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03 September 2017

Learning from Poor Writing

A wise person learns from others' mistakes. Any competent Business Analyst must master written communications. This flog post (flog + blog) presents lessons from unprofessional writing. I try not to pick on common people (e.g., Facebook posters). Instead, I focus on those who ought to know better: mainly, reporters and the news organizations that are too miserly to hire copy editors.

Bent-piped Gaffs

Reporters often accept news releases from companies or government agencies and then post them with minimal editing. That's probably what happened with this story. The text went in one end of the pipe and came out the other end, uncorrected. The quality doesn't speak well of the News Director who posted it under his name. He may be a great reporter or manager, but his proofreading is substandard, even by the news industry's rapidly deteriorating standards.

The USFS manager who probably provided the source text sits on the borderline of forgiveness. Managers reach their position because they can do one or two things well. One of two halo effects result. (a) Since they do something well, they think they can do all things well.  (b) Since they do something well, their managers expect them to do all things well (including writing) and withhold budget for hiring professional tech writers. Both situations can result in unprofessional writing. Most of the time, poor writing does not matter, but when the subject impacts profitability or safety, poor writing can cost jobs or even lives.

  • In the opening sentence, using the verb to be equates the fire with the area. That is a logical error. The fire covers 3,791 acres or has burned 3,791 acres, but we shouldn't say the fire is 3,791 acres.
  • You don't need to be a firefighter to know the difference between a [Name] Complex Fire and a fire complex. A wildfire complex forms when two or more fires merge. Complex may also be loosely applied to multiple wildfires close enough together to be treated as a single fire. 
    • In this case, two fires have merged, but the third remains separate, across the valley. Therefore, the Summit Complex Fire ought to be called Summit Complex Fires
    • The complex fire should simply be The complex. The complex of fires would be acceptable but wordy. 
  • Containment is not something you place on a fire. You don't have 9% containment on the fire, you have 9% containment of the fire. A better headline would state, Summit Complex Fires Containment at 9%.
  • 9% is a measurement. You don't spell out measurements.
  • Nine-percent should not be hyphenated. The focus of the sentence is on 9% (e.g., the containment has reached 9%). When the unit of measurement might otherwise require pluralizing, we hyphenate the number and the unit of measurement, and we keep the unit in the singular.
    • Example: The six-foot statue (not the six feet statue
    • Percent does not require pluralizing. For example, we would never say, nine percents.
  • In lightning caused incidents and heat related illness, the author commits the opposite error by failing to hyphenate. Where a pair of words form Correct: lightning-caused incidents and heat-related illness.
  • (Sarcasm Alert) I just love "The fire activity of the McCormick Fire has been especially active...." We wouldn't want to scare people by telling them that the McCormick Fire has been especially active. Let's tell them that the activity has been especially active. Great writing! 
  • Competing with the complex fire for best example of redundancy, we have dry fuel moistures. Low fuel moisture would be better. The technical people think in terms of the percentage moisture content in the materials that make up the fuels for wildfires. But a good writer would simply say dry fuels.
  • The problem with the final error lies in what it omits. Writing in passive voice commonly leads to ambiguity about who performs the action. 
    • A voluntary evacuation has been issued in conjunction with the Tuolumne County Sherriff's Office....
      • By the way, you don't issue an evacuation; you issue an evacuation notice or order.
      • And Sheriff has one 'r', not two.
      • The news release probably came from the US Forest Service spokesman, so I'll fill in the missing detail:
    • Corrected: The Forest Service, in conjunction with the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, has issued a voluntary evacuation notice....

Writing That Bites

The next grammatical atrocity has too many errors for a complete commentary. The points listed below will have to suffice.
Inattention to order of phrases
  • The past participle of bite is bitten. The woman bit the crew member. The crew member was bitten.
  • Grammatically, Angels Camp that had wedged implies that Angels Camp did the wedging. 
  • The correct pronoun for a person is who, not that. That implies that the thing referred-to is not human.
  • Had wedged... and refused changes verb tenses in the middle of the sentence. Had wedged... and had refused adds parallelism.
  • The order of the phrases should reflect the importance of the information. The location should not interrupt the actions. A better version of the opening sentence would read,
    • An ambulance crew member was bitten while attempting to rescue a woman who refused police orders to come out after wedging herself between two boulders near Angels Creek in Angels Camp.
  • The sentence still uses a passive verb, which renders it boring. Splicing too much information into a single sentence makes it even worse. A best version would read,
    • A woman bit an ambulance crew member who was attempting to rescue her near Angels Creek in Angels Camp. She had refused police orders to come out after having wedged herself between two boulders.
  • The lack of a comma in referred to as the "Paradise" area for a female that... implies that the name refers to a woman. The resulting double entendre should bring a smile to dirty minds.  
  • The lack of a comma in a steep ravine who had lodged herself implies that the ravine is a person and that the ravine did the lodging. Again, the writer interrupts the action by inserting the location prematurely in the sentence. A better version of the sentence reads,
    • Once at the scene, they found a 21-year-old woman who had lodged herself in a crevasse between two large rocks near the creek at the bottom of a steep ravine about a half mile from the roadway.
The next sentence secured this article's place on my grammatical wall of shame.
  • Unable to sit still and while making animated, erratic movements, officers ordered....
Too much coffee, officers? 

The final paragraph opens with an equally awful (although not nearly as funny) mistake.
  • It took crews nearly two hours through heavy vegetation and rough terrain, to safely remove the women (sic) from the scene. First, vegetation and terrain are not units of time. Second, the writer blunders yet again by stating the location too early in the sentence. The corrected sentence reads as follows:
    • It took crews nearly two hours to safely remove the woman through heavy vegetation and rough terrain.
    • Notice that when the obstacles are correctly placed, it becomes clear that from the scene is redundant.

That's it for now. I'm happy with my vent. I hope you found this either amusing or edifying. If you see other examples of atrocious writing, feel free to leave a link in the comments, below.

More to come, later.

Copyright 2017 Richard Wheeler

20 June 2017

When Sales Promises Phantom Features

What should a Product Development or Project Manager do when Sales has sold the product with a feature that does not exist, Engineering does not plan to build it, and it is not in the SOW?

This is like bringing the boss home for dinner without telling your spouse.

In this case, the organization is broken. It is stovepiped, with Sales not considering other stakeholders within the organization.

Some would look at the Statement of Work (SOW) and draw a hard line, but that option often does not legally exist. The spoken word often binds the Seller.

My answer assumes traditional product development and project management. Agile developers have considerable flexibility with scope.

If you don't have a Change Management Process, create one. Your Product Roadmap, Project Management Plan, and product design may require significant rework that must be analyzed and documented. The presumptuous defenestration of all that planning incurs significant costs and delays because they have just altered your carefully optimized route.

Driving is a great metaphor, here. You invested significant creativity and expense in planning to add features and develop your market in a logical order. Now, you have to spend more budget and time on planning a new route that may take longer to get to the destination.

As a starting point for accountability, require Sales to submit a Change Request form that requires documenting the business case, costs, funding sources, risks, schedule impact, and technical impact and feasibility. This requires business analysis and coordinating efforts of many stakeholders such as the buyer, users, Product Development, Engineering, Production, Deployment, Scheduling, Contracts, Finance, Quality, and suppliers (through Purchasing). The change may be a "done deal," but Sales needs to stand before a Change Control Board (CCB) and gain an understanding of the consequences of their actions. When the borrowed experts from Engineering start charging against Sales' budget, even their managers will get the message.

Fulfilling the changes will require a combination of creative options.

  • Most people will compromise rather than spoil their relationship with your company by taking advantage of a loose-lipped salesman; so you may be able to negotiate a change to the contract based on re-prioritizing client needs.
  • Since the change may have value to other customers, management might accelerate investment in product development funding.
  • Consider dipping into Management Reserves and profits.
  • Bring in a Lean/Six Sigma team to find cost and schedule savings. (After that, have them help fix those stovepiped processes.)
  • If the Product Roadmap includes features not delivered to this customer, delay their development.
  • Look for features planned for the product but not promised to the Customer. They may be removed.
  • Sometimes, the penalties for breaking a contract cost less than fulfilling it. This is your worst option, but it is a valid option.

A well thought-out Change Request Form anticipates the areas that require investigation when instigating change. A well-designed Change Control process not only provides opportunity for characterizing changes, but also for creative thinking about the solutions to sticky problems. 

Copyright 2017 Richard Wheeler