Meetings

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.

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CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 4 (55-Minute Meeting) Show Notes

In my 4th podcast, released February 13, 2017. I discuss the power of the 55-minute meeting. A couple of the key points that were listed in the podcast:

A meeting is supposed to:

  • coordinate action
  • to exchange information
  • to motivate a team
  • discuss issues, ideas or problems
  • and/or to make a decision.

Some of the many complaints people have about meetings:

  • There are too many of them
  • Many are unnecessary
  • They don’t start on time or are held up due to late arrivals
  • They have unclear agendas
  • They go on for too long
  • The wrong people are invited
  • People introduce irrelevant topics
  • They conclude with vague ideas and unresolved issues
  • They end late

The ideal 55-minute meeting can be set up like this:

55-minute-meeting

If you are discovering this post before having heard the podcast, search for CoolTimeLife on iTunes, or visit Blubrry.com, which will point you towards iTunes, Android and others.

CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 2 (Attention) Show Notes

Episode 2 (January 30, 2017): Paying attention to the concept of attention, specifically: understanding and capitalizing on your own attention span as well as that of other people; techniques for getting people’s full attention in emails and meetings; standing to attention: why standing and moving around is good for your health;  memory tricks: how to remember people’s names before your short attention span lets go of them.

To listen to the podcast, click here
To subscribe to the podcast series, click here

IF PEOPLE DO NOT SEEM TO BE PAYING ATTENTION TO YOU DURING A MEETING:

It might seem rude. But maybe they are…

  • Taking notes. Digital notes are much easier to tag and search for.
  • Fact-checking or retrieving useful info or documents to keep the meeting on track
  • Putting out an external fire via email or chat. It’s eiter this or skip the meeting
  • Doodling / playing Angry Birds. Most people need to move around. We’re not allowed to fidget, so often, doodling is the next best thing

If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions.

On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.

In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.

ALLOWING FACEBOOK/SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE WORKPLACE

The 8-hour day does not work. This is why we have the water cooler and the cigarette break or coffee shop run. The reality is, no-one can do 8 hours of work in 8 hours.

What is your attention span like? Mine is about 12 minutes before I need a Twitter break. People have a professional obligation to act responsibly, of course, and to return to their tasks after the break. The point is to allow people to work according to the way their mind and body work best.

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ATTENTION-GETTING EMAILS

  • Subject lines – summarize your entire message in 12 words or less
  • Include one message per email.
  • The first 1st paragraph should say all that needs to be said
  • Keep your email short enough so that the opening and close are visible on the same screen. This encourages people to read.
  • Use a P.S. (postscript) as a place to repeat your message or call to action. The human eye is attractoed to graphic elements like post scripts

Resources I mention in this segment are collaborative workspaces, which I hope will replace most email in future years. These include:

STANDING TO ATTENTION
Examples of standing desk furniture:

Storkstand – this is what a Storkstand looks like.

storkstand

Stirworks offers a full sizes standing desk.

stirworks

MEMORIZING NAMES AND FACTS
To remember people’s names, use the act of shaking hands as a cue to start up the silent technique of word association. Find something about the person – their hairstyle, clothing or resemblance to a celebrity or friend – and connect that phonetically or visually to their name/

So there you have it, our podcast on attention. I hope it caught yours. Let me know by leaving a message on our comments form at the bottom of the MY PODCAST page.

What does Time Management Have in Common with Football?

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontHumans are social creatures by nature, so we tend to invite and enjoy conversation, distraction, and mental stimulation: the joke-of-the-day-email from a friend, the water-cooler chat, social media. These things provide a few moments of leisure, but they do come with a price, for after they have passed, the work still remains to be done, and we are then forced to stay late, take work home, or make other sacrifices to catch up.

Most of us are trained in a skill and then join the workforce. We continue to learn though training and professional development courses, as well as practical experience, hopefully building a stable career and putting food on the table. However, another, more sinister type of learning also happens. While we integrate ourselves into the corporate culture of the company, we start to adopt the habits and norms of our peers, including many latent, long-established time inefficiencies are passed on through osmosis.

Consequently, it takes us by surprise when we learn for the first time that most people “work” for about one-third of the hours that they spend “at work,” meaning they actually will get only 3 hours of measurable work done in an eight- or nine-hour day.  Though this at first seems to be an affront to our ambitions, it doesn’t actually refer to a lack of dedication or drive. The average business day is littered with productivity roadblocks such as meetings, email, and drop-in visitors, conflicts and staff issues, technology problems and crises, all of which, though they may be considered as part of the work for which we are being paid, occur in irregular and unpredictable ways, breaking up the momentum of work and stretching tasks further and further along our calendar. The difference between how much we think we’ve done and how much work we have actually achieved is surprising.

But three hours? That’s a small fraction of a day to be counted as productive work in the purest sense of the word. It’s like taking a stopwatch to a football game. Over the course of a four-hour game, between the downs, the line changes and the time-outs, the ball is actually only in play for about twenty minutes – a very small segment of the game’s entire span.

During the course of a workday, these things happen:

  • 25 percent of people’s time is spent doing actual work;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent responding to email and voicemail;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent on the phone;
  • 20 percent of the day is spent in meetings and conversations;
  • 25 percent of the day is spent preparing for those meetings or dealing with the follow-up.

The fact that such a relatively small amount of the workday is spent doing actual planned work is often overlooked until the time comes that someone is called upon to make an estimate on the delivery date of a project. In an attempt to please a potential new client, it is easy for you or your boss or your sales rep to say, “We can have that to you by Thursday.” In fact, if you had nothing else to do, and could work on this client’s needs exclusively for eight uninterrupted hours a day, you probably could have it ready for Thursday. But that’s being way too optimistic, and that’s where the problems happen. We have to be realistic, and even a little bit pessimistic. We don’t know what other crises might happen between now and Thursday, but we can count on a few simple truths:

  • Things always take longer than you think, and a lot longer than you hope.
  • If someone asks you to do something and includes the word “just”, as in “can you just…” you’re already in trouble.
  • There will never be a perfect time to get it done.

Time management is a two-word term, and the second word is “management.” We need to exert proactivity and  influence over people and activities if any progress is to happen. The good news is, this is both possible and quite easy.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

If you are interested, we have a newsletter –  a real brief monthly one – that discusses issues around productivity and explains how my keynotes can help. Sign up through Constant Contact here.

Bonsai and the Law of Sharp Edges

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontBonsai is an ancient Japanese and Chinese art form in which trees are grown and nurtured inside low-sided pots. Their branches are shaped by way of wires that guide their growth and shape, and they are kept small through careful pruning of roots and branches, along with the most influential factor of all, the pot itself, which essentially tells the tree there is no more room for the roots to spread out.

Since the spreading roots of a tree have profound impact on its ultimate size and life, the bonsai pot stands as a real-world example of the Law of Sharp Edges, which states that delineation of an event allows for positive control of organic relationships.

In terms of time management strategy, a conversation works much better if both parties know how it is intended to last and what it will be about. Meetings and seminars work better when participants know when the breaks and wrap-up will be. Delays in subways and on planes are better managed when frustrated travelers are given some idea of when things will be fixed. Why? Because at the root of all of these situations is an unknown. People fear the unknown. It’s natural. So, as a tool of proactive time management and influence, if you give people a sharp-edged delineation of an event’s duration and content, they will be far more likely to play ball with you.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

The Future of Meetings

This blog post was originally written for HP’s Business Value Exchange and was posted at CloudTweaks.com.

Meetings have been a scourge on business productivity for many decades. British comedy genius John Cleese released a corporate training film back in 1976, entitled Meetings, Bloody Meetings, which not only became an instant classic, but spawned a sequel in 2012. The problems inherent in meetings are timeless and universal. And sadly, they take up way too much time. But things are changing.

A combination of factors now places the traditional meeting on the endangered species list. People no longer have the time or patience that they used to, and for the new generations of employees and managers who have grown up with sophisticated video gaming and unconstrained access to online resources, a tedious one-hour or longer meeting often fails to prove its worth. When that happens at the outset, engagement is sure to evaporate.

We have moved well past the era in which the only way to share ideas with a group of people was to corral them in the same room. Numerous options now exist from the good-old teleconference, to multi-screen video chat, through to virtual meetings using VR tools; but this leads to a conundrum: how important is physical presence to the efficacy of a meeting?

Many of us have participated in tele-meetings where Internet-based video conferencing– was available, but in which the participants still chose not to use the video component, opting solely for voice. For small meetings, this might be due to shyness or vanity – we don’t always look the way we want to, especially when working from home. There is also something decidedly disturbing about the “downwards glare,” where inexperienced video conference attendees look at the onscreen images of the other participants, rather than looking into their own camera. This creates an immediate sense of disconnection between people and points to the importance of eye-to-eye contact during discussion.

In multiple participant teleconferences, additional frustration comes about through the lack of body language cues, especially in regard to the rhythm of an actual conversation. We use facial or body gestures to signify comprehension of a point, as well as to signal our desire to speak. Such subtleties are lost when the visual component is missing or inadequate.

This does not mean that virtual meetings should not happen – they should. In fact, they should happen more often, since they save enormous amounts of time and money, and can actually be more productive than their analog counterparts, in most cases. What is critical is that the chairperson of a virtual meeting delivers and enforces an updated set of rules that ensure optimum behavior and synergy.

Firstly, if a company has access to a high-end video telepresence setup – using good video cameras and a bank of screens showing the other participants, then book this well ahead of time. These types of premium virtual meeting rooms are generally available in large organizations with numerous offices locations. They are not available to everyone, but they are worth it, since they offer the chance to see other people as if they were sitting across the table from you, and the 3D sound and video quality is generally superb. When these are not available, a phone or VOIP teleconference can do just as well, but the rules must be adjusted accordingly.

  • Go for “visual” whenever possible. Humans place greater trust in people when they can see who they are dealing with. They can also read body language cues, and frame the dynamic of the conversation accordingly. Instruct participants to spend a few minutes preparing, prior to the call. This doesn’t mean calling the stylists and makeup artists in, is simply means just allowing adequate light and establishing a desired visual look.
  • If video is not possible or not desired, then ensure photos are available. This could be as easy as inserting participant’s pictures on the meeting agenda (sent by email or posted in a meeting space.) A photo is a more controlled version of a person’s image, and although it does not allow for visual cues, it still flavors the dynamic of the conversation in a more human way.
  • Set up a system for side chats. It is very disturbing when people need to make a side comment while another person is speaking. Whispering is impossible on a conference call, but texting is easy. Whether this is done through an onscreen conference hub, or just texting to each other’s phones, this is an essential component of meeting dynamics that reduces interruptions while boosting synergy. It can also be used as a way of “raising your hand to speak,” by texting the chairperson from miles away.

There will always be some occasions which necessitate pulling people physically into a room for a meeting, but these are becoming fewer and fewer. The technology exists to bridge the obstacles put up by distance, time and money, but what is needed now is a revised mindset, that focuses pro-actively on the dynamics of human communication, and curates the available technologies to achieve the meeting’s intended goal. This way, Mr. Cleese will not have to make another sequel in 2018.

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The Future of Employee Engagement

This blog post, written for HP’s Business Value Exchange , entitled The Future of Employee Engagement is available for review at CloudTweaks.com. This post looks at collaborative environments, face-to-face communication, and how these activities influence engagement and productivity.  Click here to read.

CloudTweaks

Where is Your BYOD-WiFi Meeting Policy?

April 23, 2014

Picture this. You are attending a meeting in a boardroom with ten other people. One person is standing at the head of the table, talking and pointing to the obligatory PowerPoint projection. You look around the table. Most of those in attendance are not looking at the presenter or the PowerPoint image at all. A couple of people are typing on their laptops, three are texting on their phones. Another has a tablet perched on his lap and is busy looking at something. One person who did not bring a computer is doodling a complicated pattern all over the margins of the meeting agenda.

What do you think of this? Is it rude? Bad meeting behavior? A poorly-run meeting? The result of ineffective planning, a weak chairperson or undisciplined employees? Most people would agree and express that such behavior is rude and shows no respect. But others might disagree.

What if one of the people typing on their laptops was taking notes? Not everyone takes notes with pen and paper anymore. What if the person with the tablet was fact-checking or seeking additional information based on what he had heard the presenter say? What if one of the people texting on his phone was putting out a fire in his department that would otherwise force him to withdraw from the meeting? And what if the guy who was doodling was doing just that – doodling? People process information differently, and doodling – which has been around a lot longer than portable technology has – might certainly indicate boredom, but might also indicate a need to keep moving while listening; a type of kinesthetic learning in which the body and eyes need to stay occupied while the ears listen. If one of the three people in this scenario who appeared to be texting on her phone was actually playing Angry Birds instead, would that be construed as meeting truancy or new-age doodling?

For centuries people have convened in physical meetings because, prior to the advent of electronic communication, this was the only way to share ideas collectively and in real time. To this day, people still get together in boardrooms and classrooms to talk and to listen and to learn. Human beings will likely continue to meet in person for as long as the species exists, for there are many benefits to physically assembling that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.

However people do not have the time that they think they used to have; it is not as easy to commit to a one- or two-hour meeting and essentially block the rest of the world out for that period. Most people now ride a continually cresting wave of priorities and expectations, and to ignore them for the better part of an afternoon might bring more trouble than it is worth.

Yet the meeting mindset hasn’t changed much. In many organizations it is expected that attendees arrive on time, that they turn their cellphones to silent and that they sit, face-forward, ready to deliver their undivided attention. Maybe this is still the right way. Or maybe it isn’t. That is largely up to each individual company to decide.

Once that decision is made, what is then needed is a universal policy. If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions. They prefer to use their own tools at work (a concept now called BYOD – bring your own device), so that documents, email and social media interaction arrive on the phone or tablet they themselves have bought, rather than the standard company issue. Hand-in-hand with this concept is the new-age flex-time attitude in which team members of all ages recognize that blocks of work can be done in many different ways at many different times: while standing in line at Starbucks, on the train, from home, at 2:30 p.m., or even 2:30 a.m.

This approach to mobility and self-determination inevitably leaks into corporate meeting culture to the point that it becomes automatic, as in “my phone is there to be used, and I am at this meeting to keep pace while – not instead of – doing something else.” Therefore if a company chooses to silence these devices, it must consciously and unambiguously re-introduce this silence.

On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.

In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.

Ultimately it may be said (and has in fact been said many times) that nothing short of absolute forward-facing focus yields a productive meeting. However there are two factors that can substantially undermine such a blanket statement. The first is that meetings in general have held the title of the greatest time-waster in all of business for many decades, including those that preceded the advent of personal technology. So whatever we were doing prior to the arrival of the smartphone wasn’t working either. There was more doodling and smoking, but not necessarily more productivity.

Secondly, the fact is, these devices are here to stay. Companies that struggle to attract bright young professionals or indeed to keep their current star players cannot afford to expect that these highly mobile people, already well-versed in a high-speed multi-screen environment and used to receiving by-the-second feedback will be willing to sit stock-still for any period longer than 5 minutes. And why should they? Business moves at the speed of thought and if today’s employees don’t match up to the model of the traditional meeting scenario, it will have to be the meeting manager who blinks first.

How the Collaborative Economy beats Death by Meeting

Sleeping-in-MeetingIn addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. My most recent post focuses on the collaborative economy and focuses on new technologies that will help remove the tradition of Death by Meeting. This article was written in support of the ZeroDistance initiative. Here is an excerpt:

For decades now, busy working people have struggled with time and tasks in the workplace. Meetings have been especially difficult, in that for all their great intentions, they are still identified as one of the greatest time wasters of all (followed closely by email). Consequently there is a strong economic incentive to refine the way meetings are run. However up until recently, there existed no practical alternative to the act of stuffing a collection of people in a room with the goal of having them emerge with some level of consensus.

But now the age of ZeroDistance has arrived, and disruptive technologies are challenging the way things are done, breaking down the walls of a long-established status quo and replacing them with more productive alternatives. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the very common scenario known as the “meeting.”

To read more, please click here.

CloudTweaks