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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Details, Details ... Why We Overlook Them

Here’s an ordinary snapshot of two ordinary people: elderly, plain, friendly enough. But, wait, don’t move ahead quite yet. Want to know them just a bit better? Focus briefly on a few obvious but easily overlooked particulars that give glimpses into their lives.

The woman -- she looks early 80's -- has her arms crossed awkwardly. She doesn’t know what to do with them: hide the aging, melanoma-like spots on her arms, her self-conscious size, or, possibly, a masectomy? Her pure white hair looks manageable and stylishly simple, as do her gold earrings, tinted glasses, and straight teeth (probably dentures). She likes this part of her body; she can control its appearance.

On the man’s arms are smudged tattoos, one of 1930’s cartoon favorite Betty Boop, the other almost unrecognizable except as a memory to him. It's likely he got those tattoos in his wild days “in the service,” as people used to say, and given his age – probably close to 90 -- he likely fought in the Big War. His hands are large and gnarly; he was a laborer of some sort – construction, plumber, carpenter?

He’s wearing a jersey from a cruise through the Panama Canal. He doesn’t seem to be a cruise enthusiast. Perhaps he went for her sake. She made him buy the shirt, I would guess.

If you look quickly at the photograph, you might say, “nice.” If you pay attention to its details, you probably will say, “Hmm, fascinating. What more is here that I’m missing?”

We all understand the importance of details. Why, then, do we often miss them?

3 reasons

  1. We overlook details because we over-extend
    We hated the word “no” as a child and even more so as an adult. We don’t easily take “no” for an answer nor do we feel comfortable saying it to others. “No” sounds rude, makes us look inadequate, and opens us up to the likelihood of being unliked.

    So, we say "yes" way too often to way too many activities that we don't have time or desire to do. Consequently, we replace thoroughness with busyness. Expediency shoves focus aside. Unrealistic deadlines ignore details.

  2. We overlook details because we self-direct
    My wife is amazingly other-directed. A conversation with her is a conversation about you. She honestly wants to hear more specifics because she cares about you and what you're saying.

    That’s not my style. I’m affable but tainted by narcissism. Do you share the same dilemma? We pick up cues in the conversation to which we hook our experience so we can talk about us. The exchange is more about our agenda, about our script, and about posturing than exploring the nuances of the other person.

  3. We overlook details because we procrastinate
    Occasional procrastination can be good (see Regret Writing). Habitual procrastination is not. Procrastination is avoiding details that test our knowledge, skills, and stamina. Details require responsibility and accountability -- two frightening demands for a procrastinator.

    Procrastinators get off the hook by assuming that others are taking care of details. Too bad they’re assuming you’re taking care of them. We blame them, they blame us.
5 -day rehabilitation program
  1. Monday: Say no at least once today to participating in what seems to be yet another good idea at the time.
  2. Tuesday: Reporters are detail addicts. Take one to lunch and learn how they look for specifics that turn into meaningful stories.
  3. Wednesday: Dissect a new assignment and find the 20 percent of the details that could sabotage the project and embarrass you. Invest 80 percent of your time in that 20 percent.
  4. Thursday: When you shake someone’s hand, watch his face and other non-verbals, and write a paragraph later on what you think all of that meant.
  5. Friday: Give an assignment to a staff member and tell him he will have to answer at least eight of the ten questions you will ask him when he thinks the project is done. Don’t tell him the questions.
A few final details:
  • When one more detail is added to the original image – a loving daughter-in-law -- everything changes.
  • Did you catch the typo in the second paragraph?(mastectomy)
  • My widowed mother is doing well with long days and short years. My father moved on in 2005. You would have liked him. I certainly did.
Richard Skaare

Monday, December 22, 2008

The 140-Character Resume

You’re standing silently in a field with three friends on a crisp, clear night taking in the panorama of stars. Then someone says, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and babbles on about nights like this back at summer camp. The indescribable just got trivialized. Experience over, you might as well go home.

Sometimes words – even well-intended words -- spoil. Jumbled thoughts too often don’t get disentangled before they reach our mouths and typing fingers. So we over-talk and over-write.

In a recent post on getting back to basics, I suggested the crazy notion of writing your resume in 140 characters (characters, not words). That’s the maximum Tweet allowed on Twitter.
What? Forget that for now. What’s important is that forced brevity sharpens the mind and quickens the soul.

Frankly, for just about any topic, 140 characters is long enough to capture what’s important and short enough to prevent loose vowels. Restricting yourself to 140 characters should strip away most pretentiousness, stop that voice from telling you to “explain yourself, young lady.” and convince you that, maybe, just maybe you are as sharp as you want people to think.

I’m about to put you through three brief exercises, if you have the courage. The formula is not magical. When you’re done, you may revert to talking too much at times, writing too long, obsessing too much – all to spike up your self-confidence. Yet, I hope my free advice will give you a memorable taste of raw honesty and self-trust.

3X5 Thinking

3 Exercises

  1. Your life in 140 characters
    I can see you’re already thinking about clicking off this page. This one is tough. I’m not talking here about gravestone stuff. Think less of your death and more about your future. What is it about your life that makes you optimistic about next month … about the next ten years?

    Okay, okay, I’ll go first and show you the way. Here’s my life in 140 characters:

    Navigated the rapids so far, laughed way more than cried, trying to love as much as being loved. Head down, chin up, whimsically moving on.
    Of course, you can go shorter -- “Met God, no turning back.” – if one event sums up your life-core. Brevity is only one point; truth about yourself is much more important.

  2. Your resume in 140 characters
    This one’s less overwhelming but more intimidating because it forces you to look at yourself the way you want others to look at you, namely prospective employers.

    You could easily write down “Results-driven salesperson with an impressive track record of milestone achievements yadda, yadda.” Show that one to your buddies during half-time and watch them yawn. That’s not you, it’s every salesperson. Try again. Maybe mine will get you thinking:

    Communication experience: been there, done that. Write like I talk, talk like I write. Smart, getting smarter. Eager to give more than take.
    Sure, it sounds somewhat cocky – I prefer confident – but it’s a start. “Been there, done that” says I qualify for senior positions. “Write like I talk …” suggests I’m a natural communicator. And I make the point that I am smart but open-minded and passionate about being a valuable contributor. Seems to me that’s what employers want, and what I would want from people I might hire.

  3. Your business plan in 140 characters
    Business strategists – they’re called Chief Strategy Officers -- will consider this approach frivolous. How can you capture the complexity and criticality (strategic word) of a business plan in 140 characters?

    You can’t. But how many strategic plans are implemented successfully? Why is this? No one reads the document, at least not more than once. It’s complex – too many data points -- and doesn’t seem to be that critical to workers who are sweating this week’s production quotas. What’s missing in the plan is commonsensical, unadulterated, gut-leading, shameless simplicity.

    Take my simple business, for example. Here is the 140-character strategic plan for SkaareWorks, a consulting business in communication and change:

    Get attention, get understood, get clients, get valuable, get results, get appreciated, get paid, and get asked back.
    Can this be done for your clients, your department, your organization? Give it a Twhirl (sorry, Twitter talk).

5 140-characters or less guidelines

  1. Wait. Don’t write now. You might just copy me. Let ideas percolate overnight, then write tomorrow in your pajamas before coffee.

  2. Flow, don’t glow. Write fast, not feel-good. Don’t be overly precise in your choice of words at first, or frilly.

  3. Avoid swearing after the second draft. Off-color words are colorless. Get the emotion off your mind but out of sight.
  4. Write once, edit thrice. Then let it go. Did you hear me? Let it go.
  5. When done, combine all three exercises into one 140-character tagline for your business or person.

If you want, Tweet me @skaareworks and show me your best entry. I have time to read only 140 characters

Richard Skaare 12.22.08

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Social Networking with Yourself

I ran into myself online last week.

I was connected to LinkedIn, the networking site, scanning their list of my uploaded contacts for blue names. Blue means a match between my crowd and LinkedIn’s crowd. Those are the people I want to cultivate.

There I was under “S”: blue Richard Skaare, prospect. But how did I get on my list? Was this really who I thought it was? I decided to check me out to see if I was worth contacting.

Looking at Skaare’s LinkedIn profile, the photo was a grabber. Tightly cropped, the guy obviously wasn’t afraid to get in your face. Nice smile though. You could trust that smile. What, maybe mid- to late ‘50s, maybe older? A bit gray, bald, some wrinkles. He’s been around.

It says that he’s the President of SkaareWorks – a one person shop, I suspect; “CEO” would have sounded cocky. Previous jobs showed a lot of VP titles – and, man, did he have lots of jobs. He did PR, marketing, organizational development, a whole bunch of stuff. A real corporate stiff! Wait … he’s been a consultant for years too. Guy must be more like 78.

Skaare went to Gordon College (never heard of it) and did a couple of Masters, one at Boston University, the other at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Maybe he’s a priest. Nah, I popped over to the Gordon-Conwell site. Protestant, multi-denominational, Evangelical. He was a McCain supporter for sure. But he looks like a Sixties alumnus. Maybe he’s a closet liberal.

I linked to his website and blog. This guy thinks weird, like he cares about stuff, like he knows how to solve problems. I even learned something from one of his blog posts. And he Tweets. Can you believe a guy his age on Twitter!

So, I say to myself, why not send Skaare an invitation to join my LinkedIn network? I did. Here’s the note:

This is a bit strange and awkward but I came across me – I mean, you – on LinkedIn. We have the same name and, to be honest, similar backgrounds. I thought we could help each other out by networking. Besides, I work alone out of a home office and I need someone to chat with from time to time. What do you say? Want to link?

Your friend
Your avatar


Almost a week has passed and still no reply. That’s okay: Angelina Jolie and Steve Jobs haven’t responded yet either. Though I would like to hear from myself and learn more about me. But I’ll be patient.

How about you? Have you taken a look at yourself from the outside in?

Richard Skaare 12.20.08

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hiring Grown-up Interns

Unconventional times call for … well, unconventional hiring. Huh?

And how’s this for unconventional: hire an intern who isn’t a student. Better yet, hire two or three. I’m talking about big people, people with mileage. They’re available, they’re affordable, and they’re capable of rejuvenating your modus operandi and getting you ready for the eventual economic recovery -- if you’re clever enough to snag them now.

3X5 Thinking

3 reasons to hire grown-up interns

  1. You need re-engineering not reverse-engineering. Benchmarking is reverse-engineering, as is recruiting competitors’ employees. While both short-cut development time, you end up with cloned ideas and bump-off programs that short-circuit imagination and impact.

    Reverse-engineering also suggests you lack confidence in your staff’s creativity. Why not decrease benchmarking and increase the competency of originality. Re-engineer your department with clever, experienced interns who will convince you that, indeed, brilliant ideas can be invented here.

  2. You need to organize a farm team. Given tough times, your staff is probably suffering from generalized anxiety disorder. They are likely cautious and defensive, and are hunkering, waiting, and looking busy. Though the best may reinvent themselves, some may never fully recover.

    When times get good – and they will eventually – you will need additions and replacements. If you want to run fast and smart later as a league-leading team, you better have backups now in top condition who know the playbook and have chemistry with the other players.

  3. You need to work the law of averages. No matter how many interviews you put candidates through or how many references you checked, one or two of the people you hired awhile back have not met expectations. Firing is too complicated, especially now. But you can minimize the chances of repeating that mistake by setting up a training system of sorts.

    If you have student interns, their contributions are limited, quality levels are acceptable, everyone will eventually want jobs, and all hires will be entry-level.

    If you have seasoned interns, you get high-value contributors, quality levels will be generally high, the best may have to be convinced to stay, and if they do, you will have a solid core or productive and profit-generating professionals.

5 interns to choose from

Career-changer This is someone in his 30’s who may have been driven down a career road by a well-intended parent or guidance counselor but who no longer can fake fulfillment. He has the core traits to perform well – self-initiating, creative, collaborative – as well as writing and presentation skills, and a great attitude. Example: A young journalist friend saw the future of reporting, opted to complete a Masters in public relations, and then was hired as an intern for four months by a leading regional advertising/public affairs firm.

Gap-filler You’ve wanted to venture into social media/networking but have been tepid because you lack the know-how and a go-to resource. Now you have an opportunity. Offer an internship to someone who was the web developer for two years for a, now, financially stricken organization and who spends most of his late hours interacting on Twitter, sharing on Digg, and blogging. This person will put you years ahead in just one, eight-week internship.

Between-jobber A well-heeled professional in your business network has a three-month severance from her former employer and has interviews set up with prospects. She has the luxury of time, wants to learn something new to prepare her for her next job, and as she says, “help you out.” Hire her for two months, half-time at intern wages, and extract every lesson she has learned. Who knows, she might love the experience so much she stays on.

Veteran He enjoyed high school – the non-academic parts, that is – pulled bad grades but scored high on his SATs. He’s back from Iraq, earned an Associates’ degree, and demonstrates a knack for, say, selling. What he lacks are resume points and credibility. Your unit needs his perspective, skill, and military efficiency.

Teacher Your daughter’s English teacher wants to understand business writing but prefers hands-on experience rather than a course. Hire her for next summer. Teach her by having her write letters, RFPs, brochure copy, and other materials, but use her to teach your staff the basics of grammar and spelling.

Using internships for recruiting IT staff
Rating internships
An intern who took charge

Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning to Hustle ... and Swing: Back to Basics

It’s not likely that I will Twist again like I did last summer. I was showing off my archived dancing skills at a wedding reception in July. Some folks were impressed; others thought … hmm, alcohol. I thought pain because afterwards I could hardly limp to my car. My right knee wasn’t working real well.

Now, five months later, I’m back to the basics. I’m standing with my wife on the dance floor at Arthur Murray’s for our first lesson, still feeling twinges of dull pain in that leg (the orthopedic doctor told me to buck up). The ballroom has more mirrors than a Poconos hotel room, the other couples don’t look like they’re fellow AARP members, and I’m wondering if the lovely young instructor would be a dating possibility for my oldest son.

Tonight’s lesson is Rumba and Swing, next week Hustle and Foxtrot.

It’s not easy returning to basics. Pride makes up lots of excuses: no need, no time, no gain for the pain. But whenever I was dogged about doing some particular thing right or better, I went back to basics, such as:

  • when I took swimming lessons at age 40 after swimming since I was five.
  • when I joined a Beginners Golf class after playing the game off-and-on for twenty years.
  • when, now at age … well, a good age, this American Bandstander is back taking dance lessons.

But for me, returning to basics was the toughest when I had to do it in my profession. I led corporate communication departments because I was presumed to be the best and I later advised clients who trusted that I knew virtually everything about communication. Despite the image, I never lost sight of hindsight. So, I went back to basics at times to shore up my skills and confidence, and learned or relearned:

  • how to write more with nouns and verbs, less with adverbs and adjectives;
  • how to listen intently even though I had counseled many people;
  • how to give up on slick marketing ideas when the market had no interest;
  • how to nurture a creative idea rather than grabbing an answer off the shelf; and
  • how to start always with the audience’s needs rather than unloading information on them.
3x5 Thinking
If you wonder whether or not it’s time for you to return to some basics, here are:

3 tell-tale signs:

  1. You’re coasting, and you sense it. The CEO or client trusts you; management likes you; your staff is still smiling. You’re managing the workload. You’ve got the organizational script down. Your career is on course – or was that the career you have had but may not have if the economy continues to plummet?
  2. You’re jabbering, and you hate it. How many times can you tell habitually sceptical people that “your organization is well positioned for the future because you have the bandwidth to push the envelope with mission-critical, next-generation deliverables?” If you talk and write like that, I say “eat your own dog food on a daily basis going forward,” or drop back and learn to write like people talk – like you once did.
  3. You’re suffering, and you’re not admitting it. You look and sound successful, your paycheck confirms it. But, face it, your work bores you and the environment is suffocating. You’re up a pants size, you can’t remember what you’ve accomplished on any given day, and even if you have a friend who would understand, you wouldn’t know how to explain what’s happening to you. Don’t wait to go flat-line before you stop and start again.

If you missed them as you raced ahead in your career or need to relearn them, here are:

5 shoulda-coulda-outta basics

  1. Relearn how to think. Switch from uber-linear to free association. Learn simple mind-mapping. Understand patterns of thinking, not just logic. Also, read novels for two months rather than business books. Rediscover the powerful advantage of stories over white papers.

    Dance lesson: Foxtrot in a straight line and you will eventually crash.
  2. Relearn how to write. Learn brevity by writing your resume in 140 characters (not words, characters). Here’s mine:

    Communication experience: been there, done that. Write like I talk, talk like I write. Smart, getting smarter. Eager to give more than take.

    Once you do that, you will know at your core who you are and why you’re good. Then, write up your full resume with those truths as your themes. Also, post your resume bite on Twitter, which mandates 140 characters or less, and watch the effect of personal viral marketing.

    One more writing suggestion: always carry 3x5 cards. Write one impression, one story idea, or one nugget of wisdom per card. You’ll be amazed at how having cards in your pocket improves your vision and hearing.

    Dance lesson: If you want to Swing, rock in place, side to side, then left foot behind right foot, and rock, rock. Short and simple, huh? And cool, very cool.
  3. Relearn how to listen. Spend time listening closely to the folks who leave work promptly at 5:00 p.m. – the ones you sometimes consider laggards. Hear how they help out each other without being asked, how they gossip because they don’t qualify for information benefits, how they get excited about going home to coach soccer, read romance novels, watch “Heroes” – simple stuff, fun stuff, life stuff. Hear the beat of their work-play lives.

    Dance lesson: If you can’t hear the beat of the music, the rest of your body gets confused.
  4. Relearn how to present. For your next report presentation to management, don’t use PowerPoints, organize everything around the only two messages the group is likely to remember, use at least one personal story, warm up before you speak not as you speak, say what you know and simply, and be more interesting than your audience’s Blackberries.

    Dance lesson: With slow, formal dances, you look good from the armpits up even if your feet are catching up.
  5. Relearn how to relate. Explain what you did at work yesterday to a four-year old, then your neighbor, then your clergy leader, and finally to your partner. Do that weekly until every one of them maintains eye contact. Now you’re relating.

    Dance lesson: If you’re the leader and think your partner can easily follow, remember she or he is trying to follow you backwards.


When Adjectives are Necessary
How to Listen
How to be Creative (from the Dilbert blog)
How to Mindmap (Tony Buzan)
Writing with Confidence
Panorama of presentation styles here

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Slogging through the Early Blogging Weeks

Whenever I paced nervously around our kitchen as a youngster, my watching mother would say, “You don’t know what to do with yourself.” I didn’t understand what she meant back then. I do now because I’ve been pacing nervously around the social network for a month or two not quite knowing what to do with myself. Fortunately, John Updike stepped in to help.

After bouts of intense work over the past year building a learning portal – a.k.a. a social network -- for a Saudi company, I finally had some downtime. I decided to become my own learning portal, loading up and distilling gobs of information about social-everything, and then blogging energetically and insightfully. Subsequently, I read incessantly, bookmarked randomly, blindly built a blog, peddled my best comments on discussion groups, and went to be bed most nights stressed and exhausted.

Whatever enthusiasm I had for potential blog topics was repeatedly dulled by discovering that other bloggers had beaten me to them. I realized that originality might be a myth. Successful blogs use mostly blue-colored fonts; their posts are primarily clicks to other blogs.

Blogging, I sensed, was like re-gifting: whatever one receives, just repackage and give it to others. Write for attention, write with searchable key words, blog for bloggers. So, this social media business was more akin to telemarketing than conversation?

Competing in this craze made me a bit panicky. I simply couldn’t keep up with what I saw others doing.
  • Speed-feeding stories on Twitter, like an ATM dispensing cash, from content aggregators such as AllTop.
  • Scattering comments across the blogosphere to generate links that would drive up traffic and SEO scores (search engine optimization). One blogger pays $25 for typing 250 quick comments on various blogs -- “Nice post. I was reading a similar article here” -- to lure visitors to his site and spike his stats.
  • Bouncing from site to site, rapidly adjusting to diverse formats: video on You-Tube, banter on Facebook, archiving on Delicious.

I started to show early signs of information anxiety and social fatigue. Maybe I just wasn’t hungry enough to jump into the feeding frenzy. I felt like I was, again, anxiously waiting to board a plane at the Shanghai Airport, flesh-pressed at the gate with more passengers than unreserved seats, running to the plane when the doors opened, and finding no place to sit.

Solace finally came oddly in a short interview with novelist John Updike on a wonderfully ordinary blog called Daily Routines. Updike shared his work habits:

Since I've gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it's not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases.

You begin by answering a letter or two. There's a lot of junk in your life. There's a letter. And most people have junk in their lives but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There's a danger if you don't move it along steadily that you're going to forget what it's about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule.

I've been maintaining this schedule off and on -- well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in '57. It's a long time to be doing one thing. I don't know how to retire. I don't know how to get off the horse, though. I still like to do it. I still love books coming out. I love the smell of glue and the shiny look of the jacket and the type, and to see your own scribbles turned into more or less impeccable type.

It's still a great thrill for me, so I will probably persevere a little longer, but I do think maybe the time has come for me to be a little less compulsive, and maybe the book-a-year technique which has been basically the way I've operated.

Here is what I learned (or relearned) from Mr. Updike about what to do with myself in this networked world of frenetic hustle and hyper-promotion.

3x5 Thinking

3 reminders to myself (you can listen if you want)

  1. I have no option but to blog. I am genetically and compulsively a writer, a persuader, and connector. “I have no reason not to go to my desk.”
  2. I do not have to cover “blank paper with beautiful phrases” but I must deliver a product that I love only a little less than my readers.
  3. I need to ease up but not give up. Like Updike, I will “persevere a little longer, but … be a little less compulsive.”

5 commitments to myself (and for you, if you want)

  1. Stick to a schedule; produce something every day, publishable or for my soul only.
  2. Write first for readers, second for search engines. Don’t sacrifice good word-smithing for key-wording.
  3. Avoid being a substance abuser: write factually, credibly, and confidently from my head and heart.
  4. Borrow comments from others, but steal the best ideas from my own mind.
  5. Do what I do best over and over -- and then do it day in and day out.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Your Organization’s Anniversary: Looking Both Ways

My friend Bruce Weindruch can look in two directions simultaneously. He can keep one eye on the future while the other looks at the past. In fact, he built a successful global business called The History Factory on the odd premise that your organization’s past can define its future if you let its future define its past. Absolutely brilliant! Now, what does it mean?

Consider this scene. The CEO drops by your office to volunteer you to head up the organization’s 25th anniversary in two years. You muffle a gag. Two to twenty-five sounds like a prison sentence. You hardly have time to plan two weeks ahead and you’re at least 25 days behind in your work.

You graciously accept. Yes, indeed, welcome to another opportunity.

So, go get some green tea and I’ll explain how to apply Bruce Weindruch’s two-way formula.

It’s simple: start your anniversary assignment with the future and work backwards, not the other way around. The future-back approach converts your history into strategy. The “in the beginning...” approach can easily turn your history into an over-written, tedious story that ends the day before the future starts.

Employees, customers, shareholders, and others appreciate the past, but live for the future. Immerse them in the organization’s history but link it to the agenda that will affect their bottom lines tomorrow.

If you lay out your organization’s history chronologically, here’s what could result.

  • The story has gaps because, for example, your soft-spoken CEO, who is trying to leave his own mark, might want to trim coverage of his effervescent, ever-popular predecessor. That predecessor might, as well, want to trim the accolades of that ornery chief in the early 1990s who almost bankrupted the organization.
  • The story gets obese because the organization’s unofficial, self-appointed, invaluable and inviolable historian by reason of longevity, loyalty, and memory will feel that his day of redemption has come and will swamp you with minutia and endless oral stories – like I just did.
  • The story has no plot because the volume of written and visual materials is overwhelming and unwieldy. This assumes that you can find those materials in dingy warehouses and locked credenzas of organization lifers. Then you have to categorize all that stuff, most of which will never be used. Finally, you have to connect the dots to ascertain some meaning. Too much, way too much.

There is a much better way to think and end up with a much better product.

  • Get your CEO to tell you the organization’s history from the vantage point of five years from now.
    Set up two one-hour sessions with your senior leader. Prep him/her to think what the organization might look like in five years and then turn it into a story that looks back. Ask him to describe the future organization’s size, profitability, customer base, investor support, values, employee morale, and the like.

    Then, most important, have him tell you what factors made it that way. Was it sheer determination, pride, ingenuity, smart investments, customer loyalty, or something else? What changed over those five years and why? What, during that time, was consistent with the company’s history?

    With all of that information in hand, you can efficiently extract from the past only those facts, stories, and materials that substantiate future strategies, priorities, and values. This is not revisionism, it’s pragmatism.

    But why two sessions? In the first session, he/she will talk from the head about the strategic plan. After hearing himself in the first session, in the second, he will tell the same information as a story from the heart, which is what you want as a communicator.

  • Envision an orientation program for a multi-age group who has zero knowledge of the organization’s history.
    What will capture their imagination? A lecture-hall talk by a former executive on important historical milestones? Not likely. How about a multi-screen presentation featuring long-term employees extolling the organization’s promising future with examples of how employees made it happen in the past? That should do it.

  • Repeat three times to yourself: History brands the future.
    Use the anniversary event to revitalize the organization’s brand. You can choose to either a) fabricate an image from the outside in by what appeals to your publics or b) define the organization’s reputation from the inside out, substantiated by the past, and cleverly incorporate that into your brand. Choose “b.”

    I can hear Bruce saying that an organization's history substantiates the reputation that substantiates the image. He’s right.

Start your organization’s history project from the beginning and historians and curmudgeons will love it. Those constituents who need to be inspired to invest more of their lives in the future will yawn. So, move into the future and keep looking in your rear-view mirror.

Oh yeah, if you really want this project to be a milestone in your career, call Bruce Weindruch. He has lots of neat stories and ideas.

Illustration by: Jo McLure

My comments are based in part on a cover story I wrote for Communications World magazine: The Historical Future: Publicity through Feature Writing (copyright 1993, International Association of Business Communicators; copyright 2004, Gale Group).

Thursday, December 04, 2008

How To Up Communication During This Down Time

Whew! Your job didn’t get eliminated. Your boss is gone and so is half your staff, but you still have a paycheck and benefits … at least for awhile.

Two other positives to ponder:

When you have nothing, you may realize you didn’t really need something. (Preach it, brother!) It’s true. You can now cut those budget line-items you inherited that eat up trees and your time but have little traction with audiences: for starters, the holiday card, pocket calendar, and reprints of aren’t-we-wonderful booklets.

You also have an unusual opportunity -- though painful -- to test your leadership mettle, which you may not have done on your own. Maybe you will even re-engineer yourself. A CEO boss of mine used to say that anyone can manage in the good times, but …

Back to the uncomfortable news. Here are scenarios that are likely to befall you.

If you lead a headquarters and/or service department, the “o” in overhead just got capitalized. Every sale not made or order cancelled means that your colleagues are struggling that much more to pay for your existence. They like you, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that they don’t quite know what you do and, if they have some knowledge they’re not sure that what you do is worth doing. It’s not that you have a bull’s eye on your back; it’s that you have to demonstrate your worth more aggressively but authentically as well.

While employees have been cut, expectations have not. Whatever your group had been doing, no one higher up or sideways is thinking that your output will go down. In fact, if your team complemented or coordinated the work of counterparts in other departments, probably those counterparts have departed. Expect a batch of hurting managers to be calling with that team-spirit pitch for help.

Your remaining staff is experiencing a death in the family. Their colleagues/friends are gone, the programs that defined much of their identity are gone, and whatever predictability there had been about the future (though a delusion) is gone.

  • Some of them have now become super-busy real fast out of fear of looking dispensable.
  • Others have gone catatonic, thinking that a low-profile keeps them below the radar.
  • Still others scan for scraps of rumors and quibble among themselves as to who really should have been let go.
What all of them share are a degree of survivor guilt and a deep-rooted sense – or hope -- that maybe, just maybe, they will survive all of this mess.

Your assignment is to move the group from survive to thrive -- not an easy role but, then again, you are a leader. You can start by setting three priorities:

  1. Focus much of your time over the next month on intra-staff communication. Win over your staff to possibility thinking and they will encourage others to tough it out. Shift their focus gently from empathy toward colleagues who have exited to the special challenges that require their resourcefulness.

  2. Focus communication on the positive without being pollyannaish, on honesty without naiveté. Stick to the facts about the organization's unfolding financial situation and cite comments and stories from seasoned, credible leaders with survival experience.

  3. Focus on producing more results with fewer resources. You don’t want to just boost morale, which can be fleeting, but bolster a spirit of ingenuity, ideas, productivity, and results.

Consider implementing these five ideas:

  1. Develop a Survive and Thrive kit, which should include your reconstituted 12-month plan and whatever clever ideas can convey the more-with-less message. Make it upbeat but not silly.

  2. Direct the staff to convert the 12-month plan into individual performance objectives. But change the format. Tell them you want those objectives in a resume as if it were written one year from now. What do they expect to accomplish that will convince a potential employer they had produced impressive results under pressure? If you effectively lead the group to greater productivity in this downtime, they will stay with you for the long-term.

  3. Share with your staff the job descriptions of former staffers and, for each one, ask them to prioritize the three most important responsibilities, given current conditions. Then ask who would want to take all or some of those responsibilities as a way to stretch themselves professionally while keeping the department and organization functioning.

  4. Spring for a half-day from a skilled social marketing consultant and have him/her review your new 12-month plan and explore with the team about how to reroute efforts and increase effectiveness through viral communication, social networks, and other cost-efficient sources. Make sure the nodes in that network are those most likely to be suspect of your department’s value.

  5. Identify external resources --- whose charges these days are negotiable -- who can support those departments that are looking to you for help. When they have to pick up the tab, they may quickly develop priorities and back away.
How to boost team morale after a layoff
Mass layoffs can lead to ’survivor guilt’
Layoff Aftermath: Learn how to minimize the aftereffects of layoffs

Illustration by: Joan M. Mas

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Emails, Calls, Meetings -- all Twitter

Depleted from the labor pains of birthing my blog, I turned for titillation to Twitter, the online, hyperventilating chat network.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t set up my “friends” network when I signed on months back, and I wasn’t sure who I would talk with. But, c’mon, of the 2.3 million people who use Twitter, surely someone would say “hello” (which is 139 words fewer than Twitter’s longest short message).

After signing on, a window popped up saying that no one was following me and I was not following anyone, and asked, “What was I doing?” In other words, “Nothing to say … no friends?”

Aren’t those the two reasons why corporate managers – the decision-makers who thumb social networking up or down -- won’t take to Twitter. They don’t have time to follow anything else nor do they want anyone following what they’re doing. And when they hear about Twitter, it strikes them as a lot of key-tapping for what amounts to trivial exchanges.

But, is Twitter really extra work and a waste of time or, strangely, could it possibly be a more engaging, and, yes, efficient way to achieve business results? Is it much different than what occupies our time now? Stay with me.

Look at what we say runs and over-runs our lives: emails, smart phones, and meetings. Why? Don’t blame technology. We choose to open emails, turn on phones, and attend meetings. We impulsively tell colleagues and new acquaintances to “keep us posted,” “call us,” and “set up a meeting about that.”


It’s because we humans crave attention, news, and companionship. We are driven to be in the know and be known, to like and be liked, and to draw power from information and people. We will even consider that information when it’s trivial -- gossip, speculations, reality TV – and from people we don’t like all that much.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Call it chatter. We chatter when we jot a few words in response to emails from colleagues, banter with customers by phone between golf swings, and when we catch up on each other’s lives while waiting for a meeting to start.

Quick-fire exchanges seem like time-wasters -- rationally thinking, that is -- but are they ever informative. The more emotional the conversation, the less posturing people do; the more babble, the more we seem to understand what’s going really going on behind what appears to be happening. That’s because, in part, the messages are short, transparency abounds, and PowerPoints are missing. Chatter is good: it informs, centers, and stimulates us. And we like all of that.

Strangely, meetings are more fulfilling than phone conversations, which are more satisfying than emails.

  • Emails are one-to-one, pre-meditated, time-delayed, and impersonal.
  • Phone conversations are one-to-one, spontaneous, immediate, and friendly exchanges that rely on questions for context: “What are you doing now?” “Where did you go for lunch?”
  • Meetings are one–to-many, many-to-many, and yet personal. The most effective meetings involve lots of interaction, honest sharing of ideas, to-the-point questions, and concise dialogue.

Now we’re talking Twitter: one-to-many and many-to-many; quick transactions of unedited, raw-honest comments that feel personal.

But do we really want all those interruptions? Don’t we encourage that now?

  • We tell everyone that our door is always open to them.
  • We extol the interactivity that cubicles are supposed to provide.
  • We let our staffers have our cell number on speed dial.

As David Sacks notes – he’s the founder of Twitter competitor Yammer -- we don’t want to hear five times a day what friends are doing, but we do want to hear from co-workers five times a day about what they’re working on.

If I have convinced you at all that the nature of Twitter is the nature of what we’re doing already – and want and need to do – then why not try out this new channel as possibly a more effective way to learn from each other and increase productivity.

Here are three painless ways to explore the possibilities, ranging from you as a bystander to you as a full participant:

  1. Pick an enterprising staff member who is a social networker (uses Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.) and ask her to set up a staff Twitter group. Have your administrative assistant participate. Your lead staffer will give you reliable reports; your AA will tell you if and when you should connect.
  2. Set up a Twitter group among those with direct and dotted-line reporting relationships to you and who are working remotely (at home, in other offices and countries). Explain that you are exploring new, possibly more efficient and more human channels for keeping everyone informed and swapping ideas. In this scenario, you join in, at least every few days, to check progress and add comments.
  3. Set up a group for an upcoming event -- a trade show, annual meeting, customer outing – and use Twitter on laptops and cell phones, primarily, to orchestrate the logistics. Here you are a constant participant by monitoring your staff’s work, adding brief revisions, and throwing in accolades.
Try out Twitter for three months with these guidelines.
  • Stick with this one channel for now; jumping headlong into My Space, Flickr, and other networks will make you cool with your kids but will quickly lead to fatigue.
  • Get regular staff feedback on how to customize the use of Twitter to your group's specific needs.
  • Focus on results, though don’t be too rigid on making a go/no-go decision at the end of the three months. You may want to extend its use or apply it to a different situation before you add or cut Twitter.

I almost forgot. What about the concern of being followed? If you’re a leader or emerging leader, you know the formula: be transparent, dialogue honestly, show trustworthiness, be available, entertain all ideas – in short let people know you, how you think, and how you act and, perhaps, they will indeed follow you at work and on Twitter.

Set up a
Twitter account
Read 11 reasons to use Twitter for business
Read Applying Twitter: How It Works For Business
Read Looking for Mr. Goodtweet: How to Pick Up Followers on Twitter
The Secret to Twitter
Subscribe to TwiTip, a new blog on Twitter
Twhirl. a tool that reportedly simplifies. beautifies, and amplifies twittering
Statistics supporting the Twitter craze

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Primer on Social Networking for Boomers

While sifting through old photos at her mother’s farm last week, my wife uncovered one of those pictures worth a thousand words. It was a photo of a social network from 1951.

The phrase “social network” seems so easy to understand. Yet, whenever I bring it up with folks 45+, including business clients, and even some 20 year-olds, I get glazed looks. My tone assumes that they know what I’m talking about, but they don’t, yet they think they should so they look like they do.

For those of us who are trying to evangelize and profit from this social networking stuff, we need a simple illustration to explain to the unwashed why we obsess over this concept and why they should as well. It could be a chart or an infographic or a story. Just make sure the illustration is less complicated than the phrase.

I think I’ve found my explanation in this vintage photo.

Think of the circular, defined space of the pool as a networking site. What draws the kids there is a combination of experiencing something novel, having fun with other kids, and the possibilities of what each of them can do with the water – splash, learn to swim without fear, see what floats. The content of the pool is critical: no water, no community.

The kids picked up the buzz about the social event from overhearing their parents at supper and from the pool’s young owner, who talked it up at the playground. Plus, kids back then were always scanning for something to do, something surprising, and spent lots of time moving around. As baby-boomer author Bill Bryson remembers: "Kids were always outdoors — I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding."

The pool crowd in the photo came from the same neighborhood, had similar interests, knew all of the kids on their block well, and occasionally played with children on other streets. They were nice to each other mostly, were okay with the kids who didn’t join in the group regularly, disagreed with each other at times, and always came back to the group for more of whatever glued them together.

Like social websites, they shared school pictures, loved to twitter endlessly with best pals about their experiences, told about their favorite books and Disney movies, and talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up (sound familiar?).

Like any reputable site, navigating to the pool site was easy: the kids walked -- with older siblings at this age but later alone. Everyone knew shortcuts to their friend’s house, skipping through neighbors' sites, slipping under holes in fences. Lots of links to get there.

At this pool-site, everyone was welcome. It was crowded but there was always room for one more. Once there, you didn’t have to all do the same thing. You could take a dip in the water or sit above the others along the edge and watch. You could bring toy phones and other playthings if you wanted, but who would want those things when you had cool people with whom you could gab or just be silly.

Notice the kid on the far right with the dark hair who seems to be leading the discussion. The boy in the back left with his tongue out is listening and preparing a response. The blond child at the front right who is staring at the camera is a future job-hunter trying to look good. The somewhat shy, serious girl behind her is glad to be there but doesn’t feel compelled to participate. The dark-haired girl picking her nose in the back is wondering if there is another pool elsewhere that she would enjoy more. The toe-haired boy on the left also looking at the camera is thinking what kind of pool he might want that would be bigger, better, and more diverse and inclusive.

And the adorable, curly-haired girl at the far left is dreaming about a handsome and wise knight in shining armor that she will marry some day. Her dream came true: she married me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

That Frightening Speech

A speech is a fear-monger. It delights in making both presenters and communicators quake. It causes them to hide behind safe boilerplate text and embellished PowerPoints.

As a speechwriter, I know this monster. So let me yank him out from underneath the bed and show him for what he truly is: a motivator.

Why do we fear speeches (and I don’t think fear is too strong a word)?

Executives fear possible embarrassment from

  • faux pas,
  • attending reporters, and
  • audience misinterpretation.

Writers fear

  • that what they prepare will not be what the executive wants to say,
  • that what the executive wants to say may not be what the audience wants to hear, and
  • that the executive may mangle their finely crafted prose.

Here is what The Speech monster really looks like.

The Speech wants to communicate primarily to the ear, unlike a printed piece created mostly for the eye. Words that look good on paper may not sit well in the ear. Print writing requires clarity, of course, but should the reader get distracted or not understand, she can always glance back at the previous text to recapture some overlooked words or a missed point.

The listening audience doesn’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t want to raise your hand and ask the Fortune 500 CEO at the Economic Club luncheon to repeat what he just said because you weren’t listening or that he wasn’t clear.

Speakers and speechwriters: If you lack a knack for catching an audience’s ear, speakers can hire a speaking coach; writers may want to stick to print.

To help the reader map messages, print writers rely on visual structure -- paragraphs, bullet points, etc. -- and linear logic: an introductory concept followed by supporting points that build an argument, hopefully, to an indisputable conclusion.

By contrast, The Speech draws mind-maps that leads listeners out from a central message to a sub-point, then back to the center, out to another sub-point, and back again. (Anett Grant is the guru of this technique.)

Speaker and speechwriters: Think patterns, not strings.

There is a cadence to this pattern movement. When reinforced by alliteration, repetitious words and phrases (the bane of print writers), and stories, a rhythm results. That rhythm invigorates the speaker and the audience. The speaker starts moving his hands; the audience stops reading emails on their phones.

The fact that speechwriting can be more poetry than prose makes the writer’s job much more difficult and scary. (Poetry is for personal journals, right?) Moreover, it is poetry created for retention. Winning an audience’s attention quickly, then holding them for a long stretch is not easy; getting that audience to remember and later share what was said with colleagues is formidable.

Speakers and speechwriters: Think rhythm first, then words.

What you should remember as a speaker is that the audience:

  • will remember you, not your PowerPoints.
  • will remember, maybe, two points.
  • will remember the stories you told.

Speaking of retention, do you remember my saying earlier that the fearful speech monster is really a motivator? As an executive, when was the last time a situation was foreboding? Yesterday? And as a communicator, when was the last time you said “impossible” to an intimidating assignment and then did it. A speech pales by comparison. Fear – the fear of speeches -- sparks imagination.

Besides, if you fear that this tumultuous economy may jeopardize your job, an impressive speech will sure look good on your resume. Now, that’s motivation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Regret Writing

I wrote an angry email to my oldest son late last night that broke my 12-hour rule. I was mostly right (I think) in what I said, but totally wrong in how I said it.

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.

For the untested wordsmith, writing that stirs your own passion feels so powerful, poetic, and personal. At 1:00 a.m., it’s amazing how good your writing skills seem to be and how good your soul feels! That’s great. Now, put what you wrote into your personal journal, and when you read it several years from now you will appreciate the raw honesty of your words and perhaps understand the tumult in your life at that time that caused it.

What you don’t want to do is to write like that for a group you are trying to persuade on some issue or to a person, say your boss, whose misinterpretation – or correct interpretation – could produce deleterious results.

Why are such wonderful sounding words so wrong? Because your late-night tome probably has:

  • Too many words. You overwrite because the governor switch for carefully crafted, creative writing doesn’t work after 10:00 p.m.
  • Too many adjectives and adverbs. It would would have been better if, instead of typing, you had read some Toni Morrison or Elmore Leonard to purge yourself of embellished writing.
  • Too much of you. You’re alone, tired, perhaps a bit sad and/or angry; it’s dark, the cheeriness of morning is many hours away; and the only person there is you; so, it’s all about you.
  • Too few facts. Your claims are unsupported by anything but "piss and vinegar."
  • Too thin on precision. You’re too worked up to pull down your thesaurus for the exact words.

Sorry for being harsh, but hardly anyone besides yourself cares much about your unbridled, enthusiastic writing. Selfish as it sounds, they want to know what you have to say that benefits them.

Possible solutions:

  • 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.
  • Consider Mail Goggles, which Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng calls a "breathalyzer test for your Gmail." Goggles, which is active only late night and weekends (when you need it), runs you through a mental sobriety test to make sure you’re thinking clearly before you send off that feisty email.
  • Wait 12 hours.

So, son, sorry for my edginess. I’ll edit what I wrote and tell you in more literate and convincing language why I’m still right and you’re wrong. LOL: lots of laughs, lots of love.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Powerful Simplicity of a Single Word

Obfuscation. Don’t you love that word? Even if you can’t define it, you have a sense of its meaning simply by sounding it out. It sounds like obstruction, with some fussing in the middle. Obfuscation means “something obscure.”

The word Google also talks to your ears and eyes. It sounds like something gooey and uncertain, and like eyes wandering independently of each other, as in googly-eyed over a girl or guy. And the double “o”s could be zeros. Reportedly, Google got its name from the mathematical term for the number one followed by 100 zeros. And, of course, ones and zeros are the basic language of computers. For gazillions of us, Google means answers.

A word can be fun, but too many words can be unfortunate. Sometimes we as wordsmiths (another fun word) and change-agents over-write, over-talk (I plead guilty), and over-PowerPoint, thinking that people won’t “get it’ unless we explain “it” in detail. More words, we wrongly assume, gives our point -- and ourselves -- more importance. We can’t even say “daily” or “regularly” anymore. Instead, we puff up and say “on a daily basis,” or “on a regular basis.”

Think about the amazing power of one word used by a man with a Harvard lexicon to build an amazingly successful Presidential campaign. Change. That word inspired, mobilized, focused, and integrated an extensive social network that now, post-election, wants to own and participate in that change.

A single word can energize a company or client’s strategic, marketing, and employee messages. I did this:

  • for a tradeshow/museum exhibits client. I used strong employee images in an advertising program that revolved around the word “attitude,” as in the”whatever-it-takes ATTITUDE.” To refresh the campaign a year later, we switched to the word “more” and linked it to the “attitude” campaign. See MORE case study here.

  • for elearning client KnowledgePlanet. To tag the client’s business, leverage its name, and highlight the competitive edge of smart employees, I created a flagship marketing booklet and other materials around the word “know.” See a case study here.

  • and for a client company facing tough economic challenges. I recommended introducing “MORE/less” as a rallying point for managers and other employees to creatively do more (for example, sell) with less (for example, cost).

Of course, we have to be on the watch for problematic words. A lawyer once asked me to review a news release regarding the integration of an acquired business into one of the parent company’s divisions. The short, officious release provided few facts and said the business was being “dissolved.” The lawyer’s word was accurate: the legal structure was being dissolved. However, employees and others were likely to interpret “dissolve” quite differently – as in shutting down the business and eliminating their jobs. See the case study here.

So, here are some suggestions about words:

  1. Use one word where many words will only obfuscate.
  2. Avoid the word boilerplate whenever you can.
  3. Insert one word at the beginning of your communication to create a common ground with readers.
  4. Press your management or client to come up with one word that describes or focuses a particular issue.
  5. Work hard at applying the word imagination.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Want to Communicate? Don’t Call the Communication Department

Communication is one of the ironies of organizational life.

Ask management what is the most challenging issue facing the organization and, undoubtedly, they will say poor communication. And if you then push them to define communication, they will likely respond with words like listening, sharing, honesty, credibility, and trusting.

Now, ask management what the communication staff does and they probably will tell you in so many words, services: design, writing, website development, event management, and the like. “We tell them what we want in a brochure, and they get it done.”

What’s happening here?

  1. Communication is understood as strategic, but communicators are viewed as tactical
  2. Executives and managers believe they are the organization’s communicators.
  3. Management thinks communication and published materials are the same.
  4. Communication, as management defines it, is poor.

That wasn’t so hard to figure out.

Why isn’t the communication staff stepping up?

  • They get paid for what their communication major prepared them to do: that is, techniques.
  • Building websites is a lot more fun than figuring out business problems they know little about.
  • Too many people still join the communication department because “they like people.”
  • Most communicators don’t aspire to upper mobility outside the communication department.

Why isn’t management correcting the mismatch?

  • Their career success, they believe, was built in part on their effective communication skills.
  • They confuse communication with information, which they consider something they originate, regulate, and approve.
  • They have rarely met any other professional communicator than an implementer.

So, how do you fill the chasm between the communication the organization needs and the communication the staff delivers?

  1. Define the competencies that professional communicators need to address management’s definition of communication, then match them against current capabilities in the communication department, and lay out a development program.

  2. Rebrand the communication department as experts in the human dynamics of the organization by identifying a core group of those who grasp the people and business aspects of the organization and those who perform services. Spin-out the later into a captive firm.

  3. Involve the rebranded team early in the evolution of strategic organizational issues to let them understand and help shape responses rather than simply executing what non-communicators devise.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cardboard Change

The change business gets boringly cerebral at times. As experts, we strategize, advise, and write about change theory and practice -- all to sway the minds of clients, bosses, and friends.

What really matters most to change-agents, however, is changing hearts.

In this YouTube video, a church in central Pennsylvania wanted to let people whose hearts had been changed to share their experiences with the congregation. They could have talked for five minutes from a script or rambled without notes. Instead, all who participated used a recognizable symbol of brokenness on the streets: a rough piece of cardboard with a simple handwritten message on it.

If you find yourself intellectualizing or challenging what you hear and see, watch the video a second time and focus on the ordinariness of the people, on the courage they had to muster to admit weaknesses, and on raw change.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Build an Effective Intranet Portal: Dump the Steering Committee … Sort of

If you’re about to build or rebuild an intranet portal for your organization, take just a few minutes and put in your mind the frightening thought that you don’t need an executive steering committee. Could you still pull off the project? “Of course, but …” you say. Stop after “Of course” just for a minute. We’ll talk through the “buts” shortly. Stay with me. There is a purpose in my madness. I want you to understand exactly why and how to put together an effective steering team.

I hear at least two rationales for an executive advisory committee.

  1. Rationale #1 Senior management’s blessing and buy-in are needed.
    Don’t you already have management’s blessing? What executive would object to improved employee communication? Sure, cost, sustainability, and maybe one or two other issues might concern them, but they certainly all endorse the concept of a faster, more collaborative, productivity-building tool such as a portal. Assume the project has their blessing.

    And what does “buy-in” mean? Personal commitment? Participation? Truthfully, do you want executives to use their expensive time to build a portal about which they have limited understanding?

  2. Rationale #2 Senior management’s endorsement means everyone else jumps.
    It’s true that when top executive speak the entire organization responds. Middle managers will provide the portal content you need, and employees will try it out.

    Yet, everyone knows that the CEO and his colleagues put their names on lots of programs, some strategic to the organization and others for protocol and goodwill. Everyone will comply until the next executive initiative outranks your portal project.

    Rely instead on cooperation rather than compliance, and opt for sustainability over stimulation. Over the long-term, the portal’s business impact will win over middle managers and its resourcefulness will convert employees to users.

Now, think about this: without executive oversight, wouldn’t the following likely happen?

  • You as the project leader would have to tutor yourself -- with a little help from your tech-savvy friends -- on web strategies and software.
    That would be time-consuming – and who has time? Yet haven‘t you been feeling uneasy for too long about your limited knowledge in this area. You have promised yourself that you would read up on the subject sometime. That time is now. You don’t have to become an expert, just smart enough to know and evaluate the various approaches to building a portal: enterprise, open-source, Web 2.0. So, put aside your self-doubt and get started. No more procrastinating.

  • You would have to believe you are the smartest person when it comes to understanding what the audience wants, what the portal should do, and how to organize and manage the project.

    Well, arent you? Forget false humility. You are the smartest person in the organization regarding the portal concept. For sure, you know more about those subjects than anyone on a steering committee? If you didn’t have a steering committee, would you be asking those executives to tell you what to do on matters for which they know little or nothing? Don’t upward delegate what you know or do best. Have courage. Take charge.

  • You would have to rely on your staff’s imagination and gutsiness.
    Even though I’m sure they are a talented, hard-working group, creating a portal that really works for people will require every ounce of their resourcefulness. This will take serious stretching.
    - They will have to think from the outside-in – from what employees want and need rather than what the organization wants to promote.
    - They will have to focus on function rather than form: that is, how employees find stuff on web sites rather than the most logical organization of information on the portal.
    - They will have to generate imaginative ideas that not only work but for which they will assume accountability over time.

    Stretching means pain, so expect some groaning. But, nothing develops individual potential and rallies team spirit like a good fight against the odds. You know that. Lead them.

Now that you realize you could survive, perhaps even flourish, without an advisory committee, why should you have one? Because you need them to be converts, members, and missionaries.

A portal is not a building that you design, construct, hope employees occupy, and remodel every few years. Think instead of your portal project as laying out a high-speed network that links people with content and other people, and that changes configuration frequently depending on how the nodes – the people – respond.

Converts Your steering group is not a building committee. It is a beta group of neophytes, much like the eventual end-users, who need to be won over to a new way of thinking about portals.

Members Once your advisory team “gets it,” then you will need them as permanent and contributing members of the portal congregation.

Missionaries Finally, you will have to encourage them to be missionaries among employees to ensure that everyone believes in, values, and uses the portal to benefit the organization and their careers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay Attention ... If You Can

I recently guest-lectured in a university course with the title “Computer-mediated Communication,” in which approximately 40 students sat at rows of tables and peered at me from behind computer monitors. At first glance, the course might better have been called, “Computer-impeded Communication.” My “pre-Senior” friends told me later that the students should have turned off their machines and listened to me.

Yet I saw the challenge as “computer-competitive communication,” and as a social experiment of sorts. Rather than being the sole source of information for one hour, I would have to work up my most effective communicatin skills to compete for students' attention. Equally important, I became like them, a student, who wanted to observe and learn how this digital generation divides attention.

Here is what I discovered …
  • Most students seemed not to be multi-tasking but engaged in “continuous partial attention.” Social analyst Linda Stone, who coined the phrase, says that multi-tasking gives almost equal attention to familiar tasks that increase efficiency and productivity: talking on the phone and filing papers, for example. By contrast, continuous partial attention prioritizes attention, keeping one source of information such as my remarks as primary, but staying accessbile and jumping impulsively and often emotionally between any opportunity at the moment – for instance, a rumor on FaceBook -- that lets you feel connected and alive.

    Several students did multitask, at least periodically, and explored, verified, and maybe even quietly challenged certain points and references I made by asking me for a URL or the spelling of a name, which they then tapped on their keyboard, scanned the site, and bookmarked the information.

  • The students didn’t strike me as rude by shifting their attention back and forth between my talk and their screens. Actually, they seemed respectful. Their non-verbals reassured me – eyes wide-open, most sitting upright, some leaning to one side in their chairs while reading or typing so they could see and be seen. However, some non-verbal cues were ambiguous for me as the presenter. For example, if I tried to be humorous to emphasize a point, I sometimes couldn’t tell if some were smiling at my comment or an IM that just flashed on the screen from a friend.

  • Continuous partial attention may be rampant in what Stone calls the transition from a 20-year era of "Connection" to the emerging era of Protection and Belonging. However, it had been around in some forms for decades. In my student years, the computer was not around to distract, but certainly other interruptions, welcomed by me, interfered with my paying attention to the teacher: my next-desk friend whispering to me, my notes surreptiously laid in front of me so I could crash for a quiz in a later class, or the windows encouraging me to daydreaming about after-school football.

  • As I walked around the room and drew closer to the students, they paid more attention to me. Of course, some were probably embarrassed that I might glance at their private stuff on the screens. Still, I sensed that the closer and more one-on-one or one-on-few interactions I had, the power of conversation took over. As with any conversation – the purest form of communication, I think -- at close range, I could watch their expressions to check if I was making sense and adjust my words accordingly. They seemed to be listening more intently and were a bit readier to ask a question or comment.

And here is what I learned or reconfirmed about presenting:

  • To minimize distractions, maximize the human medium. I could have added PowerPoints to my presentation, but that would have introduced yet another medium that would compete with me and their computer connections.

    Too often, PowerPoints become a proxy for the much more effective medium of talking humans. And too often, the number of PowerPoints is endless and crammed with data and silly animations. Think about the reaction of the folks in the back row. The lights have been turned down and they are told that they might not be able to read some slides from back there. In other words, take a nap because you're not important enough to learn anything.

  • On the other hand, the content of a presentation and even the speaker’s infectious style alone will not guarantee understanding. Engage the audience any way possible. Another guest lecturer at the same university greets students at the door as they enter and then uses their names in his remarks and the Q&A. Smart. Try it.

    Also, move away from the lectern -- and bring your script if you have to -- but put yourself in a position where you are forced to use your hands and the rest of your body to emphasize your points. Finally, ask questions, rhetorical and direct, to help the audience connect with you and you with them.

  • Finally, integrate the audience’s devices – primarily smart phones and laptops – into the presentation. Tell them to check a website or SMS a certain person on your staff for an answer. Give them ownership of learning. In hindsight, I regret not doing that with my lecture.