My new year’s resolution: no more effing flies

How important is presentation? Does it matter what your work looks like so long as the thinking is sound?

It’s all in the context. I’ve worked in very large organisations where high standards of accuracy, detail and presentation were the norm. I work now for a company which is smaller, more entrepreneurial, fleeter of foot, and where what matters is the message not the medium. Some environments – academic, technical and medical for example – take great pride in making sure their presentations don’t look “too corporate”.

Accuracy matters in Great Big Organisations (the ones with customers in the millions and employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands) because of the way that scale multiplies the effect of errors. Herding 10,000 cats (pcs, people, pension payments, whatever) is not just 10 times harder than herding 1,000 of the wretched things. It’s nearer 10 to the power of 10 (or 100) times harder. Trust me, I’m a cat.

Detail matters in these behemoths because the systems are too big for one person to understand them, while completeness matters because people cycle in and out of the two year and three year change programmes taking their knowledge with them. Documentation is the baton that passes the knowledge from one team to another.

But the reason presentation matters in these modern-day Versailles is not because it contributes to profit or effectiveness, it is because your credibility is on the line: an obsessive focus on presentation standards is a product of power imbalances. This makes it understandable in companies with corporate clients; in fact some consultancies have entire teams whose job it is to take a document and make it look beautiful. Institutional clients judge the book by its cover and assume that a lack of effort in the sales process indicates a lack of effort in the delivery.

But where is the value-add in highly polished work when it’s only being done to negotiate internal fiefdoms? I am talking about work-places where people use phrases like

trying to get traction

socialising the idea

getting face-time


executive buy-in

I have spent weeks of my life polishing slide decks while I waited for my five minute slot in front of – say – the Heads of Strategic Operations Support at the monthly Governance Committee Change Review Meeting after next.  Where is the value-add in that?  I found it comforting, mind you. It meant I’d done my best and wouldn’t be damned with the faint praise of “could try harder” in my next 360. It also meant that the Heads of Strategic whatever whatever were less likely to find something to criticise in my proposal. And – best of all – it looked and felt like work and didn’t require much thought.

Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of polishing do add value.  I am hot on spelling and grammatical correctness because they reduce confusion and stop you annoying your reader. When a colleague who translates everything they say to me from French to English in their heads and says

We are giving the test scripts to Pete so we can test him

I have to remind myself it is the system we are testing not Pete. My French colleague is entitled to make grammatical errors in English, but anyone whose first language is English has no excuse. Good grammar and spelling mean that what you say doesn’t get in the way of what you mean.

But when we get down to that extra round of refining and polishing, what a Danish friend of mine called

Fly f***ing

how necessary is that?  Fly-f***ing is when you move a comma from one side of a word to the other because you’ve revised the damn thing to death. I’m fond of the term, but the English equivalent isn’t as blue. It is:

Nit picking

And clearly, no, messing with insects doesn’t add value, outside the situations where professional credibility affects the bottom line. Quite the reverse: I have discovered with joy that stopping when you’ve got the meaning down is a great way of clawing back some time.

PS – I’m fascinated that just thinking about Great Big Corporates has re-jargonised my language.  Have a link.

3 responses to “My new year’s resolution: no more effing flies

  1. Um, 10 to the power of 10 is 10,000,000,000. 10 to the power of 2 is 100. (And yes, I recognize the irony of nit picking this particular blog entry ;-))

  2. How awesomely well does that prove my point Amy? 🙂

    I’ll leave it in to show that I’m not compulsive about over-correcting errors. I can give it up at any time.


  3. ” trying to get traction”, “socialising the idea”, “getting face-time”, wow I’m so glad I’ve left BAE Systems.

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