Reading for Pleasure or Pain

Books

Identifying the boundaries of your organisation and its operations is a fundamental part of its strategic framework and it generally uses a different skill set to that used in defining its mission, goals and principles.

An organisation’s constraints may be geographic, financial or legal, and although the first two parameters may use intuition and a trip to the bank or treasurer, it is the third parameter which is the most time consuming.

So today we’re going to school first and then law school to have a think about how to read and specifically how to review legislative instruments. I can imagine that half of my audience has now just left. Hopefully that doesn’t include you!

Ok so reading. It’s useful for so many things, isn’t it? Warnings on bottles of poison, cautions on the edge of cliffs, text messages on phones, gripping moments in romance novels… I could go on. They all require an ability to read, but is it just noticing, skimming, properly reading, making you think or giving you a decent basis for analysis? I think it all comes down to how you do it.

Identifying constraints and in fact identifying any information that can help in documenting policies, processes and supporting instruments, requires something more than a cursory skim. It is about getting your head into the purpose and formal language of a piece of legislation, another regulatory instrument or a strategic plan to extract an understanding of what can and can’t be done within your organisation.

So how do you go about getting the most out of reading a document?

Generally

Here is my quick take on how to get the most out of any document you choose to read:

1. Identify the purpose of the document from the blurb or executive summary.
2. Check when it was written, what its status is (draft, approved, implemented, superseded…)
3. Check who it applies to – If it is a standard operating procedure, does it say who it applies to? If it is a journal article does it suggest in the introduction who the intended audience was?
4. Do you know what information you are trying to get out of it?
5. Is it written in language you are familiar with or is there a glossary at the back (or a specialist dictionary you should have at the ready)?
6. Skim the contents to get a high-level understanding of what you’re about to read and where the information you need might be.
7. Get busy reading!

Legislative Review

A bit more discipline has grown up around the practice of reviewing (interpreting) legislation, probably because there can be so much riding on it. Life in prison, huge amounts of money and professional reputations could be at stake. But do you know what? At the end of the day I think the same principles apply as to reviewing any document – just there are some more specific places to look for the necessary information.

To identify strategic constraints enacted in legislation you don’t need to be a lawyer – although I imagine the experience helps. The task is more about generally identifying the procedural boundaries around your business operations than answering critical semantic questions – if you do come across one of those questions you probably would refer it to a lawyer!

The problem with legal documents though is that there is so much specialist jargon involved. In my law degree one whole semester was spent on legal research methods and that was along with other topics providing useful background to the legal system.

If you have no understanding of what legislation is or what purpose legislation plays in governing society or what sections are, I’m not going to be able to help you today. However, assuming you have a basic understanding of these things, I am going to give you my top tips for how to review a piece of legislation, which are essentially the same as how I recommend you review any document.

1. Know the purpose of the legislation. The purpose and / or objective of a given act are usually found in one of the early sections or as part of the long title of the act. Finding this up front will give you much needed context in understanding what the document is all about.

2. Check the last update. There is usually a date of last amendment at the very beginning (on the title page even) and a schedule of changes towards the back if you want more detail. The main thing – for the exercise that we’re talking about, you don’t want to review out of date legislation.

3. Check the responsible minister. This is useful for when an act is littered with references to what the Minister must do and helps to put the Minister’s responsibilities within the context of a specific department. In South Australia, we can find which acts are committed to which Minister from one easy location: http://www.legislation.sa.gov.au/Web/Information/Acts%20committed%20to%20Ministers/ActsCommittedToMinisters.pdf . It is a logical step then to work out which department has responsibility for administering the Minister’s responsibilities.

4. Before you get any further in, make sure you have written down what you are looking for in your review. Regulatory instruments – no matter what attempt has been made to write them in layperson’s English and with a streamlined layout – can be humongous and section by section refer you all around the document like a 4D domino set, so you better be clear what you’re looking for else you will get lost!

5. Know where the interpretation section (ie the glossary) is and put in a marker for easier reference. You are likely to need to refer to this section a lot. Where the term you are puzzling over is lacking somewhat in the definitions department, the Acts Interpretation Act or equivalent of your jurisdiction may be of help, or next step is relevant case law (the findings of a court). Where you are still confused, this is very much where a legal practitioner comes into his or her element.

6. Skim the contents. In the absence of process maps or other helpful diagrams at the front of acts of parliament (which I think is a sad omission of the drafting process), this is your road map through the document in the same way it is for any book or journal.

7. Hopefully you now know what you’re doing, which sections to review and are ready to dig in. Go for it, tiger!

And other bits and pieces

I didn’t want to finish up here without including some other suggestions that might help speed up your comprehension, identification and gathering of relevant facts through reading. Here are my big three.

1. When you are going to be picking a large number of facts or pieces of information while you are reading, set up templates for collecting this information as early as possible – and ideally even before you start. I like tables or spreadsheets as it is easy to insert another column if you realize as you go on that you can be collecting something more, and it makes any analysis easier.

2. Always have highlighters, pens etc ready or a notepad – you’ll pick up other links and spark off new ideas if you’re actively engaging with new reading material and you don’t want to either lose them or become distracted by them.

3. If you are getting bogged down in long-winded sentences, badly structured documents or confusing concepts and yet you still feel that it’s a document worth reading, don’t be frightened to squiggle. I find myself able to more quickly understand how a new subject matter fits together by representing it visually -mind mapping, flow charting, vent diagrams and generally creating whatever type of picture makes more intuitive sense to me. Try it. It’s fun!

So what do you think?

Did you make it to the end of this post? And do you have any tips for how to quickly and usefully read big documents?

What do you think?