facilitative leadership

Rest in peace, Tina Wuelfing Cargile

by on Sep.10, 2010 , under facilitative leadership, localization, program management

My collaborator in “Point/Counterpoint” columns for Multilingual magazine, Tina Wuelfing Cargile, passed away last month after a long illness. Her time on this planet was too short, and my time with her was way too short, so even writing a decent bio is beyond me.

Her LinkedIn profile provides the basics. I’m going to attempt to fill in some of the color that’s missing from the business outlines. Those of you who knew her, just pour yourselves a glass of her favorite, pinot grigio, light a cigarette if you’re a smoker, and use a little imagination as you follow along.

Anyone who knew her would start their description of Tina with her sense of humor. Tina was always cracking a joke, often at her own expense. I can almost hear her explanation right now as my Mini Tina sits on my left shoulder (that’s where the evil angel goes, right?). “Well, of course, Erin—joking at my own expense, I’ve got lots of material!”

Somehow Tina’s adventures always became just a wee bit more absurd than anybody else’s, so her stories could keep us rolling for quite a while. This description of her introduction to country life, from McElroy Translation’s website during Tina’s years as their Business Development Manager, gives a taste of that:

Tina lives with her husband in a small town miles from Austin, where they are quickly filling their 12 acres with dozens of chickens, dogs, cats, geese, turkeys and ducks. She loves gardening, canning, quilting, playing with her “babies,” and listening to the frogs in their pond at night. They enjoy visits from their children and “adopt” their children’s friends, because their idea of family is whoever shows up. She also habitually and gleefully pokes fun at herself, and the description of her current hobbies and lifestyle brought to mind her introduction to country life.

Having spent 35 years in the city and on concrete, she proved totally oblivious to the “real world” on her first date, nearly 20 years ago, with her husband-to-be, a country boy from Honey Grove, Texas. While aware that the excursion involved scouting for arrowheads over fairly rough terrain, Tina:

  1. Wore stiletto heels and dressed in black from head to toe on a 100 degree day
  2. Identified a patch of prickly pear behind a ranch fence as a “cactus farm”
  3. Drank water from the river (who knew?)

He married her anyway.

Her humor wasn’t limited to self-deprecation, though. Recently while struggling with the illness that eventually took her from us, she posted to her friends on Facebook:

Day 7 in hospital: Stockholm Syndrome begins to set in. I’m no better or worse, really, just increasingly dependent upon my captors. Bizarre.

She frequently cracked me up with her quips about meetings that didn’t quite work out:

Reality is sure a lonely place when you can’t get anyone to join you there. What is it I saw on despair.com? At some point, hanging in there just makes you look like an even bigger loser. Worst cumulative score for a business trip EVER! I’ll spare you, which is more than I did for myself.

She grew up outside Washington, D.C., daughter of a test pilot who died in a jet crash in WV in 1957. Knowing that history makes me particularly enjoy this snapshot of Tina taken earlier this year.

We became collaborators in kind of a goofy way, and the better you know Tina, the more fitting that seems. We had both proposed talks at Translation World in Montréal about project management, so the conference organizers asked us to share a session.

That seems reasonable enough on the face of it, but as I read her proposal, I was shaking my head. I was a client-side program manager saying it was time to burn PMBOK (the bible from Project Management Institute, Project Management Book of Knowledge) and start over, and she was in vendor-side sales and saying people should read PMBOK. I thought, “Yeah, right—sharing a session is going to work really well!”

So I wrote to Tina and suggested that since we seemed to be in nearly complete disagreement, did she want to try a point/counterpoint format? I wasn’t sure what to make of her quick agreement, but within a few days we were on the phone trying to write an outline.

What a disaster!

We needed to give a 20 minute talk together, but after two hours on the phone we’d gotten spectacularly nowhere. Instead, we had accomplished the following:

  • We compared menageries—mine maxed out at three Siamese cats and two labrador retrievers, which you’d think would be competitive, but she topped that number in species, to say nothing of headcount.
  • We compared crazy career planning. I have degrees in music performance and have spent twenty-plus years in statistical software, but that was nothing on Tina’s degrees in English leading to a career in the recording industry, typesetting, running a higher ed journal, court reporting, and selling translation.
  • We compared notes on why we both think PowerPoint needs to be blasted off the face of the earth. And then she persuaded me to prepare slides anyway by promising to feature demotivational posters and that video with the cowboys herding cats.
  • We cracked each other up. Over and over again.

Later that week, we made another attempt. We didn’t get much further, but we did promise to send each other drafts, and after a few more email exchanges and seriously unproductive phone calls, we had our presentation. We’d also agreed to recruit Beatriz Bonnet of Syntes Language Group to be our moderator. Since neither of us were doing business with her and we both liked her outspoken style, we figured we could count on her to be neutral and keep us in check.

We finally met in Montréal—the night before we were to give our talk. Tina had arrived two days late thanks to airport closures in Texas. Beatriz had arrived on time, but as far as I know she has yet to be reunited with her luggage—so a few hours before Tina finally landed, Beatriz and I were tromping through the snowdrifts in downtown Montréal in our completely useless dress shoes looking for something for her to wear to our talk. When we got back to the hotel, we met Tina in the bar, where she was seated with a glass of—sing it with me, folks!—pinot grigio. We intended to go over logistics for our talk, but instead we spent several hours cracking each other up and deciding the talk would take care of itself.

It did, despite classic Tina circumstances: although we promised to show up early so we could (finally!) practice our talk together, she was actually late for her own presentation and we had to wing it.

She was late because she’d gotten stuck on the phone, rescuing a client from himself! I came to learn that she did a lot of that: talking clients down from the ledge, talking clients out of absurdly bad ideas, talking clients through technology that was too difficult for them to be buying, talking clients into sticking to plans instead of scrambling things up every few weeks because they didn’t understand the translation process, and so on.

Our talk was well received, and the audience’s questions and comments in the hallway afterward confirmed that they had gotten our point. It turned out that, although we thought we disagreed about the value of classical project management, we actually agreed about it but were looking at it from opposite perspectives. I was viewing it from the perspective of someone who had overdosed on methodology and discovered that facilitating a team’s teamwork was far more effective. She was viewing it from the perspective of someone who’d seen a lot of “project managers” whose training consisted of an endless supply of coffee and too much work. We were coming from opposite extremes—too much vs. not enough—but we met in the middle, recommending some basic tools used in moderation but in combination with compassion and listening skills.

High on the success of our high-wire act, we approached the editors of Multilingual with a proposal that we reprise the chaos in a series of point/counterpoint columns for the magazine. This gave us an excuse to continue getting together when our travels allowed—not that we needed one!

Generating column ideas was no problem. I still have our list, mostly unfinished. The problem was meeting deadlines! We were both overcommitted, so we repeatedly found ourselves trading drafts during the night before our deadlines and finally sending something a few hours after it was due. Editor Katie Botkin was patient with us, though. The results are available to subscribers on the Multilingual website, and they’re reprinted with Multilingual‘s permission on this blog:

I regret that Tina won’t be around to help me write the rest of our columns, because they won’t be nearly as sharp without her point of view. If you review the ones we did write, you’ll see that she was the funny one. She was also the wise one.

And the generous one. When Tina learned that I was leaving SAS after twelve years, she quickly persuaded Shelly Priebe of McElroy Translation to bring me in for interviews. None of us knew what I was interviewing for, exactly, but it was like Tina to work that way: thinking people should know each other and putting them together, and letting the details work themselves out.

Which they did. It was while talking for hours with Shelly in her lakeside guest cottage that I first began to envision Global Pragmatica and understand how my passion for facilitative leadership might fit into the localization industry. It was also Shelly who helped me see that localization was only part of the picture. It’s thanks to Tina that I now count Shelly and others from McElroy among my friends and valued colleagues—Shelly’s now an executive coach and she continues to be generous with her wisdom and encouragement.

I like how Shelly pictures Tina now:

Tina chose to slip away quietly, staying under the radar of our pity or our worry. With lucidity and acerbic wit to the end she passed to the kingdom that awaits her. Will she join the private Catholic school nuns of whom she spoke with such uproarious irreverence? That vision makes me smile. I will continue to smile whenever I think of my friend. Tina outwitted the demons who pursued her.

Tina went on to work with Beatriz at Syntes, and it was Beatriz who sent me the sad news when Tina died. Remembering Tina, Beatriz wrote,

Every time I think of Tina, her wisecracking and self-deprecating sense of humor are the first things that come to mind. She was sharp and witty, and just a lot of fun to be around. And she kept those traits to the end, using her humor to keep her spirits up as she fought the battle against her illness, in typical Tina style. In her last email to me, just a few days before she passed, she wrote, after a funny quote at her own expense and condition: ” ‘Scuse the dark humor. It’s too late to change now!”

Smart, generous, self-reliant, no-nonsense, witty, and just plain fun. That’s how I’ll always remember Tina.

Beatriz passed along a few more Tina gems, too; like the time Beatriz was planning a few days of hard ski-therapy, and Tina replied:

You will never get me on skis. My ankles are like toothpicks.

Or the time Tina emailed the entire office before a group event:

Please be sure to cut a wide parking swath for the confirmed pedestrian driving the really big company van.

Tina, you left us too soon. The world is a more boring place without you. Pinot grigio doesn’t taste right anymore.

Thank you for believing in all of us.

Please share your memories!

A note to Tina’s friends and family: I’d love it if you’d add your thoughts below in the comments. I know Tina would most appreciate your answers to this question: what’s the first time she made you laugh so hard it was embarrassing?

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North America from the outside in and the inside out

by on Aug.30, 2010 , under localization, random

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, September 2010 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank Multilingual for graciously consenting to republication of this article in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

In 1998 I planned a trip to Norway and set about educating myself. In addition to the usual stack of guidebooks, language books, and cassettes, I picked up a copy of Norway: Culture Shock! A survival guide to customs and etiquette. I hate being the Ugly American when I travel, so I wanted to learn some of the little niceties that would help me blend in.

I enjoyed the book, but it felt inside-out and backwards to me somehow—all kinds of behaviors and cultural details that I considered normal were explained as if they were completely bizarre. It was astonishing to me that, for example, the book went to the trouble of explaining that you shouldn’t ask Norwegians how much money they make. You shouldn’t expect Norwegians to divulge much about themselves to strangers, or even for that matter to friends. When visiting a Norwegian family in their home, you should decline offers of food and drink at first and only relent after repeated offers are made. Further, an offer of “coffee” doesn’t mean a hot beverage. “Coffee” means a full lunch spread, with open-faced sandwiches, a variety of side dishes, perhaps some fruit soup, and at least an assortment of cookies if not cake for dessert. If you’re lucky, there will be leftover dumplings and ham, sliced and fried up together.

Well, duh! That’s normal, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I should probably mention that I grew up in the snow belt of North America in a series of small towns settled in large part by Norwegian and German immigrants and still populated mostly by their descendants, who tell Ole and Lena jokes and would call a Norwegian-Swedish couple a “mixed marriage.” It turns out that I grew up with a Norwegian sensibility about things.

Eventually I turned to the “About the author” section in the back of the book and learned that she was an Asian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway.

So the book was inside-out and backwards for me! Ostensibly it described Norwegian customs, but I learned more about which Norwegian customs seem odd to an Asian and in turn what the Asian norms are. I also learned how my sense of normal differs from the rest of North America, because the very things she pointed out about Norwegians are the traits that have made me stick out since I left the snow belt.

North America from the outside in

I’ve since had the privilege of traveling quite a bit in Asia and Europe as a localization program manager, continuing my inside-out cultural learning over dinners and drinks with my localization teams and in-country colleagues.

What particularly strikes me about Japan is its quiet, compact order and elaborate attention to manners, and upon returning home from Japan I’m always startled by how big, messy, and casual we Americans are. We think nothing of taking a sip of a beer as soon as it arrives, and if we pause for a toast, it’s just “Cheers!” with much noisy banging of glasses, and no attention to whose glass clinks higher or lower. We walk down office hallways talking in full voice, we’re more likely to call something sarcastic into our colleagues’ open doors than to notice whether they’re busy, and by the time we’ve gone past three people’s offices, we’ve walked past more space than a dozen comparable Japanese office-workers would use, and all of it is messier.

Over dinner in Korea one night I learned what I’d never noticed before in years of sampling Korean music, dance, and theater: that it reflects millenia of sadness. Korea’s long history is full of invasions, wars, cultural loss, and great deprivation. Korea’s classical and folk arts express the reserved, wary sadness of a people ravaged for tens of centuries by neighbors in every direction. A Korean attending an arts festival in North America would be stunned to see singers smiling, actors laughing, dancers frolicking, and performers of all types making joyful eye contact with their audiences. Korean arts serve a more important purpose than entertainment and fun: they remember loss and struggle, they record perseverance, they offer perspective about daily challenges in a context of surviving the unsurvivable.

North Americans think we are familiar with Chinese food until we actually visit China and are confronted with the real thing. Theirs is a cuisine of poverty, making the most of scarcity by using parts of the animal we call scraps, using plants we call “weeds,” and using elaborate techniques and richly layered flavors to make them all palatable. We might think that “American food” would seem simple and decadent to Chinese visitors, but in fact they are as perplexed by our foods as we are by theirs. The thing that puzzles them the most? That our foods come in big hunks and separated piles—think of a dinner at a typical American steakhouse, where your plate comes with a huge hunk of meat, an enormous baked potato, and a pile of one vegetable, all arranged so that nothing is touching. I was startled to discover that the foods my Chinese colleagues preferred were those that mingled meats and vegetables in one dish, all in one-fork pieces, such as a casserole. Their comfort had nothing to do with the flavors and everything to do with shapes!

North America from the inside out

What most North Americans probably don’t consider is that we are all outsiders in North America. Our planet’s third largest land mass after Asia and Africa is home to twenty more nations besides the biggest three, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. We are all outsiders in twenty-two of those countries. Narrowing the focus to just the US, our nation’s young history is one of myriad immigrant and native cultures settling tiny pockets of a vast continent. Cultures have blended to a certain extent with those of the other peoples in the vicinity, and the resulting regional identities persist to the present. The lines are starting to blur in the age of national and global television, radio, and internet, but the potential for cultural conflict and misunderstanding is far greater than many people realize. I’ll share a few of the more amusing examples from my own life.

When I left my Norwegian enclave in the snow belt and arrived in Chicago for grad school, I couldn’t figure out why my friends never offered me anything to eat or drink when I visited. It wasn’t until some fellow Norwegian-Lutheran-Minnesotans from my alma mater joked about our common tendency to turn things down three times before accepting that I realized what the problem was. My friends did offer me drinks and snacks, but out of Norwegian-American habit, I always said something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m fine–no, thank you.” But that was that! My friends didn’t realize that the first three times you offer something don’t count!

I spent about a dozen years working for SAS and traveling frequently to corporate headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Much later I found the Culture Shock! series book on the American South and finally began to understand some of my experiences there. When my colleagues had responded to one of my ideas with, “Bless your heart!” they weren’t gratefully commending my cleverness—they were saying, approximately, “Oh, you poor baffled freak… you just don’t understand anything.” When they called me “Yankee,” it wasn’t a slight as I thought; they were just acknowledging that I was different. When I jokingly called myself a “damn Yankee” once, I was corrected with a smile: “You’re not a ‘damn Yankee’! You’re just a Yankee. Damn Yankees are the ones who don’t leave.”

We’re all outsiders

When a friend of yours grieves a death in the family or is recovering from surgery, do you send flowers?

What on earth for? What good are the flowers going to do anyone? Where I’m from, we make a tuna noodle hotdish complete with crumbled potato chips on top, and we bring it over to the house, hot and ready to serve, in a casserole carefully labeled with our last name on a piece of masking tape. We do this whether we like tuna noodle casserole or not, because it’s what is done.

Being an outsider in North America is not a privilege reserved for visitors from other countries.

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How to hold better meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership, program management

Previously I wrote a response to Adriel Hampton’s thought-provoking blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” in which I argued why I think live meetings, preferably in person, are valuable, even though many of us hate a lot of them. Now I’m going to share some tips on how to make your meetings better.

I’m writing this primarily for people who run meetings, but most of these ideas can be used to good effect by mere “powerless” attendees. These are all classic facilitation concepts, and while a designated, trained facilitator will have advantages that attendees don’t, attendees can often speak up and “facilitate from their chair” with astonishing effectiveness, and in some groups, a peer will be far more effective than any authority figure.

What people hate most about meetings is feeling powerless.

Or ignored.

But it’s usually the same thing.

  • We all hate going to meetings where we’re talked at and nobody notices or cares if we fall asleep.
  • We all hate meetings where the decision has already been made, but nobody’s being up-front about that.
  • We all hate meetings where the people who need to hear the discussion aren’t in the room, or aren’t listening, or just don’t get it.
  • We all hate meetings where we know we’re going to have the same old fights and end up in the same old impasse, and nobody’s going to make a decision (or realize that their plan hasn’t been working and isn’t likely to).
  • We all hate meetings where only one point of view is important. I don’t really care if the CEO thinks this is the only way to save the company, if I know it can’t be done in the time and budget allowed, or if I know that the customers hate it when we do that, or if I know that’s the right thing to do but key stakeholders are too proud to accept a change in plans, or, or, or, or…

Meetings slow things down, and that’s good. (Sometimes.)

Central to many arguments about meetings is a premise that meetings slow things down. Certainly it’s true that many meetings are a waste of time for at least some if not all of the participants, and it’s not uncommon for people to have so many regularly-scheduled meetings that they effectively have only a one- or two-day work week. (More on that below.)

However, I question the premise that speeding things up is a good thing. The more important an outcome is, the more important I think it is to slow down and make sure it’s the right outcome.

“Go slow to go fast” is a facilitator’s mantra. It is far better to waste an hour in a meeting than to proceed with a plan that misses an important detail or a team that isn’t in full agreement.

A single team member who disagrees with the plan can sabotage an entire project. A good facilitator discovers who that person is and makes sure that person has a chance to voice their concerns. A good facilitator helps that person get the chance to explain what the others might not be considering.

Sometimes that person is just a nuisance. But even the troublemakers usually have useful points to make, even if you don’t like the way that they make their points.

When this person’s concerns are heard respectfully, and restated by others so that the person can be confident s/he was understood, then the group can weigh those concerns against the known constraints and competing concerns in a way that either incorporates those concerns or at least enables the person to go along with the plan. Even if the group reaches a different decision, if the dissenting concerns are acknowledged and weighed in a process that is transparent and is consistent with the group’s agreed-upon decision-making method, usually the dissentor(s) will be able to commit to the plan.

More on both of those ideas!

Transparent doesn’t mean public.

When I say that a group (or leader) needs to have a transparent process, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is in on everything. It only means being clear and honest about how information will be explored and how decisions will be made. For example, a leader can say, “I want to get your feedback and ask for a show of hands on the different options today, and I will take that input to next week’s meeting with the directors, who will make a decision.” Most teams will accept that happily, but if they think they get to make the decision and then someone else does, they’ll be angry.

Transparency also requires following through on the stated process and being candid about any subsequent change of course.

Transparency and accountability means not pointing fingers at the team who tried to talk you out of it if it eventually turns out you were wrong. It might kill you to say it, but acknowledging that the team was right and you were wrong will buy you tremendous team loyalty—so much that I’d almost recommend doing that on purpose once. Almost!

Agree on (or at least announce) a decision-making method.

Decisions don’t have to be unanimous or even consensus or majority-rule. Many decision-making methods can work. The most important thing is to have one, and the next most important thing is to have group agreement or at least a candid announcement about what it is.

How do you decide how to decide? It depends on what’s at stake. Generally, the more say a team has in the decisions that affect them, and the more confident the team is that everyone on the team accepts the decisions, the more conscientious that team will be about executing on the decisions and being proactive about resolving issues that arise. The catch is that more say takes longer.

Here are some valid decision-making methods, from fastest and least engaging to slowest and most engaging:

  1. Leader decides and announces.
  2. Leader seeks input, then decides.
  3. Majority rule (discuss and vote).
  4. Consensus (keep at it until most people agree and those who disagree are satisfied that their concerns have been addressed or at least acknowledged).
  5. Unanimous (keep at it until everybody can agree with the plan).

Having a fallback is helpful. For example, “We want to reach consensus, but if we cannot reach consensus by the end of the week, then we’ll take a vote on Monday.” Or, “If the team can reach a unanimous agreement, that will be the plan, but otherwise I’ll make a decision based on our discussion today.”

When is something important enough to justify a meeting?

What is the value of a good decision, or an effective plan, or a group that agrees enough with the plan to remain committed to it? What is the cost of not reaching these? What is the risk of proceeding without certainty that everyone is onboard with the plan? That is the value of the meeting. The cost of the meeting is the number of people in the room, times the number of hours, times the hourly wage, plus any other costs such as travel, room rental, web-meeting fees, etc. You might multiply the number of hours by the number of people by an average cost of $50 per staff member or manager and $100 per executive or hired consultant. If the value is higher than the cost, you should have a meeting.

It’s often hard to estimate value objectively, but here are some subjective criteria that are probably good enough. Ask yourself these questions about the outcome:

  • Will more than a few people spend more than a few weeks working on it?
  • Will a customer ever see it?
  • Could a bad result lead to a lawsuit?
  • Is there anyone affected by it who might be silently disagreeing?
  • Is anyone’s influence out of proportion to his or her competence and credibility? (For example, a CEO who doesn’t understand crucial technical details, or a chief engineer who doesn’t understand business constraints, or a sales manager who is purely commission-driven?)
  • Are you worried about what you don’t know, or what you might not realize you need to know?

If your answers to any of these questions is yes, then it’s worthwhile to have a meeting.

Minimize the intrusion of meetings on the work week.

Meetings burn time, and not just the duration of the meeting but also the time it takes to get to and from the meeting and time spent with meeting logistics like calendar management, preparation, follow-up, and rescheduling other commitments. Worse, meetings have an interruption cost. If my work requires focused concentration for several hours at a time, then a meeting that runs from 10 to 11 am pretty much destroys my 9 am to lunchtime shift. The most I’ll be able to get done from 9 to 10 and 11 to 12 is handle some email and maybe an expense report or travel reservation. There is no way I’ll be able to debug and fix some code, or write a proposal, or intervene in a staff problem, or persuade my manager about something. If I have another meeting from 2 to 3, then my afternoon is also shot, and my most important responsibilities—the things I’m paid to do—will be postponed another day, or I’ll be forced to put in some overtime that night.

Minimize how your meetings intrude on the work week. Some easy ways to start:

Have designated meeting days.

If you can get all of a team’s meetings out of the way on Tuesdays, that leaves the rest of the week free for focused work. Mondays and Fridays tend to suffer from higher numbers of absences because of people taking long weekends, so Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are better. Ask yourself whether your team benefits from having a break from work mid-week (making Wednesday a good day to meet) or from having several days in a row available to focus (making Tuesday or Thursday better). More important than which day(s) you choose, though, is that you choose, and you enforce the no-meetings-days goal as much as possible.

Have the shortest effective meeting.

Go slow to go fast—make sure everybody’s voice is heard when it’s important—but don’t waste time with unnecessary agenda items. Don’t hesitate to adjourn early. Offer breaks when people get restless, start yawning, or are clearly needing to check their messages. Start on time no matter who’s late, and never go over the allotted time without group agreement and permission for some people to leave. Don’t go overtime if it would deprive people who need to leave of their chance to be heard.

State the agenda and goals in advance.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to go to a meeting whose purpose is unclear, or worse, where some people might have (or seem to have) a hidden agenda. Send out a written agenda, with time allotments for each topic if possible, and with clearly-stated goals. The goals should be measurable and believable, and they should be nouns—for example, “a list of issues needing further exploration” or “a decision about how to proceed” or “a preliminary schedule with major milestones and goal dates.” Ask yourself how the group will know if they met the goal(s) of the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, check with the room: “Are these the right goals? Can we do this today? Am I missing something important?”

At the end of the meeting, even if you think you know the answer, ask the room questions like, “Did we meet this goal? Do we need another meeting? Is there anything for next week’s agenda?”

Protect your team from the risks of vague agenda items.

Your agenda might be vague or contain a vague element. If so, take steps to promote confidence that those vague areas will be handled efficiently and nobody will be ambushed by surprises.

For example, if you need to go around the room to get status reports, have everybody remain standing so that nobody will drone on and on. Add a fun element, such as “What progress did you make, is there anything you’re stuck on, and what’s the next movie you want to see?” (If you do something like this, include the list of movies in your meeting notes.)

Sometimes issues arise that might feel like an ambush to some people in the room. Do what you can to make people comfortable raising those hot-button issues, because sweeping them under the rug is never better, but take steps to protect people from unpleasant surprises becoming nightmare scenarios. For example, you might ask, “Does anybody need some time to research this before we discuss what to do next? Is there anybody else that we’ll need to include in this discussion?” Often the best course will be to allow time right away for the basics to be laid out, let people ask any immediate questions, and then schedule further discussion after people have had some time to ponder and research.

If the circumstances demand an immediate decision, do your best to let people be heard, to record objections and unsettled questions, and then take responsibility for the way you proceed. If you must make an executive decision, be transparent about that. Be honest that you’re making a judgment call with incomplete information, and remain accountable for it in future. Do what you can to revisit the unsettled points when time allows. If possible, plan ways to revise the decision as better information becomes available. If your decision turns out badly, be candid about that, too, and acknowledge that some people did raise pertinent objections.

Follow up with brief meeting notes.

Brief is the key here. All you really need is a record of the decisions and agreements, a list of points needing followup, an acknowledgment of any important disagreements or what have you, and a list of open action items with names and goal dates. Some action items might be incomplete, with names, dates, or other details to be determined. If you are ready to include the next meeting’s agenda and logistical details, great.

Always provide a method for people to correct your mistakes and omissions. For example, “Please REPLY ALL with errata and addenda. Have I missed anything important?”

Avoid detailed summaries of who discussed what or disagreed why; you can only lose at this game. Just record what was agreed and decided, and if appropriate also record the points that were left unaddressed, or the objections that were raised, or the points needing further discussion, without commentary. Ask yourself whether anybody who was in the room will be surprised by your notes or would state anything differently. Ask yourself whether somebody who missed the meeting will learn what they need to know.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with the room about what should go in the notes, as a way of preventing misunderstanding later on, or even as a way to bring discussion back into focus. For example, after a lengthy discussion or an uneasy resolution, you might ask questions like, “How should I capture this for the notes? Can somebody restate that for me? Does anybody disagree with this proposal? Are there any action items to go with that?”

Overtime costs a lot more than time-and-a-half.

Be especially careful about scheduling meetings that will force people into working overtime. Even if it doesn’t bring a direct labor cost increase, it usually brings a psychological cost increase.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think twice about working overtime to make up for my own poor decisions, for example, or to solve a problem that I just can’t wrap my brain around during the day. But I resent being forced to work overtime because somebody else wasted my time or made a poor decision. If I have concert tickets or a family obligation or am not feeling well, I resent it even more.

I will forgive my colleagues and take one for the team occasionally, and I’ll gladly go the extra mile when it’s the difference between success and failure for something I believe in. (And now that I’m a self-employed consultant who bills by the hour, I am extremely flexible about when those hours need to happen.) But if any work situation (or a social situation, for that matter) creates a pattern of abusing my time, sooner or later I will resent it. And that resentment will cost the organization in terms of my reduced commitment, my less-than-stellar attitude, my frayed nerves, my depressed health, and eventually perhaps even my departure. I won’t sabotage a project—I’m just not wired that way— but you’d better believe it that if you push some people far enough, they will sabotage your project. Maybe not consciously, maybe not deliberately, but they will find ways to undermine even their own success to get back at someone who has done them wrong.

Do you feel the same way? Do your colleagues?

I have some beliefs because of my experiences. You have had different experiences and reached different conclusions. I would love to hear from you!

What am I missing?

What have I gotten wrong?

What do you see differently?

What did I say that surprised you? Do you think I might be right, at least for some people or situations?

What do you think would surprise me? Can you tell me a story from your experiences that would help me understand your point?

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In defense of (good) meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership

Adriel Hampton wrote an interesting blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” that I felt compelled to rebut in his comments thread, and I thought I would write a bit more here on why I believe meetings can be more valuable—and less horrible—than Mr. Hampton and other victims of bad meetings believe, and in my next post, some tips for making that happen.

This post is an elaboration on the comments I made to his post.

Mr. Hampton’s argument is that groups can be more productive by replacing live meetings with online meeting spaces. His reasons are valid, and for many situations I agree with him. Certain kinds of topics can be explored and debated much more effectively in this way. I, too, have a lot of experience with virtual collaboration (in my case, internationally-distributed teams) and have even found that in many ways I can work more productively from a remote office than a common office.

However, even for topics that lend themselves well to offline discussion (such as a team wiki or shared documents), for anything that is important, I have found that final decisions are best made in a live meeting—preferably face to face, if that’s practical, but at least a teleconference. While anything is better than nothing, the effectiveness of the group’s interaction degrades along with the resolution of the meeting method. The most engaging way to meet is to have everybody together in a room—preferably with some social lubricants like snacks, games, a celebratory meal. This is far “stickier” than everybody scattered around the globe, wearing headsets, and distracted by who knows what else. Ask yourself how many times you’ve surfed the web or answered email during phone or web meetings, and then figure that a good portion of your team is at least as distracted as you have been.

Not everybody learns and communicates the same way.

The main point I made in response to Mr. Hampton’s post was that while his suggestions can work very well for visual/verbal learners and communicators, not everybody learns and communicates best by written word and graphics. Many people—in my experience, more people—learn and communicate best by auditory and kinesthetic means.

Here’s the comment I left on his article:

I agree that most work groups hold too many useless meetings, and for people with a visual learning/communicating style, your suggestions will be helpful for many goals that are not being met well by meetings.

The problem is that other people have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles, and they don’t grasp or convey information as comfortably through the written word as you might. Learning and communication styles also break down along another axis, logical vs. social vs. solitary (clearly your style).

If all of your stakeholders are visual, solitary learners, then shared written methods like you’ve described will work very well for a lot of meeting areas. But most workgroups have a mix of learning styles, and in my experience, auditory/social learners are the majority. Your strategies will tend to minimize their contribution.

Another problem is that even among visual, solitary learners, many important topics are best explored with real-time back and forth in which all participants listen as carefully as they talk, seeking to understand as well as to be understood, with clearly understood goals and decision-making methods. If that doesn’t describe the meetings you’re used to attending, I’m not surprised, and no wonder you feel this way! Most of us have attended far more terrible meetings than good ones—myself included.

Most groups benefit from some guidance and ideally instruction from a skilled facilitator. I have experienced for myself many times the incredible difference that good leadership can make, and if the meeting is about something important, hiring an impartial professional facilitator is something you can’t afford not to do. I greatly improved my own effectiveness as a program manager by learning and adapting facilitation principles and techniques, and I went from being someone who dreaded even my own meetings to someone who eagerly looks forward to facilitating for other groups.

Let’s break these ideas down a bit. First, about visual/solitary learners (writers and readers) vs. those other people (talkers, drawers, builders, tryer-outers).

Have you ever had an experience like this?

If you’re reading this article, then we probably have a lot in common. You write. You read. You think. Alone. And you’re good at it. Me, too.

But here’s what happens—right?

You carefully write up a proposal and send it around by email. You take pains to write a thorough discussion, detailed enough but not too long, with supporting illustrations and even good summary bullet points. You put a clear question or call to action at the end. You leave it in Drafts overnight and come back the next morning to fix up a few details before sending it out.

And then nothing happens.

You send another email. No response, or just a few one-liners come back. You phone a key stakeholder or ask them about it when you run into them at the coffee machine, and they say, “Oh, right. I read that, but…” and then they ask questions or raise objections that make it obvious they didn’t understand a thing. You’re pretty sure they didn’t even read it.

It’s frustrating! You know it was all there in your beautifully-written email, and you know that you covered all the most important points. But they don’t get it!

Why not?!

Try not to jump to conclusions. You’ll never know for sure.

  • Some people weren’t paying attention.
  • Some people read and understood but forgot.
  • Some people got behind on their email and are afraid to admit it.
  • Some people disagree so violently they can’t even think about your points.
  • Some people are too busy.

Story time!

I once had a boss who told me, “If you can’t get it down to one inch, keep it in Drafts until you can.”

Oh, my G-d.

I wanted to strangle her!

But eventually I learned. I found that the shorter my email, the better my chances that she’d sign off and support me later, or answer my question. The longer my email, the more likely I’d get a brusque response that made no sense, or no response at all.

At first I thought she just didn’t appreciate my attention to detail and the subtle nuances of the  situation. Eventually I realized that she appreciated all that and trusted my judgment but didn’t have time to get bogged down in all the grey areas. That was my job, and as long as I kept her informed, she’d support me to the end.

I (eventually) figured out that the thing to do was get her on the phone and tell her I had a plan but that I wanted her ideas on this or that aspect of my plan. She was great at brainstorming solutions and seeing when my thought-framework was off.

She learned, too. She figured out that where she was good at plotting strategy, I was good at anticipating risks. Where she was good at selling ideas, I was good at making sure her plans were bullet-proof. And together, we were better at collaborating over the phone or over lunch, even though sometimes I needed to write an email to myself to figure out what I thought, and sometimes she needed to enjoy a cocktail and ignore my babble while I worked something through.

So what do we writers do about all that?

No matter how well you write, you have to face the fact some people just don’t take in written information. Some people need to:

  • talk things out
  • touch things
  • draw pictures together
  • make physical models
  • conduct experiments
  • listen to descriptions
  • see people’s faces
  • think “out loud” and ask “dumb” questions
  • spell out the details of who, when, what, how

If you’re a good writer and you like working on things alone, in your own time, you might find this frustrating—I sure do!—but remember, other people find it frustrating having to read and work alone.

You’ll come out ahead if you take a variety of approaches.

I wrote more on the topic of written vs. phone and other communication methods in a Point/Counterpoint column with Tina Wuelfing Cargile.

Embrace diversity!

Rather than dwelling on your frustrations, take advantage of people’s differing skills and preferences.

  • The people who prefer talking things out are also often good at enrolling others in the decision and will enjoy presenting the plan to other groups (whereas many excellent writers would rather have a root canal than give a presentation).
  • The people who like to draw diagrams together often bring new insights because of their superior spacial reasoning abilities.
  • The people who like to build prototypes or conduct experiments will help you find the gaps in your plan, and often they’ll come up with improvements on your idea that you’ll wish you thought of. (Ask me how I know.)
  • The people who just don’t pay attention to their email are likely to pay closer attention and ask good questions when you talk to them.

But not just any meeting! A good meeting!

And how to have good meetings instead of crappy meetings will be the subject of my next post: How to hold better meetings.

What do you think?

What have I missed?

Which meetings should be killed and which should be resuscitated?

What are the tools you’ve found that work best at replacing meetings?

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Point/Counterpoint: Communication

by on Nov.10, 2009 , under program management

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, April/May 2009 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank both Multilingual and her co-author, Tina Cargile, PMP, for graciously consenting to republication of these articles in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

POINT: The “right” way to communicate depends on the other people

Erin Vang, PMP

I once started writing up communication guidelines for all the project managers involved in my program (including several at vendors) and after several pages decided that I’d better keep it to myself, because my list made it far too obvious how neurotic I am. Some of the greatest hits I later culled from that list for a slightly less neurotic-looking set of guidelines:

  1. Always put the project codename in the subject line (and various details that boiled down to “do me a favor and spell it correctly”).
  2. Also include a hint about the actual subject in the subject line (don’t just reply to whatever I sent you last to save yourself the trouble of starting a new thread)
  3. Please! No emails just to say “thanks.” Let’s just agree that we’re all grateful and polite and save the thank you emails for the truly heroic deeds.

And then there were guidelines to avoid the CC-proliferation problem—where you CC one person on an email as an FYI, and then the reply comes back with a few more questions and a few more CCs, and so on, and before you know it everyone from the vice president of your company to the assistant vacation substitute for your project manager from two years ago who’s no longer with the vendor are all involved in a lively discussion of whether Coke is “pop” or “soda.” (True story, only slightly exaggerated.)

Did anyone notice that I started right off with email and wonder why?

I didn’t think so.

Which brings me to my real points, which are far more important than learning anyone’s list of email pet peeves. First, the only right way to communicate is the way that works for the people on both sides of the communication. Let me illustrate with an example:

Not long ago I needed to discuss something with Tina, my collaborator in this “Point/Counterpoint” column. I didn’t want to write email, because the subject was sensitive, and to me it was quite urgent, so I phoned her. When she didn’t answer, I left voicemail describing the situation and asking her to call back. She never quite got back to me, which was frustrating. Sooner or later we did get in touch and worked it all out, but it didn’t happen quickly, and I couldn’t figure out why…

…Until recently, when Tina and I were exchanging ideas about this very column you’re reading now. She wrote, “It is clear that everyone has their own best ‘receiving’ style. For me, it’s written communication—gives me time to research, reflect, and basically not screw up my answer. I’m guessing you like the phone better, or maybe it’s a mix. I have an aversion to phone calls—it’s like a command to stop what you’re doing and thinking about. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Long distance was verboten when I was young—unless someone was near death. If they were already dead, a letter would do. And we wrote lots of letters.”

There was my answer—it was my fault! Although I’d left voicemail and asked her to call me back, I had intentionally made my message sound patient and low-key. Why? Because I was likely to be asking Tina for a pretty big favor, and I didn’t want to be pushy about it. (That’s how I was raised!) Next time I’ll know that unless I make it clear my voicemail is urgent, I’d be better off sending email.

As for my preferences, Tina guessed correctly: I prefer a mix of email and phone. For anything easy or brief, I start with email, for many of Tina’s reasons plus a few of my own. I don’t like to interrupt people. Often the details will be easier to understand visually than aurally. Email is often faster.

However, for anything tricky or lengthy, I switch to phone. I’ve found that many people either can’t or don’t understand things completely and accurately when they have to read more than an inch or two of text, and some topics are too complex to convey in two inches. In this case, a phone conversation is usually a better idea.

Unfortunately, writing a six-inch email is often the best way for me to think through the issues and state them clearly. If I just pick up the phone, I’m likely to frustrate the other person with a lot of circling around and unnecessary detail. In such a situation, I’ve found that it’s best to go ahead and write the long email to get my own head clear. Then I save it in Drafts, pick up the phone, and discuss the big concepts with the other person. Later I’ll follow up with email as needed to chase down final answers and details—and with any luck, the follow-up email will be much shorter and simpler than my first draft. [More on this idea within a blog post about meetings.]

One more point: both parties are responsible for both the sending and receiving of every message. I’ll explain.

For the sender: Don’t assume that just because you’ve said it or sent it that the other person has heard it or received it; lots of things can go wrong, including simple human error. (Have you ever read a message and then accidentally filed or deleted it before you replied or took action?) Also don’t assume that the other person has understood it. Even short, simple messages can be misunderstood. It happens all the time. Until you receive a reply that demonstrates the other person received your message and understood it correctly, you are still responsible.

For the receiver: Don’t assume that just because you’ve heard it or received it that the sender knows that. If it’s urgent to that person, have the courtesy to reply, even if only to say, “I’ll get back to you on this later.”

Does that contradict my third email rule, “No emails just to say thanks”? Sometimes. And if you talk to my project managers, they’ll tell you I’ve often left them dangling, not sure whether I received their important deliveries or not. They think it’s a stupid rule and I need to get over it. They’re probably right. Frankly, this is something I need to work on. I don’t like to reply before I’ve confirmed or answered everything in the email, because if I see that I’ve replied to a message, I’ll sometimes mistakenly assume later on that since I replied, that email is “done” and I can file or delete it. To avoid that mistake, I prefer to wait. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s taken me a while to get back to it, and in the meantime the folks on the other end might really need to know whether they can bill me, or release a resource, or go home to bed, or whatever.

Which brings me to my last point: most of us need some work on our communication skills, and in the meantime, we owe some apologies when we drop the ball. To all my project managers who have wanted to smack me for too often not sending timely replies: you know who you are, and if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!

COUNTERPOINT: Be clear about what you need, and consider your audience

Tina Cargile, PMP

As Erin says, there are different sending and receiving styles and preferences—lately it has been fashionable to complain about email, but there are complaints galore out there regarding both verbal and written communications.

We work in an industry that is all about meaning and communication, yet we don’t do much better than folks in other industries at employing effective messaging. There are missteps and irritants possible no matter how one sends a message–either phone or email. How often I have written a draft message and then returned to discover that what I “said” wasn’t what I “meant” at all! Or realized that the receiver was apt to see any suggestions as criticism, which called for a softening of the message.

As a lousy notetaker with a decent, yet aging memory, storing the call notes is essential—but by the time I get around to doing that, some details might have drifted away. With email, I can review every word and confirm that I received the complete message.

Finally, I’m trying to keep up with three different phone numbers (home office, office, and Blackberry), but I can always go a single place to check email when I’m about to board a plane or walk into a client’s office. It might take a couple of hours before I get a moment to check voicemail messages on all three phone lines.

I agree with all of Erin’s ground rules for email communication—having received one too many messages that essentially say “Hey, you know that thing we were talking about a couple of weeks ago? I vote yes.” Huh? Preparing a coherent message includes some preparation. Don’t assume I remember what we talked about a couple of weeks ago—I’ve slept since then.

The same goes for phone calls—I love Erin’s idea of composing an email to get your thoughts in order, and then placing the call. Nothing is as irritating as spending 15 minutes on the phone with someone who clearly doesn’t have a handle on the question they’re trying to ask. Except maybe those who don’t have the information handy on the subject of the call (“hold on for 5 minutes while I print all of this information out”). I usually request that they call back once they have all the data in order. Nicely, of course. [Erin’s comment: I once apologized to someone for answering their call at a time that was inconvenient for them. They didn’t get it.]

In fact, when planning a call to discuss complex issues or a number of related topics, I find it useful to send a call agenda before the call, if possible. Bullet points only! This means the receiver has some idea of the scope of the discussion and can be prepared with supporting information, status, what have you, before I dial the phone.

There are also differing schools of thought among those email aficionados among us. For example, some of my colleagues prefer that I gather up every single topic or action item needed that week to be sent in a single email. I can assure you that such an email would filter down and down in my Inbox; at the very least, I would likely miss one of the to-dos as I circle back to the original email over and over again. Personally I prefer discrete, individual messages, at least grouping by a single topic. This way, I can complete a task and it’s done and done!

On the other end of the spectrum, I despise voicemail messages that say “call me!” If there is a sensitive communication that you’d rather not write down, at least give me a hint. Often I will call back and find that the issue is something I could have researched and been ready to answer right then—but I have to call them back again, once I’ve gathered the information needed to answer.

I agree with Erin completely about the no “thanks” rule. If you must have a response within a certain time–don’t be shy—tell me! Another option is to request a read receipt for urgent matters only. I’ve run into correspondents who request a receipt for every single message they send, which tends to dilute the impact when something is truly time-sensitive or urgent. As I’m fond of saying, “when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.”

Whichever “tools” you use to send and receive information, the most critical task is to be clear about what you need or are asking, and to think about the preferences of those you’re communicating with. It makes life much easier to remember that this client always wants a phone call and that client responds to voicemails with an email reply.

Finally, read your message before sending with the personality of the receiver in mind. Whether or not you meant to say “you really screwed up on this,” some receivers will hear that nonetheless, unless you include a line like “great job on this! I have some ideas that may or may not be useful—you let me know.”

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