Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Virtues of Waiting

Here’s a memorable comment from a seminar participant about thoughtful writing.

In discussing the tricky business of internal proposals, I noted that proposing an action to our boss implies heaps of issues that could get us in trouble. First, we are suggesting that the boss is presiding over a problem. We may be also insinuating that he might be the cause of a problem. Third, we are indicating that he might not be aware of the problem. Next, we are assuming that he agrees it is a problem. Also, we are implying that we know the solution to the problem better than he does. Finally, we are putting our boss to work, certain that he needs to solve this problem right away.

I told the class participants that they need to ensure that none of these implications surface in their writing. They should avoid any inkling of superiority, condescension, or know-it-all posturing. They need to see matters from the boss’s viewpoint. “We need,” I said, “to write the proposal to our manager as if we’re speaking to him on his worst day.”

At this point, a course participant, who is a regional manager of a commercial bank, blurted, “If I know it’s his worst day, I’d wait another day.”

Needless to say, we all laughed. But in his joke is a profound insight: It’s all in the timing. I can remember when I was a marketing director for a nonprofit agency, I recommended numerous courses of action that fell on deaf ears—only to see some of those ideas come to pass months or even years later. Maybe I was a visionary, but clearly I had a bad sense of timing. As Sir Francis Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, said, “The credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

So I suppose that course participant is right: If timing is the missing element in delivering a winning proposal, then wait a day!