Monday, May 4, 2015

Writing a White Paper

Writing a White Paper

I think that most of us have seen white papers before - I know the first time I was exposed to one it was in relation to what amounted to a sales promotion. Basically the company was defending its marketing position through the use of a white paper (I believe it was Forrester or perhaps Gartner, who both seem to write quite a few of them and in general are both fairly well respected in the industry). I believe the original concept behind a white paper was to produce an authoritative research document with the end goal of creating correlations or interpretations of raw data. Historically most of these were used by government (and in particular US government) to identify trends and produce some type of synthesis of the information that would then be used to form recommendations; and often the task would involve the use of university researchers - basically experts in fields that could make sense of the data and then produce a report that could be easier to consume, presumably by governmental branches (note that a lot of this type of research has been given to data scientists who have even more training in looking at trends and anti-trends). I'm not sure about why they are "white" but my conjecture is that it's supposed to mean that the opinions are external and objective; as opposed to regular reports which tend to be subjectively sourced for internal use only.
As I've already indicated, most of the white papers I've seen up until the last 10 years or so were put together by companies that specialize in producing them. Conceptually, government and most companies tend to make some assumptions that support a position or action and it's easier to defend those assumptions when an independent resource has produced a data-based opinion. If you read my last article on Inductive communication you'll see a trend. Academia tends to take a lot of raw data and while scientifically examining trends and anti-trends, tries to make sense of what is being observed and provide some reasoning or hypothesis regarding what is happening. The next step is to narrow the data set or look for additional data points to support the hypotheses - you start wide then narrow things down to proof your ideas. With the most current trend and approach, you first make some guesses then find data to support those assumptions - it takes out the appetizer which tends to be less rewarding and very time consuming, and goes directly for the entree, so to speak. Think of this as more of a marketing document and less of an objective research paper.

I'm not here to explore the validity of the approach - as with anything it can be flawed and if you're one of those companies that professionally writes white papers as an output, especially to get paid, you'll tend to find data and correlations that match assumptions. Sometimes this can lead companies into making strategic mistakes, but more often than not the initial assumptions are sound and the white papers help to get projects funded and off-the-ground. And the whole point is often to start with something instead of a back-of-the-napkin idea. I've been describing the development of the white paper concept and how I've seen it change over time:
  1. White papers as independent data analysis, correlation and theory using deductive reasoning and making sense of it all.
  2. White papers as proof using inductive reasoning to defend a hypothesis
  3. The latest trend, doing internal research to find information defending projects.
My focus will be on that third trend as I find it very interesting and I've experienced it first hand very recently. How did something which is supposed to be from independent AKA 3rd Party resources become an internal construct?
Most recently I've been asked to develop a series of white papers - these were asked for by our executive committee to be presented to help defend our division's current product roadmap and how ti relates to the overall company vision. I had witnessed a different group go through this exercise and frankly wasn't very thrilled to be caught up in a bunch of documentation and research. From my observations of this other group I noticed, very superficially, a consistent trend that involved: intent, due diligence (research), craft in writing, submission, review and rejection for edits, repeat ad nauseam. I could tell by the reactions, day-to-day from some of my product management coworkers (other teams, not my own) that what they worked upon was a bit of an exercise in futility. Most of the papers had gone through a revision history in excess of 30 versions, some exceeded 50 and many of the edits were really what I would call nitpicky - e.g. moving text two pixels to the right, changing the object color by a shade or recreating tables for consistent font size and usage. Stuff that for most of us who work in the agile world would find excruciating and yes, the outcry was robust, at least within our small sub-community within the company. This was all piled on top of a huge list of requested white papers - in fact there was so much research going on that there was a Senior Product Manager in charge of the project - sort of a PdM of White Papers (a paper crown would be appropriate, no?). Not to say that there isn't any value in consistency, presentation and messaging, but when you think about what's being asked for as content, you would also think that it would be more important to deliver good information rather than perfect, meticulous formatting? But I digress...
So with a bit of hesitation and a list of white papers being asked for from my group, I began tackling the task at hand. Originally I had three to do, but with a new hire to our team that went down to two. Fortunately, as with most projects there were already several artifacts available to me in the form of analysis by various business units and in some cases earlier attempts at white papers (at least they were labeled thus).
So how did these white papers turn out? Well, as you may infer, I started writing the papers with a bit of a negative mindset - no one wants to do "make work" for the sake of doing work. What was the most interesting was that in preparing my work and doing research, I actually found out a lot of useful information that began to change my perception of the entire task. It started to transform from boring documentation into something else, something much more useful. As with any research I first start with a diagram. It's my opinion that if I can't explain a process using a basic flow diagram, then what business do I have trying to explain it in detailed requirements? As with anything, one diagram suggests another and another and then you find yourself editing the diagram as you discover new ways of representing what's happening. You also start to see exception cases and allow for those. You also have a better view of what's important and what isn't so your MVP is much better.
Acting as a Product Owner for agile software teams causes you to become very focused on the task at hand. You end up often in a state where you can't see the forest for all the trees - this process of producing a white paper helped me to put things into perspective from a macro level. Rather than taking the least path to implementation, you begin to see where you might miss something that's part of the overall picture. Wow, I was suddenly propelled into the best aspect of Product Management - taking information and creating a strategic treatise on the "ideal product" and figuring out what baby steps need to be in place to get the whole product into production. That's the first real benefit of white papers - it's not the document your produce, it's the underlying research and thinking about the project that's important. It provides both better context and better overall product vision, that in turn produces a better product roadmap.
So what's next? One of the problems with working in a very tight team of product managers is that we all trust each other quite a bit. When we present to one another we accept much of what is presented and instead focus questions on the implementation rather than questioning some of the basic premises. As a result, when we distributed out white papers to each other there wasn't a lot of useful feedback. It wasn't until we shared papers in review meetings with a much larger group (that included both the BU head and also heads of engineering) that the really hard questions began. It was at this point that the next really useful benefit of the white papers became apparent - that the vision at the top began to be aligned with the thinking at the product level. The feedback and comments had us grumbling at first, however it did more to align our overall efforts, our product roadmap, and our thinking with the head of our division than during any other presentation or meeting. To me this was much more than a happy accident, this was a clinical example of how to align everyone for success! In turn, the message was passed to our corporate executives and now the unified message is passed in everything we say, do or release. This more than made the effort worthwhile and in effect transcended the dull work of writing white papers into something much more.
So White Papers... a waste of time? To answer this question, it really depends on what you are doing, the reason you are doing it, and what you ultimately do with the information. I started with the idea that these white papers were a waste of time, but in doing them found something more. The key to making these something other than words on paper is having the discussions that make them useful. In my case, the experiences became something much better than the sum of their parts. If everything worked this way, we would all be successful and every product would compete for greatness - we would make mediocrity history and raise the bar on all products. I think these papers had that level of impact on us and can only hope you too experience the same.
-- John

(also published to LinkedIn)

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