Work Styles

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m in the process of transferring my work to another writer. My replacement, a lady whose writing I admire greatly, has a very different work style from mine. Actually, let me modify that: my replacement, Dauna, has a work style that was very similar to mine before I came to NASA.

Dauna, whose work you can admire on Science@NASA, is a paper-based person. Her notes are everywhere: in the margins of documents she’s printed, on Post-It Notes, on scratch paper, wherever. I’ve had a similar style of work for most of my career, though I tried to keep my notes enclosed within a single, handwritten journal. I was forced to change my system once I missed a deadline for my major customer–and that’s a Bad Thing.

Now Dauna has managed to work well with her piles of paper, chaotic scribbles, etc. And my process worked for me, until it didn’t. So I can offer suggestions on how she might change what she does or in what order–and I have–but if her system works, I’m not going to mess with it. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Another writer I worked with, Rae [name changed to protect the innocent], had a system of working with the customer that differed quite a bit from mine. When I transferred my work to her, I was prone to speak to the customer up front, ask for his requirements, and then go off and research my material through meetings or reports. Once she started, Rae was more likely to spend more time conferring with the customer, going over a technical paper page by page, than reading on her own. My approach focused on respecting the manager’s time–he had an organization to run, after all. Rae’s approach was to get things “from the horse’s mouth,” as it were, making sure his papers said what he wanted, the way he wanted.

Eventually, I grew concerned about how Rae was working, and arranged a meeting with her and the customer. After an hour of going over the paper, page by page, I got a little impatient and asked the customer, “Is this working for you? Is this a good use of your time?”

Much to my surprise, the customer said yes, so I clammed up after that. It was a good lesson for me because I realized that there was, in fact, more than one way to approach this business. And if Rae was meeting her deadlines and the customer was happy, who was I to complain?

So if you’re transitioning your work to a person who has very different work habits from you, I would offer the following suggestions:

  • Ask your replacement how s/he approaches the work
  • Identify operational differences
  • Offer to arrange or facilitate a meeting between you, your replacement, and your customer (or, if you feel it appropriate, let your replacement and customer speak one on one) to lay out how future work will be handled
  • Assume that your replacement is a professional, that s/he can handle things on his/her own once your gone, and that life will go on just fine without you

If you’re a control freak (or merely highly concerned about “leaving a legacy”), it’s important to remember that not everyone is like you. There are many different ways to approach the craft of technical writing, many or all of them equally effective. If there are organizational processes that must be followed (e.g., computer-based reporting systems, process forms, etc.), by all means, make sure that your successor follows them. However, it’s not necessary that the person to take your place do things exactly your way or think about the work the same way. Each individual has his or her own approach to work, based on previous experience.

So when in doubt, just let it go. You’ve got your next task to worry about–let the new person handle the work as they see fit. Odds are, things will turn out just fine.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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