Here is my theory, managers don't skim books because they are busy, they skim because most of the content is not useful to them. In my own case I usually skim books mercilessly but if I’m reading a genuinely deep book (e.g. The Secular Age by Charles Taylor) then I read each sentence very carefully; even re-reading pages that were particularly important.
How do we write for managers so they get value from every word?
A History of Bad Examples
I think part of the problem is our own experience with books. Many of the books we read are written for novices. A popular history book like Guns, Germs & Steel assumes you don’t have any real background in the subject. But if we are writing about management for managers then they are deeply immersed in that world and a style suitable for novices won’t work for them.
Another bad example is books written by one technical expert to other technical experts. In this case it’s natural to exult in the jargon, shared mental models and obscure references of the field. Imagine one computer geeks writing to impress his peers, there is no way he would stoop to writing in plain English that could be understood by the masses. Managers are expert in the practice of management but not RO. The book you write on RO for managers is not the one you would write for RO consultants.
So as authors we may be tempted to write for novices or for technical insiders because that is what we have seen before. We need to push those bad examples aside if we are to write a book managers want to read.
The Manager in Mind
The easy solution to writing for a say stratum IV manager is to have someone at that level in mind as you write. Think of the process not as writing but as explaining it to them. Think of it almost as a conversation where you explain something, imagine the question they’d ask, and then go from there.
You sometimes hear that someone writes in a ‘conversational style’; I’ve never seen that presented as being a bad thing.
Diversity of Readers
The challenge of course is that there is a diversity of readers and not all managers, even at the same stratum, will have the same background knowledge and interests.
Here are a few tips with dealing with a diversity of readers:
It's worth remembering that the normal style of books evolved in a pre-Wikipedia era. Anyone who feels they need to know more about time-span of discretion can find it online—but it's nice if they have the micro-explanation so they don't have to drop your book right at that moment.
The difficulty of getting started on your writing is so common it has a name “writer's block”. This is an indication that writing is perhaps an uncommonly difficult task. However, some simple tactics should be sufficient to get past the barriers and begin to write.
Writing requires an extended period of uninterrupted time; an hour is a good minimum. It is often very difficult to do uninterrupted work in the office. You need to turn off the phones and email, not have people walking by who will say hi, or be faced with other distractions. Very often I find a café a good place to work. In fact I spend an hour writing in a café every day.
There is no point trying to write when you are tired. Pick the time of day when you are at your best and write then. For me it's the mornings and if I have something important or difficult I'll often trot off to the café at 7:00 am and, appropriately fueled, work head down for 90 minutes to get a difficult stretch of work done.
Just Do It
Even if you are in a quiet place full of energy you may still find you can't get started. My solution to this is just to start writing whatever comes to mind. I don't care if it's badly worded, full of typos and incoherent. The act of just spilling words onto a page can set you up for a productive session next time.
Typically when I do this I find that the ideas spill out and I get a sense for what I know and what I think. I don't usually edit that word-spill. Instead I start fresh in my next session, but having got my ideas on paper the first time enables me to get past that feeling of not knowing where to start.
Sometimes the word-spill is incoherent and just leads to a second word-spill, not a first draft. It may be that you just need to continue to wrestle with the ideas. It could also mean that the ideas themselves are not coherent. Maybe you had this idea that the Gilligan's Island was in fact a Biblical allegory and decided to write about that. On doing a few word-spills you would probably find that you could not pull together decent arguments. In this case just give it up and be thankful that by “just doing it” you've learned enough to be comfortable abandoning that project.
You have lots of ideas, don't be afraid to throw out the ones that are not going anywhere, and do some new word-spills to get the next idea started.
If writing a book seems too big a commitment at the moment, what about just doing a case study? A case study stands on its own, but could also end up being part of any book you might eventually write. The nice thing about the case study is that it’s nicely bounded—you just have to tell what happened starting at the beginning and telling the story through to the end.
Case studies also have the merit of being real. A good case study doesn’t need to rely on profound theoretical insights or novel frameworks; we all love and can learn from a good story. Furthermore it’s a good chance to practice articulating your ideas and can be re-purposed into an article or speech.
If you had any sense of unease at the thought of writing a case study it is probably because you have read bad case studies in the past. There are many ways to be bad, but they all boil down to the story not being credible. I’ve seen cases where cases about minor consulting interventions were credited with the 1990s turnaround of IBM. I’ve seen cases where the simple linearity of the story doesn’t ring true. Worst of all is reading cases where you know something about the organization and think “It wasn’t like that at all!”
So the most critical thing in a case study is that it has to be thoroughly truthful. Aim for that, rather than aiming for something that flatters your work, and people will be interested in the story.
Why it’s difficult to tell the truth
As artists have long known, in human affairs there is never just one truth. Furthermore, in real life there is seldom a clear beginning and rarely a definitive end. Reality is a tangle of causes, outcomes and perspectives and even for stories where we were a leading character we may only know a small part of the whole tale.
This should not be cause for discouragement, but it should serve warning that telling the story of your case study will require some research into other perspectives, some artistic decisions on how to tell the tale and a good deal of humility.
Managers can handle complexity in a story, they understand that things get messy and go off course, don’t feel you to dumb down the case to drive home your own conclusion.
You will have to simplify reality to tell any kind of coherent story, but let the reader know you are aware of what you are doing. Give enough context so that the reader has a perspective on how your story fits in with the other things going on in the organization at the time.
Talk to as many people as possible who were involved in the case to broaden your own perspective. If there are disagreements about what happened or why, then include that as part of the commentary. You don’t need to be the omniscient narrator, you can just tell the story from the viewpoint of a well-informed participant.
Co-writing the story with one or more of the key managers involved will add breadth and credibility to the case.
Pay attention to the missteps in the journey. After the fact we like to tell straightforward stories about how we analysed the situation, identified gaps and implemented processes to address those gaps leading to a remarkable ROI. In reality, we wander about trying to make sense of the situation, make foolish mistakes, run into unforeseen barriers, fail at some things, and succeed on others. Try to include some of these meanderings in the story; the missteps are usually the most enlightening part.
How to get started
Pick a case you know very well and then approach the organization involved and see if they will participate. Let them know that this is not meant to be a puff piece but a serious contribution to the management literature (but that of course you’ll let them OK the draft before anything is published).
It’s not essential to get formal agreement from the client, you can always write a case about an anonymous organization, but it clearly better to do so.
Next it’s a good idea to review your emails to remind yourself of the chronology of what happened. After that you have the relatively easy step of interviewing participants to get their memories of what happened and why.
Then the writing begins and this is relatively easy because you simply start at the beginning and work through to the end. Don’t worry too much if your first pass is a bit messy, once you’ve got it out on paper a second pass will be much more coherent. Consider getting assistance from a professional writer if the writing step is a barrier to getting the case study completed.
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