Following directions


Do you remember those tests in elementary school that were supposed to help you learn about following directions? Typically, the test would ask dozens of long questions only to have the last question say “Skip all the other questions and write ‘Done’ on the page”. The idea, of course, was to teach the importance of reading the instructions, which inevitably said “Read all the questions carefully before you begin”. Indeed, it was quite annoying to waste your time doing it all wrong, especially when other kids already knew the ruse.

Fast forward a few decades, and people still don’t know how to follow directions. Case in point: I’ve been interviewing potential hires, and one of the things we ask them for is a 50 word writing sample. There’s really nothing tricky about it. Yet some people always write something that’s twice as long, and one person gave us nearly a whole page. If they can’t follow such a simple set of instructions, it certainly doesn’t bode well for their attention to detail in the work environment.

Maybe these people never had the benefit of those cruel yet effective tests in grade school. Or perhaps they’re just sloppy and can’t be bothered to double check their work. Either way, it makes me think that schools at all levels need to do a better job of teaching people to read and understand the instructions pertaining to any given task. Otherwise, you end up with output that doesn’t meet the requirements and constraints of the project, and that person never reaches their full potential within the organization.