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.

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.

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.

The Emerging Voice Against Meetings

It’s Monday morning… and I thought you might enjoy these rather cynical quotations on meetings, all compiled in a very interesting report sent to me by a client and good friend of mine.

“A meeting is a gathering where people speak up, say nothing, and then all disagree.”

“A meeting is an interaction where the unwilling, selected from the uninformed, led by the unsuitable, to discuss the unnecessary, are required to write a report about the unimportant.”

“A Meeting is indispensable when you don’t want to get anything done.”

“A meeting is a place where you keep the minutes and throw away the hours.”

“Time and Money, money and time, with respect to meetings they intertwine. And, when all the costs are added up, it blows your mind.”

There’s a growing trend against meetings, and a general perception that their cost exceeds the value they bring. Some will tell you just to skip your next meeting.  Others say they should be cut out altogether.

I’m not so cynical as to believe there is no use for them at all.  Part of the problem is that we see our next meeting as an end in itself.  At best, we look at them like a chore – like doing the dishes or walking the dog or taking the kids to school.

I like to think of meetings as a tool, or a set of tools. Some meetings can be useful for sharing information.  Others are necessary for holding people accountable.  Still others, the most important, are critical for making decisions. When we focus on the objective of the meeting, and the benefit it will bring to us and those participating, suddenly the meeting begins to work for us rather than against us.  And when we begin to use meetings as a means for accomplishing our work and refuse to let them take a life of their own, they become a valuable mechanism for becoming more effective.

Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session.  They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible.  No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin!  After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas.  Right?brainstorm word cloud

Well, maybe not.

Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee.  In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it].  It doesn’t work.”  He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water.  Experience doesn’t back it up.

Can this possibly be true?  Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time.  And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”

So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?

Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity.   He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions.  He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized.  Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.

Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value?  Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.