‘The shark is down’
When my sister, Lynn Wylie, met Richard Dreyfus on a cruise, she asked the actor the obvious question, “What was it like to work with a mechanical shark?”
Almost every day, Dreyfus said, he’d arrive on the set of “Jaws” to hear this message over the intercom:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the shark is down. The shark is not working today.”
Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to show up day in, day out, ready to do the job you were hired to do, but not be able to get your work done because some system is broken?
Friends, I’ve got news for you. If you work in most organizations:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the approval process is down. The approval process is not working today.”
In most organizations, the approval process is so broken that virtually anyone in the organization can override the professional communicator’s plans for the message. Which means that in most organizations, the amateurs are in charge of messaging.
So how can you fix your broken approval process? Here are three ways to create an approval process that works, from initial submission to final approval:
1. Stop asking for approval.
I don’t know about you, but I sought approval from my late, great dad. The guys in accounting? Not so much.
If we’re not looking for approval, why do we call it an approval process?
“Remember: You are being asked to approve it, not to improve it. The originator of the document has been entrusted to look after the details, so please respect his role and resist the urge to wordsmith!”
— Brilliant approval process note by Ron Shewchuk, ABC
“Approval process” suggests that we’re asking for approval — for permission, consent, authorization, say-so. And we’re not. We’re asking for help.
So instead of asking your subject matter experts for review and approval, ask them for help. Call it a review, a fact check or a technical verification — not an approval request.
Because when you ask for something you don’t want, too often you get it.
2. Stop emailing Word docs.
In the short run, sending out digital copy makes your life easier. Punch “Send,” and you’ve distributed the story to all reviewers.
But in the long run, sending out digital copy makes your life harder. That’s because digital copy invites wholesale rewriting. (After all, armed with a screen full of text and the Highlight Changes tool, you’d hack away at the copy, too, wouldn’t you?)
Instead of emailing Word documents:
- Email a PDF. Ask reviewers to email you a note with any inaccuracies. That makes indiscriminate revising difficult and may streamline the process.
- Hand-deliver your message. Approvers work down the hall? Consider walking your story to their office. Stand by until they’ve finished the review.
- Call reviewers. Phone your copy in, reading aloud only the reviewers’ own quotes.
3. Write a better approval process note.
As part of your approvals workflow, create an email template to notify approvers of copy for review. Clearly define what you want reviewers to do:
- Don’t be afraid to say, “Don’t rewrite.” Ask for factual changes only on your work items.
- Discourage pass-along reviews. Dealing with multiple approvals? Ask reviewers to consolidate comments into their own feedback.
- Spell out the deadline — and what happens if it’s not met. (My advice: Go ahead and post.) By the way, a good deadline includes a time as well as a date.
Or steal these two types of approval notes from Ron Shewchuk, ABC. He shared them in his book, Writing and Editing the Employee Publication.
For subject matter experts:
Of all of the business processes in your organization, your review process is most likely to be broken. So what can you do manage approval processes that support, rather than diminishing, your organization’s messages?
Because if you don’t do a good job of managing approval steps, the review process will eat you alive.