Clear instructions provide the best results

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 December, 1993, 12:00am

I MET a screenwriter recently at a social function.

Having told him how much I admired his work, I then expressed some empathy for how hard his job must be.

I said: ''I imagine the worst part must be being locked up in a room by yourself all day and having to create dialogue that sounds natural out of thin air.'' He immediately corrected me: ''Writing at my desk is the fun part.

''The worst part is that your work is critiqued by people who have no idea how to improve what they're criticising.

''If they don't like a script, they say: 'Can you make it more dramatic?' Or, 'it needs more edge', as if that insight is going to light some 1,000-watt bulb over my head.

''I guess that's what really bothers me the most.

''Their so-called instructions mean nothing.'' The screenwriter's remarks hit home with me because, frankly, I think all of us are guilty every day of handing out instructions that don't instruct.

We think we're delivering a message with the glib or pointed comments we make to our associates, but we probably overestimate how much of the message actually gets through.

Consider the following so-called instructions that all of us hear or say during the course of a business day: this proposal needs more focus; make it go away; we have to sell more; just do it; get a better handle on this; this needs more work; figure itout and get back to me; make lots of money for us from this; see what this fellow wants; breathe some life into this project; I'm not convinced, convince me.

These comments remind me of the scene in the movie Amadeus, in which the emperor of Austria goes backstage to congratulate Mozart after a performance.

The emperor tells Mozart the opera was marvellous but the music made too many demands on his royal ear.

''There were too many notes,'' he says.

Mozart demurs that he used only as many notes as the piece required, no more, no less.

The emperor persists with his ''too many notes'' critique and fatuously suggests the opera would improve if Mozart took out some notes.

Mozart caustically asks: ''Which notes should I remove, your majesty?'' An instruction isn't doing its job if it confuses or angers, or otherwise fails to motivate the person receiving the instruction.

The flaw in all of the instructions above is that they lack one or more of the following elements.

It explains why you want something done.

A good instruction is like a mission statement.

It defines a specific goal and the reason the goal is worth pursuing.

If you give someone directions to your office (one of the most common forms of instruction), the goal or mission is usually implied: you want to meet that person face to face.

But there are many everyday instructions where the why is not implied or obvious and needs to be explicitly stated.

Let's say I tell someone, ''breathe some life into this proposal''.

Other than suggesting that I'm not impressed with the material, that's not a very clear instruction.

It's so vague it might not even generate any immediate action.

But if I preface it by saying, ''this proposal is the most important document we will be sending all year to the most important customer we have'', that adds some urgency to my request.

If nothing else, I've reordered the employee's priorities and given him a reason to obey my instruction.

A good instruction not only gets people started, it tells them when to stop.

Telling someone, ''this report needs more work'', is a dangerously vague instruction because it doesn't explain how much more work is required.

Theoretically, the employee can work on it forever.

A better instruction would add: ''When you get accurate projections and get Bob and Ted to sign them off, show it to me again.'' An instruction should also explain how you want the task done.

A good instruction usually comes with a manual of proper techniques and procedures.

I suppose there are people at our company who would know exactly what I meant if I said, ''take care of this'' or ''make this go away''.

They've worked with me long enough to know the procedures I would follow.

But the majority of people would require a step-by-step procedure manual to really do the job right.

Thus, if I ask an associate to call an executive I know at another company and I happen to know how this executive operates, I might give the associate specific instructions about when to call, what to say to the executive's assistant to make sure he gets through, and which topics I want discussed and which ones to avoid.

It's amazing how many managers forget or don't take the time to include these technical details in their instructions.

If you tell people what to do but not how to do it, don't be surprised when they don't do it the way you wanted.

An instruction should also provide a time frame.

A good instruction lets you know when you've gone too far and when you haven't gone far enough.

In terms of giving directions to your house, it's saying: ''If you pass a red church on the right you've gone one block past our house.'' In business, it means defining what's acceptable or unacceptable to you.

The problem with telling people, ''let's make a lot of money in this deal'', is that it begs the question: what constitutes a lot of money? How much is enough? If you don't tell your people that you expect at least $50,000 from a certain transaction, you have only yourself to blame when they come back satisfied with $25,000.

I'm sure some people in our company think that I'm too detailed, too controlling, maybe even too long-winded with some of the instructions I've given out over the years.

But that's usually what it takes to make sure my instructions mean something rather than nothing.