May 8, 2007
Liz published this at 10:30 am
A List Is a List
Betsy, a second-year editor was working a series of Dinosaur books. The books were for second graders. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s when kids get crazy for dinosaurs. So, the details had to be precise. Second graders know dinosaurs better than their teachers do.
The schedule was pushed tight. To kick up the pitch one more notch. When the books were done, we’d be using them to build online and CD-Rom products. Those new products relied on the books being complete on time. To raise the bar exponentially, we were working with a developer, that added time in transport and in communication.
At one point Betsy came to me, requesting help. She was a planner and a good project manager. She could see that with only one of her that the schedule was in jeopardy. We looked over the remaining tasks to see what parts she might delegate. A time-consuming and discrete part was writing the art specs.
Another editor, Susannah — of “Oh Susannah” fame — loved anything science. Her husband also taught at the university. One of us suggested that Susannah might write the art specs for the dinosaur books. We discussed the pros and cons of the idea.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Susannah likes to go deep on everything,Ã¢â‚¬Â I said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to manage her time, or each art spec will end up a book-long narrative.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Betsy explained to Suzannah the time frame and the help that was needed. She asked Susannah for the specs as two lists for each book page -Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a list of the animals and a list of the plants -Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with references where possible. She encouraged Susannah to collaborate with the professor of paleobotany that Susannah was friends with, telling her we would pay him a stipend. The two editors agreed on a date when the first specs were due.
Betsy concentrated on the books in progress, while Susannah prepared the next art specs so that they would be ready when the artists were.
When the first art specs were delivered, Betsy brought them to me. She plopped in my visitorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s chair and bemoaned what she saw.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I told her a list,Ã¢â‚¬Â was all that she said, as she handed me three single-spaced, covered pages of text.
I looked at them. I looked at Betsy. I looked at the pages again. I thought for a minute about BetsyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fine communications skills, and then I said what had to be true.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This must be SusannahÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s definition of a list.Ã¢â‚¬Â We talked a bit. Then I sent Betsy back to artfully find out if Susannah had her own idea of what a list was.
We use the same words, but donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be surprised when they mean different things.
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know why Suzannah thought what she wrote was a list. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know who taught her that nor did I try to find out. I only know that this same kind of thing happens frequently, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s easily avoided by defining terms before people start work.
Five minutes of showing an art spec list already completed might have saved a bunch of time and some exhausted feelings. I wish I’d thought of suggesting that then.
Of course, some business lessons you just have to learn. And if you’re me, you have to learn them over and over, and over, and over again.
–Me “Liz” Strauss
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Starts this FRIDAY!!
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