​​Structure vs. Chaos - And the Winner Is...​

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Welcome to part two in a series. This all started with an innocent question about the use of templates in report writing. Yesterday I​ talked about the fact that templates cannot solve the problem of auditese. And we mentioned that the use of jargon may not be all bad. Now, on to part two and another problem with templates.

I've seen struggle after battle after frustration after just-give-up regarding audit departments' attempts to get a handle on report writing. (Here's a hint: If you've solved the problem of issuing top-notch audit reports in incredibly short amounts of time, then you can probably make a fortune by sharing it with the rest of us.) And I've been a part of various attempts myself. The one thing I have learned is, the more template-driven the report (the more structured, the more "fill-in-the-blanks"), the less likely the resulting report will successfully convey a quality message.

The most successful attempt I was ever a part of happened way back in the 90s. We threw out the rule book.

Okay, maybe not out entirely, but we allowed for some real creativity in our approach to writing reports.

Quick background on the structure at the time. Internal Audit was decentralized. With approximately 15 different regional offices there were almost that many auditing departments – manager, supervisor, and three to six auditors.

Having struggled to come up with an approach to writing reports that got across the message, streamlined the process, and just plain worked, we told the audit managers they had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted.

Yes, chaos as a tool for creativity.

Okay, one minor restriction; they still had to adhere to the standards. They had to have the basic components, they had to have an opinion, and they had to talk about the things that needed to be corrected (as well as the corrective action). Then, for a full year, we let them go at it.

Don't get me wrong – it wasn't perfect. Some reports didn't work out so good. In some instances the customers became a little confused on what they were receiving. And let's not even go into the challenge faced by those of us who had to roll up the results for executive management. (Five reports over the same process written in five different styles with five different structures. You do the math. In fact, I did the math and I think it comes out to 125.)

But, by the end of that year we had some of the most original and innovative ideas for how to put together reports we had ever seen. Sure there were some real clinkers. But the approach had also given people sufficient time to test and try out and refine the ideas they had. We pulled it all together, combined the best ideas, and then reined everyone in with a new set of standards based on best practices developed by the most innovative thinkers.

Now, let's look at another example from my past. (And, in this case, I won't be giving as many specifics. The names have been changed – whether they were really innocent or not.) 

There was a specific type of audit that was giving us fits. We couldn't seem to get all the information various customers said they wanted. Our attempts were incoherent and didn't draw the reader to any real synopsis or conclusion regarding the events that transpired.

A solution was proposed – a solution that was heavy on the "template" approach. There was a top section – a table – that had what were considered to be the main five or six points the clients wanted to know. Following that were approximately 8 to 12 sections with additional "required" information. Some of those sections were just one sentence, some just a word, and some a paragraph (or two or three or...)

What resulted was a group of auditors filling in blanks. What resulted was auditors who did not think about the overall message they wanted to deliver. What resulted was a significant number of reports that never addressed what actually happened during the review, nor the root cause of events. And, what resulted were customers who continued to be dissatisfied.

Oh, the basic facts were there. No one could deny that everything you could ever want to know about the details was included. However, by focusing on the template and its attendant sections, the auditors lost sight of their role in analysis – in figuring out what really happened.

(And a rather sad postscript to this story – that template was in place for a much longer period of time than it deserved to be. I shan't share how long that was.)

My experience has shown that, the more structured the template, the more likely it is that the report (and the auditor) will focus on details rather than the big picture. The message will be lost in the slavish adherence to someone's perception of an ideal. 

And that really leads to the final point I want to make about report templates and successful reporting. But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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