It’s Complicated

The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!

So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.

It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!

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She Writes Minutes and Donor Reports

Different people understand documentation differently. But there seems to be a consensus on the basic expectations from a person designated for the documentation role – writing minutes and donor reports. Of course, I have come across organisations that have a fuller understanding of the scope and purpose of the documentation role. But they are in a minority.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have nothing against writing minutes and donor reports. We must record our meetings. That is common sense. And, of course, we have to write reports for donors. It will also help ensure that we continue to have donors! But the problem is that the documentation person is forced to write minutes for every meeting that he (or more often she) attends. Sometimes, he/she is asked to come to a meeting only because we need someone to write the minutes. We seem to believe, rather conveniently, that only the documentation person can write minutes!

And when he/she is not writing minutes, he/she should definitely be writing donor reports. It doesn’t matter if you get the data at the last minute. Sometimes, it won’t even add up. The documentation person is supposed to have magical powers of making everything come together in a coherent whole. And yes, also do some creative writing and throw in some learnings and challenges for good measure!

But there is so much more that a documentation person can do. He/she should really be helping to develop a documentation plan for the project/programme and then follow that. Develop a list of possible documentation outputs (yes, donor reports can be seen as an important part of that list!). Ensure that he/she and others in the team use standardised formats to collect information for case studies, events etc. Write all kinds of stuff. Publish some.

Documentation can, and should be, interesting and fun. That is why some of us choose to do this job in the first place. Let us hope the powers that be also realise this truth as well!