One of the things I like about the environment I’m at now (i.e. Socialtext) is the fact that we have a really nice library of “lessons learned” from “going to the house of broken hearts and bloody toes” (and my congratulations to Jari Laasko for knowing the reference the last time I mentioned it 😉 ). Put more directly, we learn a lot from our mistakes and stumbling, and bad experiences can become great learning for others if we take the time to write down what we’ve gone through.

Looking over a lot of these articles that have been written, there’s an underlying element that makes its way into everything we write, especially if it’s a “how to” document of some kind, and that’s what is called the “Implicit Directions”. What are those? Think of anything that you do that you want to explain to someone. Let’s say you want to build a box or a book rack. You will likely spend plenty of time describing the dimensions of the items to be cut, or the size drill bits you will need to use, maybe even the grit of the sandpaper to be used when you finish the item and make it look nice. Those are all of the “Explicit Directions” we can think of, such as:

  • Cut two pieces of 1″x 4″ wood to be 8″ long. Cut a third piece to be 7″ long.
  • Take a piece of 1″ dowel rod and cut 5 pieces that are 24″ long.
  • On the two pieces of 1″x4″, drill 1″ holes on the bottom edge, evenly spaced so that the rods can be inserted. Start the holes 1 1/2 inches from the bottom of the board.
  • In the piece of 1″x 4″ that is 7″ long, drill 1 1/8″ holes so that the rods can be inserted.
  • Put the pieces together.

There you go, complete instructions to build a small book rack. Simple, huh?

Well, maybe not. While I have been rather explicit with the directions, what am I leaving out? A lot of stuff.

How should the boards be cut? Should we use a hand saw? A table saw? Can we use ready cut pieces?

How do I know that you know that, when I say 1″x 4″, that I am referring to wood that is 4 inches wide and 1″ thick?

What’s a dowel? Are you familiar with that term? Do you know that it’s a 1 inch thick cylinder of wood?

Where exactly on the board should you put 5 evenly spaced holes? On the short end? On the long end? Do I mean evenly spaced in general, or evenly spaced in reference to the edge of the board? Should the holes be level with each other?

Why do you want to have a different sized holes in the third board? Do they have to be the same dimensions and spacing and placement as the longer boards? Does the fact that the third board act as a book end that slides help to make that more clear?

Does it matter how I drill the holes? Is a hand drill OK? What if I have a drill press?

Do these dowels need to be glued into the end boards?

All of those questions are things I probably don’t have to tell you about, right? I expect that, if you have even a passing knowledge of using basic tools, you will understand what I’m describing. These are the “Implicit Directions”. I expect you to already know these things, and what to do when asked. The danger comes when we deal with those who honestly don’t have background in these things. Then, those Implicit Directions that are not stated can become a real hindrance.

Why am I mentioning this? I’m bringing this up because, in a lot of the things I’ve had to set up, break down, deploy or otherwise test and put into use these past few weeks, I’ve had to do a fair bit of understanding the “Implicit Directions” and learning where and what they are. More than a few times, I’ve had my Quality Director chat with me about something I’m putting together, and my having to say “so, is this supposed to happen?” and him having to say “no, but that’s because there are a few steps missing. Had you been here for long enough, you’d know that these are things we take for granted… of course, you don’t know that. How could you?” End result, another visit to the house of broken hearts and bloody toes.

My point with today’s missive is to ask you to do a gut check when you write a document for someone else. Think long and hard whether or not you are including whats relevant, and if you think you are doing a good job, ask yourself “are there Implicit Directions I’m not including?” If you take the time to consider this, you may be surprised at how much you just take for granted.