In the previous article I wrote about the importance of facilitating requirements meetings and why it can take courage to do so. In this article I’ll discuss another skill that has fallen in and out of favor over the years—scribing.
Many ancient societies valued scribes. Scribes typically were at the center of all activities and highly regarded in the areas of government, law, military, and religion. Today’s scribes are not so universally regarded, particularly in our world of PMs and BAs. Effective scribes should be at the center of requirements activities, but most often they are not. We’re often in the back of the room or off to the side. We’re not always introduced in virtual meetings. Many organizations view scribes simply as passive note-takers and unfortunately that’s how many scribes view themselves. But I have found that scribes are essential to the success of the project.
What is a scribe and what does a scribe do? A scribe is the role that provides documentation, either formal or informal, and anyone can play that role. PMs, BAs, facilitators, business owners, QA analysts, programmers—it doesn’t matter what the title is. Any time we’re documenting our PM or BA work we’re scribing. Our output can include recaps of sponsor and other stakeholder meetings, requirements (models, textual, etc.), assessments, gap analyses, and business cases to cite just a few.
What skills does a scribe need? Like every effective PM and BA, the scribe has to create structure from chaos. That’s not easy so scribes need a variety of skills, such as listening, absorbing, clarifying, and writing. But perhaps most important is critical thinking, which comprises many skills including:
- Conceptualizing – grasping what’s being discussed because we have enough context[i]
- Applying – taking what we know from our experience and using it in new situations.
- Synthesizing – absorbing lots of information, processing it, and making sense of it immediately.[ii]
- Evaluating – knowing what’s important and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t.[iii]
Why do we need scribes? Documentation is important if for no other reason than because it saves time. We cannot possibly remember all the salient topics of our project and requirements meetings. Documentation helps prevent revisiting and revisiting again all the important decisions already made and who should complete which action items and by when.
How much courage does it take to scribe? Why in the world would it take courage to scribe? Because the most common scribing pitfalls relate to courage. I am often asked questions such as these:
- What if the PM and/or team thinks it’s a waste of time to have a scribe?
- What should I do when the facilitator wants to “take notes,” but in the end, much of the meeting is lost because the notes are too sketchy?
- What should I do when I’ve been told to sit in the back and be silent when I take notes? Most of the time I have questions or want to clarify what’s been decided, but I’m told that asking questions will take too much time.
- What should I do when I’m asked to distribute the documentation in an unreasonable time frame?
- I know it’s important to recap the highlights of my scribing output at the end of the meeting, but we never seem to have time. Our discussions always run over.
If we are too timid to address these issues, we will be less useful not only to our project team, but the entire organization. But it takes courage to tackle them. We need to be effective at influencing, and courage is a main component of influence. We need to ensure that everyone understands the importance of both scribing and the scribe role, and it takes courage to point these out. It takes courage to speak up about the risks of not having scribes in organizations that don’t value them. And to link an unsatisfactory product delivered to stakeholders to effective scribing. And because it takes time to be an effective scribe, we need to advise including scribing tasks in project planning.
Finally, as scribes we need to be neutral and not have a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting. As we know, the person with the pen has the power and can rewrite the project’s history. Let’s not sneak in a couple of our or our sponsor’s favorite requirements, or conveniently forget any because it’s easier than seeking a scope change. And there’s no need to document every conversation– the key items like decisions and action items will do. When done well, scribing is a thing of beauty. When not, it might well be tossed out with other old but necessary techniques—definitely not in the interest of either the project or the organization.