Tony Schwartz on David Allen, simplicity, and productivity

The Power of Deceptive Simplicity - Tony Schwartz - Harvard Business Review

Tony Schwartz on David Allen this morning in HBR:

It's not my goal to teach you David's system, but rather to bring your attention to the breathtaking insight at its core, which is this: If you're not acting on something that's on your mind, it's consuming time, energy and precious space in your brain that you could be using to do richer and more productive thinking. Or as David puts it, "You'll need to get in the habit of keeping nothing on your mind."

This comes from a piece by Schwartz covering Allen for a series in HBR on being more productive. While much of Allen's work revolves around individual productivity, I've found the concepts are absolutely apt for teams and committees to keep focus and attention on what matters. Schwartz has distilled the intent of the simplicity in the Getting Things Done approach.

In general, teams that are most successful in delivering results on big change projects have created and adopted processes that reduce complexity, encourage participation, and are easy to access. Schwartz's post this morning is a terrific reminder that very often, it's the simple approach that underlies focus, attention, and productivity.

The Economic Crisis: Danger or Opportunity?

Is the economic crisis a threat or hidden opportunity?  It depends.  For those who see it as a threat, they will maintain the status quo, keep their heads down and hope for the best.  For those who see this crisis as an opportunity, an entirely different set of behaviors come out - a renewed sense of energy and willingness to demonstrate their value to the organization. Which set of behaviors increase the likelihood of landing in a good or better place?   It reminds me of the story where a man is praying to God in hopes of winning the lottery.  After months of not having his prayers answered, God finally reaches down and says to the man “I have heard your prayers but if you could do me a favor…buy a ticket.”  To get something better in life, you’ve got to get in the game.

What are some strategies that can help shift ones point of view to recognizing opportunities in a crisis or difficult situation?  Here are five:

  1. Attitude Adjustment – Of all the strategies that can help shift one’s focus, attitude is the most important.  Attitude drives behavior.   As Dr. Alan Zimmerman talks about in his book Pivot: How One Turn in Attitude Can Lead to Success, “No one gave you a good attitude and no one can give you a bad attitude.  It’s a choice.”  This is a powerful statement and for many a useful wake-up call.  Recently Dr. Zimmerman was interviewed on CBS's Early Show and he was asked how we can maintain a positive attitude in the face of many challenges people face today.  His response was “Failure is not the falling down but the staying down”.  When people have setbacks, he suggests that they avoid the “Why” question.  Why did this happen to me?  Instead, focus on how you can learn from the failure.  Simple, yet useful advice.
  2. Network – Whether one is gainfully employed or looking for work, networking is a key strategy to stay connected with new opportunities.  Many of us find the prospect of networking to be outside of our comfort zone, but networking can bring huge dividends in learning about how one's organization is changing or about job opportunities that may be perfect for one’s skills.  Most jobs are filled through someone knowing a person who is right for the role.  With all of the hiring freezes, vacancies or even layoffs, now is the time to stand out and show your interest in making a greater contribution.  Management is looking for the best people right now, and they have much to choose from.  Improve your position by building relationships through networking.
  3. Take Risks – Networking is a form of risk-taking, i.e. getting out of your comfort zone.  Practicing stepping outside of one's comfort zone is an important skill to develop, especially in times of perceived crisis.   While others may be retreating to cautious behavior, those who take calculated risks can reap huge rewards.  Opportunities are waiting.
  4. Professional Development – This may be the best time to develop new skills.  If one’s organization offers professional or technical classes, jump in.  There are multiple benefits to this.  Firstly, new skills put one in a position to take on new responsibilities; secondly, it’s a networking opportunity. Most importantly, focusing on developing new skills increases one’s confidence and focuses one’s energy on positive action, versus the default reaction to how bad things are.
  5. Update One’s Resume or CV - Updating a resume can be a great way to increase one’s personal confidence.  Most of us wait until we need a resume for a job application versus using the process of updating a resume to survey one’s skills.  When we see our accomplishments on paper, it builds confidence to pursue other challenges or take on greater responsibility.  Even if you’re content with your current role, having a resume handy can be very useful if a new opportunity arises.  This is a competitive job market and many others are prepared to jump on an opportunity that may be perfect for you.

In times of crisis, we can dig our heels in, close our eyes and wait for the anticipated changes around us to happen.  This is one option.   We can also choose to get in the game by facing the challenge and asking “How can I help myself be in the best position when the dust settles?”  Reminding each other we have this choice is the best way to help ourselves and others through this economic crisis.

There are hidden opportunities in a crisis. The question is: Will we allow ourselves to get involved, take a chance and trust that we will benefit from our decision to be proactive?

Many thanks to Denis Walsh for his observations and feedback.


The Key To Getting Through This Economic Crisis

The economic crisis has jump-started a long-standing conversation among senior leaders in Higher Education. How can we best deliver services to our core stakeholders while finding ways to positively impact our financial condition? Since the economy tumbled in September 2008, actions taken by universities run the spectrum of “wait and see” to rethinking how to deliver services and programs, all while keeping the academic and administrative trains running. Like its corporate partners, colleges and universities are now publicly embracing the “bottom-line” as the core enabler of its mission. For institutions that have embarked on broad organizational change, one thing’s for sure. Staff and faculty are anxious. While the most prevalent anxiety spoken is “Will I still have a job on the other side of this crisis?”, it's not always about losing one’s job. The underlying fear is uncertainty.

It's not so much that we're afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between… It's like being between trapezes. It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There's nothing to hold on to. Marilyn Feguson Author and Public Speaker

In this period of change, institution leaders have two primary concerns: What if our planned restructuring to address the financial crisis evoke a sufficient negative reaction that cause it to fail? Even worse, what if the changes put in place are not enough?

On the other hand, if you ask staff doing the work what they fear, it's the uncertainty of how they're jobs may change or worse, go away.  The power of uncertainty can have great control over our lives.

The Power Of Uncertainty

Take this example from a study conducted at Emory University:

A team at Emory University examined what happened when people waited for an impending electric shock. Some people dreaded the shock so deeply that they chose to receive a more powerful shock earlier rather than waiting for a lesser shock to arrive at a later, random time. David Eagleman NY times Op-Ed, December 3, 2009

Why would someone choose this counter-intuitive behavior?  Simple.  It's more stressful to wait for something negative to happen than get it over with now.  Knowing what's coming has tremendous influence over our ability to focus.  When changes like possible layoffs or organizational restructuring are anticipated, people's anxiety levels are raised and strong emotions  are evoked - from anger and fear for some to enthusiasm and excitement for the lucky few.  The majority react to anticipated change assuming it will be bad for them.  This, in itself is an irrational reaction.

Shifting One's Focus

If we’re serious about transforming Higher Education, we need leaders to make tough decisions that position our institutions in a fiscally sound direction. These changes will not come all at once and require thoughtful analysis before implementing. There is no getting around that in this period of analysis, anxiety will be heightened because not all the answers will be clear.  Institutional leaders need to help their most important assets, people, get through this period of accelerating change.

But it's ultimately up to the individual to decide whether the coming changes are something to avoid or an opportunity to take advantage of.

Those who maintain a positive attitude through these challenging times are not free of fear or anxiety; they just choose to put their energy elsewhere.  How can I improve my value or get more involved?  What opportunities may come out of these changes that I can take advantage of?  Are there things I can be learning that will help me get through this better?  These questions are at the heart of shifting one's point of view from "Why is this happening to me?" to "How can I best get through this?"

The key to getting through this economic crisis is to build a business culture that helps people learn to make positive choices in the face of uncertainty.  It's a partnership between management needing to focus on the big picture and the individual choosing to be part of the solution.  This is true change management, transforming fear that breeds inaction to optimism that promotes opportunity and personal growth.

Stop Doing and Start Helping!

There is nothing more arrogant than walking into an organization, assessing a people or process issue and believing you can single-handedly create a permanent solution. The failure in most organizational projects is the presumption made about the giver and receiver relationship, the giver being those helping with the change and the receiver, those inheriting the change. The three most important presumptions are:

  1. The receiver is asking for the specific advice given
  2. The receiver is open to the advice, diagnosis or solution offered
  3. The giver understands enough of the problem to give this advice

These may seem like fair presumptions but more often than not, advice is given on incomplete information and both sides do not have a shared view of the problem. The problem doesn't get fixed, the recipient doesn't own the solution and the blame game for a less than satisfactory solution takes center stage. Sound familiar?

The Missing Piece

The first thing to recognize is the difference between advice and help.

When I consult with a surgeon, I'm looking for advice, a diagnosis and for that person to take care of the problem. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects - these roles are structured around evaluating a situation, applying expertise and doing the work. The person is the means to the solution.

Building a high-performing workforce is different. True success comes down to behavior change.  Positive attitude, teamwork, trust, practice - these skills are the cornerstones of an effective workforce. You can't talk someone into having a good attitude, exhibiting teamwork or being willing to make mistakes as a way to develop skills - they must want it themselves and be willing to do what it takes to get there.

But it's so much easier to just give advice and then walk away, you say.

Projects involving people that end up being perceived as unsuccessful stem from an overemphasis of trying to solve their "problem" versus looking for ways to help them help themselves.  At the heart of making positive change stick is asking this question:

"If diagnosing and advising only perpetuates a dependency and lack of self-reliance, how can you help the group take greater responsibility for their problems and solutions?" Focus on ways to get the groups to practice and immerse themselves in the behaviors that will build their confidence to do the work on their own.  Stop doing it for them.

Yes, being an expert is useful but don't confuse expertise with being helpful. Expertise doesn't changes behavior. To get people acclimated to a new way of doing something, you must ask deeper questions about how they learn, retain information and are able to repeat this behavior on their own. Whether you're the sponsor, manager, consultant or colleague, step back and find ways to allow individuals and groups to do for themselves, versus being so quick to solve their problem. Only then will they be able to run with the ball in a self-reliant way.

A great book that deconstructs the "helping relationship" is Edgar Schein's book "Process Consultation Revisited - Building the Helping Relationship". This book single-handedly helped me reshape how to think about consulting and make sure the responsibility for change lies with those needing to live with the change.

The Burning Platform For Change

Every once in a while management wakes up saying "let's get disciplined".  This is one of those times. In a strong economy, there's no compelling reason to embrace the idea of "doing more with less". The irony is if we were more disciplined in good economic times, downturns like we're experiencing right now would not be as difficult. But that's water under the bridge and human nature - a topic for a different time. The burning platform of "doing more will less" has spread to every industry, from corporate to non-profit, and educational institutions. The challenge is not "How do we get through this?" (which we will) but how can we build organizational structures and practices that retain the disciplines we're putting in place right now? It's easy to justify building stronger foundations when a tornado sweeps through.

Sustainability is a reminder to focus on the long term, not just the next financial cycle. It is necessary to start by tightening our belts, reducing budgets or institutionalizing temporary hiring freezes. But if we don't learn how to retain that discipline when the economy stabilizes or improves, we've learned very little - except to run from a tornado when it strikes.

A great book that takes this long-term horizon on sustainability in Higher Education is Boldly Sustainable, by Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman. I highly recommend this book, both in the context of environmental sustainability but more importantly, how Higher Education needs to reorganize business structures and practices to produce greater coordination across academic and administrative functions. This is critical for sustainability in the broadest sense of the word.

Stop calling it collaboration!

If you’re helping a group work together, collaboration is not what you’re looking for.  It’s the behaviors that make up collaboration you want to focus on, most noticeably – coordination.  Coordination can be measured and quantified (who does what, by when and how the work is performed), while collaboration is the spirit these behaviors.  It’s the difference between a vision and a goal.   A vision is where you want to end up while a goal is how you get there.   When someone spouts “let’s collaborate”, trust your instinct and ask them “what do you mean by this?”  You’ll quickly discover there is another layer of meaning that gets to the behaviors you’re trying to influence.

There’s nothing wrong with terms not used in everyday language (otherwise called jargon), except when no one, even the speaker knows what they mean.   Point out these elephants in the room.  It will help everyone get to the intent behind the words spoken.

Raising the Bar on Buy-In!

Asking for "buy-in" to your latest initiative will get you passive indifference at best.  Maybe indifference is what you're looking for - light years improvement from outward dissatisfaction or hostility.  But if what you really want is to motivate stakeholders (senior management, administrators, researchers, faculty or staff) to your idea, buy-in often only produces a willingness to not go against the initiative.  Most likely you're looking for champions or enthusiastic support.  Saying to a group "we're looking for your buy-in" communicates you want to inform, not involve. The way to get enthusiastic support is if you bring them into the circle by asking for help, feedback, ideas and participation.  Yes, some stakeholders may ask difficult questions.  But don't fool yourself into thinking that by keeping them at arm's length with periodic updates that you've got their support. 

Too often the bar is set too low around what we can ask or expect of others. For a group to be jazzed about an idea, you've got to get them involved in the change, not just inform them what's coming.

To learn more about how to do this, feel free to contact me.  I'll be happy to share some of our strategies.
Howard Teibel
617 448-3634 mobile

The New Normal

You'd be lying to yourself if you weren't privately hoping for the stock market to stabilize, win back your losses and pick up where you left off last September 15, 2008. It gives me comfort to think this is just another blip in the big picture and all that's needed is time for the recovery. The prevailing wisdom is "let's just get through this." Although denial is a powerful emotion and an effective way of getting through difficult times, maybe "getting though this" is not what we should be striving for. If a crystal ball could somehow show that the next five years don't look much different from today, would you navigate your business decisions differently right now?

Management struggles with questions like: Is this the time to invest or be conservative? Retrench or expand? Do we shed more workforce or move forward with what we've got? It’s even tougher for those who don't know what management will choose to do next. Am I being leveled with or should I start looking for work elsewhere?

Regardless of our role, we need to find ways to focus on accepting the challenges ahead without becoming pessimistic.

Step One: Stop fixating on the business section of your newspaper (For those who believe "information is power", continue reading but remember bad news sells much better than good news!)

Step Two: Consider we're all adjusting to a "New Normal", which is the idea that things will never go back to the way they were. Navigating the new normal is the equivalent of hitting the reset button on your computer and starting with an entirely new set of expectations, balancing reality with a positive view of the future.

A Necessary Core Belief The irony of this very difficult economy is that with so many challenges facing us, including debt issues, job losses and people’s concerns at home, many of us will come out stronger. For those that do come out ahead, a common theme you will find is a view of the world centered around optimism. Not false hope but a sense that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Optimism drives ones sense they can make a difference no matter how bad things get.

Consider the following: Management across all industries are beginning to raise their heads above the fox hole and are asking “Who are the people we want to move forward with”? Today, there is as much an opportunity to stand out as a contributor than ever before. The key question in the face of this culture of pessimism (often driven by the news) is: Can you avoid getting sucked into negativity and remain aware of the challenges, while remaining positive?

Yes, being awake to the challenges surrounding us can be emotionally draining and difficult to deal with as one person. In business, we address this by focusing on teamwork, which is much more than a poster on the wall that offers pithy sayings how to get things done. Businesses in this new economy will fail if they don’t learn how to put real teamwork into practice. Think hospital emergency rooms as the model for effective teamwork. Behave with this sense of urgency and you’re more than halfway there.

If you can find ways to bring optimism and genuine teamwork to your organization (or a business you’re looking to join), you become part of the solution. Wait for things to change and hope for the best - you’ll probably find yourself on the sidelines with a reinforced view why things are so bad.

There Is No "Right Solution"

What makes for a great solution?  First, understand that there are real alternatives to solving a problem.  Teams at all levels in an organization fall into "analysis paralysis" because they fear making the wrong choices.  Instead, focus your team to find the best solution that takes into account the following factors...

  1. What is the urgency? The greater the urgency, the more willing your team should be to act.
  2. Are the problems understood sufficiently to make a sound recommendation? Again, this is not turning over every stone, but making sure there is a consistent enough understanding by the entire group to come to a sound decision.
  3. Does the solution address the problem? Once a decision has been made on how to solve the problem, teams have already spent way too much time discussing the issue.  There is a "fatigue factor" that comes into play, with the collective group losing focus whether the solution still lines up with the problem.

To combat this fatigue, get to a solution with as little process and brainstorming as necessary.  With a reserve of energy still in people's battery, validate the solution against the defined issues.  Tweak the solution and check again.  Treating this as an iterative exercise will yield greater results than spending too much time hashing over the issues.  With this approach, you will end up with a better solution in half the time.

The Three Things

Around organizational objectives, we define too many goals. When we speak, we have too much content. In our business vision, there is too much we want changed. Take a step back and ask yourself “What are the three things _____ ?” (Fill in the blank)

• …I want to get done today • …our organization should be focusing on • …I want to communicate in this talk

This simple act will drive what’s most important to the surface. The rest is either a secondary concern or will get done without much thought.

Let’s hear from experts in this field, none other than Monty Python. In this scene from The Holy Grail, a monk is reading from a book of scripture:

“…First shall thou take out the holy pin. Then shall thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall the number thou shall count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shall thou not count, neither count now two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out!”

I couldn’t have said it any better.

I Trust You And Here’s A Carrot To Prove It!

It’s conventional wisdom that trust is the foundation of people working well together. Is there a formula to insure trust is present among leaders and the people who work for them? Or do we just get lucky with the right people having great camaraderie? One thing’s for sure. In business, we don’t just trust for trust sake. We give trust to those who earn it through productivity and results. And how do we demonstrate our trust or lack of trust of others. Simple – the carrot and the stick – rewarding those we trust and punishing those we don’t trust. But does it work?

An excellent read that addresses this question is the book Punished by Rewards -The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn.

In it, Kohn suggests reward and punishment are two sides of the same coin, and only serve to manipulate people into actions, versus finding what it really takes to motivate and build trust. We’ve effectively learned better ways to control people while reinforcing this focus on rewards and punishments, and not on where it should be – the value of the work itself.

This is a great read for those looking to break out of management techniques that may work in the short-term, but don’t build respect and trust in the long-run.

Trust and Priorities

I don’t know about you, but I have a higher degree of trust for people and groups who have their priorities straight. In a recent organizational retreat I led, the President opened the session with a discussion around the difference between “priorities and noise”. “Noise” is all those tasks that need to get done, but don’t directly contribute to helping the organization get to a stronger place.

Even if your priorities and goals are lined up with Senior Management, there still is too much to do. The question you need to ask is, “Are we collectively spending our time doing the things that contribute directly to the health and well-being of the organization?” If the answer is, “Not sure”, then you’re not.

Consider asking the following question of your team, department, steering committee, Board of Directors, whatever the group: “What are our top three priorities?” Once you figure this out, the rest is just noise.

New Year's Resolution: Stop waiting for the Work-Life Balance. It Ain't Comin'!

"Mindfulness" as defined by Webster's is the inclination to be aware.

Of any time I can think of in my personal and professional life where this is important, it's now.

Mindfulness is synonymous with reflection. And it's only in reflection that we can realize progress on something or lack thereof. Most of us know the value of stepping back and reflecting on something. In the spiritual realm (did he actually use that word in a business article?), it's called meditation.

But in the "real world", there's no time for this airy-fairy stuff. We've got jobs to do and a limited amount of time to get that work done. The dilemma of this "time poverty", a term used in a recent Boston Globe article, is the view that spending more time in the office is our only option to be successful at work.

As described by Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure", she writes:

"At the end of World War II, the US had the shortest working hours among other industrialized countries. We now have the longest. We have surpassed Japan. The average American worker is putting in 200 more hours per year than he or she was in 1973."

But at what cost?

Two Lives

I believe many of us feel we are living two lives — the one we wear to work and the other, the life we spend waiting; for vacations, days off and whatever "free time" we fantasize about for the weekend. It's not the work-life balance that we're living; it's really the work-waiting balance.

It's like that Dr. Seuss book: "Oh The Places You'll Go"

"…and grind on for miles, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place… for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring… you get the point. Everyone is just waiting!!

It's simply that you've either got a life to live or you've got work, but not both. The suggestion is that you don't live your life at work and shouldn't even consider it. How resigned is that? No wonder we're unsatisfied with our jobs. We're teaching ourselves to think that way.

Consider this question: Are we mindlessly setting up our work lives to be unsatisfying to motivate ourselves only to work less hours? Is that really the goal we should be working toward? Given how much time we spend at work, the answer is no!

Assuming an average of 17 hours a day of conscious wakefulness (after coffee), not working on weekends, and a conservative 40 hour work week, we spend a third of our adult lives "at work". (I calculated this in an Excel spreadsheet) One third! For those of us who occasionally work over the weekend and evenings, it easily reaches half of our wakeful lives.

Here's the rub. The work-life balance isn't coming, doesn't exist and will never happen. The best it will ever get is an ever constant imbalance of recognizing when priorities go astray, being able to step back and reprioritize how we're spending our time. That's the nature of balance — it's constantly out of balance.

The Challenge of Being Mindful At Work

I imagine one of the reasons we're running around like chickens with our heads cut off at work is if we were to stop and reflect on what we're spending our time doing, it might reveal how disconnected we really are from half of our life. Not a comfortable thing to think about.

I walked into a new bakery the other day and began chatting with the owner. It ends up after years of being a software engineer, he decided to become a baker. Very inspiring and a great lesson of pursuing your dream. But for most of us, we're not going to jump that far, at least not yet.

So in lieu of completely turning your work life around, maybe the key is to make the time to step back and find satisfaction in the things you care about at work. Maybe we forgot that everything isn't equally important and it's not about how much you get done, but getting done what really matters. What "really matters" is up to you.

As we approach December 31st and our yearly ritual of resolutions about weight, diet, exercise and other bad habits to overcome, let's resolve to live it up at work. Not to spend more time there, but find ways to derive satisfaction from the people and things we care about in that 8,760 hours we spend at the office. This is close to half our life, and at the risk of overusing an overused cliché, "life's too short".

So I'll take the first step. I resolve in 2007 to have a satisfying life balance, at work and at home. I resolve to not leave my life at home but bring what I care about to others and what I do for work.

If we all do this, I believe we can truly proclaim, "Oh the places you'll go!"

Best wishes to you and your family (at home and at work).

On Waiting

"A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him."

— Ezra Pound, expatriate, poet, musician, and critic

Productivity and Achieving Business Goals: They could be apples and oranges

I think most of us would all agree that if you've achieved your business mission or vision, you've probably produced a high-level of productivity. But is the opposite true? Does a high level of productivity automatically translate into business success? The simple answer is no.

What's the difference and why is this a critical distinction for your organization's success? This is the topic of this month's newsletter.

Take this example from a Higher Education institution. Imagine a new and improved Grant Submission tool has been identified to help faculty secure research dollars. The current system is a conglomerate of Word, Excel, emails and faxes going back and forth between
administrative offices and departments.

The proposed technology appears to streamline the collection of data into one coherent set of screens and reports. The majority of faculty are loosely aware how the new system will work and have been given an overview of the benefits that this new system will bring. Ultimately the unspoken expectation by all is that it will support the institutions mission. The software gets installed and is ready to use.

The devil's in the details

On paper, everything looks great. That is, until people actually start using it.

Unbeknownst to faculty, the data entry requirements are greater than expected and the majority of the work ends up falling on their research assistants. It doesn't take long for a growing dissatisfaction to take hold.

What appeared to be a tool to help faculty meet the institutions mission of world-class research, has instead taken their key resources and turned them into data-entry clerks.

Sold a vision but delivered a tool

Software is all about productivity, i.e., simplifying, streamlining, or automating some series of tasks. Software can be a tremendous productivity solution, minus one small caveat — human involvement and the lack of understanding how it impacts people and processes.

Take email for example. The original promise of email was how we would be able to spend more time at home or on the beach, getting more done with less effort or time. (Can we all agree we're not there?)

Software is a linear, problem-solving solution that leads to what we think we want, i.e. "productivity". Unfortunately, productivity is not what we're truly striving for. It's achieving the mission or goals of the organization that is what we're looking for. Achieving vision may involve software, but the real challenge is in understanding and asking broader, mission-driven questions.

Back to our story

Frustrated with the new grant submission tool, a senior faculty member complains directly to the president. What used to be a kluge yet workable set of tasks now has research assistants spending the majority of their time manipulating data-entry screens. To make matters worse, faculty are expected to learn the system themselves to get reports about their grants. This is not what they signed on for and a minor revolt ensues by a few influential teaching fellows.

The unintended consequence of this "improvement project" is that it unfolded as a linear, software solution, versus a means to genuinely support the mission of the institution. In their haste to streamline and simplify work (remember email), the sponsors of the project lost sight of the larger goal; to support faculty in publishing well respected research and attracting the best graduate students. Although well-intentioned, the tools actually caused a greater sense of lost productivity and increased frustration.

Don't get me wrong

It's not that these software tools are bad or don't have a place in helping achieve organizational goals. It's that we don't evaluate them through the lens of meeting these larger questions.

More often than not, productivity projects lose their true value somewhere in the hundreds of pages of technical specs that drive these efforts.

What's the alternative?

The alternative is to not underestimate how easy it is to lose sight of the vision while getting caught up in believing the software alone will solve the problem.

Starting from original conception, through vendor sales, design and finally execution, broader questions about people and processes will help uncover where the real opportunity and pitfalls lie.

Remember, as a pure technology project, the questions are primarily limited to:

  • Can the software perform the following function?
  • How much does it cost?

Focused on mission, the question is:

  • What does business success look like and how will technology help us to realize these goals?

Asking the latter question may yield a completely different set of choices. Your team may even discover that the full suite of "productivity" solutions (i.e. — the software you paid for but didn't install yet) may inadvertently cause a greater sense of confusion and ineffectiveness.

Don't assume technology will keep you moving in the right direction. You may just find yourself and your people working harder but further away from the real value you were looking for.

Achieving Vision

"Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with vision is making a positive difference."

— Joel Barker
Independent Scholar and Futurist

Not Another Meeting! The Pavlovian Response to Addressing Business Problems

Over the last twenty years, the perceived value of the staff meeting has significantly diminished. Before email, before networks and the Internet, your weekly meeting was the single most effective way for management to communicate with its staff. Today, "let's have a meeting" is right up there with "let's do lunch". When was the last time you walked out of a meeting with a feeling of true accomplishment, satisfaction or renewed sense of direction?

Like family traditions that die hard, the regular weekly meeting has outlived its useful life. Although we're comforted by the familiarity of our Monday morning gathering, the light banter that begins our discussion, followed by getting down to business, the costs have come to exceed the benefits. We're distracted by pressing deadlines and want better ways to solve problems besides sitting around a conference table.

I can hear cries of objection from those who integrate creative techniques to enliven the meeting experience; rotating meeting facilitators, breaking into mini- groups or laser focusing on action items. These methods are effective but they avoid the bigger question. What drives us to have a meeting every time there's a perceived need to share information among our staff? Like Pavlov's dogs, I believe we operate out of a conditioned response to call meetings, rooted in our desire for familiarity and comfort. We rarely ask "Is this the best forum for this particular business problem?" Instead, we unconsciously gather our yellow notepads, waltz into the conference room, and hope for the best.

Bringing a defined group together can be effective when you know what you're looking for and from whom. It's when "you don't know what you don't know" that makes meetings an unproductive use of people's time. Take for example the experience I had in an office kitchen. While conversing about my role on a project with another project member, I discovered they had a report that was critical to my work. Had I waited just a few more minutes to get a cup of water, I may have never stumbled upon this data. The first time this happened, I was thrilled to have so casually come upon this information and dismissed it as coincidence and luck.

After a similar experience with another person, I wondered: "Shouldn't I have known before this conversation by the water cooler how this person could help me?" It was only after a third time did I consider how many missed opportunities must be happening like this and how the artificial boundaries of our teams and departments can be both useful but limiting.

What if that person two offices over from you has information that will save you hours of work? She would gladly share it, but you're not part of her group. Would you discover this information in one of your scheduled meetings? Probably not. If we conclude that ninety percent of our general information needs can be found in organized meetings, it's that other ten percent that we need to focus on. It's the difficult to find information that is the difference between good and great work.

The question is: "How do we get more easily at this hidden ten percent?"

Like my kitchen experience, you can start by formalizing a period each week where individuals meet in cubicles, kitchens or halls, looking intentionally for these hidden nuggets of information. Encourage individuals to work across the boundaries of existing teams and departments. You may already be applying this strategy on your own, but there are many others who are either waiting for direction from management about their missing ten percent, or are just satisfied with ninety percent of the job complete.

Either way, it's time to get out of our chairs and seek out the information we need, not wait for a meeting in hopes that all our productivity issues can be solved. At best, our teams will find creative ways to make the meeting experience more palatable, but will rarely be a good forum to uncover the missing ten percent that makes the biggest impact.

I concede one meeting ritual that consistently produces exceptional results for ninety-nine percent of staff members. It encourages teamwork, sharing of ideas, creates satisfaction and builds camaraderie. We're talkin’ Chinese food!

Now get out of your chair, go into the kitchen and start a conversation!