So from the earliest days of my management career I have struggled with supervising people who differ on one key trait from my own style – while I tend toward needing closure much of the time, others tend towards using all of the time available to finish tasks and when there is no specific end time for tasks, struggling with the decision of when to hand things over for review.
What this means in the workplace setting is that I tend to be able to send on a document I think is solid because of the stress of holding onto it (holding it up) is greater than the stress of sharing it. For much of the rest of the world, there is greater stress in bringing closure to documents, projects etc.
The first time I was confronted with this directly I was supervising a coop student who had given a number of non-time sensitive tasks to carry out in a four month period. In the end, all of her work products were delivered the day she hopped on a plane for the west coast. This left no time for a discussion of the products themselves and a significant bottleneck for me for review time.
In the debrief that followed, I reflected on some of my own flawed assumptions that had contributed to this situation. I realized that a key piece of changing from school mode to work mode is that work assignments aren’t like term papers, they often have no specific end dates.
So this begets the problem, if there is no specific deadline, how on earth would you decide when a document is sufficiently polished to send on for further review?
This problem has possible links to perfectionism, time management and procrastination issues but my favourite angle comes from Steven Pressfield in his fantastic book called “Do the Work.” His simple, brilliant take on all of this: Don’t prepare, begin.
If I bring this into the government context we might say, if you are a policy advisor you have to advise. Not prepare to advise or to think about advising but, advise. He even speaks about the discipline needed to actually put ourselves on “research diets” so that continual research doesn’t become a form of resistance to doing the actual work.
So why do we need to wrap things up:
The longer you take, the more chance that the sell-by date will pass
Topics that need issue papers or further thinking may be relevant for a limited period – nothing specific but, they can get stale. The longer that you work on something the greater chance this may happen. Other events overtake your issue, other more pressing issues hit the radar.
You’ll get duped out of valuable experience by staying in your comfort zone because it stunts learning
By continuing to work on a limited number of projects that stay terminally in the research and writing phase, you’ll get duped out of important experience on other projects or the experience that comes from getting your ideas up the line. Depending on your area of work, this may leave your work experience pretty lop-sided. In addition, the feedback loop is one of the most crucial parts of anyone’s development. If you only rarely share your work for review, you aren’t getting the benefit of much development because you have a very limited idea of what works or doesn’t work.
You’ve got one perspective, not the whole view
Many work environments require multiple reviewers before documents get out the door. The process is iterative and the time spent hearing the feedback and triaging it to improve your product is part of the process to getting something out the door.
More isn’t always better
This interesting article explains how enjoyable it is to do a lot of research on a topic because learning creates dopamine, a high similar to cocaine. The downside is that additional information doesn’t always generate better decisions. Significantly, the brain can overestimate the importance of data it believes is missing.
In addition, the longer you work on something the greater chance that you are going to write a document that is way too long and detailed for your audience.
Going back to Pressfield, we have to eventually “ship” our products because if we can’t finish and share the work with others, the work is for nothing.
But, the risks get higher at this point and, in fact, the stakes may be very high. Failure may come but to quote Pressfield, “This is the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.”
So, what can you do?
Make your high standards scaleable: For instance, don’t write the same standard of document for your boss as for the CEO or the same standard for a document that will remain internal versus being external.
Think about strategies to manage risks: This might include reducing the time and energy costs of a full scale treatment of a subject by considering an an outline or short discussion paper or even a list of questions you plan to answer, instead. You might also consider finding an informal reviewer, to whom you can present product that you think is far from finished and explain all the further work you plan to do and see the reaction.
Seek out examples of products that make the grade: See if you are holding yourself to too high a standard.
Use objective criteria to determine of a document is ready to be shared: I have benefited from returning to a “quality expectations” document created by a colleague when I am trying to support staff in moving their documents from good to great. The document is also a useful reminder of the minimum and maximum standards for documents. The document is a hierarchical guide to good writing for our particular setting. It starts with documents free of spelling and grammatical errors and the deadline is met. At the second level, the document answers the question asked, and is delivered for review early enough that the supervisor can do an adequate review. At the higher levels, the product anticipates the needs of the audience and plays an influencing role in setting direction. Bottom line, what standard does this document need to meet?