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Mind of Jacka: This is the Final Draft

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 11, 2022

Why is the first draft of every report bad? Wait, you say they aren't all bad? But how can that be? If they are not bad, why do we spend so much time reviewing, editing, and rewriting?

So much rewriting.

And if the first draft is not bad, why does every single person who touches it make changes? And I'm right there with you. I can't think of a single draft (first, second, two-hundred-and-twelfth) that, if it was my first time seeing it, I didn't have some changes or comments. Were those drafts actually bad? Did I add any value? What was I doing?

In fact, what are any of us doing the first time we see the draft of a report? Why is it we manage to find fault every, single time?

Of course, our word choice does not help. In fact, the word "draft" contains its own underlying message. If it is called a draft, then the implication is that it requires additional work — that it is imperfect.

(And while we are at it, what about the strangely titled "final draft." How is it final if it is still a draft? And when is that magical moment when the report it is no longer a draft and become a **FINAL** report? Apologies, but capitalization and asterisks were all I had at hand to replicate the hats, horns, fireworks, and general celebration that occurs when a report passes through the Valgrind Gates of finality.)

And the bigger problem is that the constant rewrites and edits each of us provide in every step of the report writing process has built into our species (Internalus Auditus) an understanding that, not only will there be a safety net, but the safety net will have a safety net, and that safety net will have a safety net, and that one, and that one, and that one, to infinity and beyond. And so, we write drafts of the report knowing full well that any necessary changes will be caught in the review. Engendered shoddiness. Engendered mediocrity. Engendered inferiority.

One of the great lessons I received in report writing came from report writing expert Sally Cutler. She described the situation this way. The new auditor writes their first report. They spend two days ensuring it is as perfect as they can get it. They give it to the next-in-line saying, "Here's my report." The next-in-line rewrites it and sends it on.

The new auditor, not slow-witted, watches this happen a couple of times and adjusts their process. They spend a day completing the draft of the report, hand it over to the next-in-line, and say, "Here's a rough draft of my report." The next-in-line rewrites it and hands it off.

Watching carefully, the non-slow-witted auditor adjusts the process one more time. They spend, maybe, an hour putting something down on paper, turn it over to the next-in-line, and say, "Here's what I've got." The next-in-line rewrites it, hands it on, and wonders why the new auditor's writing has gotten so much worse.

We have built failure into our processes. And getting out of that cycle of failure is tough because 1) it is a habit engrained over many years and 2) we still live in terror that even minor errors will appear in our reports.

The solution lies within each of us.

I learned the answer when I was promoted to supervisor many, many years ago. I began working for the worst audit manager to ever walk the halls of Farmers Insurance. (Ask around, others who worked during that time will back me up.) The departing supervisor gave me some great advice. He explained that this manager never reviewed any written documents that were sent for his approval. The former supervisor warned that anything — anything — I wrote and sent to the manager would be forwarded exactly as I wrote it.

As I was warned, so it happened. And I quickly learned to never count on that safety net — that anything I wrote was the final product. Not the final draft — the final product. It was a fascinating experience in that I learned how important it was to ensure that whatever I submitted was as good as I could make it — was something that I would be proud to see distributed. No reviews, no changes, no safety net.

I'd like to tell you that, because of my experience, I was a lenient reviewer — that I exemplified all the things I am talking about. Unfortunately, such was not the case. I learned that answer a long time ago and then promptly forgot it. I fell into the habits of every report reviewer; I made multitudinous changes.

But maybe we can all learn something this time and stick with it. First, resist the urge to tamper. Resist the urge to make changes just because you feel you should have some impact on the report process. Resist the urge to make changes because you are trying to make that report a skootch more perfect. And resist the urge to make changes because it is what we have always done. How important is the change you want to make? Does it add value to the report or to the development of the person writing the report? How big of a deal is it, really?

Second, take the bold step of advising those who are writing reports that, for all intents and purposes, you will not be reviewing the report — that, while you will read and make notes about glaring errors (only glaring errors, keep reminding yourself of that), the authors of the reports should assume that those reports will go forward as written.

(Note another important message contained in this approach. "I trust you enough to assume you will get it right. And, if there is something wrong, then we both fail.")

Next, if you are not in charge — if you are the one who is constantly being rewritten — never fall into the "I'll just put an hour into this one" trap. Always write like it is the final report (not even the draft). And, when changes are made, find out why those changes were made so you can be even better in the future.

Everyone I've ever talked with struggles with timely and effective report writing. Everyone has their own root causes for why this happens, and each should be explored. But a good place to start is understanding if your processes are built to instill and support failure. And, if such is the case (and I'm giving odds that it is) then take steps to make the necessary changes.

Now, if I can just get this posted without the editors finding any glaring errors.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.