Have you ever been in a position where you had to revisit a past decision that you made, but when you started reviewing the available information, you couldn't remember why and how you came to that decision?
Yeah, that happens to me too.
As leaders, we have so much going on, so many decisions to make day in, day out. At some point some of the details will escape us.
So how can we help guard against losing too many valuable decision making details?
Whether it's when creating a budget, collecting metrics, or analyzing information, taking a moment to record your thought process could help yourself and other reviewers better understand what they are looking at and what was my thought process.
It doesn’t need to be long. Adding brief notes, a short comment, a thought, is sufficient.
This also helps provide an overview of some of the history, because that tends to get lost as well. If a team member suddenly leaves, that is a loss of history. This is a way to maintain that.
It also helps shed light on what the data includes, because sometimes we work out this entire idea, put it all together, and only document the answer. Well, that's great, but what did we include? What assumptions did we make when we came to that conclusion? Including that helps refresh our memory and helps others see what we were thinking. Even as the note creator, it helps jog our memory as to what we did and why.
When adding these explanatory notes, try to keep the information together.
It could be adding a note in a spreadsheet, creating a tab in a spreadsheet that records the particular thought process or the particulars that the data was based on, the assumptions that you made. It could even be a table of contents with links to various headers within the document. One of those could be assumptions or “showing your work”, how you ended up with that particular answer.
When creating headers, do ensure that they include clear searchable keywords. Because if, for example, you keep everything in Google Drive, then if you search the keywords, it's more likely to surface. Be sure that you're very clear in the terms that you use when you create these headers. I know that, for myself, these types of notes have saved me more than once when reviewing something months down the road and then I couldn't remember what it was a particular cell included or why I eliminated an element or a possibility.
When reviewing the notes, however, it would come back to me. One of the most frustrating feelings is not remembering why we did something. Having those notes has been really helpful in guarding against that.
Another thing that could be helpful is to start to encourage the team to do that as well. It's great if you do it, but what if everybody did it? What if everybody started putting in explanatory notes, trying to record their thought process?
Again, it doesn't have to be this long drawn out novel, just a few notes in the cell, a tab with some assumptions, just something to help remind yourself, your future self or others – anybody else who will touch your work later down the road – what it was that you were thinking.
This also helps guard against losing precious institutional knowledge.
Because if we don't record it, unfortunately it may be forgotten. Certainly, we have to be able to discern what is essential from what is nice to know. It’s about recording the highlights, the turning points. Whatever is the most useful, not every single detail of every thought you had when you made the decision. If it becomes too long, nobody is going to read it. So encourage people to leave information, leave notes, but small and quick. Just the most important parts.
And the more we do it, the better we become at it. The better we become at synthesizing and recognizing what is a true highlight and what is not really important. And, yes, full disclosure, there are still times when my notes generate more questions than answers.
But most of the time they remind me of what I had considered and why I had chosen or rejected certain ideas.
Even though it's not perfect, it is still extremely helpful. And there are times when circumstances have changed and the reasons why I hadn't chosen a certain solution are no longer valid. In the sense that the environment was such that, at the time, that solution was not a good one and it was rejected. But now that things have changed, the solution actually makes sense and may even be the better one. So having that rationale included may help realize this.
When adding these notes, try out different ways. Figure out what works best for you, for your team, and for your collaborators. There's no one way of doing it. I know that, for myself, I have thanked my past self more than once for these types of notes. And I think that if you give it a shot, you will end up thanking your past self too.