Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Leadership

The Cost of Bad Writing

Enough with the passive voice!

Enough with the passive voice!

My students know that I’m a stickler for good writing. When they ask me why I’m so picky, my answer usually boils down to something that’s logically akin to, “Because I said so.”

I know that the ability to write effectively has helped my career. But is it really so important in today’s world of instant communications? Only if you want to save $400 billion a year.

Josh Bernoff, the owner of WOBS LLC, recently published his survey of 547 business professionals who write “at least two hours per week for work, excluding e-mail”. Bernoff’s findings make a clear and compelling case for teaching – and mastering — effective writing skills. His key findings:

  • Reading and writing is a full-time job. Bernoff’s respondents – most of whom were not full-time editors or writers – spend about 25.5 hours reading and 20.4 hours writing each week.
  • Though we complain about e-mail, it takes up only about a third of our reading and writing time. We spend far more time writing and reading memos, blog posts, web content, press releases, speeches, and so on.
  • We think we’re pretty good; everybody else sucks. On an effectiveness scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being totally effective), professionals rate their own writing at 6.9. They rate writing prepared by others at 5.4.
  • We agree on the Big 5. A majority of respondents thought the following issues contributed most to making written content “significantly less effective”: 1) too long; 2) poorly organized; 3) unclear; 4) too much jargon; 5) not precise enough.
  • We waste a lot of time. For all respondents, 81% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Poorly written material wastes a lot of my time”. For managers, directors, and supervisors, the figure is 84%.
  • We want feedback but have a hard time getting it. Only 49% of all respondents – and 41% of managers, directors, and supervisors – agree with the statement, “I get the feedback I need to make my writing better.”
  • Professionals want to write better but are constrained by jargon, passive voice, corporate bullshit and “…the number of people who still think writing is more about making them sound important …” than communicating clearly.

Bernoff rolls all the numbers together and concludes that, “…America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.” The total cost? About $400 billion.

(You can find Bernoff’s white paper and infographics here. Brief summaries in the popular press also appear here and here).

Bernoff calculates the cost of wasted time. But what’s the direct cost? How much do we spend teaching our employees to write well? Bernoff doesn’t address this specifically but I found a College Board survey from 2004 that digs into the question. The survey went to 120 American companies associated with the College Board’s Business Roundtable. The result? American companies – excluding government agencies and nonprofits – spend about $3.1 billion annually “remedying deficiencies in writing”.

The College Board study also cites an April 2003 white paper titled, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need For a Writing Revolution.” The conclusion of that study was simple: “Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.”

In 2006, The Conference Board picked up a similar theme in a report that asked a simple question: “Are They Ready To Work?” The survey asked companies about the most important skills that newly minted graduates should have. It then asked respondents to grade the skills of newly hired employees. Graduates of two- and four-year college programs were rated “deficient” in three areas: 1) Written communications, and 2) Writing in English; 3) Leadership.

Business leaders agree that writing is an important skill. We can cite studies going back more than a decade that suggest we’re doing a poor job teaching the skill. Bernoff’s study suggests we’re not doing any better today – in fact, we may be doing worse. What to do? We need to invest more time, energy, and effort teaching the “neglected R”. Or you could just hire me.

Perverse Incentives and Wells Fargo

But don't read the comp plan.

But don’t read the comp plan.

The papers today are filled with the story of the “brazen sham” at Wells Fargo. Apparently, 5,300 employees opened “566,000 phantom credit card accounts” and charged customers $1.5 million in fees for accounts that they didn’t know existed. Why did employees do that? Because their compensation plan told them to.

Wells Fargo seems to have spawned a set of perverse incentives in the credit card division. Rather than incenting employees to do the right thing, the incentives led employees to cut some ethical corners in order to earn bigger bonuses. The company professed one set of values but paid employees to abide by another. That’s perverse but not uncommon.

(For more on perverse incentives, click here, here, and here).

Why are perverse incentives so common? In my opinion, it’s poor message discipline. The company delivers different messages to different audiences.

As it happens, I’m a Wells Fargo customer (though not of the credit card division). I receive a lot of their information and, being a student of branding, I actually read it. I’ve always been impressed by the consistent tone and content of their communications. The messaging managers are doing a good job and building a good brand.

I’ve also had a number of students who work for Wells Fargo as junior to mid-level managers. Without exception, they speak highly of the organization. They report that Wells Fargo uses the Strengths Finder tools to help employees identify their strengths and weaknesses and to help managers build well-balanced teams. They also report that the company has a diverse employee base and a very positive culture. In short, my students who work at Wells Fargo seem to love the place.

The messaging is remarkably consistent, whether it’s coming directly from the company or indirectly through employees. As the New York Times reports, the message consistently focuses on trust: “Wells Fargo has long tried to separate itself from Wall Street…..the bank has sought to portray itself as a bank for Main Street. Its entire ethos, Wells Fargo has long suggested, is one of trust and ethics.”

That message came through clearly and consistently for me. But the people in charge of message consistency missed one critical document: the comp plan.

It’s often said that a company speaks to its sales force through the comp plan. In other words, the comp plan is a messaging document and requires the same discipline as any other messaging document.

Sales people don’t read company brochures and websites to learn how to behave. Instead, they read the comp plan. If the brochures focus on a culture of trust but the comp plan focuses on closing deals at any cost, we almost automatically get perverse incentives. The company is saying two different things to two different audiences. The best that can be expected is confusion. The worst is fraud.

Can Wells Fargo recover? I suspect so. In fact, though somewhat disappointed, I’m still a satisfied customer. They’ve done a good job by me and I appreciate their attitude and, yes, their ethos. Now they have to deliver one consistent message to all audiences, both internal and external.

Managing The Matrix

Task: Assemble the best team.

Task: Assemble the best team.

One of my largest clients is re-engineering its organization to focus on functions rather than geographies. It’s a classic move from top-down management to matrix management. I think it’s very much the right thing to do but it’s making some of the managers nervous. How does one shift from managing a team to managing a matrix?

I went through a similar transition at Lawson, the last major software company that I worked for. We transitioned from geographies – Sweden, Western USA, Australia/New Zealand – to global teams that focused on vertical markets like healthcare, food and beverage, and fashion. We focused on industries rather than geographies and became expert advisors to our customers.

And what did I learn about managing in a matrix? Here are the key ideas that stood out for me.

Connectors succeed – in a geographic organization, a manager gets to know her team and learns how to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Team members are often physically close to each other. There’s no need to connect them; they’re already connected. In a matrix, the ability to connect people is the most important single skill. People who are natural connectors are often the best matrix managers.

Diplomacy counts – diplomacy is a useful skill for any manager. It’s especially important in a matrix. In a top-down organization, a manager could simply give orders without much tact or diplomacy. Not so in a matrix. A matrix manager is forever building teams – one team to address Issue X, and another to address Issue Y. A matrix manager is always recruiting and needs a positive attitude, good diplomatic skills, and a good understanding of what motivates people.

A good manager can build all-star teams – let’s say I wanted to sell Lawson software to the Swedish fashion house, Filippa K. With the right diplomatic and connecting skills, I could assemble an all-star team to sell the account. My team might include a design expert from New Zealand, a cut-and-sew expert from New York, and a retail expert from Stockholm. I pull them together and focus them intently on the task of selling to Filippa K. Once they sell the account, the team dissolves and the team members reassemble — perhaps with other teammates – to focus on a different project. The good news is that a matrix manager gets to work with all-stars all the time. The not-so-bad news is that a successful matrix manager needs to continually assemble and re-assemble teams in ever-changing patterns.

Talent spotting becomes more important– in a geographic organization, employees do multiple things in a designated area. They become jacks-of-all-trades. In a matrix organization, employees are much more likely to specialize in a given function. They can master the skill. The successful matrix manager knows how to spot the most talented employees and recruit them to her (temporary) team.

Flexibility and adaptability count – flexibility is the strongest point of matrix organization. Managers can quickly assemble and re-assemble teams based on changing needs. This only works if managers are equally flexible. Managers must be fluid; they can’t stay attached to a permanent structure. There is no permanent structure.

Managers must work effectively with each other – in a matrix, an employee often has more than one manager on a given project. For instance, that retail expert from Stockholm would report to me temporarily while working on the Filippa K account. At the same time, she would also report to the overall head of the retail team, who might be located in Melbourne. It can get confusing and roles need to be clearly defined. At the same time, managers need to work effectively with their peers cross the matrix. If I have a beef with the manager in Melbourne, things will go downhill quickly. Again, diplomacy and good communication are key ingredients for success.

The matrix changes the culture – in geographic organizations, teams may easily fall into competition with each other. I would have no incentive to lend my retail expert to another geography. That would only crimp my chances of making my number. A matrix, on the other hand, emphasizes cooperation. If a manager doesn’t make her all-stars available, she doesn’t get access to other all-stars. Sharing becomes more important than competing.

Ultimately, good managers have nothing to be afraid of in a matrix organization. Even in traditional top-down organizations, good managers are likely to be effective communicators and motivators with good diplomatic skills. Those are the same skills that are required to succeed in a matrix.

The Art Of Transformation

grace hartigan the king is dead liteWhat’s the difference between an art and a craft?

A traditional definition focuses on differences in expectations and outcomes. With a craft, we know precisely what the outcome will be, even before we start. We have a set of instructions and, if followed faithfully, the outcome is guaranteed.

By contrast, an artist doesn’t know what the outcome will be. Creating an artwork involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. An artist explores the unknown and aims to give us new insights. A good artwork may not be beautiful in a classic sense, but it is always imaginative. A craftsman, on the other hand, creates the expected and delivers beauty and pleasure through execution more than imagination.

I thought of these distinctions the other day when I toured a major new exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism*, at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition highlights a dozen leaders of the abstract expressionist movement and their work from roughly 1945 to 1960. Here’s how two of the artists describe the creative process:

  • Grace Hartigan: “Eventually, the painting tells you what it wants to be.”
  • Jay DeFeo: “When I start, I don’t know what’s going to happen. When you’re dancing, you don’t stop to think: now I’ll take a step … you allow it to flow.”

It occurs to me that the distinction between art and craft also applies to organizational development. Change management is a craft. Organizational transformation is an art.

We often invoke change management when we begin a concise and well-delineated project. We understand the boundaries and the players. We move through well-defined phases that we can measure objectively. We expect changes to occur between people – perhaps with new reporting structures and alignments. Change management is not easy to master but it seems to me that it is a craft. We often celebrate the end result. We can do that precisely because it is a craft – we know when the process ends.

Organizational transformation is much more like an art. When we seek to transform an organization’s culture, we have only a fuzzy idea of where we’re going. Milestones exist but they’re not well defined. Transformation requires changes within people rather than only between people. We can’t see those changes; nor can we measure them. If we try to measure the unmeasurable, we’ll go off course. Like any other art, transformation involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. Paraphrasing Grace Hartigan, “Eventually, the organization tells you what it wants to be.” The secret to success is listening, not measuring.

I sometimes ask my artist friends how they know when a piece they’re working on is finished. None of them has very good answers. Some say they “just know”. Others say that they just get tired of it. Others say that it’s never finished. Whenever they see it again, they’re tempted to make “just a few minor changes.”

It occurs to me that I’ve never been to a party to celebrate an organizational transformation. Perhaps it’s because we just don’t know when the transformation is finished. It’s an art not a craft.

*The Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit is both superb and unexpected. The paintings are exciting and energetic. The painters are almost anonymous. This is the first major exhibition – anywhere in the world — of the women who energized the abstract expressionist movement. That it happened in my hometown makes me more than just a little bit proud. You can see it – and should see it — until September 25th.

The painting illustrating this article is Grace Hartigan’s The King Is Dead, from 1960.

Filtering Water In The Information Desert

It's a desert out there.

It’s a desert out there.

In organizations, large transformation efforts create information deserts. Traditional sources of information dry up. We search for new sources but they’re few and far between. When we do find them, we can’t be sure if the information is tainted or pure. Should we consume it or not?

The lack of information creates additional stress. We know we’re going on a “journey” but we don’t know where. We don’t even know how we’ll know when we get there. Perhaps we’ll never get there. Perhaps we’ll just continue transforming.

We also know that there will be some winners and losers in the process. Some people will get plum assignments; others will be relegated to minor roles. It’s not always clear who will make these decisions or how they will be made. So we don’t know how to behave to improve our chances of success.

We also fear that we’ll lose something. We know what we have today. While it may not be all we want, just knowing what we have brings some degree of comfort. As the organization morphs, we don’t know what we’ll have tomorrow. We could be worse off. Our loss aversion bias makes the possibility of loss seem more likely – and more painful – than the possibility of gain.

When we’re in a real desert, we want to find water. Indeed, we want to find good water. Drinking bad water could be worse than drinking no water at all. So we carry water filtration systems. When we find water, we can purify it and ensure that it will help us rather than harm us.

Similarly, in an information desert, we want to find good, trustworthy sources of information. Since traditional sources of information have dried up, we need to find new sources. But how can we tell if the new sources are trustworthy? Perhaps they’re tainted with rumor and conjecture. Perhaps consuming the information will do us more harm than good.

It’s not easy to create accurate and effective information for a transforming organization. But there are some good filters that can help employees distinguish good information from bad. The simplest one I’ve found is called the triple filter. Some writers say that Socrates created the filters. Others claim Arab philosophers developed them. Regardless of the source, it’s a good communication technique to keep in mind.

According to legend, when someone offered Socrates information – especially information that might be based on conjecture or rumor, he asked three sets of questions:

  1. Is it true? How do we know? How can we verify it? What’s the source? What’s the evidence?
  2. Is it good? This is especially important if the information is about a person. Does it portray the person in a good light? Is it kind? Does it assume positive intent?
  3. Is it useful? Is the information useful to me, the recipient? Can I use it to accomplish something positive?

The process is analogous to deciding what evidence is admissible in court. If the information didn’t pass all three tests, Socrates simply refused to hear it.

I think of these questions as three steps in a linked process. If the information can’t pass the first test – truth — there’s not much point in asking the other two questions. If the information is verifiably true, then it’s useful to continue the process. If the information passes all three tests, then it’s admissible and should be considered in decision making.

Organizations in transition are under a great deal of stress. Bad information only increases the pressure. The triple filter doesn’t make the desert bloom but it helps employees find oases of trust and certitude in a difficult and demanding environment.

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