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3 Rules for creating a constructive 1st draft

I want to talk a little bit about what I believe a draft should be. Obviously there’s a lot of latitude in this subject but I think that it’s really important to understand that no matter what you call it, everyone has an understanding of what a successful draft looks like at the end of the day.

Our internal process for idea generating is very team oriented. We may have 3, 4, or even 5 people in a room working on a whiteboard, sheets of paper, or different drawing tools trying to get some concepts out. We may go back and forth, go and work individually, come back share things, and talk about anything that crosses our minds. I consider all those things to be part of the idea generating phase of doing things. The more people the better in many cases as the whole point of what you’re trying to do is come up with a lot of ideas. Then you want to vet those things down to just a few good ones. Once we have it narrowed down I like to hand it off to somebody to take as their own.

I think that when you get to the point where you’ve squeezed the idea sponge until its run dry in the room and you’ve winnowed your brainstorms down into a more reasonable amount of a few different things that the team believes have legs its then time to hand that off to a person. Ideally I hand it off to one person or maybe just a couple people that work well together if it’s a big project to get a draft together. If it’s a document maybe that means an outline or if it’s a drawing, an architectural artifact, or whatever it is, there should be an accepted form to it. I believe no matter what that accepted form is there are a couple of rules that people should follow to know when their draft is ready for exposure to others.

  1. The first thing that should happen is your draft should be able to clearly tell the story of whatever the next phase is going to be. For us, that usually means you’re going to go through a few different drafts, you’re going to get some critical inputs and refine things. Even in that first draft there ought to be idea clarity. What I mean by that is that you ought to be able to explain to me why the things that are in there are in there. There should be a reason for all of the stuff on the page. So that’s number one and if you can’t do that then it’s not draft ready.
  2. It should not enormously deviate from the concepts that were put together by the larger team. If you’re responsible for taking the work product of the group and further developing it into draft form, I think it’s important that you be true to the concepts that were developed in the group. If you don’t do that then there was almost no point to having that group work done. If you get into it and find that there’s just too much new information that makes you want to go down a different route, at that point you need to go take it back to the group and vet that with them before you run with it. I think that’s important because one of the most critical things that you got out of that big group session was consensus around some of the things that are important and needed to be expressed. So if you’re going to greatly deviate from what had been set forth in the brainstorm sessions you need to go back and get buy in even if you’re right. It’s important that you have those preliminary communications otherwise you’re going to end up presenting those ideas to a group of people who have never seen it before. You’re going to have some people, no matter how good your idea is, think that you betrayed the trust of the group by doing that. They’re going to dislike it just for those reasons and maybe a really great idea goes unused because you didn’t have the professional courtesy to express it or validate your new direction with the group.
  3. Finally the third big thing in knowing when something is a draft that it still has to have a certain level of professionalism. Now this is an area where I have gotten a little push back from people before. They will say, “Hey it’s still a draft and I just want to have things on a page,” but I will tell you that won’t cut it a lot of times. I’m actually not one of these people but for a lot of others if you haven’t hit spell check and you turn a draft over to them, they can’t get beyond the fact that you misspelled a lot of words. It distracts them from the overall concept and so the five minutes it would take to run spell check is worth doing. The same thing with drawings and things like that. If you have an incredibly cluttered page where you can’t clearly express why things are working the way they are or why you’ve laid things out the way you have, it’s not ready and it’s not a draft. I believe draft materials should be sufficiently developed so that they can be sent to somebody via email. They shouldn’t require extensive oral communication to have an outside party understand what you’re trying to get across or I don’t believe that they’re ready to be shared. If you have to spend a half hour explaining to me the chicken scratch on a torn out sheet of notebook paper it’s not a draft. It might represent some really great thinking but it needs to have just a little bit more polish.

Now I’m the first person to tell you don’t waste a lot of time making draft materials client ready but there is a certain amount of effort that is required to get something into a state where people can understand it and that is the point. You want your draft materials to be good enough to convey the point of what you’re trying to accomplish and there are not distractions in them that prevent people from understanding the concepts that you’re trying to put forward.

Now those are my big three things needed for a draft to be completed. This is to me, what makes something a draft. I think that way too often people don’t put enough thought into or don’t take the time to step through the idea to product phases enough to end up with the type of product that they should. I think a lot of those mistakes occur because people don’t pay attention to detail in the drafting process. So that’s what I believe constitutes a good first draft for any high level document, drawing or any other knowledge work product. I know that other people have great ideas about other things that should be in there but those are the big three that I find myself talking about more than any others.

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