Producing an important business, technical, or scientific document is usually a collaborative effort that requires team members across functions or departments to review the document as it progresses. In theory, such an undertaking ensures that documents derive their authority from the knowledge and perspective of multiple stakeholders. In practice, however, a group review can become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, each following his or her own recipe. Too often the result is frustration, wasted time, and, worst of all, a product that fails to satisfy.
After taking a regulatory document through several iterations, an author of our acquaintance distributed the draft for review. When the responses came in, he was near despair. Two readers dealt only with grammar. Three suggested a reorganization, each different from the others. Another objected to the presentation of certain data but offered no revision. Two wanted a reworking of supporting information. Another pronounced the document perfect. Trying to sort the responses, the author couldn't be certain of which suggestions to incorporate or how to reconcile contradictory ones.
What went wrong? In this case, the author and his team failed to follow three best practices for conducting an effective review, all of which center on providing focus and direction to the review process.
First, before creating an initial draft, the lead author should get agreement from primary stakeholders on the document's major messages, the issues it contains, and effective responses to those issues. In most situations, obtaining prior agreement should extend to the document's structure.
Reaching early concurrence on content and organization requires all stakeholders to think through the purpose of the document and how it will achieve that purpose. When they've done that, they are in a position to evaluate a draft's success in relation to the group's decisions.
Second, the author must identify each reader's responsibility. An author who wants a helpful review assigns tasks to each reviewer based on the draft's stage of development and on the abilities or expertise of the reviewers.
Early reviews require attention to macro concerns: Is the purpose of the document clear? Are its messages, issues, and responses presented clearly and logically? Is the structure effective? What weaknesses or inaccuracies need to be remedied?
The author should also make requests specific to each reviewer's area of professional expertise. The financial analyst, the statistician, the production manager—each should receive a list of concerns that focus attention on relevant portions of the document.
In later reviews, the author may ask readers to address secondary concerns—style, punctuation, word choice or other elements that determine a document's accessibility. These elements are important, but it's most efficient to focus on them only after content and organization have been reviewed and revised.
DETERMINE HOW TO RESOLVE DISAGREEMENTS
Finally, a group review must include a process that will resolve contradictory suggestions. If no standard process exists, the group must design its own, one that allows members to identify concerns for further adjudication and provides a mechanism through which to settle differences.
It really doesn't matter how many cooks are in the kitchen as long as they adhere to a process that integrates their efforts and organizes their contributions. Following our three best practices helps them to do both, easing the task of review not only for the author but for all members of the team. More importantly, a good review process produces information that increases document effectiveness. And document effectiveness, after all, is the point.