Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:
I have a confession to make: I have a love-hate relationship with the column I write for Inc.
It goes without saying that I love working with the fine folks at Inc. (especially my wonderful editor – Hi Nicole!), and to have a platform to write regularly on my favorite topics (leadership and growth) is both a delight and a privilege for which I’m extremely grateful.
On the ‘con’ side of the ledger, it’s frustrating to attempt, as I often do, to analyze, summarize or comment upon complex leadership and organizational growth issues in 600-800 words or less.
Given the limitations of space, it’s easy to slip into glibness or worse, simplification to the point of falsity.
Add to this the perceived need for short, snappy, attention-getting headlines to lure you, dear reader, into clicking through and reading this specific blog post amidst the many coming at you in your social media stream, and the end result, I fear, is often a piece of writing that promises a lot and delivers...
– well, let’s just say the reader may feel they’ve indulged in a snack rather than an entree.
That being said, rather like Twitter, which with its artificial constraint of 280 characters can call forth both head-shaking inanity and sublime brevity at the same time (albeit in far from equivalent quantities), so writing potted blog posts on complex leadership issues can – and for me, often has – led to breakthrough realizations: ‘a-ha’s’ that only emerged because of the winnowing process involved in producing short pieces of prose.
So often has this happened, so frequently do I complete the act of writing with more of an understanding than I did when I started – that I have for some time been applying three specific editing principles in all decision-making environments.
So, in the spirit of listmania, here are the top three leadership lessons I’ve learned from writing a column twice a week:
1. Less really is more.
Mark Twain was once sent a telegram by his editor that said “NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.”
Twain’s reply was: “NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.”
Writing blog posts proves Twain’s point in spades – it’s easier to write a lot about something than a little.
I’ve often stared at 1,500 or 2,000 words, hammered out at speed, and wondered how on earth I could reduce the word count to six or eight hundred words and maintain coherence.
And guess what?
Later (much later, usually) when the winnowing is complete, the piece is considerably better: more lucid, easier to understand, easier to act on.
So here's Leadership Lesson #1:
Next time you face a complex issue, try the blog post approach – speed-write all your thoughts on the topic - the key data, the main options open to you, your presumptions and preferences - in one unedited, swift session, then reduce all of it to a single paragraph containing only what matters.
You’ll find it an eye-opening exercise, and the end result will be much more usable in your decision-making process.
2. Prioritization matters.
If there were, life would be much simpler for us all. It is the case, however, that a ruthless focus on, and, crucially, prioritization of the key elements of a decision leads to better results, faster, as opposed to trying to include every salient point in the decision-making process (q.v. the Pareto Process).
Most of the time when I’m writing a ‘3 Ways to…’ article, I’m giving myself an opportunity to consider what is genuinely important about a topic – what endures, what makes a long-term impact, what is eternal rather than ephemeral – and that practice of contemplative prioritization has proven its value to me in decision-making over and over again.
Leadership Lesson #2:
Don't try to weigh every component of every issue. instead write a 'blog post' memo with the title "The top 5 (or even better, the top 3) things to consider about this issue."
Focus on what matters most and your decisions will be more effective and more efficient.
3. You learn a lot from what you leave out.
Remember the times when you stared at an already crammed-to-the-brim suitcase and realized that if you want to strut your stuff in that snazzy new beach outfit you’ll have to give up on bringing something else? Writing compressed prose is much the same.
The British literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once famously said that the secret of good writing was to ‘murder your darlings’, and the most painful part of getting a blog post to an acceptable length often involves leaving out phrases, anecdotes, metaphors that you really, really like – but which, it becomes clear, don’t actually contribute much to the discussion.
Team-based decision-making (poor team-based decision-making, to be precise) is often the same – bogged down with deeply held but increasingly irrelevant anecdotes serving in place of hard data, personal preferences masquerading as experience or good judgment – and often, only the artificial pressure of constraints will call it out.
Leadership Lesson #3:
In the case of writing a blog post, the artificial constraint that pushes out 'dreck masquerading as profundity' is a limit on the number of words you can use.
In team-based decision-making, the most highly effective constraint is the time you team can spend jaw-boning. Try placing an artificial (and short) time limit on how long your team can debate an issue before coming to a decision. I've found that doing so, over time, hones a team's ability to get to the point in a timely way - and drains out the droning on.