In November 2018, I gave the following talk at the IT Days Conference in Cluj (Romania), organised by “Today Software Magazine”.
I was recently asked to deliver a brief presentation on communication tips for a business networking breakfast in Milton Keynes. As I received positive feedback, I decided to change this into a post here. This post includes most of what I said and some additional bits that I meant to say or should have said.
I don’t know what your job or role might be as you read this, you may be the CEO of a major multi-national, or a sole trader struggling to make ends meet. What I do know is that your business is a quality business, a business that depends solely on delivering Quality. Whatever product or service you are selling, I can find somewhere else, probably cheaper.
You are in a global market, with a global client base and global competition. Even in something apparently as local as a personal trainer must compete on the global stage with companies advertising miracle cures on the internet.
Now, you may define Quality any way you want. You may decide that you want to be the cheapest in the world or the first on the market and that’s all right, that’s your definition of Quality. You may define Quality as the delivery of such high standard products that you cannot possibly justify the useless expense of a customer service desk – unreasonable perhaps, but a valid goal.
Define what Quality means to you, what is your Quality, your uniqueness, your brand.
Once you understand your concept of Quality, you need to accept that your Quality depends entirely on people. Not on technology, processes, seals of approval, audits, standards or anything else: all these are only valid as tools to help your people do their work well, efficiently and effectively. And Quality, in the eyes of these people, is entirely dependent on your communication. It is a shame that we do not learn basics of communication; we learn to talk, we learn to speak, but we don’t learn to communicate.
First principle: communication depends on reception. If no one is listening, if no one is hearing, if no one is understanding, you are not communicating. You may be speaking, but you are not communicating.
A few general principles on communication:
- First, know your audience: to whom are you communicating. If you are communicating to a small group of people you have known for a long-time, you will speak very differently than if you are in front of a theatre full of strangers.
- In order to understand your audience, if you are in an organisation, you need clear job descriptions, including roles and responsibilities. I am a big fan of SFIA, which while being mainly focused on the IT industry, is very good at identifying responsibilities and roles based on skills and aptitudes; respect those roles and don’t publicly over-rule your team leaders.
- Respect the lines of command: as managing director, never publicly contradict a department head in front of her/his reports.
- Use clear language in your communication, as often as possible, use numbers to explain what you want people to do – this works for yourself as well: rather than saying that “I want to make more time to read books next year”, consider “I am going to read at least one professional book and what leisure book per month in the coming 12 months”. Now you have a goal against which you can measure progress and results. Use data in communicating goals and objectives and make sure that they are achievable.
- Always speak the truth. It does not help when managers believe they have to always be optimistic about the future, tell the staff how business is booming and expanding and, even though we have had a couple of setbacks, the profits are rising, when everyone knows they have just lost their biggest client. Next month, when they lay off half a dozen people, they will have killed off any trust that the team members ever had in then.
- As part of your communication, your team members want consistency and continuity. If you are announcing new goals and strategies every six months, no one will listen: wait a while, we are about to go the other way. It is all right to change strategies from time to time when they fail, but learn your lessons from the failure and don’t keep on having to change everything.
- Encourage team members to challenge you, dissenters and cynics are the people who will make your business more effective. Reward people for bringing bad news and risks to your attention; listen to those telling you what you are doing wrong – too often employees are afraid to speak truth to power.
- Avoid saying “should” or “could” when you mean “must”
- When speaking to your clients or prospects, be realistic: don’t promise the impossible. Again, if you cannot deliver on your promises, you will lose their trust. The two biggest sources of business, the two most powerful tools of marketing are word-of-mouth recommendations and customer retention.
- For many years now, we have been promoting the concept that “the customer is always right” (which is not true); this has led to the understanding that you need to say what you think your clients want to hear. Don’t pre-judge them, don’t have the arrogance to presume you know what they want to hear – listen to them and be honest. Sooner or later they will discover that you cannot satisfy the promises you made and will lose trust in anything else you may say.
- When speaking to clients, use data and clear language instead of empty promises. You cannot promise me that your marketing campaign will increase my customer base by 15%, realistically, you can only promise that you will do your best, use appropriate analytical and statistical data to make it more likely that more people will come across my name. What you can promise me is that you will put my name in front of 25000 people who may or may not be interested, but fit our current understanding of the key demographic. Of these, we can expect that between 2 and 2.5% will follow through and have a look at my website. That is realistic and verifiable. You can commit to that and we can both verify the numbers afterwards.
- In public speaking, a few additional rules come into play:
- Your audience will only remember three things of what you say, you need to decide what are the three key messages you want to communicate, then tell them three times the same thing without appearing to repeat yourself. This is the challenge.
- Never turn your presentation (or indeed your article) into self-promotion: give them something solid to take away, give them facts, something by which to remember you.
- When addressing a group, you are probably selling yourself, but don’t over-sell: tell the truth, back up your facts with data – but don’t overwhelm them with loads of statistics, just a few that are particularly telling.
- Build your presentation around a story, make it personal, tell them about yourself, include anecdotes.
- Speak slowly: it gives time for your audience to process what you are saying and it gives time for you to think while speaking – if you speak to quickly, you will need an “humm” for your thoughts to catch up, and this gives the feeling you don’t know what you are talking about.
- Beware of humour: most jokes will offend someone, a golden rule is to start with something safe, I usually try to mock myself rather than risk upsetting potential future clients. Humour is critically important, and I would strongly recommend making them laugh early in your talk so as to make them pay attention to the rest, but make sure that you are not saying something that will be offensive to (sections of) your audience.
- Words are meant to be spoken, PowerPoint slides are meant to illustrate and support what you are saying, not repeat it: don’t read your slides, don’t have your words on the slide. Use pictures and graphics whenever possible to illustrate what you are saying.
- And finally, learn to finish on time.
I hope that some of these are useful to you, please feel free to comment, whether it is to correct something I have said
I have been going to Cluj-Napoca for a dozen years as a consultant and as a speaker at a number of conferences. This week I had the pleasure of being there again and delivering a keynote presentation on “Managing Complexity and Chaos in the Workplace” at IT Days 2018.
There were apparently 800 people written in to the conference, but that includes people working at sponsor stands and some who don’t show – it is still a lot of attendants for a town that size. If you do not know Cluj, it is the capital of Transylvania and a town that is heavily dominated by the software industry (I know, Transylvania and pale, pasty people… the jokes are too easy to write). Because of the relatively recent impact of 40 years of communist dictatorship, the IT community here is young, vibrant and eager – eager to learn, eager to improve, eager to do, eager never to fall back into the levels of utter poverty in which their parents lived.
Of course, at a conference like this, most of the talks are either technology based or in Romanian, so I admit I did not understand everything. After so many years working in the software industry, I should know more, but as time goes by, I know less and less about programming and the languages used. However, it is important to participate in conferences like this, and to listen to what people are saying whenever possible. This is where the future is coming to life. I do know that all the speakers have strict instructions to explain how wonderful their company is and only show good things, in the hope of maybe picking up a client or a new employee. As a consequence, they are promoting new technologies, new solutions, practical ways of implementing old solutions, etc. The jargon filters through these conferences and becomes common speech. In my job, I listen to people, I try to understand what are their problems are and so it is important to understand that jargon.
While I will not create a list of the talks and topics, whether I attended them or not (as there were 4 parallel tracks, I could not listen to everything, and certainly did not understand many of them), I did want to give a salute to the introduction by the mayor of Cluj. It is not often that I hear a politician or a business leader giving such a clear vision for the future. There were some points on which I would have like to challenge him, of course, but in general he appears to have understood the key problems of the town and is tackling them, starting with the main pain-points through infrastructure, development and collaboration between the city, the people, the businesses and others.
My talk was an introduction to complexity and chaos, and the Cynefin framework. It was well received and I was answering questions for some two hours afterwards – more to do with my work in communication and culture than with the framework. The presentation was filmed and will be put online in the coming weeks or months.
I also got to hear a presentation given by Sir John Dermot Turing, the nephew of Alan Turing (yes, I live in Bletchley and went all the way to Romania to hear a talk about the luminary of Bletchley Park). A fascinating talk in which Sir John demonstrated his competence not only on his uncle’s life but also relater to the research he has done on artificial intelligence and the evolution of computing.
It is always a pleasure to be able to attend a well organised conference, and an honour to be asked to give a keynote talk. Add to this the pleasure of meeting a lot of intelligent people who are eager to learn and it was a very good couple of days, indeed.
For as long as I can remember, engineers, software developers, managers and sales people have missed their deadlines on a regular basis. This is a problem that has simple causes and possible solutions, but it requires a level of awareness that we appear to be missing in most of our endeavours. When there is variation between estimates, plans and actuals, generally:
- there is over-run, meaning the actuals are greater than the estimates and plans;
- the actuals are blamed and people are challenged as to why they did not meet their targets.
Frequently, the blame needs to lie on the estimating and planning rather than on the performance against the plan. It is time we took estimating seriously and started building appropriate risk management into our plans.
One of the first reasons for bad estimating is the language problem. If you ask for an estimate, a forecast, a prognosis, a guess, a projection, a ball-park figure, a guess or any other variation thereof, you have (maybe) a clear idea of what you want and why you want it. Are you certain that the person to whom you are asking has the same understanding?
Every estimate is just a guess. Maybe the person doing the guess has a lot of experience, and has considered many options and weighed the probabilities, but, in the end, it comes down to a guess – no matter how “educated” that guess may be; in the end the value they give is probably wrong.
Data vs Experience
Obviously, we trust the expert, the person with the most experience, to make the estimate. However, we are not selecting the person who is best skilled at estimating, but the one who has done the job most frequently. The fact that the person in question has under-estimated the time it would take systematically for the past ten years, we will still trust them because they have done this so often.
One of the first steps that the expert will take is to estimate how long it would take her to do the job; once the agreement is finalized, the expert will be moved on to the next contract that requires estimating and the work itself will be given to someone else: the effort has been estimated for someone with twenty years experience, then given to someone with twenty minutes experience and we wonder why it is not completed on time.
The estimate, once it has been produce should be reviewed and corrected. Many managers (and less competent sales people) focus on cutting the estimate down: “why do you say this will take 6 months? We will lose the contract if we say 6 months, let’s change this to 4 months total”.
The intelligent manager (and the sales people who respect their clients) will review the estimate and find out what is missing, what are the risks that have not been taken into account, what is the worst case scenario and how can it be covered, how can I be sure that I am going to satisfy my client? Have you taken into account the average number of sick days in the team?…
Milestones and Commitments
So, you asked me how long do I think this will take and I said “probably not much more than a month”. Now, you have come back with detailed requirements and expectations that were not available when you asked the question and demand that I respect my previous “commitment” to finalize this work within one month, twenty working days. This does not take into account the work I am already doing, or the fact that your vague idea did not include all the additional bits of work you added into the requirements.
Milestones and commitments are necessary, but the order in which things happen need to be clearly understood:
- Document the requirements in as much detail as possible
- Establish the major milestones and include them in the requirements
- Ask for an estimate as to what would be the cost and probability of success to deliver the work completed within the milestones set out
- Make an estimate and negotiate the result: let’s eliminate some of the less critical requirements, move the milestones to make it more realistic, etc.
- Build a plan as to how the work will be done and the proposed final set of milestones
- Negotiate and move around more if necessary
- Make a commitment to respect the milestones.
It is folly or cruelty to request an estimate and transform it into milestones.
Monitoring the work being done on a continual* basis means that you can evaluate in real time the amount of work remaining. If the first three phases of your project over-ran by 20%, you need to stop believing you will complete on time: chances are your whole project will be 20% late.
Burndown charts, Gantt charts and others are traditional methods. If used correctly they are useful in monitoring progress; however if you don’t use your previous estimating errors to correct your future estimates, you will just keep on “snowplowing” more work against a fixed deadline.
*Continual means without interruption, all the time; Continuous means ongoing. You can continuously improve your work practices by rolling out an improvement every few months, you cannot continually improve work practices as that would confuse the workforce with hourly changes to methodologies and processes.
If your team is not delivering to estimates, it is probably because they / you are not as good at estimating as you believe. Don’t pressure them to work faster, that will only create more problems, give them appropriate training and support in making better estimates and understanding how to use data.
The importance of Communication in a modern business of any kind cannot be over-estimated. We live in world of communication, we are all continuously posting on Facebook, writing blogs, taking selfies, etc. and yet the amount of communication that is actually occurring is extremely low. In this “information age“, it appears that communication is not facilitating information exchange.
In this article, I try to highlight the problem we are encountering in communication in today’s world, and make some suggestions regarding solutions.
Communication must be defined by reception, and not by emission. If no one is listening to you, you are not communicating; if no one is reading you, you are not communicating.
For over twenty years, I have been working in companies all over the world, in which people have been complaining about communication problems:
- Management doesn’t tell us what’s going on
- We are overwhelmed with emails and don’t have time to read them all
- Priorities keep on changing without explanation
- Someone else was working on the same thing as I was and never told me about it
- “They” keep on contradicting themselves
- and so on…
Even though they may complain about contradictions in what they are told (or what they remember of what they heard), most people are quite happy to use contradictory statements about communication for themselves. They will affirm that:
- “I am a good communicator: if you need something, just come and ask me and I will be happy to help” and
- “You are a bad communicator: if you have information I need, you don’t share it unless I come and ask you directly”.
In today’s world, millions of people are talking and writing at any given moment; only a fraction of that amount are actually listening or reading. There are currently approximately 2 billion websites worldwide (http://www.internetlivestats.com) with an average of number of users of 3 or 4 per site; the number of emails sent at any given moment is astronomical (nearly 3 million per second) – unfortunately there are no reliable metrics of how many people are reading or listening instead of writing.
What was once perceived as being the solution has become a major component of the problem as team members spent half their day reading and responding to emails: they feel that they need to read and react immediately when they receive an email, or – in some cases – even get into trouble if they don’t read it immediately: I have seen managers sending out an email requesting someone to attend a meeting immediately.
Another proposed solution to the communication problem is to get rid of offices and place people in open-plan areas, based on factory production lines, believing that this facilitates communication. In fact, the open-plan office facilitates interruptions and loss of concentration; perhaps this is not a problem in some jobs, but most office jobs require reflection and concentration that is not possible in this environment. So, the people in the office start wearing noise-cancelling headphones and isolate themselves from all work-related communication as well as from the environmental noise.
Frustration and despondency grow rapidly as team members feel that they are not respected enough to know what is happening with their job; work is being done by the wrong people, or is being done multiple times by the same people. Team members don’t know where to find the information that they need when they need it.
The continuous interruptions for communication may be seen as beneficial in some work areas, but mostly they are extremely detrimental. The advantage of the open-plan and the continual flow of emails, means that many team members never really have the leisure to wonder why they are doing this and how this work benefits anyone.
At the same time, we need information (knowledge, communication) to circulate through the company by its very structure. Rather than structuring your organisation according to the antiquated principles of monarchs and barons (as most companies have done), a modern organisation needs to be structured according to the required knowledge flow. More about this, of course, in my book Orchestrated Knowledge.
How do we get information to the people at the right time?
How do we allow the knowledge held within the business to be used effectively?
How do we allow team members to be properly immersed in their work without distractions and interruptions?
There is no need to read, respond or even react to an email the moment it comes in. A basic principle is that an email should be answered within 24 hours, if it is more urgent than that, there are better ways: walking over, telephoning, or using one of the large number of messaging applications.
My general recommendation (and personal habit), is that you should only access your emails 3 times a day at most. In the morning, check what there is, what is important, what can be deleted, what needs a response or action; again in the middle of the day and at the end of the day. The rest of the time, switch off your email system completely (and yes, if you use an email system like Microsoft’s “Outlook”, you can write emails without starting up the app).
There are sufficient tools available on the market place that allow for a structured approach to information sharing and knowledge management. The basic idea is that, when you need some information, you can rapidly and easily find it. Lessons learnt can be integrated into the tool, as well as design decisions, requirements, best practices, progress reports, and other key components that people will need at various times. The main issue with these tools, and where most companies in my experience fail, is that it is not enough to purchase the tool, you also need to get an expert in who will take time to study your needs and problems and will set it up professionally so that you get the most out of the tool. Too frequently, companies get won over by an impressive pre-sales demonstration, then find they have no idea how to use it once they have paid for it.
Sitting down on a regular basis for a “one-to-one” with your colleagues and those who report to you, will allow you to have a focused conversation, that may cover more than work items. On average, I would recommend having a one-to-one discussion every day with a different person. This should be in their calendar and considered as an important meeting.
During the discussion, make sure that you listen as much as possible and talk as little as possible, especially with your direct reports. You should not use the meeting to give them instructions and demand progress reports, there are other meetings for that. This is a discussion to find out what is bothering them, what are the obstacles, concerns and worries. Make some helpful suggestions or recommendations, but make sure that these are just suggestions or recommendations. If the person has a serious issue, make sure that you follow up soon after the meeting.
One of the traps to avoid in these types of discussions (other than bullying your colleague, of course) is the risk of falling into psycho-therapy concepts and terms. It is important to make sure that you understand what is making your colleagues unhappy, what is motivating them, but you are not (I presume) psycho-therapists and you should not try to be diagnosing depression, hyper-activity or other disorders: the purpose of the meeting is to have an honest discussion and see how things can be improved in the work place.
One-on-one discussions need to be done in an atmosphere of trust. Your colleague needs to feel that you will not misinterpret anything, assign blame or use the contents of the discussion to determine levels of reward or punishment. This is a very big request and obviously very difficult to implement: most people do not really trust their manager until the manager has earned that trust, and you can only earn someone’s trust by knowing something confidential and be seen not to betray it. This is why I would recommend getting an external consultant to conduct regular meetings with key players. Someone who can be trusted to speak truth to power, but not betray their sources.
The ideal office size is one in which a small team (5 to 7 people) can work together, focus, celebrate, discuss problems. The open plan office has been costed many times and the cost of the continuous interruptions on any intelligence-based activity is too high to be acceptable. Of course, having individual offices creates other problems and there is no point avoiding one extreme for the other.
A good working space would probably have offices for a half-dozen people all around the floor, each office with a window (if a hotel can manage to have a window in every room, so can your office building). Meeting rooms are available and are probably clustered into the centre of the floor, around the elevator shafts – meeting rooms generally do not need a window as nobody should be spending all day in there.
Maybe I will write more about environmental issues at a later date. The communication issue I want to cover here is that a team should be able to discuss or celebrate together without disturbing other team members who are concentrating on their work.
A lot of processes and procedures are written in most companies. I recently worked in an organisation that regularly produced “policies”. These were produced under the good idea that they were necessary, by different people, with little or no consultation, for various reasons. Some were created to please an auditor, some were produced to solve an immediate issue. Mostly, these policies were stored in different places, in different formats and were not appropriately cross-referenced or enforced. They were certainly not communicated to the people who should have been applying them.
Communication needs to have value.
The value needs to be perceived on both sides: “this is something I need others to know” and “this is something I need to know”. If the recipient does not see the value of the information received, they will not give it the attention that might be necessary. When preparing a communication, the author should
- Clearly identify the message to communicate
- Clearly identify the public or recipients who should be receiving this
- Make sure that the content is not redundant or contradictory with other communications
- Make sure that the contents are unambiguous and clear (for more on this point, I strongly recommend Tom Gilb’s books on Value Planning and Clear Communication).
Communication is not a difficult issue, but it is an extremely important topic and should be given careful consideration. There is value in getting key people to have one-on-one coaching sessions with an independent, external person on a regular basis (two to four times a year), who will have the ability to anonymize statements and tell senior management what employees might not want to say – including the fact that they are not sure what senior management is actually saying to them.
The approach to improvement involves the use of pragmatic improvements, realistic changes and processes that are selected because they support the people doing the work in producing higher quality.
- Challenge the self-evident. If you have always done it that way, if this is the way the boss wants it done, if this is what was recommended in the latest book or by your favourite consultant, question it. Why should this be the right way to do things for you?
- Take time away from work. Change your mind, go for a run or a walk, read a novel, do something other than sitting at your desk from time to time to refresh your mind. Don’t take your phone, don’t browse the internet if you work on a computer all day, but move away, change the focus of your eyes so that you can see and think something different.
- Question why you are being asked to do something and what is the point. So many of us do not know the value of our work. I have missed my children’s birthday parties in order to make rich people richer, to fix a minor defect in a product that has no real impact on anything that matters. Is that really how you would like to sum up your life?
Dare to ask the questions, dare to challenge the data
In most cases, when talking about change management, continuous improvement, process change, etc. there is an assumption that the exercise should be done in three steps:
- Define and document the current state (the “As-Is”);
- Define and document the desired state (the “To-Be”);
- Plan a route to get from “As-Is” to “To-Be”.
This seems fairly obvious and simple and is the process that is followed by the majority of organizations and consultants; if I point out that the vast majority of change management programs fail, perhaps we need to wonder whether there is causation or just correlation in this.
Let’s start by asking why people believe they need to change things: the most common responses refer to failed projects, missed deadlines, unhappy clients, budget over-runs, key players leaving at a critical time, unclear requirements, etc. It becomes apparent that teams that need to change things because they cannot run a project successfully will run their change management program by running a successful project…
Perhaps they seek help from a consultant at this point, who will tell them to do what they already knew, then leave them to fail on their own.
Making Change a Success
Don’t Waste Time on the As-Is
The attempt to define the unsatisfactory, failing status as it currently stands is an exercise in self-humiliation. It is an attempt at identifying what you already know to be a failing situation. There is a good reason to perform an analysis of the As-Is, and that is if you are planning on maintaining it, e.g. you are planning on developing an automation tool (e.g. software) that will facilitate or speed up the work, but you don’t actually want to change it.
If you know that the way you are working is not satisfactory, there is not much point on doing more than a simple root cause analysis to identify the failures.
Forget the Plan
If you have very good at estimating and planning techniques for jobs that you have never done, I would recommend you proceed as usual to estimate and plan your transformation program. If, on the other hand, you are seeking to transform and improve work practices because it is apparent that you do not have a good track record and tend to deliver late, over-budget and/or below the expected level of quality, then there is not much point in applying your methods for a type of project that is different from all your previous ones.
Get and Independent Point of View
You probably know what is wrong, but do you actually know what is wrong? It is very useful to have an outsider come in and look at what are the issues, someone who does not have to prove that they were right “3 years ago when we implemented this”, someone who is not trying to demonstrate that their predecessor was wrong. This is a challenge, of course, because every independent outsider who might come in and give a valid opinion is trying to sell you something at the same time. This might be a personal service as a consultant or a contractor, or a ready-made solution, model, theory. The choice is difficult and the scope of the work should be clearly limited from the start.
A good independent person will look at the state of affairs, help you formulate a reasonable objective and assist in identifying the main issues, risks or roadblocks you may come across.
Clarify your Vision
Over my career, I have often been confronted by managers, directors and executives who believe things need to change; but, when asked for further information, they are not sure what they actually would like, there is no clear vision or objective, just that “things need to change”. I have recently worked for an organization that wanted to improve quality, but blocked any attempt at increasing control over peer-reviews, did not accept that stricter processes should be developed, did not want to “waste time and money” on training, publicly announced that metrics of client complaints had nothing to do with quality, and did not think the staff was competent to either define their own processes or review the work of their colleagues. They just wanted to improve quality without changing the way things were done. Even when I requested for a formal organization chart with names, roles, responsibilities and areas of authority, that was declined because they did not want to encourage people to restrict their activities to limited areas of responsibility.
If you don’t know where you want to go, how do you expect to find a road to get there? If you don’t want to move, how do you expect to go anywhere?
In order to clarify the vision, you need to know what is the vision of the company you want to give your clients, and what is the vision you want to give your employees (these need not be identical, but must not be contradictory) – then look at finding the overlap and the complementarity.
Determine the Consequences
Vision statements are nice, succinct sentences or paragraphs that don’t mean a lot in themselves, even if they do give you a nice warm, fuzzy feeling. If you believe in your vision statement, it is necessary to pick it apart and determine what it actually means. What is the thought behind the value statements, what is the meaning hidden behind those nice words like “respect” and “cutting edge” that you have used?
The vision statement is the basic idea of what you want your organization to look like in 3, 5, 10, 50 years time, it is the thing that makes you different from everyone else; the consequences are how this vision is reflected in day-to-day life.
The consequences need to be expressed in simple, pragmatic, down-to-earth statements of how you expect people to behave, what is happening in the work place on an ongoing basis, etc.
Identify the Risks
One of ongoing battles, for the past 40 years is trying to get people to understand that risk management is at the heart of the industry and of every single project and undertaking. This is where the CEO, the project manager and the front-end support person need to concentrate most of their efforts if they are going to succeed.
Losers plan for success only; winners plan for defeat. From the start, your focus needs to be on what may go wrong, what are the reasons, the problems that might lead your project or activity to fail in the short or long term. So many managers, when seeing estimates and plans, focus on trying to cut down the required time, cost and risks related to the activities: they are only increasing the chance of failure. Instead, they should be challenging the planner to identify what has been forgotten, what has been missed, what could go wrong: have you thought about all the imponderables? Have you considered what needs to be done if…?
By identifying the risks from the start of your transformation project, you can identify what needs to be managed in order to change the way things are being done and start working directly on the right things. After all, if you remove all the risks and things that could stop your vision becoming a reality, then your vision must become a reality!
Over the past years, too much emphasis has been placed on the statistical analysis of human endeavours. There appears to be a belief in many circles that events from the past are repeatable in the future. Statistical analysis is valuable and does allow demonstration that we are moving in the right or wrong direction and I would highly recommend its usage in many cases for validation purposes.
Measurement of achievement and progress is however critical and is too often ignored, frequently out of fear of judgement, and thus we end up with projects that remain over 80% complete for half their lives. Sudden surprises and delays at the last minute.
Measuring progress needs to be done according to the count of tasks completed and not by estimating a “percentage of task” completed. If your task remains open for too long, it was not small enough. Break it down to something that you can place in one of three states: not started, in progress, finished. On a regular basis (weekly or, at most monthly), have a list of tasks that should be completed for each individual and monitor that the progress is being made to achieve the result. Don’t make it more complicated than strictly necessary.
A change management project should be initiated based on three concepts:
- Vision statement of what the end result will look like
- Consequences of a successful implementation of the vision
- Identifying and managing all the risks that could stop the vision from being implemented
You will have more chance of success with this than with a complicated project plan based on all your previous failed plans.
Meetings are a waste of time: true or false?
At the start of the day (or even better, at the end of the day before), you have created a list of tasks, to-dos and priorities for the day. Things need to be done, you know what you need to accomplish, you are set. Then, at the end of the day, you go over your list and realize you are nowhere near completing it because you have been sitting in meetings and running around solving crises and emergencies all day.
What happened? Where did the time go? The day is over, you are exhausted and have the distinct feeling of not actually having done anything, other than sit in meetings all day.
Over the past, I have had the “pleasure” of sitting in many meetings, at every level and on every possible topic, which, in my mind at least, led to no result whatsoever. Surely there must be a better way? Meetings must occur, why are they not as productive as one would expect?
I would like to make some simple recommendations on meetings, whether you are organizing or attending, in order to actually make them productive, useful activities and not just sitting around wishing you were somewhere else.
1. Before the Meeting
1.1 The Cost
A meeting is a serious activity and while it does not appear to consume much other than coffee and sandwiches, it is a particularly expensive endeavour. This should never be underestimated. The cost of the meeting, other than consumables and electricity, should be calculated as the time spent for various salaried people.
If 5 people meet for an hour, that is 5 hours of work that have been consumed; now, add to that the time spent booking a room, sending out invitations, preparing material for the meeting, writing up minutes, etc.
A one-hour meeting is a minimum of one day’s work. That is one twentieth of the average monthly salary of the attendees. If you are including some of your senior executives in the meeting, that can be quite a cost.
1.2 The Plan
A meeting is basically a project. Sure, it is a short project: Crossrail is a big project (the new 118km train line that crosses under central London, was initiated in 2007 and the first portion is scheduled to open end of 2018, at a cost of GBP 15.9 billion [€16 700 000 000, USD 19 300 000 000, approximately 600 000 years work for the average British salary), your meeting is a tiny project.
Like every project, it should have the supporting documentation, starting with the plan.
1.3 Purpose Statement
What is the objective of the meeting? Why are you organizing a meeting? There are a number of reasons to hold a meeting, but frequently, no one is really sure what the purpose of any give meeting is.
- Communication: this meeting is there for one person to tell something to the others. No debate is expected, potentially there may be some questions and answers at the end of the meeting.
- Brain-storming: this meeting is to discuss original and various options to resolve a given issue. We expect lots of interaction, new ideas to be floated and people to treat each other with sufficient respect.
- Decision making: two or more options are presented to move forward, we need people who have insight and understanding to come together and discuss why one option might be better than the others.
- Consensus building: the decision has been made, we understand that some people might not agree or understand, so we need to make sure that we clarify the concepts and reach a common agreement.
- Team updates: every team member is coming with a brief update on their work, sharing the good news and the bad and presenting the main issues that need to be discussed – long discussions are not expected in this meeting, but follow-up meetings will be planned.
- Resolution: we have a problem that I cannot resolve on my own, I need to discuss this with someone who has more knowledge about the issue than I do so as to reach a agreement or (better) concensus of what can or should be done.
- Review: typically a manager or client and a team member will review the status of a particular piece of work, establish goals and decide on whether current results are satisfactory or not.
It should be clear, when someone is invited to a meeting, why they are being asked to attend the meeting, what their role is expected to be and what preparation is required. People should never attend a meeting unless it is clear from the start what their role is going to be.
Part of the meeting invitation should clarify this information, not just for the person being invited, but for the other participants. The invitation should include a complete list of expected and requested attendees, clearly stating
- The name of the person invited
- The reason for which that person is invited (this may be their job, their title or a particular set of skills or knowledge that may come in useful)
- Whether the presence of the person is required or not – it is understood that if a person is required, the meeting will be cancelled should that person not show up
- The role the person is expected to fulfill: what are they expected to bring to the meeting, how are they supposed to act
- The preparation that is required for the meeting by each individual
The invitation also clearly states who will be taking notes and producing the minutes of the meeting.
The time table should be set up for the meeting. It is strange that management expects detailed schedules and plans from projects, but believe that their own meetings can just proceed without structure.
The meeting is scheduled to start on time, there are some clear steps that need to be respected in the conduct of the meeting; these may include time planned for an introduction, for a review of the current status, for a presentation of concepts and ideas, for discussion, for questions and answers, for wrap-up and conclusion.
The meeting is scheduled to finish on time.
It is clearly understood that everyone in the meeting has other places to be and other things to do. Respecting that time is a basic rule of politeness. Even if you are the president or the CEO, you should respect the time that people are giving you: it is not acceptable to be late or to drag on a meeting longer than necessary without a very sold reason and excuse, which is presented and explained to all those affected. Tardiness is expensive and shows a total lack of respect.
Obviously, it is important to identify where the meeting will be held and to ensure that the location is known to all team members, of a reasonable size for the number of attendants and the duration, and available for the meeting.
It is always surprising when turning up for a meeting only to find that the room is no longer available. Many senior managers and executives seem to believe that their meeting is more important and so they can throw out, without asking, warning or explaining whoever has booked a meeting room, and take it themselves.
If you need a room urgently and the only room you believe you can use is already reserved by someone else, it is your obligation to ensure that the people who are going to show up have advance notice that their meeting has been cancelled, postponed, or moved to an equally suitable location.
Before booking a meeting, one should consider the time of day and its consequences. If it is first thing in the morning, consider hot drinks; if you are meeting at lunchtime, refreshments are welcome – even if it is just a sandwich. It has been said in many companies that if you want better attendance at your meeting, you need to provide food.
This has an impact on all sorts of other areas of the meeting organization. You may need to make sure that the room is suitable for people to have a cup of coffee (or a glass of water) as well as a notebook or laptop. Think about whether you want them to eat sandwiches, while having to continue typing on their laptops, or continue arguing with their mouths full. You may need to schedule a short lunch break in the meeting.
2. During the Meeting
It is a common problem that people are expected at a meeting and do not arrive on time, or do not respond and confirm that they will attend. This is a nuisance to the organizer of the meeting as well as the people who are confirming and attending as requested. If you cannot attend or are running seriously late, you must inform the organizer as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made accordingly.
It is difficult to change this habit in many people, because this is a profound cultural issue. For some, they believe that they are so important that the world should wait on them, this is typical of some senior executives as well as former ranked members of the armed forces. Some tricks exist but, first and foremost, this is a question of education; first, senior management needs to show the right attitude and enforce it internally – as long as the CEO or MD does not respect the time of the people in their employ, it is a clear signal that it is not necessary to respect commitments.
- Penalties: get attendees to pay a fine, financial or other, proportionate to the delay they generate.
- Rewards: provide snacks to those who arrive on time, remove them before latecomers arrive.
- Information: display or explain the cost of the meeting per minute.
- Priorities: key bits of information are communicated once, at the beginning of the meeting.
- Timing: start your meeting 5 minutes after the hour, allowing for other meetings to finish on time and attendees to come over.
Other ideas exist, none of them will work for some people. I would be happy to hear your additional suggestions.
The meeting needs to be timed. In order to do this, consider the order in which things are going to be discussed or presented.
Frequently in the past, I have organized meetings to discuss “lessons learnt” (post-implementation reviews, post-mortem reviews, retrospectives…) in which we start by discussing the things that went wrong. Most people are so happy to be able to publicly complain, that the first 55 minutes of a 60 minute meeting are taken up by this activity before we can move on to the rest. Timing is critical: if the components of the meeting are not held to their time frame, the whole meeting can only over-run or finish incomplete and inconclusive.
A countdown timer is useful for this, whether this is a specialized item (there are some good products specially made for this available called “Time Timers“, but a simple timer on your phone with a sound to say time is up works just as well. I have even used my watch and a whistle in the past.
Of course, some people will continue talking past the bell – these are typically people who have little to say, but don’t want that to be apparent; they will repeat the same thing over and over again, or are determined to make sure that no one else has time to speak (this is just what the American politicians do when they use the technique called “filibustering”). Once that is understood, it can become clear to everyone else in the meeting that maybe … but I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.
It needs to be understood that every meeting, whatever the purpose, should be minuted. If there is no trace that the meeting was held, who participated, what information was communicated, what decisions were made, etc. you can safely assume that the meeting did not actually occur or that it was just wasting time.
The minutes do not need to be extensive, they can refer to items without giving all the details, but they do need to be complete.
- The person chairing the meeting (usually the one who called the meeting), does not have time to present, facilitate, reprimand those who go off topic, etc. and take notes at the same time. This needs to be done by someone dedicated to taking the minutes.
- The person taking the minutes needs to focus primarily on the notes, but can participate and give opinions during the discussions – the point is not to capture everything that everyone said, but to capture the conclusions.
- The minutes need to be distributed to the participants for approval very rapidly after the meeting, so that they can still remember enough to accept the contents; I have seen too many minutes that are distributed only at the next meeting, not giving time to participants to review and commit appropriately.
The minutes need to include a clear list of the decisions made and the tasks attributed to participants. The participants need to get that list rapidly so that they can perform the tasks or communicate the decisions as needed, without having to concentrate on taking their own notes during the meeting.
One strongly recommended approach to minutes is one that I learnt from the Quakers. Each meeting for business in this community with no hierarchy is attended by all those who wish to attend, there is no leader to dictate the structure, but there is a “convener” who calls the meeting and distributes the agenda, and a “clerk” whose main job is to prepare the minutes. They follow some strict rules:
- Everyone may speak
- One person speaks at a time
- You do not interrupt other participants
- You are not allowed any personal or antagonistic statements that are off topic
- When a decision is reached (either there are no objections, or there is agreement that nothing better will come out of further discussions), the clerk reads the proposed sentence or paragraph that explains the decision made
- If the minute is agreed, the next item is closed and the next one on the agenda can begin
- Minutes are typically cleaned up and communicated within hours of the meeting being concluded.
This simple approach allows for a structure to the meeting and the approval of the minutes in real time.
3. After the Meeting
As stated above, the minutes should be distributed rapidly, and all agreed tasks need to be completed before the next meeting is called. The minutes of the meeting should be classified in a formal manner, this can be a binder if they are on paper, or an electronic storage system (Microsoft “Notes” is a very good product for this as it integrates with the calendar in “Outlook” and keeps track of participation).
That’s all for now. I am interested in any ideas and suggestions you may have to make meetings more effective, please do not hesitate to contact me and comment.