Monday Morning Tip: “Blurb” Meeting Highlights

It’s Monday Morning … and you’re in a meeting that matters.  You want to make the most of your time, and you want to make something useful of the meetings’ outcomes.  You agree with the old adage: “It is not the number of hours you put in, but what you put in the hours that counts.”  And so you can’t stand a wasted meeting.

Here’s a tip: In the last few minutes of your next meeting, “blurb” the highlights of the meeting, and then make plans to take action.

Let me explain. On Friday I sat next to the editor of espn.com’s golf section as we traveled from Washington, DC to San Francisco.  I was coming home from company and client meetings in Arlington as he was on his way to prepare for the U.S. Open that begins later this week.  I told him he has a cool job!  And he agreed, but added that it’s not always that easy – 18 hour-days during tournaments, loads of travel miles, and having to constantly hover over website “hits” and tweets to pulse what customers care about. A crucial part of his job, he said, is to “blurb” the articles of his writers – that is, to concisely synthesize in a sentence or two the key message of the article.  As you can imagine, this is difficult to do, even for a professional writer or editor. But it adds clarity and purpose to the whole article, and draws the reader in spending time on the content.

We don’t need to work for ESPN to reap the benefits of blurbing.  If we “blurb” the content of our meetings, we will better grasp the purpose and key outcomes of the meeting, and position ourselves to act on what we have learned or decided on.  So write down in a sentence or two a synthesis of the meeting.  Use active verbs.  Have fun with it.  And then act on that blurb, and you’ll make your meetings count.

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Monday Morning Tip: Restructuring your day around what matters most

It’s Monday Morning… and you’re staring at your calendar 4 minutes before your first meeting.  You have more to do than you have time for today: 3 important meetings, 2 other internal calls that don’t really fit with your goals, and 1 document you promised a customer  that will take much longer than the budgeted time.  But what’s actually really important (which is NOT on the calendar) is the complex issue with one of your other clients that you really need some time and space to think about.  

So you’ve got to restructure your day.  By the way, now it’s 2 min before your next meeting.  Think quickly.  

Kudos if you spent a few minutes thinking through your day (or week) like this at all.  Most of us just roll in, jump into the first meeting, and let the events of the day carry us along.  We let the calendar drive us, rather than deciding to use our time and our resources to accomplish what is most important.

But even when you are doing the necessary planning at the beginning of the day or week, if the discrepancy between your calendar and your priorities resembles the above example, it’s probably too late.  Canceling meetings left and right, or just not showing up, will not help your reputation for reliability and responsiveness.  You want to keep your commitments.  And you need to meet internal and external expectations.  But you have tied yourself down to committing to good things when you could spend more time on the things that matter most.

So meet your commitments today.  But as soon as you can, carve out some time this week to take a step back. Think about the purpose behind each meeting or effort, and then compare that with your medium to long-term priorities.  Your goal should be to use your time, network, skills, and other resources to accomplish your most important priorities.  Your calendar, and the meetings on them, will be one tool to help get you there.  It’s certainly not easy.  As you make decisions about what you’re trying to accomplish, consider three structure traps we fall into, and what to do with them.

1. Insufficient structure– Often in organizations, we respond to complex challenges or decisions with insufficient structure.  We need to organize ourselves.  Think of it this way. If your system for processing emails is prepared to handle 10 emails each day, and you actually receive 500, you’re toast.  Similarly, we need to layer in sufficient structure to handle complex decisions or challenges.  Maybe you’re dealing with an issue that never really seems to move toward resolution. Take a step back.  Ask the right questions. Think through the barriers and opportunities.  Decide how to move forward.

2. The Wrong Structure – At other times, we impose the wrong structure altogether. For example, excel spreadsheets and power point slides are adjusted, readjusted, and re-presented to leaders because more sophisticated tools are not used to handle their “what-if” questions or scenarios.  Or someone creates a committee that brings in loads of data but never really solves the problem. We need to constantly ask ourselves: What are we trying to accomplish?  Is this the right approach?  Then we move in the right direction.

3. Too much Structure – As an example, think of 5 different meetings set in place by 5 different people with generally the same participants. Can we consolidate?  Hence the recent outcry for too many meetings. In the case of a weekly status meeting, it may be that getting together as a team is not bad. But in some cases the time and costs of gathering may be better used for leveraging expertise to answer tough customer questions, or for knowledge-sharing that team members can immediately apply.

Lessons from San Antonio: A Pattern for Complex Decisions

A couple of weeks ago, I spent several days in sunny San Antonio.  The weather was uncharacteristically cool, the food was fantastic, and the team of professionals I worked with was extremely capable.  We had just one challenge: Solve a very complex prioritization decision.  Here was the task: Determine how to effectively allocate nearly $5 billion to provide 270 different services across 70 organizational units.

Let’s see.  It’s Monday morning.  Thursday afternoon we present our solution.  We have 3 ½ days.  Hmmm… Where do we start?

Where would you start?  How do you typically set yourself up for success when dealing with a complex decision or challenge? Feel free to compare/contrast our approach with how you would take on a decision like this:

1)   Survey the tools and resources available.  We had historical data, knowledgeable experts—one team member was superb at bringing in the right people at the right time— and helpful tools (e.g., Microsoft Excel and Decision Lens).

2)   Build a simple model/framework that allows you to test your solution(s). One team member had phenomenal modeling skills.  He extracted a small sampling of the information to test our criteria, assumptions, and resource constraints.  That helped us to run scenarios and see what approach would scale to full size.

3)   Maintain perspective and purpose. So as not to get too far down in the model-building weeds, a third team member proved to be masterful at challenging us to think outside of the box, look down the road, and consider what leadership would be really looking for.

We were off and running.  But even with a good start and a play at leveraging our various strengths, the complexity of the task was enormous.  On occasion, we found ourselves heading down the wrong path, or engaging in lively debates about issues that would later become irrelevant.

So on Wednesday morning, we added a fourth element to our strategy:

4)   Organize your various skill sets and time to break down the complexity and ensure forward movement.  We realized that for the team to work together all of the time meant greater inefficiency and a higher likelihood of distraction.  And we knew that each of us had different strengths to leverage.  So we gathered briefly to assess what had to be done by the following afternoon.  First, we wrote out a list of specific, actionable items. Next, we agreed on who would take ownership of each item based on our respective strengths. Finally, we set meeting times regarding issues that needed to be resolved with more than one set of eyes.  In short, we added enough structure around our process to match the complexity of the task.

By layering in the structure, we naturally increased transparency (we all saw what needed to be done) and accountability (each committed to certain tasks).  We focused our various skills and strengths around a common goal. And in the end, we found a solution that was well received by everyone involved – a big success.

I have learned that layering in structure to match the complexity of a decision, task, or concept allows us to work collaboratively with greater focus.  In our next post, we’ll discuss three structure categories to address the complexity challenge: sufficient structure, the right structure, and avoiding excessive structure.  But for now, what experiences have you had with complex decisions, tasks, or other organizational challenges?  And how did you handle them?

Monday Morning Tip (especially for me): Are you listening?

It’s Monday Morning… and you have an especially large amount of to-dos floating around in your mind as your first meeting begins.  You look at the person talking, give all the nods at the appropriate times, and occasionally even state back a couple of lines that were said.  You give just enough to show that you’re listening, enough to make it seem like you’re interested. But you’re really not that interested.  You’re not really there, mentally or emotionally.  Sound familiar?

How to listen more closely in your next meetingOr even worse, you join a teleconference, go on mute, and try putting a dent in your other tasks.  You train your ear to listen for your name, in which case you’ll say something smart before retreating back into your other, busier world.

I suppose most of us have adopted this behavior in one form or another.  The trouble is that when all is said and done, by multi-tasking we will have missed most of what they said in the meeting and even more of the emotions behind it.  And, on the other hand, we will have been less productive than if we had just skipped the meeting altogether and focused.

Here’s an approach that may be helpful: At the beginning of a meeting (virtual or in person) ask the following questions: “Do I really need to be in this meeting, or will I be more productive working elsewhere?  If I need to be in this meeting, is there anything that simply cannot wait until after the meeting?” If there is something that cannot wait, look at the agenda and kindly ask if you can step out to accomplish a critical task.

Otherwise, focus on listening.  Be there.  Make this your point of concentration.  Mentally set aside everything else. Listen carefully. Ask questions to get more out of it.  See how many others you can encourage or praise.  Try harder to understand the issues, challenges, and success stories.  Decide on a key takeaway and commit to implementing it as a result of the meeting.

Remember to shower before your next video conference

Tearsa Coates is the newest author to the Meetings Improved Blog. She is a Senior Client Decision Manager at Decision Lens. Enjoy her first of many posts!

One of our colleagues, Jared, is leaving the Arlington office to join our West Coast team.  Although we are all excited about his new adventure, it won’t be the same here without him.  Jared has a wry sense of humor, which can only be fully appreciated when accompanied by his facial expressions.  Which is why I’m campaigning hard for him to attend future internal meetings via video conference rather than teleconference.

But Jared’s sense of humor isn’t the only reason that I’m politicking for video conferencing.  It is generally accepted that about 80 percent of communication consists of non-verbal cues.  Being able to read expressions of joy, confusion, hesitancy, agreement, and frustration enhances our ability to understand each other, saving time and preventing errors.  Further, research from Forbes (The Case for Face-to Face) shows that people actually look forward to multitasking during teleconferences, hindering their focus on the discussion.  So, “dialing in” may actually compromise the efficiency of business.  Finally, in this economic environment, it’s difficult to justify the expense of traveling cross-country for routine meetings.  (Check out Polycom’s Video ROI calculator.)  ConsidBest Practices in Video conferencingering all this, you can see why I’d surmise that video conferencing is the next-best thing to meeting in-person.

Now, as a professional facilitator, Jared is king of the teleconference.  But a video conference is not just a teleconference with a camera.  There are a few unique annoyances that one must prepare for.  So I drummed up this short list of tips for Jared to keep in mind.

1.    You’re Not Talking, But We’re Still Watching

Unfortunately, buddy, you’ve just lost your ability to surf the web, daydream, or scratch anything above your knee during a call.  When it’s not your turn to speak, it’s normal to drift off a bit.  But because there will be so little on the screen besides you, every move that you make unrelated to the meeting will be more pronounced.  (This especially includes reading email, as there is something eerie about watching someone’s eyes darting back and forth across the screen.)  So sit up straight, look straight ahead, and keep your hands folded on your lap.  It’s for the good of the team.

2.    Break Down and Use the Headset

Yes, I know you will look like a telesales rep and probably muss your hair.  But, to date, this archaic device still yields far better sound quality than its sexier cousin, the Bluetooth.  If you rely on the computer microphone to pick up your voice, the team will have to cram around one laptop to hear you.  That would be selfish.

3.    Mind The Gap

There may be a slight video delay during our calls, making your status updates seem as if they are being dubbed from another language.  Try shutting down concurrently running programs that eat up bandwidth.  (This will also help with Tip #1.)  And don’t forget to pause regularly so we can catch up to you.  I promise to personally repeat any jokes that fall flat on your end due to poor timing.

Despite these minor disadvantages, I am convinced that videoconferencing will keep us all connected and help us to remember that there is a real person on the line.  But, if all fails, I’ve built a solid case for why Jared should hop on a plane and visit us every once in a while.

Best of luck, Jared!

Recap on April 19 Transportation Session

Yesterday we held a half-day Transportation Summit focused on decision-making, transportation trends, key prioritization criteria, and stakeholder strategies for Transit Agencies and DOTs. Participating in the session were representatives from several five Transit Agencies/DOTs, mostly in the region.   In the posts below, you’ll see some of the issues and findings we covered in our half-day session.

Also included in our “For Our Clients” Tab under Events are the summary slides of the Transportation modeling best practices Jon Malpass shared with the group.

Thanks for an engaging session!  Let’s keep the dialogue going.

Transportation Trends from West Coast Summit

Participants at the Decision Lens Transportation Summit in San Francisco offered perspectives on the current transportation environment.  Below are some of the findings:

  • In the future baby boomers will be retiring so there will be a larger working population.
  • The Millenial generation will be choosing to use transit.
  • People will be driving less and increasing in bicycle use and other modes of transportation (other than driving)
  • Congestion pricing will become more of an issue and toll lanes will be increasing.

As a result, participants discussed the following transportation trends:

  • Increase in ridership
  • Demographic shift and behaviors
  • Less VMT, Vehicles/HH
  • Alternative Modes, Inter-modal
  • The Multi-modal city

For more discussion, join us at our discussion group on LinkedIn – Decision Lens.