One thing I used to do very well when I was in the public service was to write good file notes. That was partly because it was regarded as good public service practice – partly, to be frank, on the ‘cover your rear’ principle. It also meant that another person could take over the project at a moment’s notice and have a clear record available about the project and its progress to date. I wrote more detailed notes than some, probably because I had been trained as a historian and like the idea of documenting not only what had been done but why.

But since I started in business for myself many years ago, I have let that practice slip. After all, I didn’t have any superiors to call me to account! I’m now thinking it would have been a smart move to keep writing file notes, firstly because it would have helped me keep better track of what I was doing and why, and secondly because I believe we can all learn from the past and do things better in future.

What brought these thoughts on?

Well, today I’ve been sorting some papers from a couple of business tansactions that are now completed and I spent some extra time writing a few notes for the file, documenting the background to and reasoning behind some key decisions.

In the process, I was able to reflect on a few things. First, that it’s better to document things at or about the time they happen – the memory can play tricks. Secondly, I realised that some of those past decisions could have been preceded by some better research and consultation and could have been implemented more effectively.

I also realised that the projects those decisions related to would probably have gone more smoothly if I had documented that decision-making process during the course of the projects, not as an afterthought.

Finally, by having a good record of why I did things in the past, what went right and what went not so well, I can help myself make better business decisions in the future and track success more effectively. Because the chances are that if I made a silly decision in the past, say under pressure of a heavy workload, I could be vulnerable to making another silly decision in the future if some of those circumstances are repeated.

But if I have documented that series of events, circumstances, decisions and consequences, I have more chance of seeing a pattern repeating and being able to take remedial or correcting action, like putting off the decision till I am better able to consider all the implications.

I realised that what I thought was mainly a good practice for the public service can be a good practice also for private enterprise.

It doesn’t need software or a manual. You just write down or type up what was done, why, what problems there were and how you overcame them and have a filing system that enables you to find that note when you next need it.

And in a home based business, if you work on your own and should fall ill or take a vacation, a good set of file notes will be invaluable for anyone you might bring in to look after the business till you recover or return, as the case may be.

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