Tag: people

Free sample of Erin Vang’s facilitation

by on Aug.04, 2011 , under facilitative leadership, localization, program management

A record­ing of the webi­nar panel dis­cus­sion I mod­er­ated yes­ter­day is now avail­able here.

Bridg­ing the gap between soft­ware devel­op­ment and localization

If you’re involved in soft­ware devel­op­ment, local­iza­tion, inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion, or glob­al­iza­tion, you should watch this for a great intro­duc­tion to the issues par­tic­u­larly with regard to stake­holder aware­ness, edu­ca­tion, com­mit­ment, and communication—it was a lively panel with more than a few “hot but­ton” top­ics get­ting lively debate, fea­tur­ing a num­ber of indus­try experts:

  • Val Swisher, Founder & CEO of Con­tent Rules
  • Dan­ica Brin­ton, Senior Direc­tor of Inter­na­tional at Zynga
  • Dale Schultz, Glob­al­iza­tion Test Archi­tect at IBM
  • Edwin Hooger­beets, Senior Inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion Engi­neer at Palm
  • Adam Asnes, CEO & Pres­i­dent of Lin­go­port
  • Erin Vang, Prin­ci­pal Prag­ma­tist of Global Prag­mat­ica LLC®

Free sam­ple of Erin Vang’s work as a moderator

If you’re in charge of set­ting up panel dis­cus­sions or con­fer­ences for your com­pany and you’re won­der­ing whether engag­ing a pro­fes­sional facil­i­ta­tor as your mod­er­a­tor for the event is worth­while, you might want to watch this as a free sample—see how I work to make the con­ver­sa­tion more valu­able for the audi­ence mem­bers and panel par­tic­i­pants. I work as an audi­ence advo­cate to ensure that the event deliv­ers the con­tent that was promised, that it’s lively and inter­est­ing, and that we get past the buzz­words, spin, and hot air right away—we get right into the content.

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Bridging the Gap Between Software Development and Localization

by on Jul.28, 2011 , under facilitative leadership, localization, program management

Erin Vang mod­er­ates panel dis­cus­sion on soft­ware l10n

Cross-posted from Lin​go​port​.com

So, you’ve devel­oped a new soft­ware appli­ca­tion, and have high aspi­ra­tions in terms of sell­ing your appli­ca­tion to a global audi­ence. Now what? Prob­lems often arise between devel­op­ers, local­iza­tion man­agers, and busi­ness man­agers due to per­ceived lack of sup­port, time, and money.

This lack of under­stand­ing can lead to great frus­tra­tion within the devel­op­ment tiers. Join us for an hour long online panel dis­cus­sion and learn how some of the best known indus­try thought lead­ers are con­tribut­ing to bridg­ing the gap between soft­ware devel­op­ment and local­iza­tion.

The panel fea­tures the fol­low­ing indus­try thought lead­ers and experts from the soft­ware devel­op­ment, con­tent devel­op­ment, inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion, and local­iza­tion industries:

  • Val Swisher, Founder & CEO of Con­tent Rules
  • Dan­ica Brin­ton, Senior Direc­tor of Inter­na­tional at Zynga
  • Dale Schultz, Glob­al­iza­tion Test Archi­tect at IBM
  • Edwin Hooger­beets, Senior Inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion Engi­neer at Palm
  • Adam Asnes, CEO & Pres­i­dent of Lin­go­port

Online Panel Discussion: “Bridging the Gap Between Soft­ware Devel­op­ment and Local­iza­tion”
Date and Times: Wednesday, August 3rd at 9:30am PT / 10:30am MT / 11:30am CT / 12:30pm ET
Registration: Register for free @ https://​www1​.gotomeet​ing​.com/​r​e​g​i​s​t​e​r​/​9​6​4​4​1​5​249
Where: Your desktop

Erin Vang, Owner of Glob­al­Prag­mat­ica will be facil­i­tat­ing the online panel dis­cus­sion. Erin has over twenty years of expe­ri­ence in sta­tis­ti­cal soft­ware doc­u­men­ta­tion, qual­ity assur­ance, project man­age­ment, and local­iza­tion, most recently as Inter­na­tional Pro­gram Man­ager for the JMP Research and Devel­op­ment at SAS, and pre­vi­ously with Aba­cus Con­cepts and SYSTAT. She is cur­rently design­ing a local­iza­tion pro­gram for Dolby Lab­o­ra­to­ries.

This pre­sen­ta­tion is intended for tech­ni­cal man­agers, soft­ware engi­neers, test engi­neer­ing man­agers, QA man­agers, inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion and local­iza­tion man­agers, tech­ni­cal writ­ers, con­tent devel­op­ers, and any­one want­ing to learn more on how to opti­mize their global soft­ware releases.

We’d love to hear from you. Please send any ques­tions or top­ics you’d like to have dis­cussed dur­ing this panel to Chris Raulf @ chris (at) lin​go​port​.com.

Update 4 August 2011

The record­ing of our panel dis­cus­sion is now avail­able here.

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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 Olé 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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