What If Your Writers Loved Their Work?


October 2003

What If Your Writers Loved Their Work?

CIDMIconNewsletter Palmer Pearson, Operations Manager, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

Close your eyes and imagine. You start the day receiving several emails from across your company praising the talents and accomplishments of your writing team, who begin arriving at their desks early, drooling for the next challenge. You hear writers expressing their feeling that staff meetings are ending too soon, and you hear them vow that resumes being rewritten to reflect their newly acquired skills are never intended to be sent to your competitors. Finally, you learn that people from other departments are naming their babies after your lead writer (okay, maybe that one is a stretch).

No, you have not had a near-death experience. Nor have you crossed over to get a glimpse of Tech Pubs heaven, as seen by John Edwards. And no one has slipped something into your tea. This can be and is a reality. The first step in the experience of truly loving your job is passion. Most of us had it when we first became technical communicators. Whether we came straight out of college or through a meandering career path, we first approached technical writing with a vigor comparable to what we might feel if we were writing the great American novel. Unfortunately for many of us though, over the years the passion slowly seeped away without us realizing it. Also true is the sad fact that this demise of exuberance is not limited to our field of choice; it has become an inevitable part of many professions.

At the CIDM Best Practices Conference in Galveston, Texas, last year, I related my initial awareness of how the lack of passion in what we do every day can affect us. In July 2002, I had received a form letter from my physician informing me that he no longer was going to be my primary care physician. In addition to being a busy internist, he was also a very qualified cardiologist. He was cutting me and countless others loose to fend for ourselves while he returned to his original passion: treating patients who have heart disease.

How could my doctor do this to me? I had been a patient of his for almost 20 years! I immediately called his office and tried to bargain with his medical assistant. “You can’t really mean you don’t want me, do you?” I asked the question with confidence, because I was sure the letter was meant for others. While on the phone, I also complained about the coldness of the doctor using a form letter that began with the salutation, “Dear Patient,” and was signed “Peter Smith, MD.” We had always been on a first-name basis.

Shortly after losing my debate with fate, I received the same letter from his office, but this time “Dear Patient” was crossed out in pen and replaced with “Palmer.” At the bottom of the letter, my former doctor crossed out his typed name and wrote “Pete.” Being too analytical for my own good sometimes, I searched for a way around this. I finally concluded that, short of faking a coronary, there was none.

I was forced to step back and look at what Pete was really saying. His initial passion in med school was in the field of cardiology. Somewhere in his career, possibly through the need to make more money or to cover malpractice insurance bills, he accepted a larger number of patients. Instead of saving lives and helping patients recover from heart attacks or strokes, he found himself dealing with flu shots, back pain, and runny noses. The diplomas that adorned his office from Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins Medical Center mocked what he had become. He needed to go back to his original passion.

As leaders in the communication field, we have to ensure that we are never guilty of inadvertently diverting our writers’ passion for writing. We cannot possibly encourage them to stop writing a user manual and begin performing open-heart surgery. However, there are, indeed, ways to make the job of providing information to our various audiences a pleasure and to regain the same special feeling we all once had.

What excites your writers? Creating environments and opportunities that let writers know that what they are doing has importance to the readers and the company itself is a powerful motivation and fosters excitement. We all want the recognition and the praise that goes along with making a difference. One way to tap into this basic human need is to expect writers to be creative. Making innovation a measure of success for the annual performance review sends the message that each writer has the capacity to be creative and is expected to be.

Writers who embrace innovation never experience the boredom of repetitive tasks. Table 1 examines the outlook and attitude of two types of writers-those who love their work and those who are strangers to the concept. The contrast in attitudes is not exaggerated.

Table 1. Writers’ Contrasting Attitudes Toward Work

How a writer sees his or her job is directly related to the value placed upon it by the writer’s manager and the company culture. It is our job on the front lines to drive our team to produce excellent documentation, but it is also our job to drive the well-being and confidence of that team. This task is made easier with the understanding and support of the entire organization. Acknowledging the critical importance of how we communicate on a professional level to our customers increases the importance of excelling at our jobs.

For your writers to be happy, they must feel that they:

  • work in a culture that fosters innovation
  • are valued
  • are doing work that is essential to corporate success
  • are unique
  • are the right match for the job

A Culture that Fosters Innovation

In his book, The Art of Innovation, author Tom Kelley stressed that creativity is not the private treasure of just a few. True innovation comes from looking at problems in a new way. Because we are not clones (at least not yet), our views and insights are ours alone. Establishing an open environment where it is okay to express ideas is essential. The correct environment has a lot to do with new ideas and how they grow. Kelley also makes it quite clear that fun has to be a key element. Whatever seemingly silly or absurd event you use to have fun, it will most likely be a success. When we are having fun, we revert back to younger days when discovery was something that wasn’t work at all. Fun can re-create the intellectual innocence of seeking out new ways of doing things because it is enjoyable to do so.

Brainstorming as a method of stimulating innovative ideas has been called the “wonderful infection.” Once an open forum is established, barriers drop and the ideas start flowing. A writer here at Cadence Design Systems noted “…it’s like playtime at work.” Open discussions instead of specific agendas are based on the concept that no idea is a bad idea. At Cadence, so many ideas have come out of our brainstorming sessions that we have created an idea bank of new things to try after we have explored the ones that made it to the top of the list.

For example, the Cadence group was asked to describe, and then plan for, the direction of information delivery in the near future. In the process of identifying the next generation of technical communication trends, the group came to an interesting conclusion. All documentation will evolve into four categories: check lists, examples, animated videos, and links to other source material. Whether you agree with that prediction or not, it was the first joint statement of where this team wanted to go. It also said that they had ownership of the future and realized that additional training would be required to make it a reality.

Being Valued

After the first success, the possible innovations that wait in the idea bank create an opportunity for the group to have a steady stream of hits. The trouble is that even though our team has gained much visibility within the organization, many still have no idea what we do. The need to gain notoriety at the upper level of management is key. To do this, we have to change the mentality of the group. The “we have friends in very low places” attitude is unfortunately a common trait of technical communicators. The nature of the job, the introverted personality stereotype of the trade, and the lack of respect technical communicators are often shown all add to this problem. The solution falls on the technical communication manager’s shoulders. He or she must be the advocate and PR representative to all management layers. By generating internal press releases, strategically sending emails, and engaging in good old hallway chats, the technical communication manager spreads the news of innovations being investigated and carried out in the group. The result is a new, gung-ho attitude in your team, which increases their feeling of self worth.

Recognition should not be undervalued. The old adage, “… as long as you spell my name correctly” applies. We need to recognize that although innovation is part of our job, the extra effort taken to lead in a new direction is always critical to our success. We employ the “awards ceremony” technique to recognize not only important contributions to the team’s success, but also the more silly events along the way. One writer, who received many awards and letters of praise from R&D, marketing, customer support, and other writing teams on an almost daily basis, was awarded the “Thanks For Coming To Work Award,” in “appreciation of you coming to work even on a day on which you were not receiving an award.”

As the manager of extremely talented individuals, you need to set the group goal. You need to grab their attention and the attention of supporting functions. The sense of urgency to share the goal with others in the organization as often as possible keeps the group’s value high within the organization. If you set a direction to follow, such as establishing the goal of increasing customer satisfaction, you must be sure everyone, not just your writers, knows what that means and that your team is actively implementing innovative ideas to reach that goal.

Essential Work

Tasks we assign to our writers have to align with stated corporate goals and visions. The sense of hitting the keys on unimportant, low-level documentation projects is a guaranteed morale killer-and possibly career killer.

Having writers not only understand but also experience the impact they have on customers is one way to help them recognize the importance of their work. Encouraging writers to have direct customer contact, become user simulators, or work trade shows helps. Finding an important task and finding the right person to do it also helps.

During the Best Practices Conference, Julie Bradbury, former Group Director of Cadence Design Systems’ centralized Knowledge Transfer Organization shared the following example of matching the right person to an important mission.

“As a manager in your organization, special projects come your way. In most cases, you will lead these projects and experience the learning and growth they provide, and other projects will follow. I believe that these unique projects offer an opportunity for you to develop your people and give them a chance to be part of a special experience. As these opportunities arise, ask yourself who in your group could do the job and grow as a result. I’m reminded of an experience I had a few years back . . .

“The Vice President of Operations told me he had been talking with the leader of the India research and development facility. They had agreed to start a publications group in India in addition to the groups in the United States. I had the responsibility to make this happen and decided to give the leadership of the India project to a publications manager in my group. I asked her if she was interested, and she jumped at the chance. She worked out a plan and found personnel to go to India to set up the systems and to train new writers. Within a six-month period, the India publications group was functioning. Today, this manager is a director, and she looks back on that experience as a highlight in her career.”

Being Unique

Ego is often called the great motivator. Having a group that is known as brilliant and bizarre is a good thing. The team considers itself special; but more important, the team holds the belief that they can do anything. In The Art Of Innovation, Kelley notes that you should “Inspire hot teams with crazy deadlines and seemingly unrealistic goals, and watch the results.” Your team will look at itself as one of those hot teams. I would take unique teams over many unique individuals any day.

Unique teams want special projects. They create the mood of success all by themselves. “We are special because what we are working on is valuable to the company. The results of our work can directly impact the organization and how our company is perceived externally.”

At Cadence, one such team was created in collaboration with the customer support organization to reduce the number of publication-related hotline calls by 50 percent. By reviewing call data logs, the team discovered patterns. Their solution was to create FAQs on the support Web page, based upon the previous three months of calls. Implementing the solution enabled the team to identify errors and omissions in the documentation as well as reduce the number of repetitive calls to the call center. Based upon cost-per-call data, this group of three had a cost-avoidance figure of over $2 million the first year. Of course, that result was noticed, and the team’s success enabled two members to go on a company-paid excursion to Hawaii.

Another example includes the creation of the video animation team that led the way for the corporation to move from static online pages to documentation that comes alive. Taking leadership of a high-impact project tapped into everyone’s creativity, while boosting esteem with every success.

The Right Fit

As most of us would agree, a lot of thought should go into matching the right person to a job. Of course, this is rarely done. Julie Bradbury’s comments illustrate the importance of choosing the right person for a special assignment. The same project might have failed had another person, though well qualified, been chosen. Beyond passion, the single most important attribute to have is the eagerness to accept a challenge. Ultimately, successful careers come for those who choose to love their work.

The goal is to retain writers who love their work, but, of course, if they love their jobs, their resumes will improve. Having an improved resume leads writers to feel good about themselves and the company they work for. Resumes will change from, “I wrote War and Peace while being fluent in 27 languages, including C++ and Swahili” to “I revamped the structure of document types, which drove customer satisfaction numbers through the roof.”

If you do measure customer satisfaction, you will dramatically see the rewards of having writers who embrace their work. The bottom line is to be flexible. Empower them-do not limit their capacity to improve. Understand that you can never have enough visibility for your team. Take every opportunity to brag and inform others about the milestones achieved and the goals exceeded by your writers who love their work!

As an observation, an interesting outcome of your success may be watching other groups within your organization adopting your ideas. After all, we all want to love our work. CIDMIconNewsletter

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