Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Passing on a "method" . . .

I've been trying to make myself unnecessary at Sonlight Curriculum, Ltd.

I love the company. I love what I do. But I realize that, if things remain as they are right now, when I die or when I am incapacitated, a lot of things I do will not be done--or won't be done "properly."

I have found myself astonished, shocked, dismayed, amazed at the difficulty I and the people around me seem to face as we try to transfer my "way of doing things" or "way of seeing" or "way of thinking" to others.

Yesterday, the members of our extended family--twelve of us--went to a local photography studio, Monty Nuss.

Now, I should note: there is not a photographer in the area I'm aware of who produces the consistent quality they do. They charge more than others, and we have been successfully tempted to go elsewhere for some of our kids' senior/graduation pictures, and each time, we were disappointed. Majorly.

Somehow, Nuss gets the "sparkle." Somehow, "his" photos stand out.

So, in the two (?) cases where we actually paid someone else to take photos, we wound up having them reshot by Nuss.

But there is one thing: We have never met Monty Nuss. We have always been served by others. Monty, I am told, is semi-retired and lives half the year in Florida. But, somehow, he has successfully cloned himself. Or so it seems. (His staff says that, even today, he is extremely hands on and reviews every photo. But even still, I am unaware of anyone having to be re-shot in order to get the "Monty Nuss look." So the photographers have been trained at some very fundamental and significant level. No amount of "review" can correct a photograph that, at root, was shot incorrectly.)

So how did he do that? How did he pass that "method" along to others?

Yesterday, several of us commented on the details the two photographers paid attention to. I, myself, tried to attend to the process they followed:

  • Get studio set up:
    • Backdrop
    • Lighting placement (in general; this is adjusted as necessary once figures are placed)
    • Camera placement (same concerns)
  • Place central figure:
    • Standing or sitting?
    • If seated, on what: Greek Revival-style roll arm chair? Stool (High? Low?)? Large wooden-armed upholstered chair? . . .
    • Facing forward? Right? Left?
  • Place next figure:
    • Standing? Kneeling? Seated?
    • Left side? Right side?
    • Facing at what angle compared to central figure?
    • In general: Legs and feet placed where? Hands and arms where?
    • General distribution of weight:
      • Upper body:
        • Leaning on elbow? Forearm?
        • Not leaning?
      • Lower body:
        • On which leg (if standing)?
        • On which buttock (if sitting)?
  • Place all subsequent figures with similar considerations.
  • Now attend to refining the physical details for all the figures:
    • Torso positions:
      • Leaning to left or right?
      • Leaning forward?
      • Relaxed?
    • Position arms and hands:
      • Seen or not?
      • Of those that are to be seen:
        • Where (forward/back, out/in) compared to bodies of persons who own them?
        • Where in relation to other figures in picture?
        • Exact angle of upper arm, forearm, hand.
        • Hand open? Shut? Partially open? Which finger(s) extended? How?
    • Position legs and feet--same considerations as with arms and hands.
    • Exact tilt of head up/down and right/left.
    • Angle of face to the viewing plane (generally expressed in terms of "move your nose to the right/left").
    • Drape of fabric.
    • Ties in place: Up all the way? Hanging straight? Covering buttons?
    • Etc., etc.
  • Now attend to the faces:
    • Smiles? What kind?
    • Etc., etc.
  • Iteratively make sure all the details mentioned above have been taken care of.
  • Take the picture.
And I've only summarized, as an untrained witness, what I saw them doing. I haven't suggested any specifics of how to make decisions. I've just mentioned most of the decisions I could discern that they were making!

I commented on their methodology: "How did Monty pass this along to you? . . . "

They didn't really have much to say other than that he selects his protégés very carefully and he speaks of training each new photographer as a "project."

So . . . Now I'm trying to pass on my "ways of doing things." And I'm feeling pretty stymied. I realize I do all kinds of things very "second naturedly." The things that I believe contribute to clarity, trustworthiness, etc.: they seem so "obvious" to me. But--as I am being shocked time and again--they are obviously not obvious for others!

Example: I wanted a new chart for our next-year's catalog. I had expressed in words what I wanted. My designers seemed not to understand what I wanted.

A few weeks later, I saw several "perfect" examples in a PC Connection catalog. I brought in the pages and thought my staff would now understand what I was looking for. But when I finally saw the result, I realized that, too, was not the case.

I expected them to "catch" what I had meant when I kept repeating the word "small." But they wound up using a serifed font twice as large as the sans-serif PC Connection example I gave them (and what I finally used). They included, easily, two times the white space PC Connection (and I, eventually) did. In the body of their chart, they used relatively content-free checkmarks instead of communicative letters and numbers (as PC Connection did and I eventually did). They added one- and two-point thick lines around every cell in the chart when the original/example had only a single quarter- or half-point line between the headers and the body. . . . And their chart took up . . . a lot more space than I thought it needed to. . . .

Another example: Yesterday, I "happened" to see a photo caption for the new catalog. It was, to my way of thinking, very different from any photo caption I have ever written for our catalog in the past. And I wondered what "possessed" the author to write something like that?

Once I saw the caption, it was pretty obvious to me how the author's "style" differed from mine and I could explain the differences and what, specifically I didn't like about it. But internally, it left me shaken: Are these things not "obvious"? (Apparently not. Just as all the specific points I mentioned above about the chart--points I thought should have been obvious--were not.)

And so the "fact" that these things must not be obvious got me thinking: Now that I have mentioned the specifics, will that be enough? (I am beginning to doubt it.)

So how do I/we get these things worked into our copywriters' psyches? What kind of training program do we need to put in place? What kinds of expectations do we need to create for ourselves--I of my/our employees and they of me?

I thought that maybe I should think of my new production people as "kind of like" back-up quarterbacks (the Denver Broncos' Jay Cutler being back-up to their original starting QB Jake Plummer). It seemed to make some sense emotionally, anyway: "We sense you've got the stuff to make a great quarterback. But for a while, at least, we're planning to have you sit on the bench during games. You'll be at practices. You'll work hard. You may make a few plays during a game. Once in a while. But mostly you should plan to be on the bench."

That sets an expectation.

If we don't set such an expectation--on the part of the employee and on the part of management--I think there are going to be a whole lot of frustrated "players."

I don't know, however, if we have ever thought of things in this manner.

I think, in general, our company (i.e., the owners--Sarita and me and our managers) and our new employees have expected the employees to be productive pretty much from the start. But, apparently--I am beginning to realize--that is an unrealistic expectation. For those who have to express a privately-held company's "personality," such a thing is virtually impossible.

So while we can hire people who are already excellent copywriters or curriculum developers, there is a whole lot more to copywriting and product development than technical proficiency or technical capability. People who are going to fulfill these functions effectively for us need to learn our "method" every bit as much as the photographers at Monty Nuss have to learn Monty's "method." Only Monty (and the photographers he trains) seems to be able to produce the Monty Nuss "look."

At this time, sadly, it appears, only John and Sarita Holzmann seem to understand their "method." But we've got to get other people to understand and follow the "method" as well. Or our company dies with us. It cannot perpetuate itself.
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