What I learned from Brooke one afternoon in 2012

September 13, 2020

Some years ago, I worked as an analyst at a litigation consulting firm. (It was Cornerstone Research, for the curious.)

One afternoon, sitting in my cubicle, I was working on an analysis for one of our clients (a law firm). At the time, I did much of my work in Excel or in a statistical software package like Stata or SAS.

For this particular project, I’d been crunching data in Excel. I had created a chart to present the results of my analysis. And the chart had footnotes, which described which data I used, where the data came from, how I manipulated the data, etc.

I had shared the chart with Brooke, a senior analyst who was working with me on this particular project. I respected Brooke tremendously: she always produced top-quality work, she was whip-smart, and she never seemed to get tired. She was usually the first person in the office and the last person to leave, but she also managed to stay fit, to have a social life, and to get enough sleep. And she was always cheerful and rarely appeared stressed. I still don’t understand how.

Anyway, Brooke looked over the chart that I had created. After studying the chart for a while, she said—in the nicest way possible—that my footnotes weren’t precise enough and that she would teach me how to write better footnotes. So, for the next hour, Brooke and I went over every single letter and punctuation mark in my footnotes.

It might sound crazy to spend a lot of time—and a lot of the client’s money—on the footnotes to a chart. But when your analysis is used in litigation over millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars, you really want to get your numbers right. And you definitely don’t want the opposing side in the litigation to be able to poke holes in your calculations.

Brooke didn’t leave a single word or number in my footnotes intact.

No, don’t use a comma here; it makes it seem like these two pieces of data come from the same source. They don’t, so you should use a semicolon.

No, don’t write “changing this assumption doesn’t affect the numbers”. Specify which assumption you changed, by how much, and exactly how much it did or did not move the numbers.

No, line 1 doesn’t show the “stock price”; it shows the “price of NJJD shares, in 2012 dollars, adjusted for 2011 stock split”.

And so on and so forth.

To the extent that it was possible, my respect for Brooke grew even more. I had come into the job thinking that I was an organized person who did things carefully, but this was next-level. Brooke pointed out ambiguity after ambiguity that I hadn’t considered. Her attention to detail was staggering.

After some time on the job, I realized that Brooke wasn’t the only person in the company who paid this much attention to detail. Most senior analysts worked at that level of detail—at that level of precision. I got there too after a few years; I eventually found myself teaching new analysts how to do their work, and how to present their work, as precisely as possible.

Now, litigation consulting is an unusual field. It requires an unusual level of detail. In my daily life and in my current business, I don’t produce at that level of detail, because there aren’t tens of millions of dollars at stake. But having the ability to work and to think at a high level of precision is an incredible asset.

When I’m helping people to be more productive, I often find myself using techniques I learned at Cornerstone: let’s go over the details. Let’s be more precise.

Can’t seem to make any progress on your goal? Why is that? Let’s look at how you phrased it. Ah, you wrote down “Spend more time with my partner”. But how do you act on that? Let’s get more precise. How about “pick a time for scheduling a weekly date night”? You know how to do that.

Stuck on your project to “update my website”? Well, what’s holding you back? You haven’t decided where to host it? Okay, then let’s start with “choose a web host”. Oh, you first need to decide which software to run your site on before you can choose a host? No problem—then your first task is “decide whether to go with WordPress or with Webflow”. And so on.

The field of productivity is different than the field of litigation consulting. You don’t need to obsess over every single letter and punctuation mark in your list of projects and in your projects’ tasks.

But if you’re stuck, increasing the level of detail may serve you well. Be more precise in your descriptions. Question your assumptions. Ask “why?” Sharpening your thinking will help you do things right.

And if you need a little help with that, think of me as your Brooke.

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