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Book: The Hamster Revolution for Meetings

The Hamster Revolution for Meetings: How to Meet Less and Get More Done
Mike Song, Vicki Halsey, and Tim Buress, 2009

(This link is an Amazon affiliate link, but if you’re near a public library, take advantage of it. I borrowed this book from the Toronto Public Library. =) )

Reading voraciously—almost indiscriminately—has its benefits. Despite cheesy gimmicks, The Hamster Revolution for Meetings turned out to have surprisingly good tips that take virtual meetings into account.

Tips for all meetings are on page 20, paraphrased here:

  • P: Priority: Make sure meetings relate to your top goals for the year.
  • O: Objenda™: Make sure your meetings have a clear objective and an agenda that supports it. Use meeting templates to make sure you share the objective, agenda, and other details up front. As an organizer, have someone responsible for keeping the meeting on track. As a participant, take the initiative in helping the meeting stay on track.
  • S: Shorten: Shorten your meetings. Schedule 20-minute or 50-minute meetings to give people some breathing space.
  • E: E-vailable™: Make sure your calendar reflects all of your commitments. If possible, color-code your calendar to show priorities and balance.

For Web meetings, she suggested a number of things we already do (use Web conferences, chat channels, surveys, etc.). She added a few more tips I’m going to think about and try, including a Mystery team member icebreaker (p61). She also provides an excellent checklist for managing virtual meetings on p77, which include tips for preventing problems and controlling damage. The key ones I’m going to add to my routine are:

  • Arrive early: use the 30/15 Rule
  • Create a technical difficulties slide
  • Determine secondary communication plan
  • Have a disaster recovery plan

Worth reading and summarizing in your personal notes.

Book: Beyond Booked Solid

Beyond Booked Solid: Your Business, Your Life, Your Way Its All Inside
Michael Port, 2008

(This link is an Amazon affiliate link, but if you’re near a public library, take advantage of it. I borrowed this book from the Toronto Public Library. =) )

Michael Port’s follow-up to Booked Solid focuses on how to grow your business beyond yourself, and is an excellent read for people interested in taking the next step.

I’m curious about the A3 Reports he describes on pp. 61-62. The A3 Report summarizes a business situation on a single sheet of 11.7”x16.5” paper. It would be interesting to use this structure to think through personal situations as well. =) (I guess I’m weird that way.)

  • Title of report, name, and related information
  • Theme/objective
  • Current situation analysis
  • Root cause analysis
  • Alternatives
  • Recommendations
  • Future state picture
  • Implementation plan

On page 94, he also provides some tips on making things happen, and then he fleshes them out over the next pages.

  • Collaborate.
  • Adopt practices for exploring a variety of perspectives.
  • Coordinate meticulously.
  • Listen generously.
  • Build relationships intentionally.
  • Have clear intentions.
  • Develop habits of commitment making and fulfilling.
  • Tightly couple learning with action.
  • Call on your talents.
  • Bring your passion to the project.
  • Embrace uncertainty.
  • Have a compelling story for your project.

On page 146, he offers tips and outsourcing work to other firms. He firmly believes that you shouldn’t outsource in a way that creates a single point of failure for your business. If you work with firms and document your systems well, you can get back up and running after unexpected difficulties.

On page 173, he makes a particularly good point relevant for public speakers. He says, “Before I give a speech, I need to be careful not to try to create a particular energy. Instead I tap into the audience’s energy. We all need to tap into the energy of the people we’re working with. There’s only so long you can be an energetic cheerleader for a project if the people around you need to be manipulated into corresponding energetic responses. I’m sure you’ve all thought how your energy level rises around people who are excited about the work they’re doing or, for that matter, how your energy lifts with someone who has a zest for life.”

Another good take away can be found on page 177, where he advises, “Schedule fun once a day — after your normal working schedule.” This not only helps you include your productivity by encouraging you to be more efficient, it also helps you manage your energy.

Worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in scaling up.

Leadership going virtual: how we can help managers

…It is important to note that by simply participating, managers transfer their status into the new paradigm; while not participating creates a real discrepancy.

Cecille Demailly, Toward Enterprise 2.0: Making the Change in the Corporation, as cited in Bill Ives’ blog post

Sarah Siegel’s reflections on virtual leadership made me think about the changes that IBM is going through. We’re moving further apart from each other (more remote/mobile workers, more geographically-spread management functions), and at the same time, moving closer to each other through social networking tools. Front-line managers might still see many of their team members face to face, but dotted-line relationships across countries are becoming more and more widespread, and middle managers work in an increasingly virtual world.

Many people struggle to translate management and leadership skills to the virtual world. They feel the loss of contact as we move away from offices and co-located teams, but they don’t have a lot of guidance on what excellent leadership looks like in this new globally-integrated world. There are no recipes or clear best practices in standard management and communication books, in the MBA courses they might have taken, and in the business magazines. Their own managers might also be dealing with the growing pains of the organization.

So some managers participate, and many don’t. The ones who participate are figuring out what works, and they may make mistakes along the way. The ones who don’t participate (out of fear? lack of time? lack of confidence?) might end up finding it even harder to get started, and then people feel confused and isolated because they aren’t getting leadership and direction from the people who are supposed to lead them.

I think managers really do want to help people work more effectively. It’s hard with all the external pressures and the pace of change, tools that are constantly evolving and practices that need to be adapted for the times, and greater challenges from both inside and outside IBM. Communities like the one Sarah Siegel organizes for IBM managers are vital, because managers need to be able to connect with other managers and learn from each other.

There are no clear answers yet. Organizations around the world are still figuring things out. Many of the principles remain the same, but translating them online when you can’t see body language and you can’t make eye contact is difficult for many people.

People need to learn how to not only work around the challenges of a virtual world, but also take advantage of its strengths. And there are strengths. Virtual teams are not just shadows of what we can do face-to-face. Going online brings new capabilities that we can explore.

We need to help managers figure this out. Along the way, we’ll end up helping ourselves and other people, so it’s worth the effort.

I remember growing up and realizing that even though I’m the youngest of three children, my parents were learning all sorts of new things about parenting while raising me. That helped make it easier for me to understand them instead of getting frustrated or upset. It’s like that with managers, too. Managers are learning about working with us just as we’re learning to work with them and with IBM.

So, how can we help? Here are some ways:

  • We can explore and model behaviour. For example, I believe that a culture of knowledge-sharing can make a real difference to IBM. If I experiment with that and model the behaviour, I can help managers and non-managers see what it’s like, what the benefits are, and how to get started. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
  • We can give feedback. I think my manager finds it amusing that I think a lot about what brings out the best in me and I suggest that to him. Managers can’t read minds. Make it easy. If your manager is receptive to the idea, give suggestions and share what you think.
  • We can coach. When the pain of ineffective methods is strong enough to drive change (think about all the frustration over endless reply-to-all conversations), people will look for better ways to do things. Coach people on how to use tools and how to change practices. It’ll take time and they’ll probably get frustrated along the way, but you can help them keep their eyes on the goal (and remember how painful the old ways were!).
  • We can help people see the big picture. Resource actions can sap morale. Impersonal communications can make you feel that the company has drifted from its values. Even if people are afraid, you can work on making sense of the situation, focusing on the positive, and looking for ways to keep moving forward. Vision isn’t just the CEO’s job. What you say and how you act can influence how other people feel about their work and how well they can focus on making things better instead of getting lost in the stress.

There are a lot of individual contributors within IBM. If we see leadership as something everyone in the organization does instead of being limited to those who have the “manager” bit in their Bluepages record, if we remember that leadership competencies are something we can express no matter where we are in the organizational chart and we take responsibility for helping make IBM and the world better, and if we help as many people as we can, we’ll not only get through these growing pains, but we’ll make a company worth working with even more.

Thanks to Rawn Shah for sharing a link to Bill’s blog post through Lotus Connections Profiles, and to Sarah for prompting me to write more about this!

Book: Leading Outside the Lines

zebraI want to get really good at being a fast zebra. The metaphor comes from Leading Outside the Lines, Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan’s book on working with the informal organizational structure. According to Mark Wallace (former US ambassador to the United Nations), fast zebras are people who can absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly. The authors explain, “On the African savannah, it is the fast zebra that survives a visit to the watering hole, drinking quickly and moving on, while the slower herd members fall prey to predators lurking in the shadows. The fast zebra is, in essence, a person who knows how to draw on both the formal and informal organizations with equal facility.”

It seems like a business cliche – who wouldn’t want to absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly? – but Katzenbach and Khan go into more detail. “They help the formal organization get unstuck when surprises come its way, or when it’s time to head in a new direction. They have the ability to understand how the organization works, and the street smarts to figure out how to get around stubborn obstacles. They draw on values and personal relationships to help people make choices that align with overall strategy and get around misguided policy. They draw on networks to form teams that collaborate on problems not owned by any formal structure. They tap into different sources of pride to motivate the behaviors ignored by formal reward systems.”

Like the loneliness facing early adopters, fast zebras can feel isolated. Identifying and connecting fast zebras can help them move faster and make more of a difference.

I can think of many fast zebras in IBM. People like Robi Brunner, John Handy Bosma, and Jean-Francois Chenier work across organizational lines to make things happen. Lotus Connections and other collaboration tools make a big difference in our ability to connect and self-organize around things that need to be done. They also provide informal channels for motivation, which is important because this kind of boundary-spanning work often doesn’t result in formal recognition (at least in the beginning).

The book describes characteristics of organizations that successfully integrate formal and informal structures, and it has practical advice for people at all levels. It also has plenty of stories from organizational role models. My takeaway? Harnessing the informal organization and helping people discover intrinsic motivation for their work can make significant differences in an organization’s ability to react, so it’s worth learning more about that. Recommended reading.

Leading Outside the Lines
Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan
Published by John Wiley and Sons, 2010

Thinking about how to learn how to manage others

I’m curious about this because I’ll need it in order to scale, and because it’s one of those universal things. How do people learn how to manage? How can I learn? I’ve read tons of books and blog posts. I’ve heard lots of advice and stories. We have a sense of what good management looks and feels like, and we’re all too familiar with examples of bad management. How do you bridge the gap from theory to practice?

How do you grow into becoming a good manager or a great one? Do we leave it to people who figured out the rules in grade school – “natural leaders”? We don’t get lots of practice or lessons in managing, probably because it’s so easy to step back and let other people make decisions. But the lack of management skills can get in the way of making good things happen, so it’s good to learn how to manage.

What does it look like to consciously develop this skill of orchestrating people’s work and energy? How can you gradually learn it in low-risk situations instead of waiting for workloads to force your hand?

I want to learn more about how to align people and help them grow while creating more value than one could create alone. The world is this candy store of people with awesome skills and possibilities. There’s just so much out there that I’d like to be able to draw on.

On one of my consulting engagements, we have a high school intern who’s doing wonderfully. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to help pick some of his tasks and delegate some things I’ve been working on. I learn from the way he does things, and I enjoy looking for ways for him to make the most of his internship. I haven’t been paying much attention to my outsourcing experiments over the last few months, but I bet that I could learn a lot if I paid close attention to it, going beyond transactions to help people grow. I’ve done that in the past with other assistants, and I really liked the results.

Here’s what wild success might look like: I find good people and help them grow their skills, either working on things I’d like to see happen or good things that people are willing to pay for. Success would be a great fit between the person and the work that needs to be done. They might grow enough to be able to handle these things on their own, in which case I can grow a network of freelancers, or they might prefer the benefits of working with a team. I find clients who have flexible timelines (so that I have time to coach or even do the work if necessary) and are okay with me delegating the work so that people grow, or I find a project I believe in strongly enough to fund and bootstrap until it’s been fleshed out enough to be worth investing in.

Step 1 might be to map people’s interests, skills, and growth plans. Step 2 is trickier. How can I put on training wheels so that I can try things with friendly clients on non-risky projects without taking on too much risk myself? I’m scaling down my consulting work, but I can postpone part of my next experiment if contracting is a better way to learn this. What if I focus on, say, Rails or WordPress stuff, with the understanding that I’ll pair-program with someone, maybe like the apprenticeship systems of the past? I’m fine with Rails, Drupal, and WordPress development, but new to independent contracting, so maybe I should approach it as a learner first – partnering up with someone for a few projects?

What about non-web development ways to learn this? I can delegate more of my processes, and see if other people would be interested in delegating or expanding theirs. That’s something I’m curious about, actually. People need help learning how to give good instructions and build working relationships. It’ll be interesting to see if I can do that in a way that adds value. I think that might actually be more promising than development because I won’t be distracted by the technical side of things. I’ll need to find out if people are looking for help in getting started with delegation. In terms of alternate business models, it might be an agency structure, process libraries, and e-books. Hmm… That would look like phone or Skype conversations about what people want to do, then coordinating with service providers. There are quite a few companies that do this already, but process libraries, automation, and growth might make a difference.

Worth thinking about some more…

Delegation: How I hire and manage my virtual team

I’ve been helping other people get started with their own experiments in delegation, and one of them asked me how I manage my team in oDesk. Here’s how I do it.

Setting expectations

I like thinking of oDesk contracts as mini-experiments. It’s not about hiring amazing people – as in the regular job market, amazing people usually have their plates full of work and don’t have to look for more (aside from word of mouth). Each hire is an experiment involving the process and the person. If it works out, wonderful; I’ll keep them on as long as I can find work for them to do. If it doesn’t – and there have been some gigs that were just not a good fit – well, it’s only a small experiment.

I like taking notes so that I can hire people again for other things. Many people move on from oDesk after some time, though, so I haven’t always been able to go back and rehire people who have worked out. I try to focus on developing good processes instead of relying only on hiring good people, though, so I don’t mind turnover so much. I sometimes have to refer to my notes to remember whom to send tasks to, though!

Someday I might graduate to having one or two assistants with more time dedicated to my tasks. In the meantime, this patchwork of assistants requires a little bit more oversight.

Posting a job ad

I usually post my job ads for as-needed work, 1-3 months, < 10 hours a week. This gives me the flexibility to experiment on a low-commitment basis.

In addition to describing my requirements, I also ask that job applications show their attention to detail by beginning and ending their cover letter with an unusual keyword, such as “blue”. This makes it super-easy to filter out people who are indiscriminately applying to job posts or who don’t read the requirements all the way through. Many people put in the first keyword, and a few remember to put in the last keyword as well.

I often ask people to include a sample of their relevant work in their cover letter, and to describe their experience (especially for skills that are optional but useful). I detest the scammy practice of asking people to do unpaid work as part of their application, so I only ask for existing work samples.

Stephan Spencer (one of my delegation role models) uses a riddle in his job application / interview process as a way of testing people’s thinking. He spins one of the classic riddles into something that’s not easily Googleable, so he can see if people can figure things out on their own.

Here are some job posts I’ve used:

Filtering people

As mentioned, I use attention to detail as one of my quick filters for applications.

I usually also search and filter by 4.0+ rating, > 100 hours on oDesk, but I’ll look at the reviews even for people with lower rating if I like their profile. I’ll occasionally take a chance on people who are new to oDesk – everyone’s got to start somewhere – with the expectation that I’ll need to teach them a little more about working with me or using oDesk to file time.

It’s always a treat to find good people in the Philippines because I’m from there as well, so the shared cultural background makes interviewing and working a little bit easier.

Inviting specific people

When I come across interesting people’s profiles, I save their profile in oDesk or Evernote (Evernote is easier to browse/search). After I post the job, I invite them to participate. There are so many good people looking for work, though, so I don’t often do this.

I occasionally create private job posts and invite specific people to them. I more often post public job posts even though I invite specific people to them, because you never know what kind of awesome talent is out there.

Interviewing applicants

I want to confirm that people understand the job requirements, find out how much they meet the requirements, and – also important – learn more about their other skills and their career goals so that I can come up with more tasks that fit them.

I use ScheduleOnce to schedule Skype interviews. The timezone difference and the interface turn out to be useful filters for attention to detail and willingness to deal with unknown tools. For virtual assistant positions, communication skills and trust are key, so I like talking to people first.

I also want to answer any questions they have. Contractors take on some risk whenever they accept a contract, as there have been quite a few employers who have scammed them into unpaid work or feedback blackmail. I want to give them the opportunity to make sure I’m not crazy, too. =)

I’m working on improving my interview process. In particular, I’m going to start asking people to tell me a story about the time they were wrong about something or the time that they argued with someone. Talking to my mom about her HR issues (and now, sorting through my own!), I’m beginning to realize the importance of understanding people’s conflict/disagreement resolution strategy and whether they can maintain calm and respect under stress.

For straightforward tasks like transcription, I might hire someone without ever talking to them in real-time, because I can “interview” them in the process of them working on their first paid task.

Hiring and onboarding

After we answer each other’s questions satisfactorily, I go ahead and set up the contract. For virtual assistants who will be communicating with other people on my behalf, I’ll set up a Google Apps account. LastPass makes it easy to share and revoke passwords, and I’ve also started the habit of keeping track of who has access to which accounts in order to simplify offboarding them when I end the contract and onboarding a replacement.

I usually keep the job post open until the person has satisfactorily completed their first task and we’re happy with the time/process. That way, if I need to hire someone else, I can choose from the pool of applicants that I’ve already shortlisted. Depending on whether I have tasks that can be broken down and done in parallel (ex: data entry), I might hire several people with the understanding that I’ll choose one or two going forward.

Coordinating

I send most tasks by e-mail because that’s the most convenient for me. I use Skype or Google Hangout to explain tasks in more detail. Since Skype tends to perform badly when I’m out and about, I also give assistants my cellphone number. I’ve been trying to get people set up using my VOIP phone so that they can call me, but we haven’t sorted that out yet. The easiest way might be for me to fund a company Skype account and have them call me with that.

I don’t want to require people to shift their timezone / sleeping habits – some of my friends have done overnight shiftwork before, and it really messes up one’s social life. Since my virtual assistants have access to my calendar, they can either use that to directly book me or use ScheduleOnce to find a time that works with their schedule.

I try to remember to specify due date and time budget (ex: spend a maximum of 2 hours on this, then send me whatever you have so that we can make sure you’re on the right track). The due date typically works, although I don’t think anyone’s been paying attention to the time specifications yet. I might revisit the Four Hour Work-week’s templates for getting these things communicated.

I hate the idea of tasks falling through the cracks especially if assistants get preoccupied with other things, so I’ve been experimenting with project-management applications like Trello or Asana. I want to be able to see what tasks I’ve assigned to people, what’s waiting for a response, and what’s done. One of my assistants just updated her Trello board – hooray! I gave her a bonus to recognize her initiative. =) We’ll give that maybe six months of trying before I even think of introducing a different tool. We’ll see how this goes!

Rewards and recognition

In addition to the automatic billing that oDesk takes care of, I like catching people doing something good and giving them an unexpected bonus. I always explain why I give the bonus. For example, I’m impressed when people take the initiative and when they submit excellent and timely work, especially if this is my first time working with them.

People don’t often negotiate with me for a raise, probably because my contracts tend to be shorter-term. As a client, though, I like being different by proactively giving people raises – I occasionally check my contractors’ profiles to see if they’ve raised their rates, and I’ll raise them during our existing contract because it’s good to reward good people.

I also take notes on people’s career goals and personal interests, and I try to tailor the tasks to fit them.

Dealing with miscommunication and disputes

As the employer, the buck stops with me. If someone didn’t complete something to my satisfaction, it might be because I didn’t sufficiently communicate the requirements, didn’t invest enough time in oversight or training, didn’t filter enough for skills/fit, and so on. Each mistake is a learning opportunity.

Typical mistakes and how I’m learning to deal with them:

I didn’t specify the level of detail I wanted, so I get back a War and Peace epic equivalent when I wanted Hemingway-short summaries.

  • Share the big picture (Why do I want this? What will I use it for?).
  • Provide sample output.
  • Give a time budget, so that people get back to me after 2-4 hours instead of spending two days on a task. (Still working on getting people to follow this…)

People promise to work on something, but end up not doing it. It happens; people can be over-optimistic about their time.

  • Set earlier deadlines than I need, and give myself leeway to try someone else or do it myself.
  • Follow up. Then follow up again. If necessary, take the task back.

I get the output back and think I should probably have done it myself instead (skills, background knowledge, whatever).

  • Breathe.
  • See the value in a first draft and alternative perspectives. Focus on the good.
  • Remember the additional benefits of this delegation experiment – it’s not just about saving time, it’s also about learning how to give instructions and work with other people.

I find that some steps are missing.

  • Consider whether the steps are truly necessary.
  • Review the process and flesh out the steps. Explain why the steps matter.
  • Turn the process into a checklist. Add the checklist to my e-mail templates if needed.
  • Keep a closer eye on tasks, at least until the process is sorted out

An assistant is uncommunicative / unreachable.

  • I take back any tasks needed.
  • I follow up to see what’s going on. Life happens, and people sometimes need support and understanding to get through rough spots.
  • If they’ve become too busy to work on my tasks or they’ve gone AWOL, I shrug that off as a cost of doing business, and pick up the threads from there.

For chronic mistakes: If I get along with the person, I might give them different kinds of tasks instead. I might end the contract, but be open to hiring them again in the future. If I feel really uncomfortable, I end the contract and resolve not to hire them again, which has happened in a couple of cases. That’s also a good prompt to go back and think about how I can improve my hiring and training processes.

Ways to improve

I sometimes get distracted by other things I’m working on, so I end up not sitting down and investing in delegating tasks. I’ve attempted to address that by giving people 10-25% discretionary time for learning things and brainstorming other ways they can help me, but assistants seem to be reluctant to take this self-directed time, so I may need to tweak how I communicate it. Maybe I should turn it into a formal task, or establish a weekly wask – “I want to give you at least 5 hours of work each week, and if I don’t, please use one hour to brainstorm ways you can help me and send me a note.” Hmm…

Another tip from one of my role models was to involve assistants in your weekly review so that they can help you with your big picture. One of my assistants has a long-term career interest in HR, so I’ve just invited her to set up a weekly one-hour meeting with me where we can review what I’m working on and what I’m planning to do next. Maybe she can help me brainstorm what and how to delegate. I think that would be great, and possibly more useful than the discretionary time idea (at least for starters, until people get a better sense of the big picture and trust that I won’t blow up at them for learning something.)

What else would you like to know about how I delegate? Do you have any tips that can help me do this better?