How to shorten a meeting

August 30th, 2011 by Mike

Originality is better but plagiarism is faster. (And I copied that quote too).

Vodafone text delays: “buyer beware”

May 10th, 2010 by Mike

“Vodafone fault delays text messages” (Stuff 6 May 2010) - “People’s text messages have been delayed for several hours after a faulty Vodafone computer server hung on to messages, rather than passing them on.”

Is there an apology? Is there a statement assuring us this is unacceptable and won’t happen again? Do Vodafone even seem to care? Based on that article, apparently not.

The story I’m aware of involves a woman waiting at a bus stop for over an hour at 7pm wondering why her partner isn’t responding to her texts or picking her up ( the messages finally arrived, at midnight). When “99% of texts are delivered in under a minute” you tend to expect that 100% are - and certainly not some hours later.

One question is, “When was the fault discovered?” And the answer is unsatisfactory whatever it is.

  1. It was discovered quite soon - in which case why didn’t Vodafone send a broadcast message indicating a network problem so that important communications could be switched to voice?
  2. It was discovered after a number of hours - in which case, how can their systems not have any in-built warnings or alerts for a critical service?
Is it a critical service? Apparently not, despite Vodafone offering a text-only plan like TXT4000 for $12 a month.
David Stone, “the head of industry body the Telecommunications Carriers Forum” said that texting was not as reliable as making a voice call. The article didn’t tell us that David Stone, the CEO of the TCF, formerly represented Vodafone on the Board for 2 years. And he rattled out that old saw, ‘It was a service that came about accidentally, did not use mobile phone companies’ core systems, and it was a case of “buyer beware”.’
Let’s see now, we’ve had Mobile technology since the mid 90’s so for SMS to still be characterised as an “accidental technology” is a joke. As for “buyer beware” - take a scan over the Vodafone website and look for a warning about the potential unreliability of texting - actually, don’t waste your time - you won’t find anything.
Simply, people rely on text message services. Websites send text messages as alerts and reminders - when these arrive late they affect people. The least you could have done was apologised to your customers - and a warning of delays could have avoided some upsets.

It’s the meeting process, stupid

July 21st, 2009 by Mike

Often it’s useful to get yourself very clear about things - both for yourself and for your audience(s). What is it that we’re really saying?

When it comes to meetings, we’re saying the traditional meeting process is broken. We’re not saying meetings are broken - just the process that is mostly used.

Can you use this broken process? Yes - just like you can use any broken tool - you just have to be much more careful (manage its limitations) and you might injure yourself (and others) or produce an inferior result.

When the only tool you’ve ever had or used or seen is broken, you don’t even know it’s broken, it’s just the way it is. It’s what everyone uses - and has been using for the last couple of hundred years if not longer - surely everybody can’t be using a broken process?

Take a look around. Google the exact phrase “meetings are a waste of time”.

How many pages on the web contain that exact phrase?

  • 16
  • 160
  • 1,600
  • 16,000

No prizes for guessing 16,000. Google the words “meetings waste time” and you’ll turn up a tad less than 20 million pages. That’s quite a lot of complaining.

But remember, the problem isn’t the meetings - it’s the meeting process.

Seth Godin gets it half right about how to fix your meeting problem

July 20th, 2009 by Mike

We liked Seth’s observations about “Three different kinds of meetings” but his post “Getting serious about your meeting problem” is a classic of what not to do - except he does throw in a disclaimer at the end,

“This is all marketing. It’s a show, one that lets your team know you’re treating meetings differently now.”

Great to be different but let’s be effective. The meeting marketing only works for so long because you’re still working with a way of running meetings that is fundamentally broken. You can paper over the cracks and hold it together with string and glue but it’s still broken and continually hard work to get your meetings productive.

To be fair we do agree with a number of Seth’s points:

1. Understand that all problems are not the same. So why are your meetings? Does every issue deserve an hour? Why is there a default length?

Indeed, personally I blame Outlook and other diary and meeting management software that has these defaults. But there’s also an insidious belief that meetings must occupy the fully allocated time.

3. Require preparation. Give people things to read or do before the meeting, and if they don’t, kick them out.

Poor preparation is a meeting killer - we tend to cancel the whole meeting if the prep’s not done as presumably we needed everyone’s input else why did we invite them to the meeting?

7. The organizer of the meeting is required to send a short email summary, with action items, to every attendee within ten minutes of the end of the meeting.

We’d drop the summary - except for any resolutions made - the action points are critical. Even better, print the action points off the whiteboard before people leave the room.

9. If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave. You can always read the summary later.

We always provide an opportunity at the start of each meeting for each participant to understand why they are there and the value they are expected to add - and the opportunity to leave at that point.

The above are all good practices for getting a more productive meeting - but some of Seth’s other suggestions fall into the classic “forcing” mode - use a timer, no chairs, no more than 4 five-minute increments - these are brute force methods and they will have some level of effectiveness but they have side-effects too - like suppressing important input from people who may be a little slower or who get cut off all the time. You can make meetings much shorter by addressing the meeting process - then meetings take as long as they really need to - neither undercooked or overcooked.

As for number 8 - the naming and shaming approach, well yeah that may work but is that a team approach? How about fundamentally shifting the ownership and responsibility for meetings from organisers and chairpersons to the participants? What if the quality or otherwise of the meetings was owned by everyone not just a few? How about if I just attended a bad meeting and that was my responsibility as much as anyone else’s? This the kind of change we institute with the Action Meetings process - the meetings improve and funnily enough so do other behaviours in the organisation.

80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 for G8 nations - remember Pareto

July 17th, 2009 by Mike had a report “Wealthy nations vow greenhouse gas cuts” which included the following:

“The United States and other G8 nations set a goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050. That’s part of a plan to have all such gases, from rich and poor nations alike, fall by 50 percent globally by that year.”

Following our one-day cricket analogy we now know the required run rate - 80% in 40 years or 2% per year. Remember, for every year the required run rate isn’t reached it goes up - and keeps going up if the new higher rate isn’t reached.

The one-day cricket analogy is a good one to bring in the focus of getting started as soon as possible. But in cricket the maximum possible runs per over is 36 in the first over and 36 in the last over - the maximum rate possible is the same at the start as at the end.

When we get out into the real world, we have to remember Pareto, the 80/20 principle, which tells us that reducing that last 20% of greenhouse gases is going to be 80% of the effort (others might suggest that 80% of the effort will be getting rid of the first 20%). So, when we project reduction rates out into the future we can’t assume a flat capability but a reduced capability - it gets harder to reduce the more we reduce.  What does this mean? Once again, we can’t delay getting started.

To paraphrase a Confucius quote, journey of 80% reduction in greenhouse gases begins with a 1% reduction. When that first 1% step is going to be taken is critical.

Here’s a last few words from Charles Darwin:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Seth Godin gets close to the truth about meetings

July 9th, 2009 by Mike

Seth Godin: entrepreneur, marketer, maverick, contrarian, author and all-round original thinker is not someone to challenge lightly - but the post on his blog “Three kinds of meetings” is really interesting for what it exposes on how we think about meetings.

Firstly, his splitting out meetings into three types is a great observation that not all meetings are the same - but the critical observation is that,

Confused meeting types are the number one source of meeting ennui.

Confusion between whether the item at hand is to gain common understanding or agreement not only leads to ennui but often fierce argument in which people are actually agreeing with each other.

Where we take issue with this is that in our observation, yes there are different types of meetings - but more critically in Action Meetings we distinguish between different types of “agenda item” or, in our methodology, “outcomes”.

Let’s take the case of a national organisation we’ve worked with that has a Board comprising members from all over the country who meet for a day every 3 months. There is no way that meeting could just be one of the types (information, discussion, permission) that Seth describes. That day-long meeting has all of those three kinds of activity going on - the key thing is that everyone knows what each outcome is directed at - common understanding, decisions, or assignment of task(s). As Seth rightly points out - making those differences explicit makes a huge difference to meeting focus and productivity.

Secondly, in our view, there is no “other side” (unless we’re discussing The X-Files) and meetings that are set up for consensus and team play are more productive than assuming an adversarial approach or power differential exists,

…the other side is supposed to say yes but has the power to say no.

Action Meetings is predicated on each meeting being a team activity and that each meeting goes through the team life cycle (as described by Bruce Tuckman) of forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning. Having everyone on the same side - as we would hope they would be within the same organisation - leads to more participation and transparent decision-making in our view.

How will we ever improve meetings without really noticing what is happening there? Thank you Seth.

Brilliant meetings - every time

July 3rd, 2009 by Mike

No need to keep whining about how you hate meetings and they’re a waste of time - get on over to the Action Meetings website and download your copy of “Brilliant meetings - Every time: 7 tips to transform your meetings”.

Just another set of useless meeting tips (like “bring donuts and coffee” - or “don’t bring donuts and coffee” - depending on which “expert” you read)? No. This booklet isn’t a set of tips dreamt up as good ideas - these are proven techniques applied in thousands of meetings over more than ten years.

2020 targets for carbon emissions and limited overs cricket

July 2nd, 2009 by Mike

2020 targets for carbon reduction are pie in the sky. What is the 2010 target?

The Green Party is pushing for split carbon emission reduction for 2020 - broadly 40% for industry and 20% for livestock emissions. OK - so you have to set these long-term goals but without short-term ones they are meaningless. At the risk of being completely cynical about this I can see a situation in about 2015 where the politicians will say that they can’t reach that target. Why? Limited-overs cricket provides the answer.

Students of limited over cricket games know that the team chasing a total has to complete a target run rate. For example in a 20 over game if you’re chasing 120 then you have to score 6 runs an over to win. The problem is that for every over in which you score below the rate, the rate goes up - and then if you don’t reach that new rate from then on it goes up again and keeps climbing each time you don’t meet or exceed the required run rate.

Starting from next year - ten years to get a 40% reduction is a “required run rate” of 4% per year. Don’t really get started for another couple of years and it’s gone to 5% per year - a 25% increase in the rate. The problem is that when you’re behind the rate it’s tough to accelerate just to make the required rate for the next year.

In cricket you can score a maximum of 36 runs an over (excluding wides, no balls etc) - once your required run rate exceeds 36, you lose - you just can’t get there. What is the maximum greenhouse emission reduction rate we can achieve in a year? Does anyone know this? Has it been worked out? Why do we need to know? Because that’s the rate we have stay below - otherwise we can’t make it.

The tough question is - in what year will there be at least a 1% reduction in greenhouse emissions? If it’s any later than 2012 we have almost no chance of getting to a 40% reduction by 2020.

@nowombats - No Wombats on Twitter

June 29th, 2009 by Mike

Is micro-blogging service twitter a wombat? Some love it, some hate it and somewhere in between it can be useful if used properly - and it can be a (sort of?) amusement for those so disposed. Not sure where you are in relation to twitter? Check yourself out against “The 5 Stages Of Twitter Acceptance“.

The dangers of “always on technology” have been variously analysed and documented and commented on - the addition of twitter and “always on” twitter clients (the desktop applications that display “tweets” in real time) is potentially just one more distraction.

You’re welcome to follow “nowombats” on twitter - don’t expect a flurry of “tweets” as we will try (not always successfully) to limit our tweeting to the useful. It comes down to managing the “signal to noise ratio“.

Twitter and meetings? Not during - but if you’ve just finished a productive Action Meeting feeling great and want to tell the world, why not?

Why do meetings lose focus?

June 4th, 2009 by Mike

A recent study by Robert Half (a recruitment company) reported that for New Zealand respondents the main reason meetings were considered a waste of time was “participants lose focus and discuss anything they want, rather than the issue the meeting was called for”.

Meetings lose focus for a number of reasons - but the core reason is that the standard meeting process is not designed to maintain focus. The agenda purports to maintain focus but in fact does the opposite and the job of maintaining focus falls to the chairperson. And, the common “solution” to the problem is touted as better, stronger chairpersonship. 

It’s so much easier if the meeting process you use provides a structure for maintainng focus. You don’t need a  particularly “good” or “natural” or “strong” chairperson because the process does so much of the work.

Many of the meeting training courses that are offered train people in how to work with or overcome a flawed and failing standard meeting process. It’s so much easier to use a better process and then the rest takes care of itself.

Why does the Action Meetings process work? Because each point of failure in a meeting was analysed back to its root causes and contributing factors and interventions designed to prevent each potential failure.

How does the Action Meetings process address “loss of focus”?

  • clearly define meeting purpose and overall outcome ahead of the meeting
  • assess whether a meeting is the best process to use to achieve the overall outcome
  • ensure that only the relevant people attend the meeting
  • allow people to leave at the start of the meeting if they feel they are unable to contribute
  • develop the “agenda” as a set of outcomes
  • the “outcome agenda” is generally a much more detailed list of smaller items - easier to focus on each smaller item
  • clearly separate out compliance, operations and strategic matters into different meeting sections
  • explicitly agree with participants they will stick to the agreed outcomes
  • review and agree the outcomes as one of the first meeting steps
  • deliver ownership of the meeting to the participants not the chairperson
  • allow participants to remove any of their own distractions at the start of the meeting