First, build relations

Istock_000012181084xsmall

I was recently reminded how important it is to build relations between individual members of a team before any collaborative work is being initiated. And this isn’t solely a virtual teams’ issue. It’s common.

The trouble spot

What if someone disagrees with your opinion? What if you hear a remark that doesn’t *seem* all too kind? Or if someone pats you on the shoulder for some reason (and you don’t like it)? What if the message in your inbox is too short or too long, too harsh or too sweet?

We usually consult our internal judge. In practice, emotions often win – we complain, burst out, start arguing or exercise “assertiveness”. Even if we are able to refrain from any immediate reaction, we might be holding a grudge, collecting “minuses”, waiting for the right moment when our “patience tank” is empty and then.. well… we have to act.

But what if?

What if the other person was actually wrong? What if he or she made a mistake? Overestimated our sense of humor, didn’t realize patting on the shoulder didn’t necessarly work in our culture, misunderstood our “friendly signal”? What if that person didn’t figure out (somehow) that we had “one of those days…”?

Intentions are key

When you start by building relations, you realize the first thing you gain is trust in the other person’s good intent. Sometimes this means getting to know the traditions of a different culture, dealing with generalizations and prejudices, or any virtual barriers for that matter. 

“As human beings, we are all the same, there is no need to build some kind of artificial barrier between us.” – Dalai Lama

The bottom line

Trusting the good intentions behind another person’s actions, we often learn from hindsight, that indeed, they where pure, the reasoning understandable. For the team this understanding means higher likelihood of success in any endeavor, fewer conflicts in general, and more fun on the way.

First, build relations.

Where’s the real value in using collaborative software?

Tech-overload-300x207

I love software. I’m particularly fond of tools that aim to support teamwork, e.g. managing projects. Still, every now and then I ask myself: “Where’s the real value in using collaborative software?” — bearing in mind that geographically dispersed teams aren’t the most popular form of teamwork. Questions that come to mind:

  • Is software an excuse not to move people to a common location?
  • Are the business benefits related to buying the new tool sufficient?
  • Can my team do with a whiteboard and a good idea instead?
  • Is everyone ready to jump on the e-bandwagon?
  • What are the entry barriers for new users?
  • What if we decided to ditch the tool after some time?

Before getting too excited, it’s good to have the following in mind:

“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” (Mark Twain)

Client = Employee

The employee was first

In the beginning there was an initiator-enthusiast — the creator and employee in one person. The starting point. He or she crafted an idea into reality. Eventually, clients came.

One of the illnesses which affect big organizations is a lack of an “initiatior’s spark” — the courage to make mistakes, the ease in experimenting and improving.
‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ — Thomas Edison.
We “play safe” by managing all types of risk humanity was able to invent. Sooner or later employees become a synonym for operational cost rather than potential.

Remember, the employee made it happen first.

The employee is the ambassador of your brand

Is your employee an ambassador of your product or service? Does he or she buy it, recommend it? Did you ask?

In social media days, every good word about our brand is priceless. It always has been, but 1) we started noticing it and 2) information is transferred and stored much more efficiently/effectively than ever before. A negative opinion can be blocked from spreading, if a conscious employee takes preventive measures. Since it’s physically impossible to take part in all of the online discussions that might concern us — if we have committed employees, let them speak on our behalf. Obviously, we need passionate employees to make that happen in the first place.

Some inspiring cases were described in a recent Social Media Today article by Augie Ray — Passion: The Defining Success Factor in the 21st Century?

“Frank Eliason is a passionate guy. Eighteen months ago he had some free time during a weekend, and rather than watching football he instead checked his email and monitored Twitter for what was being said about his employer, Comcast. Eliason famously intercepted tweets from tech blogger Michael Arrington, and rather than wait until Monday or pass along the problem to someone working, Eliason instead picked up the phone, called Arrington, and resolved both an individual’s technical problem and a potentially damaging PR problem for Comcast.”

Employees and clients communicate freely

The border between the inside of the organization and its environment is thin. Relations thrive in spite of artificial restrictions. In a world of change, a former client frequently becomes an employee. On the other hand, any employee may use social media tools to spread his or her dissatisfaction with the employer. Transparency is thus no longer an option. It’s a must. We are free to write policies, introduce additional security measures or… leverage what Web 2.0 has provided us with.

Ultimately it’s about respect

I believe a traditional employee-client dichotomy hasn’t got much practical sense in modern economy. Where information flows freely (a fact), signs of consistency and respect towards the organization’s employees have even more impact on its clients. Respect, like kindness, is contagious.

Further reading

Every New Layer Is Fat

A man’s capacity to add meaning to any virtual concept is potentially limitless. I wrote about this in an earlier entrywe love to create worlds. Corporations are often flooded by committees, sounding boards, functions and matrices. In one case, I encountered more than 40 (sic) committees in one such entity. Decision-making? Try making decisions in such an environment. Or perhaps… try putting words into actions: developing products, creating value, improving processes, reducing waste (well, at least there’s plenty of material to work on).

A safe assumption — every new layer is fat. Be it horizontally (silos, communication nodes) or vertically (e.g. organizational structure). Reduce, rather than add. Embrace, confront, rather than evade. Do not water down your decision-making ability by meddling with the two key organizational components:

  • communication
  • responsibility

It should be army-simple to be transparent and trustworthy. There’s no time to make it otherwise.

In a 1975 classic, The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks discusses communication channels. Instead of using a thousand words, let me show you a picture:

Media_httpideamixnetp_farye

Every new node increases the number of communication channels exponentially. When we reach ‘C’, problems are about to begin…

Lessons Learned in Communication

A while ago I came across an information that approx 50% of respondents do not understand the jokes we make in written correspondence (a reference to e-mail in particular). Even if this is too much of a generalization and not particularly accurate, the proportion makes one think. Jokes are just one facet of communication. We might expect that in the entirety of what we communicate on paper or on the screen, a significant part gets lost on its way. This is point 1.

Point 2. During a meeting with a VP of my organization (I work in finance) my interlocutor mentioned that he wanted to convince people to use email only when appropriate, that this channel was overused in our internal environment. He stressed that F2F communication is always key to understanding each other. In any case, phones should be used before reaching out for the computer. If history (a trace) was necessary, writing a short email followed by a call would be advised.

Think it over. If you write an email and you get a response with requests for clarifications, further elaboration, isn’t it a sign you ought to pick up the receiver? Shouldn’t you have done it in the first place?

When it comes to Project Management, they often say that a good PM rarely stays in his office room.

Point 3. I had an interesting conversation with my superior lately. Unfortunately, only after we had concluded I realized we weren’t synchronized. It must have looked pretty funny from a different perspective. Picture this — he was thinking on paper. He took out a clean sheet, a pen and drew in parallel to his words. He underlined his arguments with the drawings in front of him. On the other hand, I was using words — descriptive, long sentences. Since I didn’t feel this “communion of understanding” between us, I tried to explain my arguments in… words, yet again.

Needless to say, both of us felt tired and unsatisfied with the course / result of our conversation.

Our ability to synchronize with others — first by listening, learning (stepping back to do so), and then communicating by using similar means / levels (e.g. sight, hearing, feeling) and channels as the other persons — greatly affects our chances to build relationships and get things done. Lessons learned? I pick up a clean sheet of paper and pen even when talking on a phone. I present my arguments aloud and draw pictures simultaneously. A flip-chart is my friend.

If our chances of success in communication can be increased by using several channels at once, why not give it a try?

Change

When people change, it’s different to when people “adapt”. Adapting is ongoing – the staff continues to work according to old patterns and ideas. People try to get used to the new situation.
A real change is a metamorphosis. The situation is different and your staff feels better because of it.

“Adapting” uses energy, “changing” provides energy.

This a paraphrase of a text I had read a while ago. I’d rather not provide a reference, so… forgive me. Still, it’s food for thought.

 

Media_httpideamixnetp_tcdvd

My thoughts on the topic aren’t mature. I have yet to build my on change management toolbox. As of now, I have one sentence rooted deep in my mind – every system put out balance is prone to return to its previous state (I don’t remember who wrote that first, but I guess it was one them management gurus from the past). I heartily agree. Managing change is a necessity in program / project management, so… basics, I’m aware of. But obviously, there’s much more to it. And I suppose it can be an art.

BTW, revolution or evolution?

Public Speaking by Participation

Efficient communication is an important leadership skill. This applies to writing (incl presentations), speaking and… public speaking. (Listening is perhaps even more important, but that’s another story.)

Public speaking is dreaded by the majority of us. But there are some who simply love it. Usually it’s about practice, about reaching a moment when you feel the public responds to your words, to the meaning you convey in those words, your arguments, your stories. There are tools you can master – e.g. vocal variety, body language, props. There are aspects you can polish all your life. This can be fun! Unfortunately, you won’t learn that by reading books. As with leadership, when speaking in public, confidence is key. To gain confidence, you have to take the plunge.

Media_httpideamixnetp_qdaba

Joining Toastmasters was one of the best decisions in my life. I know there are several organizations like this, but the bottom line is – it has to be learning by participation. The usual case is this – if we want to learn, we grab a book or enroll on a lecture-type course. But with many practical skills, it simply doesn’t work. Remember the saying?

Tell me, and I’ll forget.
Show me, and I may [not] remember.
Involve me, and I’ll understand.

If one wants to learn speaking in public, he or she should… speak in public. And the audience better be friendly and supportive. 

That’s were Toastmasters helps.

By the way, while preparing meetings, members practice general leadership and management skills. The same happens when one becomes a club officer. It does take time, but I do believe it’s invaluable.

Attention Overload

Media_httpideamixnetp_ehnjg

Triggered by communication & information overload thoughts, I returned to an interesting article on attention. This document was written by Linda Stone, and it’s available here – http://continuouspartialattention.jot.com/.

Linda Stone differentiates multitasking from what she calls “continuous partial attention”

[multitasking]

“When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We’re often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task — we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch — we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive”.

[continuous partial attention]

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.”

My point is – while multitasking and continuous partial attention seem to have a different background (productivity vs. sense of constant crisis), both of them result from information overload. Take a look at this quote from Roseline Barchietto in “Friendship Among Equals”, a book on the history of ISO (International Organization for Standardization):

“We have always improved. We were always at the very top. When new tools became available, they were very soon placed at our disposal. The telex was introduced very quickly, and things became more urgent. When you have a letter which takes 15 days to arrive, you think: “Well, it can wait. I will do it in a few days! “But when you have a telex, you feel obliged to answer immediately. You get to know the meaning of stress..”

Media_httpideamixnetp_lxmfa

Multitasking is a way to deal with constant crisis resulting from information overload – an attempt to reach more efficiency in doing things. Continuous partial attention, on the other hand, is more a state of mind, a state of continuous scanning of the information at hand. The reason is information overload.

Lean Communications

“Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. [C]arefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure….Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention.” – Richard Powell

Media_httpideamixnetp_chogi

This quotation appeared in Presentation Zen a while ago (I heartily recommend Garr Reynolds’ book, BTW). We talk more about simplicity these days. Simplicity – “the ultimate sophistication” (Leonardo da Vinci). Based on that concept, efficiency is more about removing from than adding to the message.

One explanation – it was said that the amount of information doubled every 5 years. Now it’s 2 or so. We are literally swamped by all sorts of communication. Paraphrasing Seth Godin’s book, “less is the new more”.

In art this was true for ages.

In the process of creating a presentation, an important step is to spend the time to remove points and slides which do not add [enough] value. Or disrupt the message. The same goes for all you find on a slide (that’s why logos, logotypes in the header/footer aren’t advised, btw). A similar thing is done by authors – when preparing a piece of work, they often spend a lot of time removing unnecessary words, e.g. adverbs, adjectives. Or even entire sections.

Things that interrupt flow.

This reminded me of an earlier entry on progressblog.com. And a quotation by Michael Porter:

“The essence of strategy is choose what not to do.”