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.
Writing up a case study on a successful project can serve many purposes. It can be a stand-alone marketing piece, a chapter in a book or part of your training material. However, if you are going to write a case about a client you normally need their cooperation. How do you get that?
First, Do You Need Client Cooperation?
When a consultant is brought into a client they implicitly or explicitly agree to protect the client. If the client has learned how to do something well then the consultant should not share that with competitors; if a client has done something embarrassing the consultant has an obligation to keep that under wraps. There is a pact of confidentiality.
In some cases it might be alright to do a disguised and anonymous case without a client's explicit consent. You will have to be the judge of whether the disguised case breaches the implicit pact of confidentially—but err on the side of caution.
A disadvantage to having a disguised case is that it may feel less credible to readers than one about a named organization. An advantage is that in an anonymous case you may 'smooth out' the story line more easily than in a real case. For example, if one of the HR managers retires mid-way through the case that may be irrelevant to the tale. In an anonymous case you may simply refer to the 'HR manager' and skip the unimportant retirement. With a named client you may feel compelled to mention the manager’s retirement and say a little about their replacement.
The test as to whether you need client approval is simply whether anyone is likely to get upset. If the case is disguised but the client thinks “I know you are talking about me!” then you may have a problem. Think hard about the people involved and how they may react when they see the case you've written. It's always better to ask for permission even if you are sure no one would recognize the organization nor learn any trade secrets from your case.
Who Has to Agree
If you do want to name the client, or have them actively involved in helping you with the case, then for RO interventions you probably need to the approval of the CEO. RO projects are usually big enough and deep enough that you need to go right to the top.
Obviously the case will have to be primarily flattering to the CEO or there is little point proceeding. If you do get the CEO’s support you may think that's all you need but because RO projects range wide you should seek out the support of everyone involved. You won't need their formal agreement if the CEO is onside but you should make it clear that you will look out for their interests and make sure no one looks bad.
It is also a good idea to ask to be introduced to the PR people. They have a stake in anything written about the organization and will appreciate being included. Furthermore the can be of real assistance, perhaps even offering their editing skills. They may want to re-use the content in their own way and you should encourage them to do so.
Who Controls the Content?
The potential downside of a case write-up for the client is straightforward—no one wants to look bad. People can be quite sensitive to nuance so this is not a minor issue. Furthermore RO projects involve big change and that usually means resistance to change and no one will want to be portrayed as one of the dinosaurs who was working against the better interests of the organization.
One way to minimize this fear is to go back to making the case somewhat anonymous. The client may still be happy to be helpful, but won't worry as much about the downside. “Somewhat anonymous” could mean that the organization is named but the individuals are disguised—you can tailor how much is revealed depending on the situation.
The other step is to promise the client you will show them the case before anything is published. That gets us to the question of who owns the final content. The answer is straightforward; they have the authority to veto and the ability to make suggestions for changes but the ultimate content is yours.
Vetoing does not usually create problems; the bigger problem occurs when someone has suggested some changes that you don't like. Either they are badly written or if the PR department is involved they may insert marketing fluff. The trick is to take some of their changes to show you are responsive; but not to cede control over the writing.
What's the Up-Side for the Client?
Most people are happy to be supportive of your efforts to write a case. However, you should be clear about what the upside is. Here are some points:
Understand what will appeal to the CEO and other key players, make the pitch, and allay their fears by promising they can review and veto the content.
Cases are great but you will normally want client approval. While they are likely to be supportive don’t take that support for granted and make sure all your ducks are aligned so that no one is upset by your case and no confidentiality is violated.
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.
If you have time then writing a big substantial book can be a great way to capture and communicate your ideas. But the problem for most putative authors is that time is exactly what they lack. So an important decision for authors is whether they need to write a big book or if a little one will do.
It is pretty much the case that a 600 page book is twice as much work as a 300 page book, and a 300 page book three times as much effort as a 100 page one. If time is an issue and a shorter book is suitable for your purpose then it makes sense to keep the book as short as reasonable.
What is “reasonable” in book length seems driven more by ill-considered conventions rather than any rational analysis. A lot of people seem to think a business book needs to be 200-300 pages; that’s why you read so many books that could have been written in 50 pages but have been pumped full of fluff. But given how important the length of the book is to whether or not you’ll actually get it done, it is worth challenging the conventions.
How Short Can a Book Be?
The first question is how the book will be received at a first-impressions level. If a book is only 30 pages long then people may not accept that it’s a book at all, they’ll say it’s a white paper. There is perhaps a lower boundary at around 50 pages for it to be considered a book with all the credibility that that implies. Now it may be that a brilliant concise 30 word paper will be more read, more discussed and more influential than a 400 page book—so we shouldn’t throw out the notion that maybe a white paper will serve our purposes as well as a book—but for now let’s assume we want something people will see as a ‘real book’.
If we accept that a book could be as short as 50 pages then the question becomes why would you write anything longer? It comes down to content. In a good 400 page book you wouldn’t want anything left out, you may even be wishing for more. I don’t think anyone ever wished Jaques Requisite Organization was only half as long. So of course, you write the book to be as long as it needs to be. But it’s a very different mindset to feel that the book will be as long as necessary, than to think you need to fill 300 pages with stuff.
Deciding that the book will be as short as possible can also lead to improved quality. With effort we often find the 1000 word essay can be made clearer and more forceful in 500 words. With the goal of writing a short book in mind we think “What are the really important ideas?” and “How can I express them crisply?”
So for most authors I suggest aiming to write a short book and if the demands of the content make it a longer one then that is fine. Just remember that a short high quality book will be easier for you write and better for you audience than a long one.
If you needed to write a detailed story of your life you’d have no problem writing a three-hundred page book—the content is there. However, let’s imagine you have a big idea like ‘the world is flat!!”—is a big idea the basis of a book?
“The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner is based on a big idea ‘what are the happiest countries in the world?” The author, a professional writer, had the idea, then did a lot of research and happiness and travelled around the world visiting countries that had some claim to bliss. The lesson of this is that a big idea is what launches you into a long period of research, not what launches you into writing a book.
Jason Jennings and Laurence Haughton, authors of “It’s not the big who eat the small, it’s the fast who eat the slow” have a big idea about leadership. They are going out to identify and interview a hundred leaders to provide the research for the book. The good news is that they don’t have to spend months travelling around the world but they are doing research, not writing a book.
Professional writers and academics have the time to do extensive research before writing a book; however most consultants and managers are better off writing from their own experience. If you decided to write a novel rather than a management book you would be better off writing one set in a modern corporation than in ancient Aceh. If you were doing historical fiction it would take a year of research before you could even begin.
The bottom line is that a big idea maybe where you start doing your research and gathering your ideas. It could easily be a year or two of consistently investing effort into research and pulling the ideas out of vague mental form into something solid.
Since this is a barrier you may want to consider writing from experience. You may know how to use RO principles to design a performance management program. A book on that may be a far more realistic goal then a book based on a big idea.