Memorable Meetings

July 22, 2014

From Greg McKeown in the HBR (I’m reading his book Essentialism at the moment):

Mr. Frost, my superb economics teacher in England, once shared the story of two people talking about a lecture given by the late Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism. The first said, “Twenty years ago, I went to the worst lecture I’ve ever heard! Friedman gave it and I still remember how he just muttered on and on and all I could make out was the word ‘money.’” The second man responded, “If you can remember what the key message was some twenty years later, I think it might be the best lecture you ever heard!”

Indeed, Friedman’s singular message — that by controlling the supply of money, you can stabilize the whole economy — became, arguably, the most impactful economic theory of the second half of the 20th century. The point I wish to emphasize is not an economic one, but a human one: if you try to say too many things, you don’t say anything at all.

He highlights a few key lessons he’s learned over the years in giving effective presentations:

  1. You can’t communicate what you haven’t defined i.e. be really clear, starting with yourself, about what you want to say
  2. Lose the slides and have a conversation – something my friend David Gurteen has been saying for years!
  3. Kill your darlings i.e. ruthless editing
  4. Be repetitive without being boring i.e. focus on the one message you want to hammer home

See also, Why Are Most Events Rubbish?

Rereading this latter post, it may be a bit unkind but the underlying point is still a good one and one that everyone still seems to be struggling with.

 


Thinking About Your Networks

July 16, 2014

Connected_780

This picture plus it’s accompanying discussion can be found here. It’s quite interesting to think about one’s connections in this way, even if it’s hard to be too specific about the measurement of the (time dependent) factors.


The Benefits Of Regularly Looking Backwards And Forwards

April 22, 2014

I’ve written previously on the powerful impact of carrying out (honest) reviews (for both projects and individual work). I came across an interesting variation on this theme that works for organisations and is called the Snippets system (from the free e-book here):

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple solution that persists to this day at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. In this system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it. Some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.

The routine process encourages employees to reflect and jot down a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

It sounds very attractive but I’m curious how it actually works in practice – how honest is everyone, how scalable is it really, how easy is it to spot unexpected connections in a mass of information? However I can imagine that if you can get such a system working well (as I’m sure you can) it would be incredibly powerful.

It reminded me a bit of a more standard system that I’d come across earlier that also incorporated the personal touch (the latter part wouldn’t scale easily but has advantages in it’s own right).

When I left academia in the late 80’s, I had a position at the UK IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester (specialising in research in data visualisation). Looking back now, I was terribly inexperienced with anything to do with business, so the ideas of professional management practices and business development and so on were quite alien to me. As a consequence I had to learn a lot in a short time.

One aspect that fascinated me was the way they did monthly group progress meetings. Every month everyone would briefly write down and circulate their key achievements and plans for the future as well as raise any issues that others could potentially help with. In addition, in the actual meeting everyone summarised their main points in 5 minutes or less. All staff were treated on the same footing so no one got more time than any other. Waffling on was cleverly regulated by the manager starting to look around the room and feigning a total lack of interest – it’s amazing how powerful that simple ploy can be!

These meetings were incredibly useful – it was good to have to think back on what I’d actually done in the last month, what was a problem and my initial ideas for the next month. It also meant that, as we were all working in different areas, we had to explain what we were doing (although technically very advanced) in a relatively simple and jargon-free manner (a very useful skill). The manager would then decide what were the highlights for that month (just one or two of the maybe 50 items discussed) and then summarise the rest.

The summary, just one or two pages, then got circulated around to the other groups. Quite often links and connections were discovered in these meetings that we’d not been aware of even though informal ‘water cooler’ conversations were an integral part of the way we worked.

It was a simple idea but very effective in practice and similar in spirit to the Snippets idea above. In a modern context, we were doing proactive ‘knowledge management’ through ‘creative conversations and smart summaries’. The clever part was managing the overall process without using a heavy hand, thereby encouraging honesty and fruitful participation.

It might seem that this idea is rather trivial and commonplace but that’s not my experience. After leaving IBM I worked for a number of research agencies and, although they did similar things, none approached the usefulness and directness of the IBM approach described above. I always had the feeling that in these organisations such meetings were activities you ‘had’ to do (and were essentially bureaucratic in nature) rather than something creative, motivating and useful. So just how you do it (preferably very brief and to the point, and stressing connections) is extremely important.

Maybe some of these knowledge sharing ideas can profitably be used in your organisation?

 


Communicating Clearly What You’ve Done

April 11, 2014

Fortunately my days of annual appraisals and writing/reviewing CVs are long over but I’ve always been interested in the question of how you best summarise what you’ve done. It’s relevant to general conversations as well of course, especially with people that don’t know you well.

In this context, there’s an interesting post on a survey that was carried out for CareerBuilder to identify the most effective words to use in a résumé:

One in six (17 percent) hiring managers spend 30 seconds or less, on average, reviewing résumés, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. A majority (68 percent) spend less than two minutes. With so little time to capture interest, even a candidate’s word choice can make a difference. The nationwide sample of employers identified which commonly-used résumé terms are overused or cliché and which are strong additions.

Unhelpful words to use were (worst first): best of breed, go-getter, think outside the box, synergy, go-to person, thought leadership, value add, results-driven, team player and so on (no surprises there of course).

Conversely, helpful words to use were (best first): achieved, improved, trained/mentored, managed, created, resolved, volunteered, influenced, increased/decreased and so on.

The overall message is that it’s best to focus on the choice of action-oriented verbs rather than (often hackneyed) nouns and adjectives!

It also emphasises that when someone has ‘done something’ the precise words used are so important. For example, if someone is in a project team, although they can’t say they managed the project, they can say a whole load of other very impressive things: improved, trained, created, resolved etc.

In fact, the list of verbs given in the article might be a useful trigger for re-evaluating what you’ve done these past few years, and perhaps even prompt a better description?


Benefitting From Random Ideas

April 4, 2014

I keep notes on most things I do, from work to personal interests. These range from speculative, random ideas to well-defined project tasks. Regarding the random ideas, now and again I go through them and am often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about. Also, as time progresses, the original idea will often have quite a different connotation and occasionally be in a better position to be acted on. However I don’t really do this trawl in a very systematic way, say via a regular review, so progress comes through luck and mood rather than method.

I recently read about Steven Johnson‘s approach to this general problem, he uses the idea of a ‘spark file’:

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The key aspect is the regular use of a review:

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable.

I might try this myself although I’ve also started using some innovative software called TheBrain (from TheBrain Technologies) to do something similar.

Whatever approach you use, the importance of the regular review remains of course, so I’ve now got the next three scheduled in my calendar. I’ll also make brief notes on the reviews and include them in the list as well as that’ll be an interesting way to see how my thoughts grow.

Aside: TheBrain has been described as a knowledge visualisation tool but to get a feel it’s best just to watch one of their many explanatory videos. The free version of TheBrain is very good in it’s own right so you might want to give it a trial (it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux). For an independent assessment, see also the illuminating posts on Steve Zeoli’s site.

 


Project Review Experiments

March 17, 2014

My friend, David Gurteen, who is a major name in the field of knowledge management, has recently proposed an interesting variation on the idea of post project reviews.

After most projects there is a review of sorts with the aim of learning from the experience, for the individuals and team involved but also (hopefully) for the wider organisation. There are many pros and cons to such reviews so coming up with new variations or approaches is very worthwhile.

David’s idea is (details here, please note that it’s a work in progress)

The Knowledge Cafe Philosophy takes a different approach by assuming that until people start to talk openly about how the project went many of the problems and missed opportunities and insights will not be surfaced. It takes group conversation, people talking freely and openly in small groups of 3 or 4 to achieve this. It’s not that the more formal approach does not work, it’s that it does not surface the deeper, more important stuff.

Although not quite the same, this idea reminded me of the time when I was asked by a Company Director to try and find out why, even though they were carrying out exhaustive bid reviews, similar mistakes were still being repeated. It was an important topic, the bids were complex and high value and their success was critical to the business. The bids were in different market areas so there was no immediate transfer of ‘technical lessons learned’, the issues were more people-centric and qualitative.

I started by reviewing the relevant project information; in one typical case the project review had been an off-site multi-day facilitated event involving all the key people (quite a feat in itself). Leading issues were apparently teased out and ambitious ways forward discussed and agreed and partially implemented.

However, quite separately, I decided to interview (more accurately have an informal conversation with) all the people mentioned as well as a sample of others. As you can imagine, everyone had their own quite different view on things. This process wasn’t completely straightforward as everyone was initially very suspicious of me – what was my agenda, why was I doing this – they’d already had exhaustive bid reviews?

However after explaining that there was no agenda (and why) and that no names would get mentioned, viewpoints actually flowed quite readily. Some had even felt so strongly about the bid that they had written up their own personal notes on the topic which were really illuminating (none of this was part of the final project material). The point is, the role of the ‘trusted and informal’ conversation was quite invaluable. 

Two aspects stood out for me:

The role of politics and power: these aspects obviously have to be acknowledged – it won’t go away. Careers and reputations were on the line, so an element of ruthlessness would always be around and this will obviously flavour decision making. This is a very delicate point to handle.

Overambitious ways forward and weak follow-up: my own view was that, instead of re-imagining a perfect organisation, it would be better to think up some ‘smart’ incremental improvements that would inspire people and get them to believe in the possibility of change and hope/encourage that there would be a natural viral development through the company. This would go alongside the more standard changes (improvement of processes, better knowledge sharing etc).

There are many different types of projects and organisations, so my example is just but one so no general remarks can be drawn, but in many conversations with colleagues over the years the above points seem to regularly crop up (obviously the extent of the two factors above will depend on the project).

At the highest level it’s politics that dominates and at other levels it will be something quite different, perhaps something technical (and much easier to discuss). However the point is that all these aspects get mashed up together, sometimes in very complex ways.

The other point that came out was that, even though there was a wide diversity of views, all parties had a very strong vested interest in a good result. I think this was the main reason that people opened up in the conversations. Who wants to spend a year or more on a bid for it to fail and with no real learning taking place, instead an even deeper entrenchment of negative views?

I’m not convinced that a Knowledge Cafe would be able to completely get over some of these very challenging problems but it might have encouraged a more honest and deeper appreciation of what actually went on. There still needs to be some new and practical ideas on how to best benefit from the insights obtained but that’s a separate matter.

Of course, in the story above a series of one-on-one informal conversations is not the same as David’s small group conversations but a mix of the two might be another interesting way forward.

Update: I drafted the above post a couple of weeks ago and, by a useful coincidence, David has in the meantime developed some of his ideas further, in particular, widening their scope. It is bannered under the title ‘Conversational Leadership’. Interestingly, this approach might go some way to addressing the two sticking points above.

He has organised a meeting at Westminster Business School, London on Wednesday 26 March, 18:00 – 21:00 to collectively discuss this topic. It’s a free event and you can read more about it here as well as registering for it.


Attributing Quotes

March 16, 2014

Quite often you see the same quote attributed to a variety of people. Also, sometimes original quotes get rewritten into modern versions to increase impact, further complicating matters.

I was reading about this recently in a discussion forum and someone amusingly summed it up as:

“Never believe quotes you read on the internet.” – Winston Churchill

And yes, someone then discussed whether this quote was true or not…


Cultivating Innovation And Deciding What To Fund

March 6, 2014

nesta-spending-2012-13

Chart of Nesta spend from their Annual Report 2012-13

I spent over 15 years of my career involved with bids, ranging from the small to the very large. They were all in the hi-tech area and focused on innovative solutions to a wide variety of business problems. Sometimes they involved bids for internal funding, to develop a new product idea, but more usually for external project funding (and usually in alliance with other parties).

Over this period I had experience from both sides of the fence: reviewing bids and giving feedback and submitting bids and receiving feedback. It’s a tricky area to get right: not to waste time on putting together a bid that will not get anywhere (for a host of reasons, which are often only clear afterwards, if at all) to the opposite, of being clear as why you’ve (really) won over other competing bids.

In the light of this I was interested to read about the approaches the charity Nesta are taking in cultivating innovative approaches in the areas that they focus on, including social innovation.

Nesta is a very interesting organisation and more info on them and their projects can be found from their site. In summary (here):

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

Nesta was originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery. The endowment is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects.

The key points so far are (with some extracts, see here for details):

1. Ideas matter, teams matter more

We’ve tried different approaches. Pitching sessions are useful, but you need to allocate enough time to get beyond the pitch and have a conversation; and one conversation is never really enough.

2. Information has a cost

One technique that seems to work is conference calls where we answer questions and clarify our goals before we ask teams to tell us their proposals.

3. Every contact should aim to add value

Often that’s about designing the selection process in a way that increases the knowledge or skills of the teams applying. We’ve held workshops on how to prototype and test ideas, connected people with coaches and experts, and supported teams to develop their theory of change.

4. Reach out for different perspectives

We haven’t found a simplistic formula that we can apply to our selection processes (if you know of one, please get in touch). What we do know is that we get much better decisions when we seek out different perspectives.

5. Expect iteration, know when to walk away

Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away; never easy after you’ve invested not only money, but your time and reputation into an innovation.


Starting Projects Through Fiddling

February 6, 2014

I often start projects through fiddling around with bits and pieces of ideas and approaches I’ve previously developed. However some of these activities don’t always lead to anything substantial, just other bits and pieces. This can be fun and enlightening but I often think I’d feel better about the time and effort I put in if I ended up further down the road to ‘completion’. I expect this situation is fairly common.

On this subject, over the weekend I came across a related observation from the Macdrifter blog:

My second least favorite part of me is that I meander more than I’d like. I’m a big proponent of fiddling. All of my favorite things came out of fiddling. But I’d like to fiddle more constructively and actually finish things more often than not. I’m too easily excited and frustrated.

My plan to overcome this cultivated defect:

  • Make a plan before spending more than 10 minutes on an idea
  • Write down the goal before making a plan
  • Work on the plan every day for a week (if it takes that long)
  • Avoid scope creep and stick to the plan
  • Choose the projects wisely and review them often

I quite like the points made as this has the possibility of countering what often happens in practice. You get an idea and then investigate it a bit – the possibilities seem endless and exciting! However, as he says, if you’ve spent over 10 minutes on this, it’s really time to stop and think out a simple plan and goal (especially goal).

I think just doing this one thing would be worth it’s weight in gold, even to the extent of briefly recording alternative plan options for hindsight purposes.

The next part is discipline; actually constraining yourself to focus and deliver and not get distracted. A week is actually quite a long time, enough time to know if there’s something useful there or not.

Finally, reviewing projects often and honestly (and hopefully wisely). This is probably the area I need to improve on most.

In my opinion ‘smart reviewing’ is quite a skill. The ability to openly and honestly assess progress (and to re-evaluate how realistic goals are) – both necessarily rather fuzzy characteristics in the bigger picture – is not that common.

Related to this, see also this post on obliquity (why our goals are best achieved indirectly).


Goals And Key Conversations

January 13, 2014

conversation-sm

“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” – Unknown

I came across this quote a couple days ago and it got me thinking, especially as I’m doing an annual review of sorts. The quote is helpful as it emphasises that goals and personal development (for want of a better phrase) can be strongly interlinked. Doing one can change the other and vice versa, it’s an evolving system.

There’s a lot of discussion on whether you should even set goals at all of course, whether they are just too confining and mechanical. In practice I guess I go through phases of having a concrete goal and then, almost as a reaction, to being more free-form just to ‘see what happens’. It may not be the most efficient approach but it does allow me to produce as well as to feel like I’m having fun. For instance, I’ve written over 80 posts on this blog this year plus about a quarter more as draft ideas that I decided not to publish plus a load of other book-related material.

For the first time, I’ve also been keeping a personal journal so I can better understand where my time and effort goes. I’ve tried various approaches but the most natural so far seems to be a ‘stream of consciousness’ method where ideas, web links, tasks etc all get captured and noted simply as they occur. I don’t tag or categorise as so far I haven’t found either helpful (I found I spent more time fiddling with my system that actually gaining any benefit from it). That’s probably because the outliner software I’m using (although excellent in it’s own way) doesn’t quite match my work/research flow (see aside below).

Looking through the journal entries for last year, it becomes quickly apparent that I tried to do too many things and conversely, there are an infinite number of interesting thing to try! Thank you internet.

To get good at anything takes time and discipline and to get even better takes even more time and discipline. So you have to make some hard choices on what you’re (mainly) going to focus on. Having some flexibility is important though as it allows for serendipity and the ability to change plans, sometimes in big ways.

However, apart from these generalities, perhaps the biggest insight I got was the importance of key conversations. All the best ideas got going through them, I can even remember each one quite clearly.

A conversation with a friend on something that really interests you, when perhaps you’re feeling a bit fed up or unsure, can be worth it’s weight in gold. A couple of minutes of positive and/or imaginative conversation can easily exceed hours of surfing for inspiration or ideas. You need both but, in hindsight, I spent too much time researching/thinking and not enough conversing! I expect this is fairly common.

Even though I wanted to talk on specialised topics (which I thought would not necessarily be of great interest), I found that:

  • People like to help and to feel that they can help (in their own, special individual way).
  • Some things are so obvious you need someone else to point them out to you (wood for the trees syndrome). Don’t worry when they’re astounded that you hadn’t realised the blindingly obvious as it usually works both ways.
  • Some ideas take ages to incubate, that’s just how it is, so don’t fight it. Friends might be surprised at the apparent lack of progress, but just feel lucky that change is happening at all!

From this, one novel ‘goal’ for 2014 would be to have more conversations with an ever wider group of acquaintances and friends on topics that are important to me.

I’ve never had this as a goal before so it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. I’ll also write up details of the conversations in my journal, something I don’t usually do.

For a bit more on the role of conversation in business and research, especially the role of knowledge cafes and similar, see here.

Aside on note-taking:

There’s an innovative piece of software that might offer a more natural alignment to my work methods as it is designed to handle emergent structures. It’s mac-only and is called Tinderbox (an exciting new version is just around the corner, Tinderbox 6). One of my goals for 2014 is to get to know this software better.

Independently, the person responsible for Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, has a really interesting blog – it’s worth a look, he certainly has a wide variety of interests (mainly books, cooking, politics and software)! There’s a good practical overview of the current version of Tinderbox here.


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