Monday, September 17, 2012

Manager Mondays: "Friendly-Formatting" Documents for Success

This week's Manager Monday's post is a a further elaboration on the ideas from last week's Friday Fundamentals post.  If you haven't read that post yet, you can click here to link to it now.  Read about Visual Space and Symmetry first, then read on to find out more about the concept of formatting documents well for good workforce messaging.  

The other day, while sorting through past projects, I came across a booklet that I had produced some years ago.  It was an orientation guide that outlined the responsibilities for a particular role at my old firm called the Location Coordinator.

Before I produced this booklet, this role was usually assigned to individuals by their manager in a very informal way -- typically via a hurried phone call.  Since it was poorly defined, involved many varied tasks, and managers tended to put their own spin on what was involved, people hardly ever knew exactly what they were agreeing to; they tended to take on the role as a favor, or to build up their hours to become benefits-eligible.  So it was no surprise that after a while each Location Coordinator seemed to have their own definition of exactly what their job entailed.  Plenty of rogue, unauthorized behaviors resulted as different people interpreted responsibilities differently.

The orientation booklet's mission was threefold:

1.  Make sense of the mishmash that this role had become, and give everyone a clear and standardized picture of what success looked like.

2.  Give managers an easy tool to use when they walked through the role's responsibilities with potential candidates.

3.  Give existing Location Coordinators a document that they could check to see if their own assumptions about the role were complete and accurate -- and that they could use as a basis to self-correct if they had been doing things wrong.

To accomplish these objectives, and to help users have the most positive experience, I developed the booklet using a distinctive process that I call Friendly Formatting.

1.  First I documented all of the actual Location Coordinator tasks.  Which parts were real, and which parts were urban legend?

2.  I then sorted all the actual tasks into different buckets according to category, such as Promotional Activities, Inventory Control, Facility Upkeep, Manager Support, etc.

3.  I gave each category a single page in the booklet, and put all of its relevant information on that one page only.  

4.  Each page's task overview followed the same progression:
   - the category title;
   - a check list of all regular tasks in that category, with short descriptions;
   - an additional "From Time To Time" check list for other tasks in that category that needed to be performed less often.

5.  To enhance the user-friendly tone of the document, I included some other design elements on every page:
     - a clip art illustration that represented the category in a perky, can-do way;
     - a Getting Started section with tips about what to do first;
     - a bank of blank lines for note-taking;
     - plenty of white space between sections and in the margins.

The booklet was a success.  Its cohesive formatting allowed managers to walk through the job with their prospective new hires and explain, point by point, how everything fit together.  Now all it took was a short conversation for a new hire to feel informed and equipped to succeed.  Existing Location Coordinators could now make sure they were spending their time in task-appropriate ways.  If questions arose, they could point to their booklets to verify whether something was their responsibility.

Certain key elements of this piece's "friendly formatting" style resulted in particularly big wins for the project:

  • The One Task, One Page structure meant that each big idea had its own space to live.  The structure helped users take it one page at a time, and this made the role seem more doable.  Otherwise, the wide variety of tasks might have seemed arbitrary and confusing, and newbies might easily have been overwhelmed by all their responsibilities.
  • The checklists gave reassurance.   They enabled both employee and manager to feel confident that nothing was omitted, and that each knew what the other expected.  They gave solid boundaries to each aspect of the Location Coordinator role, and ensured that no one would be blindsided later by new obligations they hadn't known were part of their commitment.  They also limited the range of initiatives that new Location Coordinators could assign themselves, since the booklet clearly said to consult the manager before doing anything else.
  • The spatial balance on each page implied simplicity.  Having lots of empty space in the margins and between each section invited users to "sit down and get comfortable" with each group of ideas before going on to discover the next.   When managers used it as a walk-through orientation document, these breaks gave them natural cues to ask their candidate, "Any questions?  Are you good with that?" before they moved on
  • The Getting Started section helped people ease themselves into transition mode as they mentally rehearsed the first action steps they would need to do.  It was, in essence, a transitional game plan.  People want action-oriented specifics when they contemplate taking on new responsibility.  This section gave them that.
  • The blank Notes section encouraged ownership and initiative by inviting people to record their own ideas, reactions,  questions and strategies.   If something came up later that the text didn't address, they could add new information as they continued to make the role their own.   This was also the place to record more mundane location-specific details that would enhance their ability to do their job, such as when dumpster pick-up happened, or the phone number of the plumber.  
In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how small details make a big difference in people's perception, acceptance, and compliance with behavioral cues. Friendly formatting is all about the small details. The way information is formatted can give a powerful boost to its ultimate effectiveness.  This is especially true when dealing with subjects that require readers to accept change or visualize transition.   When you're depending on a printed document to take your audience to a new level of  awareness, then the all aspects of your presentation are pivotal -- from the font size, to the paragraph size, to the number of items in a checklist, and even the amount of white space around your words.

Leaders, you need to be sure to feed people ideas in right-sized bites so they can absorb them thoroughly and act on them appropriately.  Friendly formatting helps you do that.

A word of warning, though: friendly formatting requires adequate space.  You may have to increase your page count to limit the amount of words on a page, so that you can curtail visual density and keep your tone user-friendly.  For printed documents, this can become a cost factor when you run into additional charges for added pages, so be prepared to get push back from the budget-watchers.  Don't give up your space without a fight, though.  The cost of going to extra pages might seem frivolous, but the return on investment is real.  People pay much more attention to any content if it's presented with enough visual "breathing room."  

Need-to-know information deserves good formatting.  This is part a homegrown communications philosophy I have developed which I call Stage To Engage.  If you want to engage your audience, you need to stage your messaging so that it stands out, stays interesting, and sticks in their memory. But that's a subject for another blog post!

Think about the current vehicles that your company uses to give direction to employees.  Are they online training courses?  Emails?  Posters?  Handouts?  Company website pages?

No matter what medium is used to present them, performance guidelines need to be easy to read and apply.  Are yours formatted for ease of use, so that learners can navigate them quickly to find what they need?  Do they allow transitioning employees to absorb small chunks of newness at a time?  Do they encourage learners to quickly put into practice what they learn, before the new information "goes stale"?

Champion the use of friendly formatting techniques for your workplace's performance-related communications.  If people can easily read, reference and understand what is expected of them, they will be much more likely to remember it and do it.

And isn't higher performance more important than lower page count?

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