It’s a fact of life in most corporate environments that lots of documents need to be created and lots of managers need to review them.

The typical rhythm goes like this:

  1. An individual contributor creates a first draft of a document and sends it to her boss for review.
  2. The boss provides comments and sends the document back to her.
  3. She does a revision of the document and returns it to her boss.
  4. The boss sends the document around for more feedback from the bosses peer set (other managers), collects feedback, then returns the document to her.
  5. Employee revises again, then again returns the document to her boss – and finally the boss sends the document up the leadership chain to her boss, repeating steps 1-4 at every successive level of the hierarchy until the document reaches “final” draft and is sent to senior managers or the CEO.

Based on this trend, each layer of management requires five separate efforts (one creative effort, two review efforts, and two revision efforts). Assuming each effort takes one hour – that’s five hours of work per reporting tier. Assuming a corporate structure with three levels of management – that’s up to 15 hours of work per document.

Here’s a provocative question: How much value do you think is added in between the first draft and the final draft? 10%? 25%? 50%?

Even if 50% of the document’s value is added in manager review, that’s still incredibly low efficiency in terms of value added per hour vs. the original effort of writing the first draft. The first hour of effort creates 50% of the value, and then the next 14 hours create (in aggregate) 50% of the effort; meaning each hour after the first is – on average – 1/14th as efficient as the original effort. What if, instead of sending the final draft of a document to the CEO, we made the habit of sending the first draft instead?

In this case, the document is CEO-bound anyway, so it wouldn’t materially increase what the CEO has to review. Further, it prevents that back-to-square-one situation you’ve probably experienced before: several employees spend hours fine-tuning a draft just to find out that senior management discovers a fundamental problem with it during the “final” review phase.

It’s an interesting culture dynamic. Are you a company who sends the final draft of documents to the CEO, or a company who sends the first draft to the CEO? In today’s fast-moving technology market where major company-changing decisions are made weekly, I strongly believe the latter will win.

The Dubious Value of “Final” Drafts
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  • I imagine it depends on your CEO, but I rather think the review cycle solves a different problem.

    Consider: You have a finite amount of time to persuade someone (e.g. the CEO) to take some action (the purpose of the document). This action is (usually) time sensitive – if it’s not made now, either it cannot be made, or an alternative decision will be made that precludes your option.

    Investing in effort to make your document marginally more persuasive might be a very good use of time, since going from 95% to 98% effective could be very important (*especially* if your proposal is one of several, implicitly competing, options).

    And even more importantly, depending on your CEO, focusing and tightening the document can focus attention on what “really matters.” If something is ambiguous in the document, or extraneous, or haphazardly introduces a related but peripheral topic, then during (say) your one hour meeting with the CEO you could waste 5, 10, or 15 minutes. That’s huge.

    Finally, passing it around the bosses’ peer group has less to do with the quality of the document or the content of ideas, but to ensure that everyone is “on the same page” and that if/when a decision is made **everyone will support it**. It’s a political play, and building support for your proposal is a non-trivial and important part of your effort to change the organization in some way.

    Getting people to provide feedback and suggestions – however minor – becomes less about improving the document and more about **using** the document as a vehicle to get **buy in**. If someone provides edits, they’ve now contributed – they’re part of the process, and feel like part of your proposal. If they want a few words changes because the meaning to them was ambiguous to them and eliminating that ambiguity is **really important** (since the topic matters to them), then changing those words removes potential disagreement down the road, and smoothes the way of the organizational change effort.

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    The problem with sending the first draft to the CEO is threefold. First, the CEO’s time is the most valuable – sending the first draft would be a mismanagement of resources. By time I mean less direct time, and more the opportunity cost of what the CEO could have been doing. It also relies on the CEO to be able to *read* a first draft – to dial in on the issue that you really want clarified, and not any other issues the CEO sees in the document (I think it’s very likely that they’ll pick up on some related issue or embedded assumption that you don’t care about, and spend most of the time providing feedback and commentary on that).

    Second, the CEO *should* know less about specific concerns than the rest of the hierarchy. If you want specific, actionable, and above all **accurate** advice, you need to go to the people who have more of a stake in it (i.e. go up the hierarchy). Otherwise, what’s going to happen? The CEO is going to read the document, think to herself “Hmm, not sure I understand this – Bill in ops can answer it” then go call up the COO when it would have better been handled by someone 3 – 4 levels down.

    Third, when putting something together for the CEO, part of it is getting the rest of the organization on board beforehand. Otherwise, let’s imagine this, the CEO gets a document from the marketing team talking about how competitors are publicizing their technology development and partnership plans, and how it’s proved really effective at helping competitors steal a few larger accounts who want to know that roadmap so they can staff up their teams appropriately. The CEO decides that this is well and good, and brings sales and development heads into the room to ask (i) what’s going on and (ii) telling them that the new approach is going to be to follow the same strategy.

    The ops and technology teams are going to feel blindsided, put on the defensive, and unwilling to volunteer information that might (in the new light) make them look a little worse, but would be really helpful to know and would help the company make better decisions.

    Worse, if proposals go to the CEO without first being vetted by the rest of the organization, incorrect information might be passed along. The CEO could be put in the position of having to have a real command of all sorts of organizational trivia and statistics, or she might quote an (incorrect) statistic or anecdote that was put into one of the drafts/proposals but later removed.

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    If your sending first drafts to the CEO, I think that (i) the CEO isn’t doing the CEO’s job (more interested in reading reports than making decisions and driving change for the organization), and (ii) the work of pulling together an idea from across the organization isn’t getting done. Unless accuracy, completeness, etc are not important.

    Perhaps they’re not, in a fast-moving technology organization. But I think it’s more likely that (ii) isn’t getting done, which could communicate anything from (a) a dysfunctional organization (departments unwilling to co-operate, thus all collaboration has to go up through the hierarchy and back down, even to the CEO) to (b) significant under-staffing that means the only priorities are those that get communicated through the hierarchy (because there are too many requests to handle, so people ignore them and assume the important ones will get communicated through their boss).

    P.S. If senior management discovers a “fundamental problem” during the final review stage, that’s a strong hint it’s a political (strategic, competitive, organizational…) disagreement. Or that whoever was responsible for managing the document (the boss of the individual contributor) missing something big. Either way, the boss of the individual contributor didn’t do their job – either on getting buy in across the company, or missing some actually significant factor.