Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Typo (3): the myth of correct spelling

Ironically – considering the frequency with which school children use it for exactly this purpose – the Oxford English Dictionary never set out to specify “correct” spelling.

For “mackerel”, the second edition in 1989 listed 19 alternative spellings. The unearthing of sources never ends, though, so the third edition revised entry in 2002 listed no fewer than thirty: maccarel, mackaral, mackarel, mackarell, mackerel, mackarell, mackeril, mackreel, mackrel, mackril, macquerel, macquerell, macrel, macrell, macrelle, macril, macrill, makarell, makcaral, makerel, makerell, makerelle, makral, makrall, makreill, makrel, makrell, makyrelle, maquerel, and maycril.

As lexicographers, the editors would never declare these alternatives to be wrong: misspellings. They do not wish to declare their choice of spelling for the headword, mackerel, to be “correct”. They emphasize that they examine the evidence and choose “the most common current spelling.”

A new entry as of December 2003 memorialized “nuclar”: “= nuclear, (adjective, in various senses).”

James GleickThe Information

All spellings are made up, and exist as dynamic parts of the complex adaptive system of language. Conclusion: we waste too much attention on typos.

Typo (2): error rate

The other thing about typos is how few we actually make relative to the attention we pay to them.

A single spelling or grammar mistake in a thousand words leaps off the page – is embarrassing – but makes no difference to our understanding.

We pay errors far more attention than they deserve as signals of the quality of a piece of writing – and in most contexts a 0.1% error rate is considered excellent anyway.

Polish is important – but not as a substitute for workmanship.

Typo (1)

I was reading an article – a thoughtful, well researched, nicely structured, neatly expressed piece of writing about something important – when I came across the typo.

“Ha!” ran my interior monologue. “This person is an idiot. I am smarter than they are.”

Of course, it’s better if a text is error-free. But typos and spelling mistakes are probably the least important problems a piece of writing can have and are by far the easiest things to fix.

Perhaps that’s why we’re trained to pay them so much attention: it’s a lot easier to teach kids to spell than to help them learn to think, to have something worth saying, and to say it convincingly or winsomely.

Inwardly ridiculing the idiot who misspelled a word or two is a cheap trick we use to feel good about ourselves – with the added benefit that it allows us to hide from the fact that the writer in question (smarter or not) has taken the time to write something, and we haven’t.

The hard thing about soft skills

The hard thing about the ‘soft’ skills of courtesy and consideration is that they’re only partly skills. They’re far more about our attitude: how much we value other people and their purposes and feelings, and the interest and care that we show them as we go about our business.

Consistently showing up for people – seeing, hearing and serving them – is far harder than going about our business focused only on our business. And there is a cost: it takes time and energy and attention to engage with and serve others when your ‘real’ job is doing something else. But it’s worth the time and energy, because this is the right way to be – whether we’re dealing with customers or the CEO or the person who cleans your office.

This means that ‘soft’ skills require us to be better at what we do, so that we have the time and energy to spare when we need them – you need something to be generous with. And if this is important to us, we need to do more than show up in the moment: we need to choose to manage our work and commitments so that an attitude of generous service is built into everything we do.

This is much harder than just doing your job.

Much harder, and much better – now and in the long run.


Whether you’re improving your own work or helping others improve theirs,* it pays to spend time talking about who is responsible for what – and what you hope people will take responsibility for as they grow into their roles.

There are layers of responsibility.

1) Given all the necessary inputs…

Do you take responsibility for getting your job done?

2) If an input is missing…

  • Do you shrug your shoulders and put down your tools?
  • Or do you take responsibility for passing the problem to the relevant person – a colleague, supplier, manager?
  • Do you take responsibility for chasing up the solution?
  • If needed, will you work with the relevant person to make it easier for them to fix it?
  • Will you give thought to whether this problem is likely to happen again – and think about what you can do on your side to fix it (by, say, allowing more time in your process)?
  • Will you take responsibility for the breakdown in communication or process – by talking about it, asking for help, trying something new?

3) If the inputs are fine and the process is working…

  • Will you ask how it could be done better?
  • Will you think about whether you could entirely replace the process, or do away with it entirely?

4) Above and beyond the level of processes…

  • Will you take responsibility not just for the defined outcomes of the process, but for what those outcomes are actually supposed to achieve?
  • Will you set an example of excellence in the quality of your work…
  • Including how you treat people while you do it, both in and outside your organisation?
  • Will you take a degree of responsibility for other people do these things – that is, for setting and improving the culture?**

Basic competence in a defined task is just the start – taking that as given, members of your team become more valuable the further down this list they go.

There’s a world of difference between managing someone where you responsibility for their work, and working with someone who takes responsibility to make sure the right things get done in the right way – and helps you and others to do the same. Find more of those people.

*it’s usually best to think about both at once

**No-one likes a meddler, but most of the time most of us make the mistake of not taking enough responsibility for making things better.

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)

William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Step out of the picture

If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.

Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.

You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.

Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.

Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.