In Praise of Short Meetings

There were three messages: safety, inclusion, company performance. In that order. It was all over in about 15 minutes, and we were asked to chat to our colleagues and get to know someone new.

I wasn’t what I expected from a company meeting about annual results, and I wasn’t the only one, some colleagues who are also in their first year with the company were also surprised.

It was brilliant. It was effective. Everything about it spoke of the company’s priorities, and there was lunch.

When was the last time you joined a meeting that covered the promised agenda, inspired you, gave you lunch and finished on time?

Three things to think about when planning a meeting

What is the purpose of the meeting?

Meetings can have different purposes – informing colleagues, making decisions, problem solving, or consulting. Try to keep your meeting to just one purpose, it will make the next questions a lot easier.

Who needs to be in the room?

Steve Jobs famously asked people not specifically needed in a meeting to leave. That makes sense for consultative or decision-making meetings where increasing the number of attendees slows both processes down. However if your meeting is about informing people or problem solving the numbers matter less, and for informational meetings the audience will be somewhat self-selecting.

What is the minimum content?

A meeting is not the place to provide really in depth reporting, people can’t absorb and work with detailed data in a 30 minute time-slot through which everyone will be speaking. So go minimalist on what you present – and provide the resources/data/files later. If you’re using powerpoint create high impact slides and use appendices for the detail. The meeting I mentioned above did use powerpoint with key figures – 2 or 3 data points at most. We all walked out understanding the direction of the company and with the priorities clearly impressed on us.

And one last sneak question; do you really need a meeting? Many decisions can be made without putting an hour on everyone’s agenda. This is one area where time is money and it’s rarely factored into project costs, there are tools out there to help you measure the cost of time spent in meetings, and other tools to help you manage meetings better.

Go for a shorter meeting, your team will thank you for it.

Image: stopwatch via pixabay 

The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test is series of experiments on delaying gratification in children. Researchers tested whether children could delay eating a treat when told that delay would mean an extra treat.

Researchers then followed the children’s development and found that those who had been able to delay gratification for a greater reward had been more successful by various life measures including academic achievements.

Would I have passed the marshmallow test? Easily, I’ve never liked marshmallow. I’d do less well if the temptation involved chocolate, even now.

Can the “Marshmallow Test”  be applied to companies?

There is pressure within companies to meet monthly sales targets, project deadlines, quarterly results – multiple drivers of short-term performance requirements. A company’s strategy should provide a longer arc but the relentless pace of change compresses even this.

Are there companies out there that refuse short term revenue or profit to build long term gain?

Don Pepper identified 3 “small” examples in a Linkedin Post which got me thinking about specific incidents where I’d deferred instant result for a better result in the future.

I came up with three;

  • delayed a high impact project, that had some urgency, until I could get a knowledgeable project manager in place. A good decision.
  • rolled a mobile deployment of an intranet tool into a larger project, thinking that it would be easier to solve the significant security challenges once and the outcome would be a better user experience. A bad decision, two years later it still wasn’t done.
  • turned down an excellent candidate, because I didn’t think it was the right role for him – and hired him a year later for the right role. A difficult, but good decision.

In all cases I feared missing out on an opportunity when I made the decision, in two cases it was a good decision, in one perhaps not. I try not to give into the “fear of missing out” factor, and one way to do that is to imagine what I will think in six months if I say yes, vs saying no. You can also take time to imagine what it will take to deliver if you say yes now – in the first example I had to defend a delay, but had I taken on the project I had no resources for it’s unlikely the project would have been delivered any earlier or any better.

Have you deferred short term benefit for long term gain? If so, what was the eventual outcome?

The Tyranny of To Do Lists

To Do List

Does your To-Do list look like and endless scroll? Is it a table of incompleteness that makes you feel guilty?

There are some better ways to work. There are tools out there. But first: What if you stopped using a To Do list?

They Don’t Work

Or at least, they’re less use than you think, research quoted in the “Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List” by Bailey Adams says that.

  • 41% of to-do items were never completed.
  • 50% of completed to-do items are done within a day.
  • 18% of completed to-do items are done within an hour.
  • 10% of completed to-do items are done within a minute.
  • 15% of items added as to-do items were already completed.

So we’re not using them as a list of things to do, but as a way to make ourselves feel better about things we’ve already done.

A to-do list doesn’t rank your tasks. All tasks appear equally important, and there’s no distinction between what will take you the most time. They don’t help you structure your work.

They can also be a creativity killer – when we feel under pressure to complete a list of tasks we focus on that at the expense of doing creative work. We can also focus on the small stuff and lose track of the important stuff.

Caveat: Sometimes They Do Work

You don’t want to forget something you’re responsible for, and that’s the rationale for creating to do lists. But you can do it in a smart way.

In my current job I have a responsibility for managing content on an intranet site, the requests can arrive at any time, but usually there isn’t a precise publication deadline. I have a standing appointment in my agenda on a Friday to do this work, when a request comes in I add it to that appointment, usually just by adding the email request to the appointment. Effectively I’m constantly building my Friday to do list.

But here’s why it works:

  1. I know exactly what I need to do during that Friday appointment
  2. I don’t have to think about those tasks for the other days of the week
  3. The appointment is 2 hours, if I don’t need the two hours I get the time back, but I never spend more time on the to do list than I have scheduled.

Other methods aim to make you focus on the strategic goals, the important stuff. Or to limit the number of things on your to do list (for a start, don’t add tasks that you’ve already completed).

Methods and Tools

There are a slew of methods and tools out there to help people be more productive, try them, pick one that works for you.

Pomodoro Technique

Named after a tomato, in this technique you break your tasks into 25 minute periods, and take a five minute break at the end of each.

I find 25 minutes annoyingly short, but I do use the “plan task + break” concept, with the niceness of the break in proportion to the focus needed for the task.

Bullet Journal

A paper-based system that combines a to do list, a planner, and a diary. You use symbols to indicate what different items are, and you can add more description to any item, develop a habit tracker, colour-code your entries and instagram the whole thing. My inner stationery queen loves the idea, but being realistic I don’t have time to document in this detail or to decorate my to-do list at work.

ToDoist

Todoist is an elegant task list online and on app. I like this tool, particularly because it can be used across devices and across projects. I’ve only used the private version, although I included work tasks on the list, but there is a business version.

Microsoft Planner

If you work for a company that uses Microsoft then this is probably available. It lets you create tasks, add details, and assign them to other people, there are some options to sort and prioritise, but it doesn’t act as a true project management tool. As a colleague said “where’s my Gantt chart?”

Paper and pencil

My favourite tool, and I keep coming back to paper and pencil, it works for me. I write down things I need to do per week, and group them by project, plus a category for admin and one for personal tasks. I draw a box next to each task, and I check them off when done. If I haven’t done them I draw an arrow next to them as in “send to next week”. I tick off most things each week but I just move stuff if I need to; it’s a tool not a rule.

My half-baked theory is that “to do” lists work for things we need to remember to do, but destroy creative thinking, after years of trying all sorts of options I’ve come back to pencil and paper. I keep a list on paper for the week with the tasks grouped by “project”, “admin” and “personal”. I put down things I shouldn’t forget, tasks and follow ups I need to pick up adding a check box and a two letter code for the day it needs to be done. Creative tasks don’t get listed unless I need to send some output, instead I block a chunk of time on my calendar “PPT for team meeting” for example, giving me freedom to think in that time.

 

Image: Checklist via pixabay  |  CC0

 

7 Ways to Get Inspired this Weekend

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With so many people working such crazy hours how do we get inspiration? Here are ten ways you can get some inspiration this weekend.

1 Learn Something New

I’ve become a big fan of podcasts lately, partly because I can listen while I do domestic tasks. Here are a few of my favourites;

  • The Infinite Monkey Cage; a witty take on big science questions, the panel includes experts in the theme of the programme.
  • Click; ranging widely over topics in the digital world, including social and ethical issues.
  • Hidden Brain; more science, more on the human or psychological side.
  • The Broad Experience; women in business, partly discussion on the realities of the gender divide in business and some coaching style advice.

2 Break from Digital

Do something, anything, that doesn’t involve a screen. No TV, computer, phone, or kindle for at least an hour.  Leave your phone at home and go out. Read a book, one made with paper. Bake a cake – get the recipe from a book not a website.

It’s easy to get so absorbed online, there are always more posts to read, more videos to watch, more photos to see. But it is a time sink and it can be bad for our health.

If you struggle to stay off the screen try “gamifying” it, either give yourself a real life reward or try the Forest app, it’s designed as a productivity aid to monitor the time you’re not checking your phone and reward you with virtual trees. But you can also use it to break your phone-checking habit.

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3 Be Creative

And that’s Creative, with a capital C. Take a pottery class, write poetry, paint a portrait, write, paint, pottery, play music, photography find a creative hobby. It does our brains good to use them for something creative and it’s a stress reducer.

One easy way for me to feel a little bit creative is to go for a walk and take photos for Instagram, I love this city and have fun finding new views of it. Plus the walking is exercise. And you can be surprisingly bad at taking photos and it’s all OK on Instagram.

4 Exercise

You knew this was coming! It doesn’t really matter what form the exercise takes, but exercise has benefits beyond physical health. It improves your immunity, lowers your stress, improves your sleep. You know all this. What you might not know is that regular exercise improves your thinking.

5 Music

Years ago I had a neighbour who played the piano after work, somehow it was always Beethoven when he’d had a really tough day. It was Beethoven quite often.  Music can be a de-stressor and it’s good for us in multiple ways.  Listening to some music outside your usual collection – search on YouTube for “classical music for exercise” for playlists of energetic tracks for example.

6 Change Your Surroundings

Best option is a city break; one of the joys of living in Amsterdam is that I’m a train trip away from Cologne, Brussels and Paris, and a short flight from any European city. A couple of days exploring a new city can give you a mental boost. I love Budapest for this – it’s a surprising city, lots to do but somehow not too touristy.

If going away is not an option trying changing up where you do things, take a book to a cafe, take your lap top to the library. Change it up for a new view on your world.

7 Laugh

Every day. Every day.

Laughing can relieve stress, among other health benefits.

For me there are four options;

What’s your “restart” button for new inspiration this weekend?

Image: Idea   |   Daniele Marlenek   |   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brand Story

Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, was founded by two guys; Ben and Jerry in 1978.  They ran the company until it was bought by Unilever in 2000. They come across as a couple of regular guys, and they were the authentic face of the company for more than 20 years.

In contrast Häagen-Dazs is a name invented to sound Danish, and included maps of Denmark in its original branding.  They’re not the only company to hijack a nationality for their products, Australian Homemade, a chocolate company, was founded in the Netherlands by a Belgian.

Other companies have invented a company backstory to give their company a nostalgic veneer to their company’s branding. The Hollister clothing company rests on a fictitious founder John Hollister Snr, and uses a date of 1922. The company promotes a hippy-ish nostalgia and encourages employees with stories of the founder’s adventures “He and Meta sailed around the South Pacific, treasuring ‘the works of the artisans that lived there,’ and eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919.” The only problem? The guy apparently never existed and the company was only founded in 2009. Does it matter? Teen-aged shoppers don’t seem to care.

Liberty's of LondonIn the 1920s Liberty’s of London built a wonderful mock tudor department store in the heart of London. I’m sure that anyone who thinks about it realises the building is 500 years old, but it does give the company an air of age and stability beyond its establishment in 1875. As creative backstories go it less explicit than creating a founder with an adventurous past.

All the best business books talk about authenticity, all the communications and branding talks about authentic stories. Yet customers are buying a feeling not a truth. So do the brand stories need to feel true or be literally true?

Image: Megaphone  |  FietzFotos via Pixaby  |   CC0

 

Community Manager Appreciation Day

Your online presence is often the first “place” customers go to talk to your company, and the first “place” potential customers meet you. The people managing those communities fulfil a very important role for your company, and there are lots of reasons (I wrote about five) to show your appreciation for them, and Monday is the day to do it.

It’s Community Manager Appreciation Day (CMAD) on Monday so if you manage community managers here are some ways you could show your appreciation.

1 Say Thank You

Include some specific examples of posts that have been important, significant discussions/events or initiatives that have helped the company. You could, particularly in internal communities, post in your thanks to the community.  You could also make a public notice to go on the water cooler/coffee machine. If you don’t want to do this publicly, an email of face to face thanks also works.

2 High Level Recognition

You community is delivering value to business, find a business leader who can say this in email to your community managers. Many community managers take on the role as an “add on” to their usual job, if this is the case include their managers in the email list.

3 Buy coffee/tea

Not every company has free coffee on tap, your social media/community managers will appreciate the coffee/tea of their choice. Ask the barista to write “thank you” on the cup.

4 Invite them to join the CMAD webathon

The group behind CMAD has a day long programme of speeches and lectures all relevant to the role of a community manager. You can see the whole agenda and sign up on the site.

5 Run Your Own Web Event for Community Managers

I have done this, we ran an online meeting in two sessions (to cover Asian and American time zones), we had expert sessions on webcare, content calendars, and examples from round the world on local challenges (this was the most popular session).  If it’s too late to pull this together for this year how about announcing it on Monday, and making it a showcase for other colleagues to understand the role of the Community Manager.

6 Bring Cake

Yes, I have done this. It might be my colleague’s favourite  😉

If you make a small occasion of cake with coffee and say a formal thank you it’ll be a very personal way of showing your appreciation.

7 Small Gift

Put a card on the community manager’s desk with gift or an appropriate gift voucher inside, your thanks will have more impact if you add a written acknowledgement of specific achievements. If you’re not in the same place look for an email option – there are plenty of online gift voucher options.

8 Join the Community Manager Roundtable

The Community Manager Roundtable has a wealth of resources, training and research that can help your community managers improve their work, and professionalise their role. They can also contribute to the annual survey on the state of community management.

If you’re a member of a community you value take time to post a message thanking your community manager. If you can, ‘@’ their manager in the message to increase the recognition for their hard work.

If you’re a community manager pat  yourself on the back, and take a moment to reflect on how your community has evolved and grown in the last year, then plan one thing you want to improve in your own arsenal of awesome community manager skills.

Big personal thank you to the wonderful community managers I’ve worked with, it’s been a pleasure and I’ve learnt from you all!

Image: Thank You  |  Pierre Metivier  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Blockchain

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Blockchain is the technology behind cyrptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Namecoin and Titcoin. These currencies work as any other currency in terms of spending them, but their creation is a little differently and relies on cryptography,

When I first heard about bitcoin I was working for a financial services company, and the person telling me was gleefully announcing it would be the end of banks. Lots of things have been touted as the end to banks over the years, this was just the latest. I admit I had a bit of a mental block about it, I couldn’t see how value was encapsulated in the bitcoins – which is probably exactly how people felt when paper money started to be issued by national banks.

It’s a little complicated so here’s the best explanation I’ve been able to find on the internet so far.

(Want to know more? Here’s an even more detailed version from the same expert.)

Blockchain is a distributed decentralised ledger recording transactions. At its heart it provides a mechanism to encode the trust on each side of a transaction.

It’s that documenting of trust that has led to further consideration of the blockchain technology starting with central banks themselves. Blockchain solves two problems for established banks and central banks (1) transactions become faster (2) transactions become more secure. Because the transaction is recorded in a distributed manner, and because the transactions form a sequence, it’s extremely difficult to create a fraudulent transaction.

There are other areas where documenting trust is important, The Economist reports on changes coming to the land register in Honduras that will use a form of blockchain. By distributing the land register in a blockchain system the country will finally have a single land register.  IBM is part of a consortium working on a “hyperledger” that will allow private use of an open distributed ledger to track a variety of transaction. They note that a transaction dispute can take 40 days to resolve, but with an open ledger that time should be reduced.

Using Blockchain to verify contracts, sometimes called “smart contracts” could have uses in multiple industries. In this podcast from the BBC’s “Click” programme they explored the idea of using blockchain in the music industry to codify ownership of music, and enable simple payment.

MIT (who else?) have been looking at using blockchain as a certification mechanism on qualifications and memberships. They’ve written on the background and purpose of this project. If you’re a nice honest person who never lies on their LinkedIn profile you might struggle to see why this is important, however there are lots of CV ‘exaggerations’ out there and it is important to be clear about what qualifications, experience and memberships a person holds when they apply for further education, a job, or enter public office.  In the future our CV may come with blockchain codes to verify our statements.

Lastly governments are examining the potential of blockchain. The UK Government released a report on blockchain technology this year in which they state the potential power it has in government business;

Distributed ledger technologies have the potential to help governments to collect taxes, deliver benefits, issue passports, record land registries, assure the supply chain of goods and generally ensure the integrity of government records and services.

In fact Estonia is there already, their digitally-savvy president, Toomas Hendrik, has overseen significant use of blockchain technologies in securing identity and health records within his country and he’s working for a closer integration with outer countries across Europe.  There’s a broad vision Estonia’s digital programme, and the implementation has simplified a great many processes for its citizens.

In the future some form of blockchain technology will be behind how you access government and financial services. It will be more secure, more able to protect your privacy, and less likely to disruption or loss of data.

Image: Chained  |  Danna § curious tangles  |   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0