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The Key to Making Better Decisions? Self-Editing

Clarity comes from stripping away the unnecessary.
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I have a confession to make: I have a love-hate relationship with this column. It goes without saying that I love working with the fine folks at Inc., and to have a platform to write regularly on my favorite topics (leadership and growth) is both a delight and a privilege for which I'm extremely grateful.

On the con side of the ledger, it's frustrating to attempt to analyze, summarize, or comment upon complex leadership and business growth issues in 600 to 800 words. Given the limitations of space, it's easy to slip into glibness or, worse, simplification to the point of falsity.

That said writing potted columns on complex leadership issues can--and for me, often has--lead to breakthrough realizations: "a-ha's" that only emerged because of the winnowing process involved in producing short pieces of prose.

I complete the act of writing with more of an understanding than I had when I started. So I have for some time been applying three specific editing principles in decision-making environments. Here's what I've learned:

1. Less really is more. Mark Twain was once sent a telegram by his editor that said "NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS." Twain's reply was: "NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES."

Writing blog posts proves Twain's point in spades--it's easier to write a lot about something than a little. I've often stared at 1,500 or 2,000 words, hammered out at speed, and wondered how on earth I could reduce the word count to 800 words and maintain coherence. And guess what? Later (much later, usually) when the winnowing is complete, the piece is considerably better: more lucid, easier to understand, easier to act on.

Next time you face a complex issue, try the blog-post approach--write down your thoughts, the key data, the main options open to you, then reduce it to between 600 and 800 words. You'll find it an eye-opening exercise, and the end result will be much more usable in your decision-making process.

2. Prioritization matters. Of course, there aren't just "3 Things a Great Leader Would Never Say" or only "5 Signs You're Not a Change Agent". If there were, life would be much simpler for us all. It is the case, however, that a ruthless focus on the key elements of a decision leads to better results, faster, than trying to address everything from the get-go (q.v. the Pareto Process).

Most of the time when I'm writing a "3 Ways to..." article, I'm giving myself an opportunity to consider what is genuinely important about a topic--what endures, what makes a long-term impact, what is eternal rather than ephemeral--and that practice of contemplative prioritization has proven its value to me in business decision making over and over again.

3. You learn a lot from what you leave out. Ever stared at an already crammed-to-the-brim suitcase and realized that if you want to strut your stuff in that snazzy new beach outfit you'll have to give up on bringing something else? Writing compressed prose is much the same.

William Faulkner once famously said the secret of good writing was to "kill your darlings," and the most painful part of getting a blog post to an acceptable length often involves leaving out phrases, anecdotes, and metaphors that you really, really like--but which, it becomes clear, don't actually contribute much to the discussion.

Team-based decision making (poor team-based decision making, to be precise) is often the same--deeply held anecdotes serving in place of hard data, personal preferences masquerading as experience or good judgment--and often, only the artificial pressure of constraints will call it out.

Next time you face a tough business decision, try writing a 600-word blog post about it and see if it helps clarify your thinking--heck, you might even end up giving it a snappy title.

Want more leadership lessons? Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track--and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

IMAGE: Gallery Stock
Last updated: Feb 20, 2014




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