Office Speak: “on a Page”

Something like this has happened to me hundreds of times in my career.

I am working on a solution to a problem, and I have a set of diagrams that describe how we can get things fixed. I’ve even created a commentary for the diagrams to explain the contents of the diagrams.

The answer to the issue is complex and is going to require multiple steps. Each step will need to be completed before the next one starts making it a sequence involving several teams.

The need for different teams means that I need to set up meetings to talk through the resolution. I’d quite like to put together a short document that talks people through it, but this is an organization driven by email, reaction, and most of all distraction. I know that getting people to read and interact with a document is not going to give me the results that I need. There’s a chance that a meeting will help me make progress.

It’s then that someone points out that there’s already a meeting where this kind of thing can be discussed. I ask what it is I need to do to get on the agenda. I’m directed to the person who organizes the meeting schedule, they book me a slot on the meeting and send me the standard slide deck that I need to fill in.

I open the standard slide deck and my heart sinks as I read the title of each page:

  • Problem Definition on a Page
  • Solution on a Page
  • Plan on a Page
  • Costs on a Page
  • Sales on a Page
  • Risks and Issues on a Page
  • Actions on a Page
  • Stakeholders on a Page
  • Current State Analysis on a Page
  • Mode of Operations on a Page
  • Customers on a Page
  • Team on a Page
  • SWOT on a Page
  • Integrations on a Page
  • Coffee Order on a Page

What is meant here is that I have one page to say all that needs to be said on this topic, the use of animation is cheating. It’s really shorthand for: “keep it simple enough for us to understand, don’t embarrass us by making it overly complicated.”

Each of the standard slides looks fine, but when I come to edit them it it’s clear that this template has been put together by someone who really doesn’t know how to make something that someone else can use. I am conflicted by the desire to stick with the standard verses doing my own thing in half the time.

This is a complicated set of activities; how can I be expected to get your solution on a page? How do I do that? I could make the diagrams smaller so that the details fit on, I could also simplify the diagrams. The problem with both options is that neither is very helpful. The small diagrams, I know, will just make people’s eyes bleed, the simplified diagrams will give people a simplistic view of the situation. Unfortunately, the rules are the rules, and the solution has got to fit on a page. I ask how firm the rule about a single page is, the reply is “No you can’t have more pages, we struggle to get people to focus for one.”

There is, of course, a third option, and that’s to get a bigger page. Unfortunately, most people are reading the material on a screen so it’s a bit of an academic argument. The point isn’t really about fitting material to a page, the true message is about simplifying the story.

I have some sympathy for the on a page approach. I’ve been in so many situations where someone thinks that you care enough to go through their entire documentation to get an understanding of what it is they are doing. I’ve also sat in meetings where someone describes everything in intricate detail despite being told that all you want is the overview that will help you to formulate the questions. Conversely, I’ve also been in an on a page meeting where it’s clear that someone is trying to hide something in the simplification. Mandating a single page feels like a blunt instrument to use when really what is required is someone to set the scene correctly.

I attend the scheduled meeting. Everyone looks at my on a page deck, which has taken hours to create; the attendees of the meeting conclude that I need to have another meeting to talk through the details with their teams. In this meeting we talk through all the diagrams and agree it’s the correct answer.

Header Image: This is the Lismore Lighthouse, taken from the ferry from Oban to Mull.

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