Columns by Eric J. Adams
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Protect Yourself From Finger Pointers: Blaze a Trail
You probably remember this charming kid's story: a small boy or stuffed animal wanders away from home. He finds himself alone just as it grows dark in some suddenly scary forest that's inhabited by a big, bad wolf. How does the hero make it home again? He simply follows the path of crumbs or small coins or stuffed-animal innards he dropped along the way.
There's a similar method in the business world (where there are wolves aplenty), and it comes in mighty handy when you're working on a demanding project, aspects of which are out of your control, and there's the possibility that someone will try to "eat you up" by blaming you when things go wrong.
Just as in the fairy tale, you can leave a trail -- an audit trail -- so when that scurrilous corporate insider or fellow contractor starts pointing fingers at you, you can simply say, "Wait a minute, let's follow the markers I've left behind and find out what's really been happening."
Laying it Down
Bread or small coins won't work, and a paper trail has its disadvantages, too. For one, a letter takes some serious drafting. It can be laborious to draft and mail or fax several letters to all those people on the project that need to be "cc'd." Did the letter get there? Has the problem been resolved by the time the letter arrives? The U.S. Postal Service, as we all know, is a bit slow in its delivery, and faxes are notorious for getting lost. Plus, letters these days are taken very seriously (since no one writes them anymore) and hence you may appear defensive or threatening. Finally, letters can easily be burned, shredded, or simply buried in some forgotten filing cabinet.
Email, on the other hand, is just dandy for the task. You can instantly send out email to everyone working on the project, so there's no denying that your messages were ever sent or received. And since the email addresses of every recipient are part of the package, everyone knows who else has received your messages. Additionally, emails are stored on numerous computers and company servers, so even if everyone has forgotten what you said so eloquently months before, your email can be easily retrieved and the dates verified with more certainty than with a U.S. Postal Service certified letter. (The hope is, naturally, that you never find yourself in the unenviable position of having to search through your hard drive -- or anyone else's -- for emails you wrote long ago, but it's a good insurance policy, nonetheless.)
Most importantly, emails are intimate and informal, which is the way you want to go when paving an audit trail. And since most collaborative work these days is done via email, your audit letter is part of the natural workflow. If your email messages are crafted correctly, no one will have to know that you're actually creating an audit trail as you go, nor will they feel alarmed by what you're writing. There's no need to blame anyone; rather use the emails to update partners on the current status of the project and alert them to potential pitfalls ahead.
Draft with Care
So what's an audit trail message supposed to look like? I recently worked on a Web development project in which I was responsible for generating all the content (a word that always reminds me of cereal in a box, and hence says a lot about the value of words on the Internet -- but that's another column). Unfortunately, the contractor who was responsible for supplying me with all the raw material was woefully late. Worse, all the payment and performance triggers on my contract were tied to content generation. I was in a pickle, so I dashed off an email that looked something like this:
"Here's the end-of-week summary. We're in a holding pattern right now as I wait for Contractor X to deliver the second revisions. I understand they are being held up by a legal question that no one foresaw and now needs to be answered before they can move on. I'll still shoot for our original deadline of next Friday and hope that we can make it, but I'm losing eight business days (yikes!) due to circumstances out of my control."
It's important to know when not to lay down an audit trail as well. Remember, there will always be some conflict and confusion during particularly demanding projects. You don't want to appear like the kid who runs to the teacher every time someone sticks his tongue out at you.
And ask yourself: is someone truly trying to point the finger at you? As an outside contractor, it's often hard to know because you aren't privy to all the inside meetings and chance conversations that occur at your client's offices. It's easy to imagine conspiracies, but that's dangerous because paranoia isn't conducive to long-term relationships.
Generally, I use audit trails only when I face a persistent and serious problem or feel a continued association with my client is in jeopardy for a reason beyond my control. And then I use kid gloves, because if I have to fight it out with someone, I don't want the client anyway. Life's too short.
Still, a well-placed audit email here or there doesn't hurt one bit. In fact, when the big, bad wolf comes chasing you down, an email trail can really help save the day.
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