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greenin' (without quote: 689 -> 601, 13% reduction)

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lchski committed Mar 17, 2019
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Earlier this week, I was talking through a tricky situation with coworkers. I went to use a favourite slogan from Mike Bracken—“[Be radical in changing how an organisation works, but incremental in changing what it delivers](https://public.digital/2018/09/28/radical-org-change-incremental-delivery-change/)”—before stopping myself.
I recently talked through a tricky situation with coworkers. I went to use a favourite slogan—“[Be radical in changing how an organisation works, but incremental in changing what it delivers](https://public.digital/2018/09/28/radical-org-change-incremental-delivery-change/)”—but stopped myself.

The phrase captured perfectly what I meant to say, but it paved over nuance. Using just the pithy phrase would do have disserviced the implications of what I meant to say, and risked misunderstanding. Instead, I tried to talk through what I meant from different angles, using several sentences instead of one. Sometimes, it takes more than a catchy slogan to capture what you mean.
The phrase captured my thought, but paved over nuance. It buried the implications of what I meant to say. It risked misunderstanding. Instead, I tried to talk through my thought from different angles, using several sentences instead of one. Sometimes, it takes more than a catchy slogan to capture what you mean.

I often think of a conversation I had with a friend last winter. She described the documentation she keeps behind each briefing note she writes. For example:
I remember a conversation I once had with a friend. She described the documentation behind each briefing note she writes. For example:

1. 1–2-page briefing note, succinctly summarizing the issue and recommending a course of action
2. 5-page discussion paper, providing more detailed background and rationale
3. 50-page research file, with extensive notes on the problem space
1. 1–2-page briefing note (issue summary and recommendations)
2. 5-page discussion paper (detailed background and rationale)
3. 50-page research file (extensive notes on the problem space)

From what I’ve heard around town, this is a pretty common approach. The decision maker gets #1, middle management gets #1 with the added context of #2, and the “working level” folks have #1, #2, and #3. A few observations on this hierarchy:
This is a pretty common approach. The decision maker gets #1, and middle management gets #1 with the added context of #2. A few observations on this hierarchy:

- The person writing #1, #2, and #3 understands this issue _deeply_
- The shorter format of #1—full of condensed phrases where every word is significant—tries to capture the nuances of #2 and the depth of #3, but inevitably omits some of both
- The person making a decision through #1 thus can’t possibly understand the issue to the same depth as the person making the recommendations, but they also don’t have the time to consume all the information contained in #2 and #3 (or, likely, to explore the significance of each word in each sentence of #1)
- The brevity of #1—full of phrases where every word is significant—tries to capture the nuances of #2 and the depth of #3, but inevitably omits some of both
- The decision maker using #1 can’t possibly understand the issue fully, but they also don’t have the time to consume all the information contained in #2 and #3 (or, likely, to explore the significance of each word in #1)

The issue I’m working around here is that of communicating depth. How do you convey all that you mean? And can you do it economically? Slogans (which are basically a hipper form of academic theory) are great at first glance, but then you hit the human element and realize that application is harder in practice, and you grasp for more to help your point hit home.
Behold, the problem of communicating depth. How do you convey all you mean? Can you do it economically? Slogans seem great. But then you try to use them, hit the human element, and realize that application is harder in practice than they suggest. (Slogans: a hipper form of academic theory.) Then you grasp for more to help land your point.

This issue doesn’t just crop up in briefing notes. It’s also the case for teamwork, among other settings. When you work alongside a team day in and day out you build a shared or common understanding. Working step by step through delivering something (a product, a website, a report, etc.) means that those walking each of those steps together get to see much of the same scenery.
This issue isn’t limited to briefing notes. It’s also the case for teamwork, among other settings.

Often, though, that team’s not the only group involved in delivery. There’ll be a group of folks who need to give their approval but don’t have time to be involved in the day-to-day. Then there’s often those other folks who are just interested for some reason (“stakeholders” 🙄). These groups can’t walk step by step along with the core team. Instead, they drive ahead and wait at a roadside pit stop, turning to their other work while the core team walks along together. Then the core team arrives and tries to describe everything they’ve seen and learned while walking. But of course they can’t capture everything. They can only offer summaries of their shared understandings, summaries that necessarily smooth over depth and nuance.
When you work every day alongside a team, you build a shared understanding. Working step by step through delivering something (a product, a website, a report, etc.), the team walking those steps together sees largely the same scenery.

Often, though, that team’s not the only group involved in delivery. There’ll be a group of folks who need to give their approval but don’t have time to be involved in the day-to-day. Then there are others who are just interested for some reason (“stakeholders” 🙄).

These groups can’t walk step by step with the core team. Instead, they drive ahead and wait at a roadside pit stop, turning to their other work while the core team walks along together. Then the core team arrives and tries to describe everything they’ve seen and learned as a group. But of course they can’t capture everything. They can only offer summaries of their shared understanding, summaries that necessarily smooth over depth and nuance.

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For a long while, I was frustrated by long books or overly verbose presentations. I thought: Why can’t this be done in a few sentences? But now I’ve delved further into this problem of communicating depth. And while I don’t have a solution (other than taking the time to understand where the other person is at and what they’re able to ingest, and talking things through multiple times from slightly different angles each time), I’ve come to accept that this is one of the things that are hard when humans are involved. (I’ve also come to embrace long books 😉)
This topic has long been in my head. I wondered why big books were so big, skeptical that their authors really _needed_ all those pages. I thought: Why can’t this be done in a few sentences?

But, y’know, communicating depth is hard. And while I don’t have a solution (other than taking the time to understand where your audience is at and what they’re able to ingest, and repeatedly sharing ideas from slightly different angles), I’ve come to accept that this is one of the things that are hard when humans are involved.

To close, I turn to Anne Lamott, who nicely sums up this issue (hehe) in _Bird by Bird_ (103–104):
To close, then, I turn to Anne Lamott, who nicely sums up this issue (hehe) in _Bird by Bird_ (103–104):

> The truth doesn’t come out in bumper stickers. There may be a flickering moment of insight in a one-liner, in a sound bite, but everyday meat-and-potato truth is beyond our ability to capture in a few words. Your whole piece is the truth, not just one shining epigrammatic moment in it. There will need to be some kind of unfolding in order to contain it, and there will need to be layers. We are dealing with the ineffable here—we’re out there somewhere between the known and the unknown, trying to reel in both for a closer look. This is why it may take a whole book.
All the best for the week ahead!
The truth takes time. All the best for the week ahead!

Lucas

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