The Roots of America. The Roots of Your Business.

It’s Sunday, September 6, and Linda and I are in Philadelphia. We stand in a pouring deluge – the brunt of tropical storm Hanna is upon us – as we wait to enter Independence Hall, located in the city’s Historic District. Drenched despite our umbrellas, 30 of us enter the annex of the building. We sit for a few minutes of instruction and orientation, and then the Park Service tour guide leads us into the chamber where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed in 1776 and 1787, respectively.  

In this large room, and behind a low wooden rail barrier, are a number of plain tables and simple chairs. In the very front of the room, slightly elevated and farthest away from our soaked little throng, is another simple desk and, behind it, a more elaborate, high-backed “sunrise” chair: This is the very chair George Washington sat in as he presided over the creation of our nation’s foundational documentation. (And I think, what a thrill it would be to hop the railing and – despite outraged park rangers, verbal thrashings, and probable arrest – sit for a moment in that particular chair…). 

Those of you who have read Work The System know where this is going: America’s roots lie in documentation. To be clear, the documentation I am talking about is not peripheral evidence, diary entries, or some idle narration of events. These documents are the working roots of the primary system that is America. In the summer of 1776, a collection of incredibly formidable guys sat down, harangued back and forth about details, and then, for starters, wrote down on paper where this country was to be headed: The Declaration of Independence –  we were to be an independent nation! Then, they pounded out the Articles of Confederation which would ultimately be replaced by their second master document: The Constitution – our country’s principles of operation. And, within this document, and within the following Bill of Rights, was the formula for creating and modifying our everyday laws. 

Is there any better example of the beauty of organizational documentation than the foundational documents of our own country? Would it make sense to pattern a private organization’s documentation after the most successful political document ever created? Know this isn’t rocket science. Despite what has been called the greatest gathering of brilliant minds gathered in any one place and time, there are only three simple, necessary documents: First, one that tells us where one is headed; second, a collection of guidelines for future actions; and third, a specific collection of how-to’s. 

What if these guys had never written things down? 

For the Continental Congress, it was damn hard work. It was hot and humid in the summer, hard and cold in the winter; contentious and frustrating – and the English were more than annoyed, killing and plundering at their doorsteps. (The British would ultimately, albeit temporarily, take over Philadelphia.) 

Nonetheless, despite numerous, serious distractions, our guys settled in and did what they had to do: They ground out their documentation. The end result? The enormous machine that is America continues to succeed, with the founding father’s guidelines still running the show. 

Last week in Washington, D.C., before coming up here to Philly, Linda and I physically stood in front of these primary American documents: documents permanently ensconced within the heavily guarded fortress of the National Archives (which, in turn, is surrounded by the incredibly secure city of Washington itself). Anyone who stands in the Archives rotunda, reading the words on those documents, like we did, knows these are more than mere words on paper: These documents are the roots of America.  

How about you? Written anything down lately? If you operate a small business, there is a good chance your answer in “no.” And, if you work for a large corporation, what about the documentation you have been instructed to use? Is it relevant and vital to what is happening today in your department? My guess is, probably, “yes.” If it weren’t relevant and vital, your business would not exist. 

Am I rabid about documentation? Yes, and here’s how I look at things: Documentation is more than the representation of a system, it is the system. Is the compilation of documentation boring and tedious – yes, it can be. But, I ask, who says vital work has to be exciting in order to be worthwhile? Years ago, as I began to document my own company, I quickly became energized by the fact that virtually no one else in my industry was doing it. It was too hard! Too tedious! That meant I was at a terrific advantage! And I was further pumped by the realization that ALL large, successful businesses have found a way to create, and then abide by, solid documentation. That’s how they got large and successful!  

Is the simple entry fee to the large-and-successful club simply the time and effort it takes to document and then apply that documentation? Yes!

It seems Linda and I have become a couple of small-time American history buffs. It’s new territory for us, and it’s downright exciting as we relate what happened so long ago to what is vital in our lives right now. What worked then – documentation – is working now. 

Sam Carpenter is author of the recent book, Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More

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