In this blog post, we’ll be looking at ‘sign-off’ – getting approval for a piece of work from people inside and outside the charity. We’ll look at ways to make the sign-off less painful while keeping the benefits the process brings.
If you ask any comms person in a charity with more than a few employees, ‘sign-off’ would come high on the list of things that slow them down. It’s certainly not the world’s most urgent problem, but I think you would struggle to find anyone who says that they enjoy the process of sign-off.
With the big stuff – impact reports, policy documents, annual accounts, major campaigns, TV adverts – there is often an expectation that there will be a significant amount of sign-off. But equally, in the day-to-day work – writing reports for donors, press releases for local media, blog posts, or even a tweet – there can be a lot of ‘hidden’ sign-off. This makes people feel like even the most basic tasks are impossible.
Why do we need sign-off at all?
I believe that it’s possible to make sign-off less painful. But why don’t we get rid of sign-off all together? It does serve a purpose. Here are some of the reasons that I can give for why sign-off is necessary and sometimes beneficial:
- Ensure consistent messaging – if a charity has something important to say, it’s worth repeating, over and over. It may have taken some time to get the messaging of a campaign (for example) to the point where everyone is happy. Sign-off can help ensure that messaging is used.
- Check facts – when working in-house at a major cancer charity, I was often asked to check a document (a report, a press release, or some text for the website, etc.) to make sure that it was accurate. When communicating science (or any complicated topic), making a sentence understandable or impactful can sometimes lose its accuracy or even become completely false. Sign-off can be helpful to ensure that bold claims or simple explanations are backed up with the facts.
- Dot the Is, cross the Ts – Yes, as much as we’d all like to think we’re perfect, we’re not. Sometimes sign-off is useful for picking up typos, grammatical errors, or clunky sentences that make no sense. It’s always helpful to have someone else look over your work, whatever the context.
To cut a long story short, sign-off is needed to avoid cock-ups and misunderstandings – a very valid reason.
But how we can preserve the benefits of sign-off while cutting out the things that everyone hates about it?
I don’t believe there’s any single answer to this problem. When people say ‘I hate sign-off’ it could really mean a whole range of things. I’ve thrown together a few different ideas of why people hate sign-off, and how it might be solved.
I hate sign-off because…
It feels unnecessary
For all the reasons I mention above, sign-off is important. But sometimes it isn’t strictly needed. Sometimes we send something for sign-off out of habit, a lack of confidence, or just for recognition from someone that we’ve actually done something today. Ask yourself, do I really need to get approval for this? Do I need to check this email with my line-manager? Occasionally, the adage of ‘easier to apologise than to ask permission’ should be applied.
If you really want to double-check your work, perhaps instead of ask for ‘formal’ sign-off with your manager or head of the department, you could have a quick sense check with a team-mate or friend in the charity.
Managers, if you’re expecting your team to check all their daily work with you (or they’re finding that they’re asking for your sign-off anyway whether you want it or not), discuss with your team on what is the best route forward is. And how you can give them the freedom to do their best work while also providing a helping hand if they need it.
It takes forever for people to get back to me
- It may sound obvious, but give people a clear deadline of when you need something back by!
- Give people as much heads-up as possible. Even tell them before you’re going to send it to them. Words to the effect of: “Please could you look over something for me next week? I’ll send it to you on Wednesday, and I’ll need it back on Friday lunchtime. Does that work for you? Let me know if that’ll be a problem, and we can work out a different schedule.”.
- If it’s something regular that you need sign-off for (e.g. regular blog posts), getting a process down and agreeing on a schedule will help massively.
There’s too many people involved
- Cut down the number of people involved to absolutely the essential. What is everyone’s role? Could each person ‘double up’ on a job? (e.g. the policy person checks for policy messages and also typos).
- What role is everyone playing at each stage? Do you need to send it to four people at this point, or could you send it to two now, and two later? (or vice versa, if that would speed things up.)
- Consider identifying a ‘project manager’ or ‘editor’ who’s responsible for keeping everyone on task (outsource this if you need to)
Too many of the ‘big wigs’ are involved, which slows things down
This is a common problem, particularly with large pieces of work (e.g. impact reports) which feel very important. Of course, the senior management team probably do need to be involved. Their busy schedule and competing demands results in a long time to get their approval.
- Does the Director / CEO really need to be involved, or could they delegate to someone else?
- Do they need to be involved at every stage? You could involve them early on to set out the scope, and then bring them in at the end to check that’s been achieved.
- Do you need the Head of Policy to sign-off that policy message, or could someone else more ‘junior’ sign that off for you?
Everyone comments on everything
I’ve been in situations where someone chips in their thoughts about every single detail. The messaging, the grammar, the design, whether the word ‘data’ is plural or singular. And then because one person has given their two cents, everyone else feels like they need to or ought to. Avoid this by:
- Give specific requests for what you want from each person. Don’t just ask them to ‘have a read’. What should they read? What are they meant to be looking for?
- Make sure that everyone understands who is looking at what – to avoid a situation where they feel like they need to look at everything just in case someone hasn’t picked it up.
- Sign-off specific sections with individual people, as you go, if needed. Then if you do need to send it to a bunch of people, you can say “all the stats have been checked, so please focus instead on…”
- Get specific answers to short questions during the writing process, not ‘saving them up’ for the sign-off.
Sometimes the process can be inefficient or muddled. One person will send changes by email. Another person will add comments. Someone else will do ‘tracked changes’. Then other people will want to talk directly to you. Gathering all this and combining the changes can be tricky. You can avoid this by agreeing on how you want to receive feedback:
- What do you want people to do if they want to change something? Are they meant to edit directly? Or add a comment? And an email? Or speak to you in person? Agree on it, and make sure everyone knows how to do this (e.g. how to turn on tracked changes in Word).
- Instead of ‘sending off and getting back’, could you sit down together (in person or virtually) to work on it together? You might find agreement much quicker this way, especially about contentious issues.
- Could you use collaborative documents, such as Google docs or Microsoft 365? This would mean everyone can see everyone else’s changes and respond in real time.
There’s too much sign-off to do because the document needs a lot of work
Handing over something incomplete is sometimes unavoidable. But if you keep on asking people to sign-off work which is clearly unfinished or sloppy, then your colleagues might feel like they have to take ages to read over anything you do. Try and avoid this by:
- Making sure that people know what isn’t quite ready for their comments. For example, if someone knows that the Conclusions section isn’t finished, they’ll focus on something else instead (in fact, it sometimes might be more efficient to go piece-by-piece like this).
- Get it into a more finished state by doing some ‘pre-sign off’ editing – either yourself or getting one of your colleagues or team-mates to check over it.
- Make sure that reviewers understand what they’re being asked to do. Let them know if you (or someone else) will pick up spelling and grammar errors, so they don’t need to.
- Tidy up and make sure it’s easy to navigate, as best you can. If you organise it nicely, people can be forgiving of a lot of work (honestly, it works).
Too many rounds of sign-off
In an ideal world, nothing would need sign-off more than twice. For example, you write a draft, you send it out to review, you incorporate their changes, and then you send it out again to make sure everyone’s happy with the final version. Any more than this can feel a bit like Groundhog Day, especially if it means extra unplanned rounds of sign-off.
Try and avoid this by:
- Working out in advance how many rounds of sign-off there will be. Go in with a plan and stick to it (and make sure everyone knows what it is!)
- Do work beforehand to answer some of the big questions. For example, you don’t want to leave it to the second round of sign-off of a huge report, to realise you’re missing an entire section (as I have done in the past). Get everyone’s agreement in advance on things like the scope, audience, and sources.
- Make sure you’ve agreed who is going to sign it off. Again, you don’t want to get to the end of round two only for someone to say “This is great, but I think our Head of Finance needs to look over the whole thing now”.