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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Making Decisions: Lessons from a Mud Auction

The steely-faced young man with the short-cropped beard, hands in his pockets, black coat and pants, straw hat set on his head, didn’t appear to be listening as the Amish auctioneer barked at him, “Two seventy-five, do I hear three, three bid two seventy-five, do I hear three hundred dollars … rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat.” The bidder was staring off into the distance, thinking of … what?

But then, ever so slightly, barely distinguishable, his head ticked. Immediately, the auctioneer jerked his body right, toward the long-bearded older man, also with his hands in his pockets, also garbed in black, face expressionless. “Three, I’ve got three, do I hear three and a quarter, three and a quarter, I’ve got three ... three, three, three, three, do I hear three and a quarter? rat-tat-tat.”

The crowd of some 25 Amish men, some of whom had bid earlier, now watched silently, but not for long – two seconds, maybe -- when the older man signaled somehow – I didn’t see it – and the auctioneer jabbed his open-hand back to the left at the young man.

“Three and a quarter, I’ve got three and a quarter, Three-fifty” he said trying to put a number in the man’s mouth. The young man flashed a quick look at his opponent, looked away again, and shook his head.

The auctioneer’s voice wound down, “Three and a quarter, sold for three and a quarter to number?" … pausing as he watched the older winner slide out his registration number from his dirty coat and hold it chest-high.

Six minutes, no more than eight, and the auction was over. Lots of small decisions had been made – stay in, drop out, bid higher -- all leading up to the final decision to purchase. The older man had won the competition for the mule-drawn manure spreader. The auctioneer and band of Amish moved on to the next piece of farm machinery and a new set of decisions.

So, what is this mud auction?
I had been at the outdoor Gordonville, Pennsylvania Mud Auction several times but never did this human exchange fail to fascinate me. The annual event is a March muddy-season festival of sorts, organized to raise funds for the local volunteer fire department by auctioning off everything from Amish buggies to horses, and from quilts to cheap Chinese hand-tools. A couple of thousand Amish attend, as do suburban day-outers and bargain-seekers. This is not a tourist event though. Most are here to conduct business.

And that’s what took place around the manure wagon: businessmen-farmers deftly making rapid decisions that affected their livelihoods.

Now let’s look at decision-making at another group event: a typical departmental meeting – typical in my experience, at least – called to determine whether to host the new intranet externally or purchase a server and manage the site in-house. The director of the department is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the technical aspects of the topic and, therefore, decides, as he does for most decisions, to involve the entire staff. His email late yesterday afternoon stated the topic, noted his desire for consensus, and expected everyone to attend.

The meeting is about to start. Eleven staff members show. Two others can’t because they are traveling, including a web developer – an often outspoken web developer. The meeting opens with the director describing the issue in two sentences, followed by, “What do you think?” Here’s an abbreviated version of what transpires.
The new manager of employee communication, eager to assert her authority, speaks first: “We have to ensure flexibility to adapt to employees’ feedback. The only way to do that, it seems to me, is to control the source of information on a daily basis.”

“I agree,” says the manager of digital communication, “but do you know what’s involved in maintaining a server? It can be a nightmare. I don’t want that responsibility.”

“What’s a server?” jokes the veteran corporate identity coordinator. People chuckle.

“You are,” says his friend, one of the department’s administrative assistants. Most everyone laughs again.

The dialogue bounces around the conference table for awhile until, wanting to appear inclusive, the director says, “Kyle, what do you think? You’ve been here only a couple of weeks as an intern, but everyone has a right to his or her opinion.”

“I’m not sure I know enough about the issue to make an intelligent comment,” says Kyle.

“That’s okay,” inserts the corporate identity coordinator. ‘None of us do.” More smiles.

“However,” he adds, “my questions would be: how much does a server cost, where would it be housed, and do we know enough about the technology to handle it? Also, would we have to set up a Help Desk?”

The director responds: “We haven’t gotten that far yet, Kyle, but those are great questions that we will have to answer at the appropriate point.”

The meeting dribbles on for over an hour until the manager of employee communication suggests asking a focus group of employees for their opinions. The manager of digital communication adds that no action can be taken until someone meets with representatives of IT.

The meeting ends with the director asking the manager of employee communication to set up the focus group, which she cannot do, she says, for a few weeks until she studies the overall needs of employee communication. The director asks the manager of digital communication how soon the IT meeting can be scheduled. “I’ll call my contact this afternoon,” he says. “When do you want to schedule it?”

“I don’t know,” says the director, “why don’t we wait until we hear back from the employee focus group.”

He finishes by encouraging everyone to think about the issue and to send him any ideas they have, as well as copy the entire group. End of meeting.

“Wait,” says the media relations supervisor, “When will our next meeting be on this issue?”

“Why don’t we tentatively set it up for two weeks from today," says the director. "Same time? Will someone please send out a meeting notice.” End of meeting, again.

Quite a contrast between the two gatherings, huh? What I’m most interested in is why the auction could move speedily to a conclusion and the departmental meeting meander to indecision? Could a business meeting clone and benefit from a mud auction?

3 Observations

1 Auction: Each participant was informed and prepared to make a decision
Meeting: Staffers assumed the discussion would produce information and someone else would make decisions.


The Amish bidders were familiar with the item they wanted. What they didn’t know, they most likely asked around for answers. They had arrived early at the Mud Auction to inspect all four wagons for sale, had pulled on the hitches, checked for wear and tear on the wheels and side slats, and may have even talked with the owners. By the time the bidding started, each one had enough specifics to meld with his instincts and make a decision to buy or not to buy and to settle on a maximum bid price.

By contrast, the impromptu announcement, the sparse pre-meeting information, and the inclusion of the entire department strongly suggested that the meeting would be a free-for-all. No one prepared. In fact, as the corporate identity guy illustrated, some staffers were ignorant about much of digital communication. Regardless, they were expected to attend and contribute to the meeting at which there would be no agenda, no auctioneer to keep the exchange moving toward a decision, and no plan to make decisions.

2 Auction: The participants focused on the decision not the crowd.
Meeting: The staff members were more concerned about the crowd than the issue.

Undoubtedly, each of the two finalists bidding for the manure wagon had solicited input from friends and family about his intentions at the auction. At the auction, however, each one stood by himself, apart from the din of critics in the crowd and resolved to attend to the purpose for which they had come. They would fraternize and laugh later.

By contrast, the department meeting was unfocused and beset with distractions and posturing. The objective was for everyone to feel good and agree on something, anything.

The director’s open-ended start -- “What do you think?” -- was a tip-off. It was not, what do you know, how would you define the issue, or what are the advantages and disadvantages of both sides? Like most others there, he was unprepared. By promoting participation, he did not have to expose his lack of knowledge or opinion. He could simply respond to others’ comments. He could avoid making decisions.

3 Auction: The participants were willing to risk making a wrong decision knowing they could adjust later.
Meeting: The participants did not realize they actually had to or could make a decision.

The bidders realized that buying the wagon could be risky. Perhaps some had built a financial cushion into their top price. They were reasonably sure that, for example, the axle would not break, which would be costly. Should that happen, however, they would rely on the seller’s integrity to make amends. If a wheel proved wobbly, that could be repaired by a local wheelwright. Replacing boards and other minor repairs, if needed, could be handled by themselves. No decision was perfect, they knew. Not deciding, however, was unacceptable.

Participants in the departmental meeting did not know the ramifications of the meeting because they did not know what was at stake. The desired outcome was a blur. Ironically, the intern had highlighted the key questions. Answering them would have pinpointed the costs, defined responsibilities, and set out accountabilities. But those specifics got brushed aside by the director until the “appropriate time,” meaning a decision on the core issues was far off.

What was more important was everyone’s participation. Creating heat was more important than generating light, appearance more important than results. Consensus was more important that resolution. Too bad in this situation consensus was a ruse for indecision. The meeting lacked an auctioneer; all bidders stayed in the exchange because there was nothing to gain or lose.

5 Rules for a mud auction meeting
  1. Book a one-hour, one-issue, “Big Issue” meeting every other Monday at 11:00 a.m. when staff members are less likely to be traveling, are most focused on the week ahead, and are incentivized by hunger to be efficient.
  2. Email to all staffers a one-page brief on the issue to be addressed, but invite only those who could significantly affect or be affected by the meeting’s outcome. Others can join in if they believe they can contribute or gain substantially.
  3. Instruct each participant to come prepared to answer five questions:
    • What is the true goal we must achieve during the hour?
    • Who in the organization will be most affected by our decision and what must we do to ensure they are covered?
    • What resources will be needed to implement a solution?
    • Do we have the internal constitution to do what we say we will do?
    • If we do nothing, would it matter?
  4. Ask each participant at the meeting what he or she is willing to risk to ensure success of the decision. If funds are limited, for example, would someone be willing to suspend or drop an activity and reassign a staff member to this new project?
  5. Issue a post-meeting summary of the main points discussed, the pro and cons of each argument, and the decisions made. Invite questions and comments, but note that a course of action has been set.
Richard Skaare 03.24.09

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Benefits of Boredom

A freelance opportunity to write about hair loss popped up in my email a few days ago. I considered submitting a bid. But then I jumped over to Twitter and back to the email, went to get a third cup of coffee, sipped it as I jiggled my leg and thought about my sloppy golf game. I was bored, definitely bored.

Rather than blaming my dull disposition on my inner child, I sat quietly for a while figuring out if boredom had any benefits. There had to be. At a minimum, boredom should force us to think about why we are bored. More important, confronting boredom could prevent future boredom.

Come with me and I’ll show you what I'm thinking.

Beam yourself back to the last dull meeting you attended. Perhaps you were trapped in the middle seat of the conference table, far from the door, out of coffee, and without your Blackberry. Your eyes are adjusting to the lights that just went on following a lackluster PowerPoint presentation on some mundane project. Two of your colleagues are jockeying for the attention of the group and of your boss at the end of the table, who just returned after stepping out early in the presentation, presumably to take a call. You’re feeling mentally constipated and anticipating another hour of tedium.

5 laxatives to dislodge your boredom.

1 Let’s return to the beginning of the presentation.
Lean back, cross your legs, and prop your writing pad on your lap. This will prevent your side companions from glancing at your notes. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the presenter’s spiel, do the following:
  • Write down three brief reasons why you like the presenter (you already know why you don’t). For example, she seems to have worked hard on the presentation and you respect that, or she admitted not knowing the answer to a question, and you admire her honesty and courage.

  • Next, record the three factors that drained the life out of the presentation: the room was dark, too much data on the PowerPoints, presenter’s voice was dronish, etc.

  • Now, imagine yourself making a presentation to the group. Write three reasons why the audience would like you and another three reasons why they would like your presentation.
    You might say, for instance, they would like me because I would demonstrate that whatever I say in my presentation I will do. Another: They would like me because I would use “we” much more frequently than “I.”

    Regarding your presentation, perhaps you might write:
    • I would limit my PowerPoints only to information I understood thoroughly and believed in.

    • I would sit at the table rather than stand up front and engage the group in a discussion focused on just one PowerPoint as the reference.

Boredom Benefit #1 You just learned – perhaps once again -- that you are the presentation and that the mechanicals (PowerPoints) must flow from and around you. As a result, participants will come away from your next presentation with a clear understanding of the topic and a strong desire to work with you. In other words, you won’t be considered boring.

2 Think about the dreary discussion that follows the presentation.
Before it begins, sketch the seating configuration of the people around the conference table. Then ...
  • Every time someone requests information or asks for clarification, put a question mark beside his or her name. Whenever someone expresses an opinion, put an “O” beside the name. Whenever you hear a recommendation that sounds like a possible solution, write “S” beside that name. And when you hear a complaint, can’t-do, it-won’t-work, or general whining, put down a “W.” Sure, there will be overlap, but precision is not important, patterns are.

  • After the meeting, count the number of letters in each category. Determine if there are patterns, such as:
    • What percentage of the total remarks made by the group falls into each category? An abundance of questions marks could suggest that the issue was not thought through sufficiently by the presenter. More “S” marks might reflect a viable idea that everyone can rally around.

    • Was there more negativity (more “W’s”) in one section of the room? What about opinions? Were people who disagreed seated across from each other, and where were they in relation to their boss and/or the person running the meeting?

Boredom Benefit #2 You now have a fresh perspective on social dynamics, on how factors such as seating positions influence those dynamics, and, most important, how you might manage those dynamics and organize those factors to run more productive, less boring meetings.

3 If the discussion slips into pandemonium or dullness, ask three questions at key junctures (and, yes, I am anal about three’s).
  • Using a non-threatening tone, say to someone who is monopolizing the group’s time: “What was your last point again, Tom? I don’t think I quite understood it.” You do this to break Tom’s rambling and ranting, which suppresses discussion, intimidates the timid, and bores everyone. Repetition will force him to hear what he is really saying, should cause him to edit and shorten his previous remark, will likely reduce his tension, and will open the gate for someone more interesting to slip in with a comment.

  • Another question at the right moment: “Would it be helpful if we stopped for a few minutes and go around the table to ask what each of us thinks is the expected outcome of our meeting, just to make sure we’re all moving in the same direction?” This maneuver will wake up the comatose non-participants and will refocus everyone on purpose and away from palaver.

  • If the group is deadlocked and you want to get to lunch, ask: “What if we did nothing at all about this issue? Would it go away? Would anyone’s life be different? Would anyone clamor for us to implement it?” You might be surprised by the reaction. Someone might say, “You know, Judy’s right. How critical is all of this?”

Boredom Benefit #3 Rather than being a contributor or passive observer in a disorganized, disorienting, dull meeting, you have tested out a technique that could create focus, purpose, and value, if not for this gathering then for the next one.

4 Boring meetings often result from a boring or bored person who called the boring meeting. Try this. During the sessions, study the person (your boss?) who is leading the meeting.
  • Scratch on your notepad the reason you think she called the meeting. Be honest. Sure, she wanted to air a particular issue and get everyone’s input -- or it would seem. Did she steer the group so that actually happened? How vital was the issue to her? Did she list action items at the end of the session?

  • If she actually did step out of the meeting at some point, why did she? Did the momentum, tone, productivity, or content of the meeting change after that happen?

  • How often does she speak in the meeting, and what is the nature of her comments?

  • What do her non-verbals tell you? Does she appear bored, engaged, or subtly angry?

  • If she is not leading the discussion, who is? Is that deliberate on her part or negligence?

Boredom Benefit #4 Boredom has given you an opportunity to analyze the impact of a designated group leader on the productivity of a meeting and to decide how you would perform that role differently.

5 At the point in the meeting when participants are suppressing yawns, write a one-sentence summary of what everyone seems to agree on and what the next step should be. Then suck air and offer your synopsis to the group.

If little has been accomplished, don’t suggest a follow-up meeting unless you're a glutton for boredom. If some members opt to prolong the discussion, let the meeting leader draw it to a conclusion, which is likely to be the conclusion you suggested since your sensibility amidst stupor was refreshing.

Boredom Benefit #5 You have demonstrated your ability to retrieve value from chatter and separate substance from personalities.


Richard Skaare 03.10.09

Photo credit: Toastforbrekkie

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Lose Your Job without Being Fired

I never expected an epiphany from an Englishman over pancakes in a central Pennsylvania diner.

My friend and I were meeting, as we did periodically, at our favorite restaurant -- appropriately named Brothers -- to laugh, gossip, and counsel each another. It was his turn to disentangle my life.

He said, “Your blessing and bane, Richard, is that you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whoa! He signaled the waitress for more coffee.

Being affirmed for comforting the afflicted was humbling. But the second comment about afflicting the comfortable got my brain cylinders firing. I realized that’s really what I do as a professional communicator and change instigator:
I craftily tell clients what I heard them tell me so they understand what will happen when they try to tell others.
The echo frees them, sometimes stuns them, occasionally saddens them, and either immediately or later drives them to fight or flight, usually the latter – though sometimes flight eventually turns to fight in subtle ways. Change is uncomfortable. I create discomfort to create change.

Are you also an afflicter? If yes, you’re probably not a whiner or a crusader; you’re just unsettled and unsettling. Fortunately, you are what entrenched organizations need, especially in tough times. Unfortunately, there are bosses and colleagues out there who don’t know what to do with you.

3 strange disrupters that could get you into trouble

1 Performance
This seems like an odd disrupter. Don’t we get rewarded for performance? You would think so. But some departments, even whole organizations, seem prone to generating more heat than light – that is, creating the appearance of progress without being accountable for tangible results.

Four hours of work gets inflated to eight hours, grumbling surfaces whenever a new assignment comes in, and problems consume more time than possibilities.

In such an environment, good performers disrupt mediocrity.
    If you inadvertently upstage members of the team by producing an outstanding piece of work, they will be impressed, envious, and won’t forget.
    If you diplomatically suggest at a staff meeting an idea you have about reprioritizing or restructuring for greater impact, your boss will appreciate your idea and feel slightly upstaged.
    And, silly as it sounds, even if you regularly meet deadlines, your boss may not have thought through the sequel to the assignments he gave you and now doesn’t know what to do with the results. He procrastinates, you wait, and when you ask for an update more than once, he gets testy because you’re … well, pushy.
You will get a merit increase for outstanding performance. However, you may have been moved one ring out from the center for the pain you imparted.

2 Reasonableness
What baffles you is that the ideas and changes you propose seem so obvious, so simple, and so doable and yet never gain any traction in the organization.

Take, for instance, your cost-saving, streamlining idea to move a particular administrative process online. Sounds reasonable. However, support staff worry about what they will now do, yet they don’t speak up. And your boss? She’s uneasy that the fat weekly report won’t show up in her in-box, regardless if she was reading it or not. But she can’t admit that. So, your suggestion goes to committee.

Then, one of your work buddies pulls you aside at lunch and suggests that, though folks admire you, you might want to stop trying to change everything and just focus on the work at hand. Don’t be getting people worried unnecessarily, he says.

Move back one more ring.

3 Professionalism
Sometime during the first year of your new job, you realize that the currency of your education and expertise, which landed you the position and, you thought, credibility and authority, didn’t end up buying you much.
  • As the communication director, maybe you turned the organization’s publications into a portal in a culture where publications are still sacred.
  • As the new lawyer, you closed loopholes to protect the organization only to hear that some in management considered you unrealistic and inflexible.
  • As a freshly-minted MBA in operations, you recommended a systems change to decrease inventory costs, and then saw the suspicious looks of veteran production managers.
Sure, you get nods for smarts, but you also get demerits for always taking the side road. You’re not considered a team player. You are now on the outside.



What often happens to most nice disrupters (a.k.a change agents) is that they get marginalized. No one can find – or admit -- fault, yet no one completely warms up to you. The boss likes your affability but not your subtle intimidation. He can’t fire you for cause and, besides, he doesn’t want to look like he made a mistake hiring you. He hopes you might consider leaving, though he can’t suggest that.

Sometimes this malaise lasts for years until, finally, some fortuitous opening occurs: you get squeezed by an inflated ethical issue; you get blamed for some executive gaffe, or a budget crunch hits. Then, you are likely to be reassigned or offered an attractive severance. In other words, you don’t get fired, you just lose your job.

I know this all sounds bleak, but it’s too real for too many talented individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time in their careers. If you’re caught in this vise, be encouraged.

5 Affirmations
  1. You are an instigator for change because you are wired to serve people not processes. Just be sure you check yourself regularly to prevent frustration from turning instigation into aggravation.
  2. Your colleagues do like you -- really. It’s just that you raise the questions they have tried to repress. With kids in college and fear of job loss, they worry more about security than options.
  3. You are in your current position to increase your professional value, which adds to the value of your employer whether or not some people see it that way.
  4. You wish the world acted reasonably, but you are a change instigator because you are intuitive. You perceive and understand what others cannot. It’s a gift. Treasure it.
  5. Your resume is your journal of growth. Add to it regularly.

Richard Skaare 02.25.09

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rereading (and Rethinking) Your Organization’s Classics

When you last read your organization’s annual report ... oh, sorry, you never read it?


How about the annual business plan? The code of conduct?

Well, pull them out because I want to chat with you about them for a few minutes. What’s that, you don’t know where they are?

We’re talking about important documents. They must be because no money or time is spared benchmarking them, jawboning in committees about content, and pressing out the wrinkles in the language. Yet, ironically – I mean, strangely – the audiences for whom those documents are intended do not scurry to read them or spend much time applying the information. Some do, but certainly not in the numbers hoped for.

Why is it that much more attention is paid to the annual report, business plan, and code of conduct -- the “classics” of the organization -- before they are published than afterwards? And why hasn’t management done much over the years to change the situation?

3 Reasons the classics are overlooked

1 The classics are intended to be gates but end up as bulwarks
Undoubtedly, the CEO and his/her management team are proud and bullish about the organization’s financial and people resources, and especially their potential. Consequently, they want to:
  • parade that good-news story in the annual report;
  • embolden the team with the business plan; and
  • ensure that employees continue to act like the good people they are by crafting a code of conduct for them.
However, what comes next is the delegation of good intentions to group processing. Those chosen as captains of the report, plan, and code projects are typically finance and legal, inside-out thinkers, who view communication as what people need to hear. Outside-in thinkers, who start with the audiences’ interests and work backwards, are assigned to the outfield.

For the inside-out captains, the challenge is not too difficult initially: simply clone documents from previous years or borrow similar language and formats from similar documents from similar organizations.

Then, cracks appear.
  • Someone argues for using “optimistic but guarded” rather than “confident” in the shareholder letter of the annual report.
  • The head of a new product division wants to up the ante on sales projections in the business plan and “push people to deliver.”
  • Yet another executive describes the reality of kickbacks in some countries and suggests that the language in the code of conduct may be too legalistic.
You know what happens from here. Numerous meetings and numerous iterations (I once wrote 32 drafts of a corporate annual report!). Personalities clash, credentials get flashed, and, in the end, weariness gives in to compromise and vanilla language. The gates of communication close; the organization's defensive bulwarks are refortified

2 The audiences know what’s in the classics. No need to read them.
  • The annual report highlights what happened last year, which most folks already know. Too bad investors – the audience – want to hear what’s likely to happen next year and the expected rewards of being “well-positioned,” as the report says. Since there are no surprises in the report, no groundbreaking developments, and no invitations to join in the discussion, there is also no need to pay much attention.
  • The business plan often is overly ambitious and strongly suggests that success will be achieved only if employees work harder than they were told to work in last year’s business plan. There’s usually not much in there about innovation and collaboration -- or about accountability for last year’s failures.
  • Simply put, the code of conduct is written for the exceptions – the people who screw up and those who cut corners -- not for ethical folks, or so employees think. And the miscreants certainly won’t be reading the code.
    • 3 Management marches on
      Having worked for and with CEOs over the years, I sense they are resigned to the fact that whatever meaty content they start with for the report, plan, and code inevitably will be ground into hamburger by group-think. In part, they give up, and, in part, getting on with the business is much more important than upending organizational democracy. At least the CEO has documents he can refer to when talking with shareholders and the media.

      Besides, the audience doesn’t seem to be upset that the classics are not more communicative than they are.
      • I have rarely seen shareholders coming into an annual meeting holding the previous year’s annual report and quoting “you said” to the CEO.
      • Rarely have I known master business plans to work their way down into departmental plans of every functions, including support functions, or into individual performance plans where they might get traction.
      • And the code of conduct didn’t seem to matter much to executives who over-promised, under-delivered, enriched themselves, and are now sorting mail in prison.
      In other words, those documents are important, they just don’t matter that much.

      I happen to think the annual report, business plan, and code of conduct, among other organizational classics, do matter. That’s why I have five remedies for curing what ails them.

      5 Remedies
      1. Annual report: The CEO should thoroughly read three drafts of the annual report, make changes, and raise questions. His/her changes are irreversible, and each successive draft should resolve the issues raised by the CEO on the previous draft. The final version goes to the CEO for approval after the heads of investor relations and communication have agreed that it will communicate effectively.
      2. Business plan: The litmus test for whether the plan is viable or not should be its ability to be translated into departmental and individual performance objectives. No translation, no plan.
      3. Code of conduct: Integrate this document with a “values” statement, call the combined piece “What We Believe, How We Show It,” and survey employees after a year to determine if it is working at street level.
      4. The annual report, business plan, and code of conduct should not be approved until they are linked to comprehensive, workable communication strategies.
      5. Humanize the classics.

      Richard Skaare 02.17.09

      Photo credit: Cam Uhlig, Camagine

      Tuesday, February 10, 2009

      A Preposterously Sensible,Workable
      Reorganization of Communication

      Here’s an idea to stir your imagination and crack your categories: create the position of Chief Communication Officer reporting to the CEO and have marketing, legal, and human resources report to her or him.


      How’s that for an attention-getter? Stay with me: there’s a purpose in my apparent madness.

      Hypothesis
      If
      … most executives admit that quality communication -- listening, sharing, trusting, etc. -- is one of the greatest needs of the organization, right up there with robust sales and happy shareholders;

        And if … communication is everyone’s responsibility;

        And if … many, if not most, executives view communication in their organizations as poor because no one is taking the lead in defining and fostering it;

          Then … a Chief Communication Officer reporting to the CEO and with strategic and broad managerial authority is needed.
      3 Scenarios
        1 Marketing reports to Communication
        It makes sense – at least to management – that communication should report to the head of marketing, not the other way around. The logic goes like this: if market penetration and expansion are critical to an organization, and communication is critical to marketing, then why not link the two?

        I agree, as long as the “communication” function is defined for what it is: information distribution and promotion, nothing more. Call it Marketing Communication if the function actually engages the market in an exchange that defines needs and adjusts products to meet those needs. Otherwise, call it Product Promotion. And don’t assign the organization’s communication team to the marketing department for convenience. The function will default to product not organizational needs.

        If Communication were to manage Marketing:
        • current and prospective customers would be viewed as a major organizational stakeholder/audience and yet balanced against the value of other stakeholders (employees, shareholders, even the public);
        • new markets and products would be weighed against job gains and losses, risk to shareholders, corporate responsibility, and long-term impact -- all communication and perception issues;
        • data-sharing (non-confidential) would be expanded, inter-departmental and inter-regional collaboration would be increased, and efficient digital communication tools (intranet, wickis, social media, etc.) would be required.

        2 Legal reports to Communication

        Granted, this one may strike you as puzzling. However, think of the main problem we non-lawyers have with lawyers: puzzling language. Legal writing is a genre that no one reads except lawyers.

        Under the current corporate structure, the legal department makes a courtesy call (sometimes) to the head of communication to inform him or her about a matter that has already occurred or a decision that has already been made, and the communicator is expected to explain it, if necessary, to affected audiences. That often puts communicators in the position of creative weasel-wording.

        I have to get this off my chest, once more. The ultimate example of this scenario for me was being told by my company’s corporate lawyers that they had copyrighted the annual report – yes, copyrighted! – because they felt that reporters had misinterpreted information from the previous year’s annual report. I headed Corporate Communication, and I cannot tell you the number of reporters to whom I had to peddle a thin justification.

        If Communication were to manage Legal:
        • For starters, all concerned parties would be briefed on the circumstances that led to the legal group being involved in various issues;
        • legal documents would be approved only if someone without a legal background could understand them and only if they could be digested in 15 minutes;
        • law department activities would be transparent;
        • lawyers would be respected for their expertise, collaboration, and humanness; and
        • all staff lawyers would be required to complete a core curriculum of communication courses, with a focus on communication concepts and plain-English writing.

        3 Human Resources reports to Communication
        “Human Resources” is certainly a much improved label over the long used “Personnel,” and yet the name still suggests that people are in the same category as raw materials, money, and other resources that are managed, manipulated, and planned.

        Unfortunately, HR staffs have been perceived – often unfairly -- as people processors, more intent on policy and procedures than on potential. In some organizations, HR has spawned human resources development functions to create programs for developing potential. But shouldn’t the development of people be a total organizational mindset that focuses more on people mostly self-developing than on signing up for programs?

        If Communication were to manage Human Resources:
        • Employees would be viewed as one large social network with many nodes linking human sub-networks;
        • the network would have access to or at least know where to find non-proprietary information that managers now hold tightly on hard drives or forget to share;
        • formal training programs would continue to be offered but the emphasis would shift to encouraging, engaging, and channeling people toward informal learning;
        • empowerment would mean employees empowering themselves to generate ideas that improve the efficiency of the organization; and
        • loyalty would not be presumed but would be contractual: “I, the employee, promise to work hard and smart and to expand my abilities continuously to improve the organization in return for the organization providing me with the tools and communication to achieve and find satisfaction in my work and job role.
      The preposterous idea becomes workable only if the Chief Communication Officer matches the following:

      5 Criteria

      1. Know as much about business as about communication.
      2. Know as much about human dynamics -- interpersonal and group dynamics -- as communication tactics.
      3. Know the gaps in the communication staff’s knowledge and skills regarding marketing, legal, and human resources, and fill those gaps.
      4. Know the difference between information and communication, between form and function, and between innovative ideas and time-wasters.
      5. Think strategically, talk authoritatively, write convincingly, and enable others.

      Richard Skaare 02.10.09

      Friday, February 06, 2009

      Helping Your Unemployed Friend

      Remember when you were unemployed? I was once. That never happened to you? Then, you’re one of the few and the fortunate. I’m glad you haven’t gone through the debilitating experience … yet. However, given the current economic turbulence, you might.

      To weather the possible storm, you can learn a lot from -- and give a lot to -- a friend or former colleague who is unemployed. This is an opportune time to do unto others as you might someday want others to do unto you.

      Based on the experience of watching myself and others suffer the ordeal, here are three suggestions about what not to say to someone who has lost his or her job and five guidelines on how to truly help.

      3 Suggestions

      1 Don’t be a constant reminder
      Joblessness, I found, totally defines you. Joblessness is a full-time job and constant obsession. Endless hours are spent on the tedious mechanics of unemployment:
      • revising your resume
      • following up on leads
      • reporting to the unemployment office; and
      • calculating what expenses to cut.
      Then there are the emotional obligations: reassuring a spouse, answering the kids’ questions, and staying confident and optimistic.

      Even when going to a movie as a break from the pressure, you run into friends who greet you with, “How’s the job search going?” The comment sounds innocent enough and reflects a degree of empathy. Unfortunately, the question forces a self-respecting, half-truth, stock answer: “Really good. I’ve got some things going, a possible interview or two.” Even if you want to talk more about your search, you know people really are not interested enough to spend time with the details and the struggles.

      Alternative: Start conversations with your unemployed friend as if she is employed like you are. If and when she brings up the unemployment issue, only then ask questions and show your support. But let her initiate it.

      2 Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
      Friends want to help unemployed friends by sharing contacts. Again, it’s a kind gesture, and expanding one’s network is always good, of course. However, giving out contact information takes little time; following up with those contacts can be very time-consuming and unproductive for the job seeker. The contact person inevitably promises to think about opportunities. However, that person is not apt to remember the promise after a few weeks, and rarely does an opportunity arise.

      Alternative: Carefully select only relevant contacts, write -- or better yet call -- and ask them to give your friend 30 minutes face-to-face. In most cases, the answer will be yes. As a result of the meeting, your unemployed friend now has someone who will remember her.

      3 Don’t pretend to have the answers
      A once unemployed person typically offers no quick-fix answers when talking with a currently unemployed person. That’s because he knows the search is more about hard work, emotional perseverance, and luck. You may not fully understand this as a never-been-unemployed person, so be careful not to offer up the five tips that you just read in a magazine.

      Alternative: Think about what would likely get your attention if you were hiring someone. Share that perspective anecdotally at the appropriate time with your unemployed friend.

      5 Ways to support your unemployed friend
      1. Be there. If you care about your friend’s situation – I mean really care, like you say you do – assume that you will spend two hours per week minimum with him or her, not talking necessarily about the job search but just having fun, jabbering about nothing, but most important being available. When someone doesn’t have a job to go to and no one to talk with all day, noise, laughter, and companionship are premiums.

      2. Listen closely. Your unemployed friend may be withdrawn during this rough time or chattier. Move with his emotional flow. Sit quietly when he is quiet; talk it up when he does. By doing that, you are reflecting what he cannot see without you: loneliness, confusion, and hope because you simply are hanging in there with him.

      3. Help with the truth. Your friend will initially communicate that a new job is only a matter of weeks. The denial stage of the death process has set in. Let her ramble. But at a comfortable point, ask what’s frustrating her most about the search. Let her show her fear. Listen, reassure, and allow her to find her own way back to reality, possibly with some gentle guidance by you.

      4. Be patient. Finding a job will actually take months. Make sure you are prepared to stick with your friend for the long haul. The worst time for the unemployed is three months after losing a job, when people from the office or factory don’t readily return calls, and life for everyone besides the unemployed goes on normally.

      5. Make a sacrifice. There are lots of ways to do something tangible to help, such as taking care of your friend's children so she can get a break or loaning her your extra car for awhile. Offering something tangible sounds patronizing -- and it can be. However, I remember fondly when I was unemployed and my good friend said kindly and reassuringly that he would float me a few thousand dollars at any time if I got stuck. Then, he said nothing else. He didn’t have to. If you can’t say it comfortably, maybe you shouldn’t, but don’t avoid it either.
      Richard Skaare 02.06.09
      Photo credit: Mahi Teshneh

      Thursday, January 29, 2009

      Yet Another Good Idea at the Time


      A year after he retired from a long career in public relations, I asked my former boss and long-time friend what was occupying his days. He replied that he was mostly saying no to good ideas at the time. In his work over the years, he said, he had devoted too much too often to what seemed like worthwhile proposals that later proved worthless.

      Now, in retirement, if he was complimented and enthused by, for example, the church music director telling him that he had vocal talent and inviting him to join the choir, he would say simply, kindly, and quickly, thank you but no thank you. He was not withdrawing into retirement, just being highly selective with the one, somewhat controllable and yet diminishing resource he had: time.

      Can you identify and commiserate with my friend? You can:
      • if you are a victim of ideas-gone-wild that failed to produce enough value, say, for a corporate communication department to withstand budget cuts and layoffs, including maybe your layoff.
      • if you lost a part of your life and savings with a start-up business led by an inspiring, idea-twirling, self-proclaimed entrepreneur. And he was your friend, at least he was prior to the crash -- your crash, that is, not his.
      • if you have looked around your overstuffed office at the stacks of start-and-stop projects initiated by you or clients that once looked so promising but now look like so many wasted trees.
      How do we let ideas get us into such messes? What causes us to say yes when we should say no to seemingly good ideas? How do we stay open-minded and adventurous and yet pragmatic and not stupid?

      I’ll jump in with three observations and five thoughts to help you launch your own Wasteful Idea Prevention Program, which, I hope, will not be just another good idea at the time.

      3 Observations

      1 Affect vs. effect
      The mess starts when we open the door of apparent opportunity just slightly because we don’t want to offend the idea-generator. He or she might be:
      • a vice president, to whom saying no would be risky;
      • a reliable consultant-friend, to whom saying no would be awkward;
      • the new hire with a track record of accomplishments from her previous company, to whom saying no would contradict what you “promised” in your verbal job offer.
      Not to entertain their suggestions would make you appear uncooperative, overly cautious, and – good heavens! – maybe even a late adopter.

      But then, here’s what happens:
      • The door of opportunity has opened enough for you to slip in half-way. You realize that, though the idea doesn’t feel quite right, everyone around you is enthused, especially younger staff members, and you don’t want to appear like an old man in a sea of zealots. Besides, you tell yourself, you cannot argue definitively that the idea won’t work. When you try to speak your voice of reason, logic falters.
      • You’re now in the room. The group is pressing, “C’mon. Let’s at least try it.” You don’t know how to respond. To suggest looking at the budget sounds limp. How much could trying cost? Not to support giving it a try would look like you’re stuck on the tried and true. You give in. The door closes. You’re committed.
      What I just described is the evolution of affect – that is, emotions conjured up by the idea and that require some kind of resolution. Being affected is natural and you shouldn’t be apologetic. Simply know that emotions are transient. Only when they extend into lasting passion, and passion into long-term commitment and follow-through, do the initial emotions have impact. Affect must become effect.

      2 Default vs. Decisiveness
      Let’s assume that you are the boss and have relented to letting someone’s idea move to the next step. What seemed like a good idea at the time now breaths, walks, and requests time and a little spending money. You trick yourself into thinking the idea is still exploratory, and consequently default to one of two delay tactics: committee or report.
      1. Form a committee comprising the idea-initiator as leader, a couple of younger enthusiasts, and a trusted departmentalist. The group is likely to have the next meeting at a bar, ferret out a few other likely supporters in the organization -- perhaps an executive -- and come back at you with a sizable project scope, a hefty budget, and a recommended advisory committee. You feel the heat of all the Klieg lights on you.
      2. Request a report. This could doom the idea because few know how to convert enthusiasm into rationalism. Yet rationalism is not always the best model for success, some creative types might credibly contend. The report writers could load up with anecdotal support and media clippings on trends. How does one argue against the loosey-goosey?
      The alternative to delay is to decide immediately. Either:
      • Kill the idea, take your lumps, and save the organization time-consuming, expensive make-work, or
      • Give the idea a fighting chance to survive or die on its own.
      You can do that by assigning follow-up to the most open-minded, productive member of the staff who has no time to take it on.Tell him or her to shake down the concept. That could mean going it alone or forming a skunk-works team. He has only four weeks to give it a thumbs up or down and to present his recommendation convincingly to the group. And the assignment has to be done in addition to his regular chores.

      Guaranteed, if you choose the right person, he or she will tell you if the idea was worth his sacrificial time and, consequently, should warrant the organization’s limited resources.

      3 The Grandstander, the Hypothesizer, and the Nerd
      Turn now from being trapped by an idea to cultivating an environment of innovation. What are the sources of fresh ideas that can produce organizational value? Actually, the question is who can produce organizational value? Consider three sources: the grandstander, the hypothesizer, and the nerd.
        The grandstander is a bit off-putting. He’s better on delivery in a meeting than delivery of results and a bit scornful of laggards, but he’s smart, worldly, and a category-changer. That’s his value: he makes you think against your will. Listen up, but don’t assign him to follow up, and know that when the dust he kicks up settles, a doable idea could appear, though it’s more likely to be an offshoot idea from someone else, someone who can and will execute.

        The hypothesizer thinks that the way things are should not necessarily be the way they ought to be. She is unsettled and unsettling. She is motivated by ideas that have zest, stickiness, and common-sense. When she presents her thoughts to a group, she looks for those colleagues who will like her concept but challenge it, ask rhetorical questions, raise “what ifs,” and stretch it into interesting shapes. Make sure you always have a hypothesizer on staff.

        The nerd appears innocent enough, but he’s exceptionally uncanny when it comes to what will work and what won’t. He loves new technology but is skeptical of fads that purport to introduce next-generation thinking. Consequently, when he formulates an idea, it’s well researched, checked out with online buddies, and tested out on his own time. He prefers to present the idea one-on-one, usually to the boss, who will take time to understand and not be dismissive of his quirkiness.
      Having disassembled the ideation process, here are some final thoughts on reassembling it more effectively.

      5 Thoughts
      1. Again, consider the source of the idea. If he or she has generated value from previous initiatives or saved the organization time and aggravation, don’t hesitate to support her latest proposal.
      2. Know that all ideas require time that no one seems to have. Taking on something new will require dropping something old or giving up time with family and friends.
      3. Write the projected results of your good idea as an actual accomplishment on the evolving draft of your year-end report and on your resume-in-progress. If the results look achievable and impressive, give the idea a try.
      4. If you understand the definition of risk as having no chance of success -- well, maybe a very slight chance -- then you will have a realistic view of when an idea will work and when it won’t.
      5. If the idea looks like a solo flight, assume that success is likely to launch the individual into his or her next job while the rest of you in the support group will be left behind. Are you okay with that?

      Richard Skaare 01.29.09

      Monday, January 19, 2009

      Looking For Your Writing Voice

      Writing is a crapshoot these days. Never has the opportunity to express oneself publicly been greater. The blogosphere, Twitter, self-publishing – they’re readily available outlets.

      Yet, the chances of getting heard are slim, getting read even slimmer. A guesstimated 200 million bloggers are competing for public attention. Lightning-rod marketer Guy Kawasaki may be “following” your comments on Twitter, but that's what 49,728 others are thinking too. A reputation-boosting response from him is unlikely. And self-publishing rarely catches the eye of critics and promoters.

      Yet we keep writing. Writing is compulsive for many of us. We’re trying to find a voice -- our voice -- a voice that makes sense of the soul-searching scratchings in our journals, a voice that resonates with our blog audience.

      How do you find that voice – that way of expressing what is distinctly, perhaps uniquely you … that has your name on it? I’m going to give you three ways to find your voice and five exercises to train it. But, first …

      Let me say something that may sound a bit dumb about knowing when your voice emerges. Ready? You will know your true voice when, after writing, you involuntarily say “Hmmh!” That’s right, “Hmmh.” Not “okay, done” or “good enough,” but “Hmmh.”

      That grunt will be a blend of surprise, joy, and release. You will see before you in your work someone you know. That someone looks confident, likable, authentic, clear-headed, open-minded, uncluttered, and, most important, appealing to readers.

      The voice:
      • emerges from some inside vault not from all the advice you received and writing courses you took – though they were contributors.
      • arises unpredictably, at odd times, usually when you least expect it: for example, after hours of writing dribble followed by a half-hour of crafting something magical.
      • comes often when you write less, not more.
      • arrives when you hear yourself mumbling and humming; and
      • comes out when you stop trying to force it out.
      Okay, how do you get to “Hmmh,” to that special voice?

      3 Paths to Hmmh

      1 Clear your mind’s throat
      Finding and expressing your voice is not a matter of writing mechanics but of … well, clearing the mental flem that clogs your thinking: unsettling memories, self-doubt, fear of being exposed in writing and watching others laugh at your nakedness.

      Certainly writing is therapeutic, but it’s purpose is not therapy, especially if you share it with others, say, on a blog. Frankly, the audience lacks the credentials, time, and interest to heal you.

      Before publishing what’s in your head, you first have to stand up to the false voices jostling for attention in your head. Don’t let one of them take over your writing. For instance, don’t allow anger to persuade you that he’s your voice. The best writers may give anger at least a hearing and then write satire; for most, however, anger’s false voice is whining.

      Avoid letting narcissism speak up and forcing you to write, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had a minute to blog. I apologize for causing you concern.” Narcissism says, understand me, look at me because I don’t know how to talk about you, the reader, never mind listen to you.

      And about nakedness. You will never get beyond your fear of being shamed publicly if you dress up your writing in someone else’s clothes. Stop copying the boring constructions, styles and clich├ęs of safe writers. It’s all dull writing. (Sorry, my anger voice just shouted) You don’t have to blend in. Trust yourself, trust your voice. Admit that you are not what people think you are; you’re actually better!

      2 Get in shape
      Editing – tedious editing – is not optional for at least two reasons. Hard-nosed self-editing removes what we refuse to admit is waste in our writing and, second, it gets our first-draft voice arguing with our true writing voice.

      Writing creates a lot of by-products: some are recyclable, others are trash. You need a folder for those writing fragments you might use in a later piece. But you also need a dumpster.

      Be careful, however, that you don’t throw away something valuable like the very pregnant friend of mine did when she tossed bags of trash into a dumpster in an isolated area and also tossed in the car keys. She carefully climbed onto a box, maneuvered her way up, over, and down deep into the dumpster and miraculously found the keys. However, she then realized she had nothing solid to stand on to get out. She was rescued by two locals who heard the dumpster’s voice crying faintly for help. Imagine what she could write with that voice.

      If we don’t do the hard work of editing – and I’m talking three drafts – a shrill voice emerges and tries to persuade us that the burst of inspiration that splashed eloquent prose across your screen merits publication. Wait! Don’t trust that voice. What you produced may have been the result of an emotional spike, a weariness to just get the project done, or a vision that said, “look at me, I’m a writer.”

      If you hear a voice telling you to go back to editing because you’re almost there, but not quite, stay with it, and listen because that’s your writing voice.

      3 Give it a rest
      I have two thoughts on how long to wait until you find your writing voice and when to let it speak.

      First, if you believed me when I said that your voice is not found in an inspired gush of prose and also believed me when I said you have to talk tough to yourself in the editing process, you must now believe me when I say that you have to write at least an hour or more almost every day for the next several months before you will hear the voice.

      Perhaps your voice will take a month to surface, but maybe a year. Be patient. Along the way you will produce some good writing. What’s more important is that you will have generated writing that will talk with you if you keep rereading it. You will hear your voice in the distance getting increasingly louder as you remove the padding that's muffling it.

      When you hear that involuntary "Hmmh” that comes from your true voice, should you declare your work done or do you back off and let it settle for awhile. I vote for waiting 12 hours. I talked about holding back in an earlier post called “Regret Writing." I’ll repeat what I said there:

      My 12-hour rule says, after you write passionately about something, hit the Save and then Shut Down buttons on your computer not the Send button. After a good night’s rest, read what you wrote – grimace and groan -- and you will know how the recipient would have understood it had you sent it. Then, either Edit and Send, or Delete. Even when you have found your writing voice, it can be raspy and still not easy to understand. Give it a rest.
      5 Voice-training exercises


      1. If emotions are clamoring for attention as you think about writing, type quickly, even mechanically for 15 minutes. Most of them will get bored and leave. The one or two that hang on want you to say something about them in your writing. Offer a sentence or two, then close the door behind them. You will hear them knocking at times. Don’t let them back in.

      2. Reading lots of good fiction is the best way to understand the concept of voice. I think John Irving’s voice is exceptionally and consistently clear.

      3. If you are convinced that your voice spoke very late one night in a rush of poetic wordiness, wake up your spouse or roommate and ask him or her to read what you wrote. If it doesn’t make sense to a half-awake person who has little interest then it probably won’t work with a half-asleep person the next day who has little interest.

      4. Editing is like dieting: the more fat you can cut out and the more strenuous the exercise, the better you will ultimately look.

      5. Try trimming this blog post by 300 words without losing my voice.

      Richard Skaare 01.19.09