Present company excluded

It’s Monday Morning…and you are halfway through your 9AM meeting and your mind starts to wander. You begin thinking about all of your To Do’s, a whole list of calls that still need to be made, even details left undone that you may have missed from the prior week’s work and you begin to feel a great sense of anxiety build within you!  Sound familiar? You are not alone. The feeling that you have too much to do and not enough time to do everything is common for so many busy professionals.  However, what we forget when we become overwhelmed is that one of the key aspects of remaining productive in meetings is staying present. What I mean is that if you are always thinking about the past or the future, you are not really present to the individuals or the work right in front of you or around you. Being present is more about listening well in the moment and fighting the temptation to dwell on the past or obsess about the future.  When you are present, you stay actively engaged and allow the present moment to help you accomplish the goal immediately in front of you.  The question then becomes, how do I stay present when I have so much on my mind? Here are a few tips.

Turn off the technology – Turning off your IPhone, blackberry, or whatever your preferred mode of communication during meetings can help you stay focused and present.  Even when your phone is silenced, you may feel this small vibration that is beckoning you to check out, or reminding you that someone or something wants your attention.  Turn it off and find your mind rest a bit easier.  One hour with your phone off is not going to hurt anyone. Plus, you typically can’t respond during the middle of a meeting anyway so turn it back on when you are done. This is a great cure for finding some quiet and focused mental time in a meeting.

Write it down and refocus – Instead of resisting all of the tasks pummeling your brain for action during a meeting, keep a piece of paper out and call it “Out of my mind notes” so when you think of something you must do, you can quickly write it down and refocus. Often, people are fighting so hard to focus, they end up taking so much time resisting their own thoughts that they defeat the very purpose of their attempt to pay attention. Write it down and let it go.  When a thought comes, right it down and you will allow your mind to rest.

People first –Next time you are in a meeting and your mind starts going crazy with thoughts, just smile and remind yourself of the principle I call People First. People First is the idea that when tempted by worries about the past or the future, focus on the human beings who require your full attention in this very present moment.  If you are so caught up in your own mind, you may miss the colleague sitting next to you who has offered a brilliant idea because you are so busy thinking about all that you have to do.  It’s hard to obsess about To Do lists when you look people in the eyes and really listen to what they are saying instead of listening only to what your brain is telling you to think about. With People First, remind yourself what’s really important – meaningful connections to the world around you. Last I checked, great ideas may have come from thoughts, but human beings are the ones that actually made them become reality.  Live in the present moment and focus on the people around you. It makes meetings better, your time more productive, and puts your To Do list in proper perspective.

What are other techniques that allow you to remain present and focused?


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.

1-800 Connect Well in Virtual Meetings

It’s Monday morning…and I just concluded a 7AM conference call with one of our customers in Singapore.  The call went well, but at the conclusion of meetings like this, I often find myself thinking through how well I was able to engage the participants on the line.  I don’t think I am alone in my concern that at times, virtual meetings can be challenging to actively engage participants.

Now more than ever, as organizations seek to optimize their time and resources across the global marketplace, virtual meetings are becoming the norm. Given this reality, I thought it might be helpful to develop some ideas around best practices related to virtual meetings, seek your feedback, and get the dialogue started around this topic. Let me begin with some practical approaches to helping engage participants on teleconference calls (stay tuned – more on the use of video in later posts).

1. Smile – Often, we forget to smile and engage our full personality when we are participating in a teleconference.  In person, I enjoy looking people eye to eye and engaging them in conversations.  However, it is hard to do this when you are not looking at someone’s face but trying to read their body language over a phone.  However, the same rules for connecting in person can apply to connecting online.  People may not be able to look you in the eye, but they can read your level of engagement in your voice. When you smile during a teleconference, the tone and moderation of your voice changes and people can actually feel it.  Bringing personality and feeling to your voice helps participants recognize or better understand the human person on the other end of the phone line and will more likely get them engaged.

2. Ask for attention – Have you ever been on a teleconference and you can tell that no one is paying attention?  How do you know? One situation may be that you ask a question and as people struggle to take the line off mute, they ask you to repeat the question and have no idea what was being discussed. Meanwhile they have been checking emails or writing their next blog post! To fight off the attention gap, start a virtual meeting with a ground rule that asks participants to stay present.  Often, we just assume this is an understood rule but I think by naming the reality, participants are more likely to stay involved.  You might say, “During our call today, I would ask you to stay present. I know there is always a temptation to check emails or do other things while on the call, but let’s stay together so we can accomplish our meeting goal of x,y,z.”  By naming the reality – for example the ease of checking email when on a call – participants may be less inclined to do it because they know that you have explicitly asked them to pay attention and they may have more ownership over accomplishing the meeting goal.

3. Practice – Speaking over a telephone and leading a meeting online is not something you learn in Presenter School 101.  It takes practice to do it well.  Often, I think we just assume it is natural and that everyone should be able to do it, but this is not the case. I am sure you can recount times when you have been in an online meeting and you can tell that the presenter is unprepared and has no idea how to engage participants online. If you are required to lead a demonstration online or a prepared speech, have you practiced your speech prior to the delivery online? If you want to engage in points 1&2 above, you need to be comfortable with what you are going to say so then you can focus on how you are saying it.  Practice helps you accomplish these goals.

4. Seek feedback – What does your voice sound like on a phone line? One way to find out is during your next online meeting, record it and then replay the recording to hear how you sound.  Note places where you have smiled during the call and see if you can hear it in your voice.  Listening to your own voice can be so helpful (along with painful because it is seems so awkward) because it will allow you to make adjustments and hear places where your modulation become static.  Another approach is to have a trusted colleague offer you feedback at the conclusion of the call.

After I started compiling some of these practices more and more ideas starting flowing but no need to overwhelm, it is Monday morning.  As I mentioned above, over the next few weeks I will continue this series on tips and tricks for virtual meetings. I also want to hear from you. Where do you struggle as a presenter or participant when you are in online meetings? What are some approaches you use to engage participants?

Giving them the Disney Experience

About a year ago, I was sitting in a small internal meeting. Our Vice President Kevin Connor— a decision-making expert in his own right—tried to instill in us a desire for the kind of high-quality, seamless series of interactions our customers should experience when we (and our software) facilitate a decision-making process with them.  To drive home his point, he said finally, “We need to give them the Disney experience!”

I didn’t fully understand what that meant until recently, when I was actually inside Disneyland with my wife and kids.  If you’ve been to Disney, you know what I’m talking about.  Everything we touched, saw, heard, or felt—the meticulously detailed decorations (including garbage cans), the creativity, the music, the availability and friendliness of the staff, the cleanliness — all focused on one thing: giving their “guests” a meaningful, memorable experience.

This dawned on me while I was watching Disney’s $75 Million spectacular water show, World of Color.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced.  I thought, These guys don’t look at competition or return on investment (ROI) with the same conventional mindset that most companies do, even in the entertainment industry.  It’s not about doing just a little better than the next group, or pulling a “one-up” on the competition.  And it’s not about squeaking out a short-term profit.  To Disney, it’s about living up to their own brand of stretching innovation, creativity, and entertainment to new heights, all with the hope of providing a completely different experience to their guests.   It’s about shattering anything that has been done previously.

Don’t worry.  I’m not about to suggest that every meeting should be like a trip to Disneyland.  Yet there are a number of business applications to draw out of the Disney example.  I’ll mention just three:

  1. Consider your Guests’ Experience – In preparing to present material, meet with customers, or lead an effort, think of the stakeholders as your “guests.”  What will they experience?  How will the event, meeting, or interaction help them with what they hope to accomplish?  What mutually beneficial objectives can be achieved?  Remember that what your “guests” see, hear, or feel requires a significant amount of prepared effort “behind the scenes,” but it’s worth it.
  2. Focus on the details – Just as Disney is meticulous about the details, push beyond the basics of preparation for each meaningful interaction with a client or customer.  How will you introduce a topic?  What questions will you ask?  Where will participants be seated?  What will create the best environment – light in the room, the projector, potential distractions—to make the time meaningful?  When you think you are prepared, think again.  It may not be a life-changing experience, but it could be game-changing in your relationship.
  3. Push beyond the limits of mediocrity – In many organizations the bar for an effective meeting or decision-making effort has been set fairly low.   So shatter the competition!  Avoid planning your meetings and interactions the same way as the next person, or even a little better.  Take a step back.  Think outside of the box.  Be creative.  Consider the ROI for this engagement, with an eye toward your own brand and long-term relationships. And when you have a sense for what can be accomplished, try to find all the ways to exceed expectations.

You may be saying, ‘Wait, aren’t we just talking about meetings and processes here?’  True.  But, like Disney, it may be worthwhile to view these tools in a new light.  Meetings are often boring, redundant, and meaningless.  But they could also be the forum and means for making critical decisions, building our reputation, and establishing lasting relationships.

Buy a stopwatch – you will thank us later

So it’s Monday morning… and about 15 minutes into your weekly status meeting with the team, your colleague Terry is going on and on about a project he is working on.  It always seems like Terry is talking whenever you meet and as you look around the room, others are showing a similar expression of tuning Terry out – yet again.  How do you handle this type of situation where meeting participants are unfocused or simply eating up valuable time and not addressing the issue at hand?  Below are some ideas for keeping participants focused, time conscious, and participating.

1. Ask a focused question – When you begin the meeting, instead of asking the group a general question to provide a status report, focus the group by asking a specific question. For example, you may want to say, “I would like everyone to provide an update on X, Y, Z project and when you give your report, please only bring up items that you would like the group to be aware.  Other items can be brought up offline.” Participants will now have something specific to respond to and will be less likely to get off track.

2. Provide a time limit – Offer a time limit to keep participants moving along.  Assign a colleague to manage the clock and have that person raise their hand when there is 30 seconds left for the individual’s report.  I have found that the time limit method works very well. It takes participants a few meetings to get used to the time limit, but once expectations are set, the time provides a framework for individuals to tighten up their verbiage and offer a more concise report.

3. Establish a round robin – Ensure that all participants have a chance to speak by telling the group that we will begin with one colleague and circle around the table.  One strategy to begin this process well is to start with a colleague that you know will meet the time limit as well as offer a concise report.  This offers participants a model for how the report can be delivered.  Do you have a quiet colleague who does not speak up or is introverted?  The strategy for this situation is to maybe begin the reporting about three people away from the quiet member. This will give the more introverted team member additional time to prepare their report.

These are just a few ideas, what best practices have you employed at your organization to address this type of situation?

The labor in Col-“labor”-ation

I laughed when I saw this.  How many of us have been on one or both sides of this table before?

“We want to include you in this decision without letting you affect it.”

We’re asked to give advice or recommend a solution.  So we work hard and sometimes spend long hours to provide the best answer.  Later we learn that our recommendations were not followed, and possibly never looked at.  We’re deflated.

That has happened to me more than once.  One time early in my career as a young consultant, our team was asked to recommend a set of new Standard Operating Procedures for a large financial office.  We worked long hours, carefully considered every detail, and ultimately delivered a 350-page masterpiece (so we thought) for our client to implement.  They took our deliverable with appreciation, even admiration, and we were paid for our work.  But in the months that followed as I did subsequent work for the client, I noticed that our document simply collected dust on a shelf in the office.  Our “deliverable” was just that: deliver-able but not implement-able.  So that was it – all that time amounted to “shelfware.”   Why?  I learned that it wasn’t because our solutions for them were inaccurate or our ideas were bad.  It just wasn’t their solution.

I often point my clients to a concept from Michael Wilkinson’s book, The Secrets of Facilitation.  He says that an 85% solution with the right stakeholder involvement is better than a 100% solution without stakeholder involvement.

So that’s why we make decisions collaboratively. If it’s our decision, we determine who should weigh in.  If it’s our opportunity to recommend a solution, we involve the key players in the process. Does it require more work? Yes.  Is it a slower process? Usually in the short-term.  Is it more painful and risky at the beginning?  Often.

But in the end, it pays off.  We provide lasting value to those involved and get much closer to accomplishing our decision goals.  So I’m interested in your thoughts: What are the risks and benefits of collaboration?

Late or Never Ending – Mind the Clock!

So it’s Monday morning… and you walk into your first meeting, at 9:00.  You have hundreds of things to do and, while you would rather not be in this meeting, you go because you know that this group has some important decisions to make.  James, the meeting leader, gets there right after you do, and begins setting up.  Jill walks in 3 minutes later, sees that James is playing with the projector, and says she’ll be back with some coffee.  Dan and Victoria arrive at 9:08 telling stories about the weekend.   By 9:15 everyone is finally sitting in place, coffee in hand, and ready to listen.  And you think… I’ve just wasted some valuable time.  You know the worst part is that the meeting will probably go over.

Starting meetings on time and ending on time is important.  Have you ever been frustrated when a meeting does not start on time? For some people, they not only get frustrated by this common practice, but they get angry.  They feel like others are not valuing their time.  On the flip side, when a meeting begins and ends on time the message participants receive is that their time is valuable and respected.

If you are a relaxed person and starting late doesn’t bother you, consider yourself lucky not to have this pet peeve. So many activities in our daily life already run a few minutes.  Think about when you are waiting in a long line for your morning coffee, a doctor to see you, or the arrival of the next train.  We all know how frustrated we get when all sorts of things in life do not begin on time or hold us up…it should be no different for meetings.  In fact, a late meeting is probably more costly because it involves multiple people whose time is extremely valuable.  I may not control the coffee shop, the doctor, or the train, but if I lead a meeting, I control when we start and when we finish.  If every time you begin a meeting you start on time, watch and see how many people stop arriving late. Nobody likes to miss out and once they know that you will begin without them, they’ll be sure to start showing up a few minutes early.

Let’s hear from you – what could you do in advance of the meeting to ensure things start and end on time?