as the aforementioned Osgood Schlatters (now benign), I also have a condition known as Sinding–Larsen–Johansson Syndrome. Add that to my slightly knocked knees, my flat arches and my entire lower body is out of alignment and, frankly, it’s a wonder I can stand up right.

OK, it’s not that bad or pronounced and the basic reason I need to go back to physio is that I rushed back to running too soon, and need to stay away from impact based exercise. Which means elliptical trainers, bikes, swimming, stepping machines and the like. Which means going to the gym. Which means paying out money for something I’ve never really enjoyed all that much.

This is purely down to my boredom threshold being very low, something I don’t have a problem with on the Wii Fit as it is entertaining (if only mildly) and uses games/competitions to keep you motivated. However the Wii Fit isn’t going to solve this, although it will help.

Low impact cardiovascular exercise is what is needed both to help heal my knee and help me drop some more weight (it’s been very slow since the start of the year). I’m hoping the Wii Fit will help with flexibility and core stability, and I have my dumbbells for toning up.

All of which sounds very do-able. So, I guess, the only thing stopping me, is me. Which has been the case all along of course.

Here endeth todays startling revelation.

Rip it up

There is a part of me that is destructive. A part of me that says fuck you to all and sundry. A part of me that questions and challenges everything.

That part of me hides in the shadows waiting for the moment to reveal itself, to rise up and strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger.

Or something like that.

Actually it’s the part of me that really does, sometimes, think ‘You know what, fuck this’.

It’s usually aimed at something I either don’t fully understand or with which I can’t really be bothered. My previous post is an example of the latter, computers usually a large part of the former.

So right now I’m toying with deleting my Facebook account for, despite some valid uses cropping up in my comments, I just don’t use it. I’m also restraining myself from throwing a laptop across the room as it doesn’t belong to me it belongs to my employer.

Anyway, that’s enough of that… ohh wait, no it’s not.

Remember how I was wittering on about MP3 tags and how I really want them all to be uniformly complete? Well Pete Ashton has stumbled across a solution!

Yeah yeah, he’s talking about Twitter but the approach is what I was interested in, the idea of having a pool of [stuff] into which you can dip as and when you want, why don’t I do the same with my MP3s? I have reams of MP3 files that I don’t listen to all that often and which could easily be moved to a larger pool, leaving my ‘everyday’ tracks in their own library.

That’ll let me concentrate on those ones first (the ‘important’ ones, if you will) and I can tackle the rest as and when the notion strikes me to shuffle some albums in to/out of the pool.

Sounds like a plan.

Which is really not what I was going to write about but then that’s all part and parcel of the nonsense that is this blog. If nothing else, it helps me!

New Manager: How do you get better management buy-in?

I recently received an email which asked:

Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.

Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:

  1. How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
  2. How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster docs?)?
  3. What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
  4. How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I’ll break each question out into a new post, so without further ado, onto question #2.

How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster docs?)?
Management buy-in is key to any team within an organisation. If the management don’t properly understand what the team brings to the organisation, be they hard or soft benefits, then your job will remain a battle.

So, how do you get it?

Firstly I’d suggest not making any promises to do things cheaper or faster. Whilst it is largely the type of thing your boss will want to hear and they are promises you can make later on, the first thing you need to quantify is whether you are producing what is needed or not. That may mean looking at improving the quality of the documentation, or it may mean re-evaluating the type of information that is produced.

How do you do this? Talk to your audience.

A simple statement, and something it everyone will tell you is core to your ability as a technical communicator but which remains one of those things that is very hard. Even if you have direct access to your audience, the customers of your part of the product, it can still be tricky to get useful feedback from them. With that in mind I’d set up a series of one-to-one interviews. They don’t have to be long, nor do they have to be formal (in fact I staged mine over a few casual chats, grabbing 15 minutes of time from some of our SMEs over the space of a couple of weeks) but you must talk to them.

The benefits are two-fold. Firstly it raises the profile of your team and alerts your customers that you are actively engaged and trying to improve things, secondly it should mean you can formulate a plan to take to your boss.

The former should also start to generate some goodwill, you’d be surprised how many people understand the need for good documentation and you may well be able to garner some support from some other parts of your company. Don’t be afraid to ask people to email you and your boss with their thoughts of your new plan, the more evidence she/he sees that you are driving improvements yourself, the more likely he will be to back you.

But ultimately you need, at some point, to present a plan to your boss. One that outlines what you are planning to do, what the benefits are, and how long you think it will take to achieve.

Benefits should be stated in business terms – for most software documentation the main cost benefit is to reduce the time it takes your audience to complete a task using the software – and the more specific you can be the better. Essentially you have to justify why the company is spending money on you and your team, and ultimately you may be asked for a fine grain of detail that you just don’t have. So, if your plan is to reduce Support calls, make sure you have a way of monitoring the stats AND that you can attribute them to the documentation, before suggesting that as a plan!

Buy-in, in my experience, is largely gained by showing a business awareness. Ever boss will want things faster and cheaper but instead of make presumptions, involve your boss in those discussions. During the start of a project, take the initial scope of the documentation that you and your team have planned, prioritise it (using MoSCoW perhaps?) and take that to your boss. Then it’s a simple case of saying “OK, this is what we MUST have in the documentation, this is what we SHOULD have, these are the things we COULD have and there are also some things we WOULD want to have, can you help me narrow this list down as we can’t produce it all”.

That allows your boss, in conversation with you, to make sensible decisions around the production of the documentation, allows a decision on faster or cheaper to be made, and shows that you understand the business reasoning behind what you do.

Be prepared to have discussions where you lose, where that Quick Start guide that you think is a really good idea gets put to one side. Part of gaining the trust of your boss, and his/her buy-in to your plans is showing that you have the bigger picture in mind, and if you can prove that then your boss should happily back you all the way.

Facebooked

I’ve still to find any good reason to visit Facebook more than once a month. It’s just never really grabbed me, largely because I have plenty of other places online where I can interact and all of them are far more subtle than the constant barrage of utter nonsense that the bulk of Facebook seems to thrive on. I mean what is that virtual poking thing all about? Seriously, answers on a postcard to WHYTHEHELLSHOULDIBOTHERWITHFACEBOOK, c/o IFEARIAMMISSINGTHEPOINT. Thanks.

That said, the upside of Facebook is that it has allowed me to ‘connect’ to some old school acquaintances. I’ve emailed a couple of them but considering that I struggle to keep up with my friends I’d be very surprised if I manage to keep in correspondence with any of them on anything more than a bi-annual basis.

My Facebook contacts are a mix of real and virtual contacts, friends and family. It’s an odd hybrid but not hugely a problem. Until some chuffnut decides to ‘tag’ me with some Facebook meme thing. Thankfully this isn’t as bad as, say, someone throwing a virtual polar bear at me (seriously, wtf?) so I guess I might possibly consider following up on this one. Here are the rules then:

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose up to 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

OK, so writing a note with 25 random things isn’t a big challenge. I mean it’s not like I struggle to waffle on about random nonsense, is it?

But the bit that gets me is the “choose 25 people to be tagged”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve participated and nominated people in a fair number of blog memes in the past, but to me this is different. A meme is a soft suggestion, something that you know may be ignored, particularly as the ‘invitation’ to participate is held on MY blog, not rammed into the blog of the invitee.

I think this is what still irks me with Facebook, it’s far more aggressive. Multiply the number of contacts/friends that you have by the number of applications/games/useless and pointless ‘poking’ variants and before you know it your inbox is deluged. This then puts the onus on you, to do something about whatever it is you’ve received. Delete or participate? Doesn’t matter which, I now have to spend MY time dealing with something that YOU think is interesting, cool or funny. It’s quite a subtle and bizarre intrusion, loaded with expectation and the premise seems to be that once you are in, you are in. You can’t join Facebook and block everything, so, regardless of what filters you have in place you still need to maintain your account.

That is why I don’t visit Facebook all that much. It’s too time consuming. Yes it is genuinely handy and I do keep in touch with people using it but even then a simple check becomes a 20 minute wade through the quagmire of application approval requests, new friend notifications and other levels in the myriad of random crap.

I remember once, whilst still at school, receiving an anonymous letter which suggested I had to add my name and forward it on to 5 different people. I can still remember mulling it over before throwing it in the bin. If you are the person that sent it, I apologise but frankly what did you expect?

Chain letters weren’t fun or cool in the 1980s and the current fad for intrusive social applications isn’t any more fun or cool today.

Change of frame

I spent a fair portion of yesterday wandering around Glasgow taking photos. Some were in a touristy kind of way but others were directly influenced by a conversation I had with someone.

I had been talking about ‘finding’ shots to take, and she said that what she did was figure out the type of images that she was naturally drawn to and then try and find the opposite.

Whilst wandering round a city I always find myself drawn to the buildings, the architecture (new or old), and tend to prefer clean cut lines of the modern office blocks. I do tend towards what someone called ‘postcard’ photos, the type of view that is obvious and that everyone can spot.

So with all of that in mind I did my best to break out of that mindset for the day, and it was quite liberating to be exploring some of the back lanes, and disused areas of the city centre. I was also experimenting with my new wide angle lens, and decided to keep it on the camera all day (rather than change to the standard lens or swap it for the telephoto).

All in all it was an excellent day.