Continuity Books - Tools for passing knowledge onward

by Gwyneth

In my work as a technical expert, I have often been asked to accept new assignments, offices or posts which I have not previously filled, for which I have had little in the way of preparatory time. Sometimes the task at hand has never been done before, and then I am on my own to sort out how best to organise the people and material resources which have been granted to me by the powers that be.

            More often, though, I find myself stepping into an office or post from which someone else has just been, or is just about to be, rotated out to a new assignment. If we are both lucky, there will be some overlap time between us, and we can sit down and work through all the things I need to know, and all the procedures that have been established by the people who were there before me. That's a grand and comforting thing indeed.

            But I don’t always have the luxury of crossover time. Sometimes I sit down at my new desk and find a pile of papers and telephone message slips, all of which need my urgent care and attention. I face three nasty questions:

What should I do first?
            Where are the things I need to do this?
                        And who can help me do it?

            Over the past twenty years or so, I have more and more often found a 'Continuity Book' sitting on top of that proverbial desk, waiting for me to read its pages and learn what I should be doing. It will be a different book in every different office, at every different desk. What these books all have in common is that they will have been written by someone who did that very job before me, who had to puzzle out the answers to those three nasty questions.

            If you go off and do a search of the Web, you will find very little mention of Continuity Books; I suppose that this is mostly because they are unique to each office, and there are no 'one version fits all' Continuity Books. Indeed, unless you are sharing a role or responsibility with several other people, any Continuity Book which you read (or you yourself write) will be written by a single person and intended for a readership consisting of a single person. There's a fairly good chance, in fact, that the author of one of these books will never cross paths with its eventual readers -- that in itself should be a sobering thought.

            So, above all, write clearly. Don’t hint at things, be coy about them, or talk around them. Use plain and simple words, verbs of action, the basic language that would be shared by two friends who trusted one another.

            A Continuity Book doesn't need to be a big, long, exhaustive document. It should, however, be easily rearranged, and be amenable to expansion or contraction as the needs and duties of its readers change. A loose-leaf binder makes a perfect starting point. Toss in a few tabbed pages so that the reader can find his or her way around, and you are off to the races.

            Sometimes a person has more than one set of duties and responsibilities. In that case, there should be more than one Continuity Book, and each one should be clearly labelled with the office to which it refers. In the industrial world, maybe the books are labelled "Lathe Operator" and "Blacksmith". In the military world, they might say "Public Affairs Officer" and "Environment, Health and Safety Officer." In a coven the books might be "Maiden" and "Summoner." What all of these books have in common is that they contain relevant information that will help the reader perform the tasks to which they refer. That information might include telephone numbers, equipment servicing instructions, lists of spare parts, or something as basic as a description of what papers are kept in which desk drawer.

Why wait for Spring? Do it now!

When I was younger, the Canadian government sponsored a Winter Works programme, whose core objective was to exhort people to commission tradespeople and construction workers to build and repair things during the winter months, which were usually quite slow periods in the construction industry. So, several times a day, the radio would play a catchy little jingle that ended with the catch-hrase, "Why wait for Spring? Do it now!"

            And so you should, when it comes to putting together a Continuity Book. If one does not exist for the role which you fill within your group, start one when you first accept that role. If a book already does (lucky you!), then keep it actively updated; add new things as they are needful, and correct the information that was already there. Don’t wait for Spring -- don't wait until your last week in that role, and find yourself hurriedly trying to bring a Continuity Book up to date for your successor.

            Besides avoiding a time crunch, the very actions of compiling or updating a Continuity Book will help you better understand the role which you have been given to perform. Working with the book may guide you to the insights that will lead to improved ways of doing things, or significant new shortcuts around long-established blockages.

Use the darned thing

Put your Continuity Book together (or re-arrange it -- that's why the loose-leaf binder is there!) in such a way that the book can actually be useful. The best test of usability is whether you yourself will use it. That might mean that the book should be small and portable -- perhaps a small loose-leaf book, of the sort that business people used to use before small computers became fashionable. I still use my trusty Filofax books -- little leather binders with re-arrangeable diary pages, and lots of useful information that she herself wrote, or copied from other sources. Maybe you won't want a set of trigonometric tables, but maybe a calendar of moon phases for the next two years might be handy. Perhaps, if you are arranging outdoor rituals, a chart of the likelihood of rain or snow in any season of the year would be useful. Witches might want to have recipes for cookies, or incenses, or the like.

            You will know that you have succeeded, when you start using the Continuity Book for refreshing your memory on a daily basis. Furthermore, the book that you have made, revised and used yourself is a book which is more likely to be useful to your successor. That was the goal in the very beginning, right?

Critical data

At a minimum, the Continuity Book should contain critical reference data that could not be easily found anywhere else. Such data might comprise: mailing lists, or telephone call-out lists; savings account numbers, the addresses of the credit unions or banks themselves. Don’t forget deposit slips. If you are passing along large paper files, an index or table of contents to the files would be helpful to your successor. I once 'inherited' 16 rolls of microfilm and a viewing machine, with no index as to what was on the microfilm. After much bother, when I left that particular assignment there was an index to pass along to my successor.

Equipment lists

What equipment do you need to do your work? Where is it kept? Who fixes or maintains it? What pieces or parts are interchangeable (and which ones, catastrophically, aren't?). As a practical example: where in your kitchen do you keep all the things that you need to bake bread?

            If you have any specialized equipment, as, for example, a group that runs a festival might have a button-making machine, you'll want to include instructions for how to operate and maintain it, as well as information about where to get supplies.

            Keep track of the maintenance status of key pieces of equipment. If there is a long lead time for ordering and receiving supplies, make sure that your successor is aware of it.

Lists of other resources

Particularly in the case of complicated assignments, there may be no easy way to cram all the information into one book. Consider making a reference list, that points to the ten or so books which you found so frequently handy. Perhaps there are lists of useful websites that are worth passing along to your successor -- be sure to date such references, since in that way you give your successor a fair chance of being able to find websites by means of Web archives.

Job descriptions

Write down, on one page if you can, a description of what you do, and how much of your time you spend doing it. That will be a helpful reminder to your successor, especially if there are time-management issues.

            For complex jobs, consider lists of essential tasks, or flow charts showing how tasks relate to each other. Don’t forget to make notes of who the people are with whom you regularly must talk, or work together with. Make sure that you have provided contact information for them.

            If paperwork is part of your assignment, keep some examples of completed forms. Keep some blank forms, too, in case they are hard to get (or the agency in question cannot or will not supply them any more).

            Write down vendor lists, and keep notes about prices. If you have to pay the rent for a rehearsal space, who do you pay it to, in what form, and how much is the rent? Unscrupulous people have been known to take advantage of transitions between office-holders to change the terms of rentals, or their amount, to their own advantage.

Calendars and timetables

If you must perform the same actions each year (for example, putting on a gathering), then there will be certain times and seasons by which, or during which, certain things must be done. Write those times and seasons down in terms of a timetable, perhaps as so many weeks before the event will happen. Enclose, if you can, a set of calendars for the five years ahead of your year. This will make it easier for you, and your successor, to conduct longer-range planning.

Keep an archive

A gathering's Continuity Book contains copies of previous years' programme guidebooks, membership-button artwork, and other historic items such as menus for the meal plan of a gathering, or notes on what did and didn’t go well. If you can leave your own set of memories for your successors, they may find them helpful and inspiring.

Lessons learned

Keep track of what you have learned about your office -- that includes successes as well as failures. If there was a problem, how did you solve it? That's particularly important when it comes to recalcitrant things such as computers, or insurance agencies.

Make it easy to update

Although your goal is to write down all the useful references for your own ongoing use (and your successor's use, too), you will surely find that some of the information needs to be updated from time to time.

            Although you can make these revisions in handwriting or with a typewriter (both being ways that I keep my Filofax book up to date), you may well find it easier to keep a master copy of the Continuity Book as a computer file, and thus do the updates with a word-processing programme. So long as you have kept each key item of information on a separate page, then it becomes easy to update the Continuity Book by revising and printing out just that page.

            If you are going to use a computer in this way, be sure to save the data in a form that it can be read, and worked with, by the computer that your successor is likely to be using. Don't forget the problem of incompatible software versions -- maybe your successor will be using older software on a smaller, less-capable computer. Various Pagan organizations have, over the years, had no end of trouble caused by incompatible computer programmes and storage media. How many of us can still read Appleworks data off a 5¼-inch floppy-disk?

Table of contents

Although the table of contents should be the first page in the Continuity Book, it will be one of the last pages that you write, since it has to point to where everything is in the book. If you try to assemble the table of contents by hand, you can save a lot of mindless bother by 'chunking it' out. Perhaps it will look like this:

                                    Table of Contents

                        Emergencies………………..Red Tab

                        Rites of Passage……………Orange Tab

                        People………………………Pink Tab

                        Recipes……………………..Yellow Tab

                        Finances…………………….Green Tab

                        Elder Matters……………….Purple Tab

                        Agencies and Resources……Blue Tab

                              Last updated by Felicitas Ravensnout on July 5th, 1990

If you are using a word-processing programme to compile (and then subsequently print out) your book, then it is much easier to make a detailed index, complete with page numbers if that is what you want.

Ongoing actions

Towards the end of your term of office, make notes of the actions that are ongoing, all the projects which you have started but which your successor will be finishing. I have found this section of established Continuity Books to be the most fascinating of all. Consider adding your own notes about how you dealt with the challenges and opportunities which your predecessor left for you to inherit.

            Bear in mind that there is no standard format or set template for a Continuity Book. If you make and maintain it in a way which is useful to you, and then you pass it onwards, you will have given a great gift to your successor.

            Let’s get started!


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