Archives for category: Business

This is a difficult and complicated book to review.

Being someone who has been an advocate of email, as opposed to other forms of business communications, such as text messaging and apps, I started reading this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Email does not have the sexiness factor of other tools; however, it does have distinct advantages for businesses.

Like many books with provocative titles, “A World Without Email” is arguably mistitled. The central tenant of the book is that email, and other communication tools that are often put in its place such as Slack, create a “hyperactive hive mind.” This hyperactive hive mind makes us so concerned with the work of reading and answering messages, that it frequently gets in the way of our actual jobs and that it is ill suited for most of the communication that is needed anyway. What Mr. Newport is suggesting in this book is that we reevaluate how we perform work rather than just assume that the way we have always done it is best.

The arguments for doing this are pretty compelling for a project-based workplace, where “knowledge workers” are producing materials. Where most of the arguments in the book fall down is when it comes to managers supporting other employees in a service-based industry – such as a veterinary hospital. Or a business where “training” your customers to communicate in a particular way is difficult if not impossible. Having said that what should actually be taken away from “A world Without Email” is not the title, but the idea that we should carefully look at our workflow and information exchange and build systems and protocols that actually work for what our employees need. This is of course opposed to making our employees bend to what an ad-hoc exchange of information, using a tool such as email can give rise to; a hyperactive hive mind.

A surprising recommendation from this book, is the suggestion that what is often missing from businesses for their knowledge workers is support staff. This does not mean a return to the days of typing pools and Mad Men-esque assistants outside every office door; but it does suggest that leaders need to understand that for knowledge workers, switching between their primary focus and communication, can dramatically impact the former without significant gains it the latter. Assistance in communication can result in productivity increases that far outweigh the costs of that assistance.

There is, however, a real danger that the wrong lessons from this book will be drawn. For example, that implementing a tool such as Trello, a task-based management app, will remove the need for meetings or other forms of digital communication. In fact, I find the focus on the evils of email while ignoring the much greater issues that can arise with text messaging and apps such as Slack, undermines some of the book’s credibility.

The idea, that workflow in business communications needs a more formal protocol, has been around for a while in various forms. Mr. Newport makes a good argument for devoting time and energy into a workflow protocol for you and your business. What is not so clear from “A World Without Email” is whether what actually needs to change is our relationship with email and other forms of communication – practicing good communication hygiene for example – rather than abandoning the tool all together for its own misuse.

To sum up this a book that is worth reading, thinking about, and even discussing with your team. It is not a book to adopt trite slogans from and use to justify making rash decisions.

Business is rarely one size fits all.

What allows us to feel like we belong somewhere?

How do we harness belonging to create buy-in for our teams and how do outside influences affect our own sense of belonging in the world? What can damage that sense of belonging? How do we avoid destroying what we seek to create?

In Daniel Coyle’s book , The Culture Code – which I reviewed here, he puts forth the idea that the things that create great culture in groups and teams do so by triggering a sense of belonging. These are things such as uniforms, special phrases or codes, and a shared vision of purpose. By triggering these ‘belonging cues’ we feel safe and part of a collective. We have shared values and a shared identity. This feeling of belonging is even more strongly triggered when there is an outside enemy or outside set of circumstances.

The fear of the outsider being used as a rallying cry for uniting a people has a dark reputation in history, but also has its more positive outcomes as well. The dramatic drop in crime in New York city in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks being an obvious example.

My own personal sense of belonging was also triggered in the shadow of tragedy.

When the 10/1/17 mass shooting happened at the Route 91 Festival in my adoptive hometown of Las Vegas, which killed 58 people (60 at the time of this writing), there was obviously shock and horror from not just people in Las Vegas, but also around the country. People who live in Las Vegas have an odd relationship with its tourist nature, in as much as there is great respect for the people who visit and for the things that draw them to our town, but that does not necessarily mean that we want much do with those people or those parts of the town. However, to attack those things, and those people is very much seen as an attack on the entire city. A city based on welcoming strangers to our town, and hoping that they have a good time during their visit.

The reaction of the city, with people lining up around the block to donate blood, the general feeling of outrage that this could happen, and that someone could abuse our hospitality in such a hideous manner, created a greater sense of ownership of this odd place in the desert where I live than at any other time in previous five years of my residency.

But something else happened at the same time in Las Vegas.

The city got its first professional sports team in the Vegas Golden Knights (VGK).

To the hockey world and the sports pundits, this was less than a joke. A city which had no history of support for major league sports, that has shown little interest in hockey, and where it was 115 degrees in the summer. It seemed like a terrible idea from just about every corner. However, at its darkest hour – or what certainly felt like its darkest hour at the time, the Vegas Golden Knights showed that they wanted to be part of the community, which let’s face it – they were not.

What happened next is the stuff of fairy tales. An unprecedented run for the Stanley Cup, and a city adopting a sport and a team as their own – making Las Vegas one of the best places to experience a hockey game in the country. For the whole story of that first year, I cannot recommend enough the documentary “Valiant” the trailer for which you will find below.

 I should explain at this point explain that I have no time for sports. Apart from the odd summer evening watching baseball, more for the company and enjoying the summer evening in a crowd, than for anything happening on the field, sports was something that other people did.  So, the question becomes, how did I become the owner of three hockey jerseys? What happened that first year of the Vegas Golden Knights, and in successive years, to make mee feel like they were my team, but also to become proud and emotional about my adoptive hometown? How did I come to believe that I belonged as a Vegas Golden Knights fan and that by extension that I felt ownership of a city that is, by definition, a place to be visited?

The Route 91 tragedy was obviously a horrible event for all concerned, but it was also a serious blow to the city and to its self-image. Las Vegas – America’s playground to quote the movie Ocean’s Eleven – a safe place for people to go a little wild. To shatter that image in the eyes of the wider world, also damaged that image in the eyes of the people who live and work here. The Vegas Golden Knights were also a team with an image problem. The players were all cast offs from other teams, and they were expected to be the worst team in the league that year – and possibly for years to come. That alignment of adversity created shared purpose.

And then against all odds the Golden Knights started, and kept, winning. A city which needed something to cheer and be happy about – got it in spades. The Vegas Golden Knights belonged to Las Vegas and Las Vegas belonged to the Vegas Golden Knights.

But there was more than fate at work in this bonding. The Vegas Golden Knights created their own medieval pantomime as a branding exercise; however, they also adopted the symbols and sounds that have come to epitomize Las Vegas. The sounds of coins, the roll of a dice, a mascot named “Chance,” “Viva Las Vegas”, and just the very golden coloring of anything and everything in sight made the Golden Knights feel like Las Vegas, but also to feel that it was okay to embrace the visitor tropes of Las Vegas.

People like to take pride in things, and it was easy to take pride in the Vegas Golden Knights. The fan experience was considered the best in the league, they continued to play well, cleanly, and get involved in the community. It also brought pride to the city because the Golden Knights did not exist for visitors – although all are welcome. They existed for the residents of Las Vegas.

The symbols of Golden Knights became synonymous with the city of Las Vegas, and with #VegasStrong. The uniforms, symbols, the shared experience of adversity, and the games created a whole new culture. A culture that the people of Las Vegas could belong to.

For that first Vegas Golden Knights season in 2017 / 2018 I was not a fan or even really bought into the culture. I was aware of it building all around me; but being aware of how the triggering of belonging cues can feel like manipulation I tried to stay aloof. It was not until the beginning of the 2018 / 2019 season, and going to my first game, that I finally succumbed, and ultimately embraced the sport and the team.

Fast forward to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The first game of the second round. The Vegas Golden Knights vs. the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado were considered the favorites, of not just the series, but of the entire playoffs. Game one is a disaster for the Golden Knights. A 7-1 loss. Not only do they look out classed on the ice, but they show their frustration by getting into fights and giving up penalties. This culminates in Vegas enforcer Ryan Reeves kneeing on the head of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves in apparent retaliation for an earlier hit by Graves on Vegas player Janmark. Reeves was tossed from the game and received a two-game suspension. The VGK receive an extraordinary nine-minute penalty, and arguably play their best hocky of the game for the first seven minutes of that penalty, until two Vegas players decide they would rather hit a Colorado player rather than defend, and Colorado scores yet again.

This game caused a great crisis of faith for me. In the game and in the team I had come to love. Vegas is known as a team that plays “heavy, but clean.” Reeves actions, seemed dangerous, petty, and revengeful. In addition, the entire team seemed petulant at the resounding loss. To add to the disappointment, Reeves had been an outspoken advocate for police reform in the light of the George Floyd murder, and yet here he was kneeling on the head of another player. A professional, using excessive force because he could.

Chuck Klosterman in his book “But What If We Are Wrong?,” which I reviewed here, talks about the fall in popularity of boxing, and the potential for the fall of professional football, due to mainstream occasional fans, as opposed to dedicated “my team can do no wrong” kind of fans, being turned off by the serious life threatening injuries than can occur in those sports.

At the end of that game against Colorado, I was ashamed to be a Golden Knights fan. I believed that they had betrayed what they stood for. Other fans had a problem with them losing in such spectacular form – I didn’t. My problem was with them seeming to being petty and vengeful.

Game two of the series, while still a loss for Vegas, began to restore my faith in the team as they acquitted themselves as professionals.

However, just nine games later again my faith would be shaken. Testing my commitment to this sport and to being a fan. This time due to the behavior of the fans themselves.

Round Three, Game four, was not a good game for Vegas. Ultimately a 4-1 loss for the VGK at home. However, seeing your team booed off the ice at the end of the second period and at the end of a power play but their own fans was more than a little disquieting. As was the failure of the two people next to me and the eight people in front of me not returning to their seats for the 3rd period. I did not want to belong to a fan base that only supported a team when they were winning. Near the end of the game, Montreal scored an empty net gold making the score 4-1. There has always been fans who leave near the end of a game when it is obvious that their team is going to lose. This, however, was not a few fans.

This was an exodos.

I estimated 2/3s to 3/4s of the auditorium.         

It was heartbreaking for the players I’m sure. Yes, they did not play well, or it would seem with much heart, but they did not deserve to be treated that way. Vegas has always seemed to have a hospitable fan base. Welcoming opposing fan bases into T-Mobile Arena, making sure they felt welcome in our barn and in our city. It has also forgiven its team for its losses and supported them as they once supported us. Its one of the things that I love about supporting the team – everyone was generally ways positive, friendly to all, and just wanting to have a good time. It the light of this game some fans expressed that the team deserved it as they had not shown up to play, and that far worse happened at other areas with other teams.

But that misses the point. Vegas was supposed to be different.

Cultures are made up of shared beliefs, shared values, and a shared sense of identity. This is reenforced by the sharing of uniforms, language, and customs. Damage to the sense of belonging by upending any of these threatens that fragile culture.

I myself have found myself feeling like an outsider in a culture I helped create in an online community, due to the shifting priorities of those in charge, a lack of inclusiveness, and a feeling that my sense of wanting to contribute was devalued and unappreciated. The feeling that I’m getting far less out than I’m putting in is often why people leave companies.

We mess with shared values and culture at our peril. These are fragile things. Belonging allows us to feel safe. It flips a switch in our cave-person brain and tells us “it’s ok,” “you are among friends,” “the saber tooth tigers are not going to get you today.”

But belonging goes further. Belonging allows us to feel. To connect. To bond. To Think.

All we do as humans is think, feel, and run around.

Cultures have to be fought for, to champion for, but they are not a bottomless well. When that sense of belonging is gone, it is gone for good.

I am still a Golden Knights fan, but there were some ugly moments for our team and the fan base during these playoffs.

Our teams that we lead and belong to, if we are lucky, have the same sense of belonging that fans feel for sports teams. But we can damage them just as easily as sports teams can by our actions and inactions.

Belonging is what we all want. But it can never be taken for granted.

Ted Talks are ubiquitous, almost to the point of self parody. The great Ted Talks, and there are many, are internet classics. But what makes Ted different? And what makes a good Ted Talk? And what’s the difference between a good Ted Talk and a great one? More to the point, what can we learn from past Ted talks to improve our own talks and presentations?

I should start out by stating that Talk Like Ted does all of the above and more; however, it is quite possible that you would never get that far as it has an extremely crass and hyperbolic introduction in the stereotypical style of an old fashioned business self help book.

And that is a shame.

Because the rest if the book is not like that at all. What Talk Like Ted actually does is to deconstruct what makes, not only the most popular Ted Talks work online and in person, but also what makes the format work as a whole. With engaging stories about the talks themselves, and the people behind them, it connects the dots between seemingly dispersant topics and styles of talk.

A constant theme that Mr. Gallo makes in the book, is that creativity flourishes with constraints. Ted’s 18 minute limit on talks not only makes the talks ideal for consuming during a coffee break, and therefore increasing their viral potential, but also makes speakers clarify and simplify their ideas – much as Twitter does with its 140 character limit. In fact, a great take away from the book is to make your talk title fit into 140 characters and still be able to communicate the idea behind your presentation.

Another feature of Talk Like Ted, that sets its self apart just being a study of what makes Ted talks great, is its understanding that speakers often have no choice but to make their presentations longer than 18 minutes due to the expectations of conferences and audiences. By giving speakers the structure of successful talks, Mr. Gallo also presents ways to enhance and elongate without undermining the fundamentals already established. It would have been all to easy to just say “talk less.”

Well written and impeccably researched, Talk Like Ted, is both dissection of a cultural phenomenon and a self help guide for those that speak in front of others, or want to. This is book to refer back to, so I do encourage readers to get a physical copy. While I have an audio copy I know I will be referring back to it for my next talk and so a physical copy is on the way.

A two copy recommendation – a very Ted idea.

Being, effectively, a self-taught manager, there are things you come across that drive you crazy. One of those things is the insistence, from people with MBAs, to only look at data when it comes to decision making. While I am a great proponent of education; I have my career in spite of a lack of further education – not because of it, I find the constant insistence on relying on data to be frustratingly narrow minded and lacking in imagination.

Restoring the Soul of Business, Staying Human in the Age of Data by Rishad Tobaccowala is one of the few business books that actually supports the downplaying of data, and by god is it refreshing to hear.

I should make clear; this is not a “touchy feely” plea for businesses to be based on being nice to people; but the business case for giving equal weight to both “stories” and “spreadsheets.” That the best business decisions are often not data driven, but driven by the experiences and ideas of individuals.

There are points in the book, like with many books that argue for seemingly “too good be to true” ideas and concepts, that the reader can become frustrated and want to yell “Yes, but..” Mr. Tobaccowala; however, deftly sprinkles in touches of reality which gives context, and caveats, to benefits that seem to have no place in the business world of real people.

Restoring the Soul of Business is a plea for the middle ground. That data has its place, and is not an omnipotent modern god as pointed out by Cathy O’Neil in her excellent Weapons of Math Destruction that I reviewed here, and that people with ideas and intuition, stories in other words, can balance each other in the workplace. Over reliance on either the “story or the spreadsheet,” a phrase that does begin to grate after a while, is a trap to which we can all fall into; and many businesses already have.

It is the realism of Restoring the Soul of Business that makes it a book worth listening to. That data driven companies tend to have cold cultures and little innovation which in turn leads to poor customer service. The examples litter the headlines; Southwest Airlines vs. United Airlines for just one example.

While there are lots of books that ask us to take a better look at our data, I have reviewed a number of them, this is one of the few books making the case for balance.

And that makes it a fresh, and interesting read, and a book to take to heart.

I recently installed a new VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) based phone system in two veterinary hospitals. I consider myself a reasonably technical person who had a grasp of the issues and drawbacks of such as system, as well as the benefits. I learned a lot during the process. While I am ultimately happy with our system, and how the installation process went, there were multiple things that I wish I had known before getting into the project. This is an attempt to pass on some of those lessons.

It should be noted that some of these lessons can also be applied to cloud-based mission critical software, such as cloud-based practice management software in the veterinary world; however, I do not have enough experience with such systems to make them a feature of this article.

First things first…

Are you the right person?

If you do not have a good understanding of how the business concerned works, at a process and protocol level, you are the wrong person to be purchasing a VOIP phone system for that business. It is very easy for people, even those who deal day in and day out with phones, to completely misunderstand the needs of a business and its phone system. Modern IP based phone systems can be very flexible and yet still have limitations. If you are the right person, don’t be afraid to get input from others; you are not perfect. You are about to radically affect how your colleagues work each and every day. Getting things right, and getting people on board, is critical.

Understanding Workflow

Map out exactly how the phone system is to work on paper with a schematic for call flow with all the relevant parties. For example, veterinary hospitals are very different from a lot of other businesses. They can have very high call volumes, few users will have dedicated extensions, and the way calls are answered can vary dramatically from other businesses.

Tackling Phone Trees

IP Phone system vendors love phone trees. They cover a multitude of sins. You may also love phone trees. Your business may also be right for using phone trees. Don’t, however, be bullied into using phone trees if you don’t want to use them. There is nothing to say that just because a phone system is capable of having a phone tree, that they have to be used.

Phone trees can work great if a business can guarantee that an employee will be a particular extension 90% of the time that it is rang, and is able to perform a particular function. If employees are constantly in flux, and rarely at a specific extension, phone trees may not be a good solution.     

Recruit Allies

Spend way more time figuring out who is installing and configuring the phone system, than the company that the phones are to be purchased from. Simply put, the installer will make or break a new phone system.

Yes, it is possible for you to configure your own system with phone based technical support.

Yes, this is a very bad idea and you will be miserable.    

In addition, get your IT vendor, or person who looks after business’s network, on board. You are about to make their lives much more complicated. They have to be on board or the installer and IT will be at locker heads from day one and setup will be hell.

Your Internet Sucks, You Just Don’t Know It

Obviously, internet speed is a potential issue with IP based phone system; however, reliability is often overlooked. When browsing the web, having the internet drop out, or have significant latency or packet loss, for 30 seconds to a couple of hours, does not often come to a user’s attention. With an IP based phone system, however, four minutes of internet down time, which will mean that a business will have no incoming or outgoing calls, can be an eternity.

The only way to find out if there are internet issues, with a current internet service, is to use a tool that looks for them. A tool such as Multi-Ping, can monitor the internet constantly for days and weeks, and send alerts about outages. This is not a complicated tool to use, or setup, however, getting some input from both your phone system installer and your IT vendor is probably sensible.

The solution to some internet issues may be to move from cable internet to having a dedicated fiber connection. This can be significantly more expensive, or may not even be available in your area. IP phone systems usually mean significant savings over traditional line-based telephones; however, the need for fiber can put a significant dent in those savings, or wipe them out entirely. It is worth looking at this issue during the initial planning stages rather than once you have an IP phone system and are dealing with multiple outages.

Choosing A System

Identify key new features that are needed in the new phone system, and features from the old system that need to be kept. Make the demonstration of new phone systems address each of these issues in detail – take nothing for granted. Have each potential vendor go through the training process on how the phones work before a purchase is made.  Don’t just settle for a demonstration. Irksome functionality, or lack of features, will only come up during training and are two easy to overlook during a sales demonstration.

Things to look out for:

  • How can a call be parked and picked up by other users?
  • How can multiple phones be paged so that users know a call is parked for them?
  • Are there different rings for internal or external calls?
  • What happens when a call is made to an extension that is in the process of dialing out?
  • How are incoming calls routed?
  • What happens when incoming calls are not answered?

Call the technical support line for the new phone system and ask some dumb questions. Do you like what you hear? How long does it take to get through?

Visit a business that has your potential new phone system already installed and has been using it for a while – even if that business is in different field to your own. It will provide valuable insight into the system working in the real world.

Signing the Contract

Get a guarantee about getting out of a new contract.

Usually, companies offer a 30-day money back guarantee. That is probably the minimum amount of time that it will take to setup and configure all but the simplest of systems. Try to get at least 60 days and agree with your installer and the phone vendor on date to go live within this period. That way, if major issues arise during the first month there are options, and leverage.

Phone Lines and Phone Numbers

In a traditional phone system, every incoming and outgoing call takes up a phone line. Each line has a phone number associated with it. With IP based phone systems there are no telephone lines and does your business want to keep these phone numbers? What will happen when a client calls one of these numbers when the new phone system is in place?

Moving numbers can take a significant amount of time and will almost certainly dictate the date and time of the new phone system going live. This is also a process that can go wrong. The disconnection of lines that are no longer needed invariably does go wrong. Ensuring that the correct lines have been disconnected, and the correct lines have been transferred is an important area to double check.

Ye Oldie Fax Machine

Faxes are pretty old school these days; however, here are plenty of businesses that continue to use them. If this is your business think long and hard before turning over this piece of phone technology to the IP phone system’s solution. There is a reason that your business has not moved away from the humble fax machine, and it is almost guaranteed that the new phone system’s fax solution is going to look a lot like email.

Consider keeping your fax machine as is until the new phone system is in place and settled. It is a change that can be made at a later date without too much trouble. In a worst-case scenario, it also gives you a backup form of communication should there be issues on day one of going live with the new system.

The Human Element

Have cheat sheets, extension lists, and phone maps ready before the system goes live. If users have to make their own it can be difficult to stop bad habits from developing. Give your team the tools to succeed.

Be prepared to make changes. Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, a 19th century Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff, is famously quoted as saying; “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” This is often paraphrased as; “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

Employees, and colleagues, are not the enemy, but the concept is the same. There will be things that have not been thought of in the planning stage, even if you have involved as many people as possible in the design of the phone system. Be prepared to make changes, and adapt to make a new phone system a success for everyone.

Preparing for Disaster

What happens in an emergency, such as a complete loss of internet, or power? It is easy to leave the planning for emergencies, until all the kinks have been resolved in the new system.

This is a mistake.

Have those plans already worked out, and the kinks in the emergency plans worked out, before the new system goes live. By making the emergency plan part of the main plan it will mean that you are not scrambling when there is an issue sooner than you had hoped.

Make testing your emergency solution part of the going live process. Also make sure that the emergency procedures are written down and easy to follow. Staff are going to absorbing a lot of new information when dealing with a new phone system. It is unlikely that they are going to remember how to switch over to the back plan, weeks or even months after it was explained to them.

All the Shiny New Toys

The aim of rolling out a new phone system should be to replace the existing phone system and address some of its shortcomings. Don’t be in too much of a rush to show off just how powerful and “cool” this new toy is. Get the basics sorted and stable. Adding new features to your workflow, and foisting large amounts of change all at once, while being unable to perform key functions of the business can easily back fire and cause hospitality. There is nothing wrong with rolling out features in stages to make managing change more, well, manageable.   

Final Notes   

VOIP phone systems are tools. They should not dictate how a business functions, unless that business considers the change a benefit. It is the job of the tool to change to suit the needs of the business. For this reason, VOIP phone systems can be complicated beasts. It is therefore to be expected that installing a new phone system is a collaborative effort. Stick to your guns about what you want from a phone system, because it will be you who will suffer if it does not work how you want it to.

It is a cliché, but an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.  

I’ve been holding staff meetings in veterinary hospitals since I started in veterinary Medicine in 2005.

That is a lot of monthly staff meetings. In 2017, it occurred to me perhaps others could use some of this information for their own meetings in the same way that I used this information from where ever I stole it from. You can find Part One on The Client Centered Practice herePart Two on Team Building Exercises and Games here, and Part Three on Communication Tools here. What I did not cover in these initial three articles was how to actually best hold staff meetings. This post is an attempt to rectify that oversight.  

Meetings get a bad rap, and it is usually because they are badly organized, and don’t obey some basic rules.

Meetings should not be about delivering information. Meetings should be for discussing things. If a lot of information is to be delivered, consider writing an email or a white paper and distributing the information beforehand.  

All meetings need an agenda. In an ideal world, this agenda is distributed to all attendees before the meeting to allow them to prepare or bring any supporting documentation they may need. Agenda items need to be given an allotted amount of time. This prevents over stuffed agendas that cannot be gotten through in the time allowed. Participants should be encouraged to submit items for the agenda ahead of time. Always leave time in the agenda for any other business, but keep to time limits (see below). Any other business, should be a last-minute catch all, not the method by which participants submit their agenda items.

Start on time. End on time. One of the reasons meetings get a bad rap is because we allow them to run on longer than they are scheduled for. Nobody will complain if a meeting ends early. Ending on time also provides other stakeholders the assurance that employees will return to their normal duties by a specific time. There are managers who lock the entrance to meeting rooms at the meeting start time to exclude a anyone who does not turn up on time. While this has a certain “shock value,” it does not trust employees to be adults, or recognize that things happen and that employees have other responsibilities particularly when we ask them to attend a meeting in the middle of their day.

Make attendance easy. If the COVID 19 pandemic has shown us nothing else it has shown us the benefits and the drawbacks of virtual meeting tools such as zoom. However, while tools such as Zoom do not provide a complete replacement for a person being at a meeting in person, they do provide a good enough presence to make them an option for employees who are not on site or who would have to travel into work only for the specific meeting.

Consider attendees days off and the hours of their shift when setting the date and time of meetings. If there is an employee who needs to leave at a certain time, try to adjust the agenda to allow the items most relevant to them to be addressed before they have to leave.

Pay employees for meetings. Meetings are work – therefore employees should be paid. If a meeting is held over lunch time, provide lunch. It is the least that an employer can do.  

Do not make meetings a vehicle for complaints, and negative opinions. Meeting should be able working together as a team to solve problems – ensure that the language of the meeting. This starts at the top. If the agenda is all negativity, and all the things that are wrong, that is the meeting that will result.     

Meetings should be limited in size if possible. Jeff Bazos, the CEO of Amazon, is famously quoted as saying that a meeting should be able to be fed by a single pizza. There is a lot to this.

I believe that once meetings get above 12 people, they become unwieldy, and back and forth discussion becomes either impossible or impossible to control. Of course, there will always be times when “all hands” or “town hall” type meetings need to be held, but understand their limitations and consider if your goals would not be better served by holding multiple smaller meetings. Departmental meetings, for example, may serve your business better and provide better opportunities for engagement.

Where town hall meetings can work very well is to provide context for an announcement, good or bad. These single-issue meetings, can act as a pressure value and allow concerns to be voiced, or addressed, in a relatively controlled environment.

If meetings are a routine affair, and they should be, keep the meeting’s agenda structured. A structure that I used when I used to hold townhall meetings was:

  • Performance results
  • Customer service metrics results
  • Small items
  • Team building exercise
  • Main theme

Examples of main themes can be found in parts one and three of this series, and examples of teaming building exercises can be found in part two.    

I continue to use structured agendas even in very small meetings to ensure that the continuity for one week / month to the next.

Minute Meetings where possible. Keeping a record of decisions, and things that are to be followed up on is essential if meetings are to become more than a group of people talking. Minutes hold people accountable because they do not rely on the memories of participants.   

I believe meetings are important, and that good meetings are a sign of a healthy culture. I also believe you get out of meetings what you put into them – and that does not mean a fancy PowerPoint deck. Just because meetings are held does not mean that they are useful or even needed. Meetings are expensive and time consuming. To make them work, and for them to be relevant, takes effort and energy. It also takes commitment from all involved.

Without that, meetings are all talk.

We all have asked ourselves at some time, or wondered out loud, how would we react in a disaster situation. Would we freeze? Would we pretend that everything was alright? Would we heroically jump in while others watched? Would we panic?

Ms. Ripley’s remarkable, and impeccably researched book; “The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes – and why,” attempts to answer these questions. It does so by looking at how others have responded in extraordinary circumstances, but it also gives the reader pointers on how to better prepare oneself for potential emergency situations and how managers may produce better emergency protocols and procedures.

The book manages the rather remarkable feat of being both a gripping read when discussing the highly personal stories of people during the worst day of their lives; September 11th, The Virginia Tech Shooting, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous plane crashes, but also highly intellectual when looking at the social, evolutionary, and cultural reasons why people behave as they do.

A fundamental issue that “The Unthinkable” explores, is that the public is more often than not given either no information or the wrong information. With the wrong information, or a lack of information, we cannot evaluate risk. This is importantly because our minds will often, from an evolutionary impulse try to get more data, or try to make the facts fit an existing pattern if the brain does not have previous experience of the particular situation. Fire drills, and safety briefings on planes, are important not merely for the information they impart, but they give our brains a pattern to follow. We behave differently in emergency situations; “superheroes with learning difficulties” as Ms. Ripley so eloquently puts it. Another fascinating aspect of this need for better information to evaluate risk is that our brains do much better at properly evaluating how information affects us when we read the information as opposed to watching the same information on a format such as television.

The structure of “The Unthinkable,” is based around “The Survival Arc” of Denial, Deliberation, and the Decisive Moment. That people can go through these three phases multiple times in an emergency, but also respond differently, is another feature that keeps the book constantly engaging.

It is rare to read a book that could actually save your life, and also shake you out of complicacy. But “The Unthinkable” is just such a book. It is also most intriguing to read a multi- disciplinary book such as this that looks at personal history, culture, and up brining, but also delves into psychology, evolution, and group behavior. For those that are responsible for others “The Unthinkable” teaches us that we need to be thinking about the unthinkable, if for no other reason to help mold how we may respond and how we may protect those in our charge. As an individual, “The Unthinkable” is a road map to survival and to understand our reactions to extreme events.

It could save our lives.  

Chip Heath & Dan Heath write books that I have loved and have bought for others.

Switch, Made to Stick, and to a lesser extent, The Power of Moments; have become bibles of management theory to myself, those that I work with, consult for, and mentor. (Click on the links above to read my reviews of those books.)

So why, oh why, did I have no interest in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, when it came out. I have come to believe, now having finally read it, that it comes down to the title. Being decisive is never something that I feel I have struggled with. I’ve made bold choices in both my work and personal life; and they have never been things that I have agonized over or second guessed myself after the fact. What did I need with a book about how to make decisions, even if it was from the brothers Heath?

And that’s a shame.

Decisive is a great, and very useful book just like all the other books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. This is a book about choice. Yes, it also covers decision making, but really it is about how to expand one’s choices and evaluate them better. Like all books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, it is impeccably researched; and it is that research that drives their advice and conclusions – even when it come comes inconvenient.

A central tenant put forth in Decisive is that when faced with binary decision (do A or do B), it actually helps the process to actively seek out more choices. This would seem to fly in the face of advice from the Heath Brother’s previous book Switch about choice overload. To their credit, the authors freely admit the seeming contradiction with regards to choice overload, and then explain elegantly how to increase your choices and not get overloaded.

Another surprisingly easy tool to implement from Decisive is that when we are faced with a personal decision, that we should ask ourselves what we would advise our best friend to do if they were in our shoes. It does sound odd, but the exercise does actually work and give you a differ perspective. To attain distance.  

These tools are all, if you’ll forgive the pun, wrapped up in an acronym; W.R.A.P.

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

That humans are not good at making decisions, and often hobble themselves, should not come a news. What makes decisive interested to me; however, is that it is possible to improve the quality of those decisions. Which leads me to wonder if not reading this book when it first came out was not a bad decision of my own.

That’s something I can admit to, as long the Chip Heath & Dan Heath could rethink their decision on the book title.  

Whether in personal life or professional life, when toxicity rears it’s head, how we react defines toxicity’s power over us.

The revenge of “why should I bother when nobody else does,”  or “if they are going to speak to me that way then I’m going to speak to them that way,” becomes a race to to the bottom where everyone loses. A race where the most awful person wins a price nobody wants. It defines an toxic environment. To state that this is a vicious circle is to state the obvious. However, to do the opposite does not automatically create a virtuous circle. 

Being positive is never the easy choice. Toxicity is always easier. As Yoda would say of the dark side; “…easier, more seductive.” Revenge feels good. But that feeling is fleeting. Like in math, a positive number and a negative number added together can give a positive or a negative result. But two negative numbers always results in a negative result.

2 + -1 = 1

-2 + 1 = -1

-2 + -1 = -3

2 + 1 = 3

We all have a responsibility for not contributing to a toxic environment. We won’t always succeed, but if our positives outweigh our negatives, the chances are that we will have positive results. If we engage in negative behavior, particularly in an already toxic environment or as a response to toxic or negative behavior, we are guaranteed to have negative results. 

Real life is not simple math, but it is an example of how relationships between people, particularly groups of people, actually work.

Nobody said it would be easy. It might not even be fair. Or enjoyable. But rejecting toxicity, and not allowing it to contaminate you and therefore others, is the only way to behave that makes any sense. 

Not words to deliver enlightenment, but hopefully words to reassure that there really only is one path.

This is the hardest book review that I have ever undertaken to write.

There are books that I do not feel I have the intellectual rigor to do justice too, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt for example, which was one of my favorite books of 2018, and there are books that I can’t say much more about other than “read it,” Traction by Gino Wickman falls into this category. White Fragility is both; however, it also shook me to my core, and I felt I had no choice but to try and do it justice. I can count on one hand the books that have upended my beliefs, as White fragility has done, during my life.

I was initially skeptical of Ms. DiAngelo’s New York Times bestseller. I was uncomfortable with a white author discussing race for a primarily white audience. Considering myself a reasonably “woke” individual, but never as pretentious to use such a term, what can I, as a reasonably well read and liberal individual be taught through a third party’s experience of racism?

That I am part of the problem.

Ms. DiAngelo’s book is a tour de force and a wakeup call for those that consider themselves allies, but all too often support racist structures and prejudiced behavior.

“Our simplistic definition of racism as intentional acts of immoral individuals engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and thus our learning is complete.”  – From White Fragility

White Fragility changes, some may say clarifies, our definitions of words that have melded into, as Ms. DiAngleo would probably agree, a binary good and bad. I cannot be those things because I, or they, am a good person. By not being to get past this logjam, true discussions of racism are impossible.

As quoted in White Fragility; “Racism is a structure not an event. A structure of oppression that goes beyond individual prejudice and discrimination.” In other words, racism is tied to societal power. Only whites can be racist because only whites, in the United States, hold societal power. That whites cannot help but be racist, is partially explained by being brought up in a racist society.

These are powerful and disturbing words for most white people to hear, let alone believe. It is helped by defining other terms, not just in their racism framework but in anthropologic one.  Prejudice is prejudging someone based on the social groups that the person belongs to and based on little or no additional information. “All humans have prejudices,” writes Ms. DiAngelo. Discrimination is action that is based on prejudice. It is therefore possible to be racist, because one comes from a racist society, but not be prejudice or practice discrimination.

In a devastating section of White Fragility, Ms. Diangelo shows us how “whiteness” has become the norm for “human” and challenges us to think about the patterns of friendship, culture, and society in general that we grew up in and continue observe today that reinforce a racist society. That believing we are in a post racial society, or that by our uniqueness of experience or background, means that we are immune to group messages and “white solidarity,” is expertly dismantled by Ms. DiAngelo’s totally logical arguments.  That “good schools” has become a metaphor for a “more white neighborhood,” is the most obvious example of this.

“The way I see the world, drives my actions in the world.” – White Fragility

White Fragility is not an easy read. This is not because of Ms. Diangelo’s prose, which are excellent, but because this is a book that you will disagree with. That is its purpose, to challenge your basic assumptions about the society we live in. To see the world in a different way. To understand the world as people of color understand the world. And hopefully understand the strictures that are in place that make it so hard for white people to have discussions about race, in any meaningful form.

White fragility is a starting point to allow our world view to be changed, and perhaps to make us more open to hearing feedback on when the society we grew up in, and live in today, intrudes on our interactions and friendships with people of color.

Read this book.

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