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Thank you for the very interesting replies to this thread. I got a ton
of private e-mails regarding this. I apologize that I cannot answer
everyone directly. However it did spark some follow-up ideas.
In regard to formal organizations, a few people pointed out NASA or
the military as extremely formal environments that work well. I
agree. The military for all its problems, does seem to work okay.
However extremely formalized structures are endemic to NASA and the
military. They deal with exceptionally large issues such as war and
space travel. They also deal with devices that, if they fail, could
kill people. Likewise, the Boeing company has very formalized
procedures for documenting the proper way to install a new engine. Do
it wrong and hundreds could die.
However, there is a cost for such formalization. Boeing is a huge
company and their products (airplanes) cost millions of dollars.
Pretty much the same story for the military and NASA. These
organizations are willing to pay a price for formalization because
lives are at stake.
However, in the world of superfast product development in software and
the Internet, no lives are at stake. Nobody has been killed because
Ebay used Arial instead of Times New Roman.
In these environments, formalized structures become a hindrance to
progress. To stay competitive and on top of the newest developments,
software companies must remain dynamic and progressive in their
approach to their products. People will not buy the same old crap
year after year. In many respects, all the consumer products
companies are this way.
Okay, how does all this relate back to technical communications? I
think people confuse the notion of "formalized" vs. "rational". Some
people who responded jumped on how "appropriate" or "professional" a
formalized environment was because there was some inherent
"rationality." In my opinion, this is a huge misconception.
Rationality and formality may hang out together, but honestly many of
the highly formalized environments I worked in were completely
Think about this: do ten people really need to debate the point size
of text? Sure, if this is a F-117A fighterbomber, that might be an
issue for the dials on the cockpit. But if your writing a manual for
a new email program - does it really matter? No of course not. Pick a
size and move along. Cannot one person make this decision rationally?
I think the problem for some is not "professionalism" or "rationality"
it is control. Senior people want to control their dominion and
therefore they erect formalized processes to legitimize their need to
control. Hence while they are busy maintaining their structures and
processes, people such as myself who are "get it done at all costs"
people become threats to this infrastructure of control. One person
who responded was completely blatant with her need to control an
environment and that if you did not agree with her methods that was
your problem. Some people may tolerate that environment for a while to
learn new things, but ultimately those environments crumble.
I think this is where we get into a Roman Law vs English Law kind of
debate. Not to insult anyone's intelligence, but to clarify what I
mean: "Roman Law" refers to a set of rules that are more like "ideals"
that people are expected to live up to. For example, a rule that
states "employees should work to meet the customers needs," is more of
a "Roman Law." On the other hand "English Law" refers to rules that
specifically forbid people from doing things. This is how most
Western legal systems are structured: "Employees are forbidden from
talking with customers about possible flaws in our products."
Many people noted how style guides should be just that, GUIDES in a
Roman Law sort of way. I agree. These guide should state "here is
how things should look." Certainly if something works, there is no
reason to stop doing that. But if a reason arises to change
something, why not just change it and see what happens? The only way
you can really see how a change can affect the whole is to make the
change and watch the results. Programmers, scientists, engineers do
this all the time, every day. It is called, the scientific method.
Make and assumption, do a test, watch the results.
Thus, the ideal style guide is a set of "things that work for us".
They are also evolutionary items that undergo constant change. This
is why the whole notion of taking months to develop a style guide to
me is nuts. Style guides are the reflection of a community of writers
only AFTER those writers have started to develop common structures.
The founders of Rome did not sit down on day one and write up the
Roman Laws. They evolved over centuries of growth and failure.
Moreover, they continued to evolve while Rome was in progress.
One last myth I want to address has to do with consensus and
responsibility. Another reason that attracts people to formalized
processes is the idea that these processes will help build consensus.
In reality, all they do is diffuse responsibility. When
responsibility gets diffused across a wider range of individuals, it
is easier to hide from blame when things go bad.
The joke of consensus is that even when people obtain consensus, they
really don't. 99% of the time one or few people lead the pack of
consensus teams. Moreover, 100% of the time, there is some boss,
president, or board that has to "approve" a consensus. Basically, the
whole consensus thing is bunk because a single person must then
approve that decision.
Too many people are lulled into a false sense of security with
consensus. It gives them a warm feeling to think a group came
together to make an agreement. Most of the time, groups come together
and the few control freaks in the group make all the decisions while
the rest wait for the meeting to end.
I think the cult-of-consensus has also allowed Dilbert's "pointy
haired" boss to become more than a joke, but a sick reality.
Consensus allows incompetent people to hide their stupidity in a sea
of business lingo and jargon. He/She who can bulls**t best, can work
his/her way to the top.
Moreover, consensus gives people the "illusion" that their ideas have
some weight. Once again, most "consensus" groups I have worked within
are dominated by a few control freaks. If you challenge their ideas
they beat you into the ground with their larger and more powerful
egos. Basically, a lot of review committees and task forces become
nothing more than an spectacle for those people with big egos and loud
voices to dominate people.
Thus, why give in to the temptation? Blow away formalized processes
in favor of simple, direct visions and goals. Unformalized
environments reward hard-workers and dynamic thinkers because in the
midst of chaos - progress shines brightly.
Moreover, an unformalized environment can more accurately reflect the
personal ambitions of one or more people. When three people come
together to make something happen, one person's motivation to get the
job done can rub off on the other people. If this group was overly
formalized, the two slackers could hide underneath their process rules
while the motivated person does all the work.
Lastly, am I suggesting NASA or the military do this? Well, in a
sense they already have. The whole Mars Sourjourner was a test to see
if NASA could do space flight on the cheap. They basically gave JPL a
set amount of money and said - here, put something cool on Mars.
Well, they did it. I'll bet $1000 there were not many style guides in
President / Principal Consultant
Anitian Consulting, Inc.
PS: By the way, the group I worked for that termed my contract, could
not find their butts if they had a bell on it. When I showed up they
were so deep in politics, I just did the work and left. The real
reason my contract was termed was that I made some senior writers look
like dolts to upper management because I did their work in 1/3th of
the time. The writers got mad an termed my contract over this.
S'okay. I moved on to much greener pastures.
Incidentally, the management offered me a full-time job as the tech
pubs manager. I turned down their offer. Yeah right - no amount of
money would have been worth it to manage those resentful dolts.
A prime example of how a formalized environment could not accomplish
its basic mission.
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