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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.

      … 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

      Tuesday, January 13, 2009

      Back Off So We Don’t Communicate

      You step into an empty elevator in a public building with two of your friends as you continue talking and laughing. The doors close … almost.

      Someone jabs in a hand, the doors retract, and the obese guy steps in. You’re feeling a bit crowded. The joking stops. Right behind him comes an exceptionally attractive young woman. Keeping your eyes off her is difficult. Then enters two foreigners speaking their language, followed by a homeless person, and finally an elderly woman with a walker.

      Can you feel your anxiety rising, your emotions bouncing? What’s happening? In brief, physical proximity to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unwashed creates contradicting cues. You want to be gracious and open-minded but at a distance. You have no distance in the elevator.

      3 observations on distance and communication

      1 Getting close to someone close
      The better we know an individual, the more relaxed we are when close to him or her. Makes sense. But let me restate that: the more positive we feel toward an individual at any given time, the more relaxed and uninhibited we are when close. Talking encourages good feelings, which leads to laughing, which encourages affection, which can lead to hugging, which can lead to … well, you know.

      Tension between two people reverses that process. After an argument with our spouse or best friend, we’re not much in the mood for hugging. That’s obvious. But is the reason so obvious? It’s because such an upheaval confuses us and makes us uncertain about how to respond. We can’t be physically close to the person we are normally closest with because our anger won’t let us.

      Consequently, we tighten our muscles, climb into our mind to draw up a battle plan, and move our bodies away from the perceived source of our discomfort. Even shaking hands with a colleague we’re angry with would confuse us. How could we not like this person right now and yet the physical contact of a handshake would say we do?

      The irony of these situations, of course, is that understanding and resolution will come not from our mouths or our heads at a distance but from simply being close to the “enemy” and feeling disarmed. Closeness causes communication.

      2 Getting close to colleagues
      Desks and conference tables are more than flat writing surfaces. They set the comfortable distance between participants for intellectual, structured exchanges of acceptable information at a certain volume – in other words, business talk.

      By contrast, confidential or personal information generally is shared informally while standing close to each other using hushed voices. Distance defines the type of communication; the type of communication defines the distance.

      Even the way we position ourselves around a desk or table is revealing. If someone stays behind his desk (his territory) when meeting with you in his office -- close to his computer, papers, telephone, and other information sources -- he is in control while you, on the opposite side without such tools, are the supplicant. He reflects a certain comfort and power that you likely don’t. In this situation, communication usually is rigid.

      Likewise, in a group meeting in a conference room, we rarely sit beside someone with whom we routinely disagree. The physical proximity would unnerve each individual and likely make both hesitant to comment because it is awkward to disagree with a person so close. Additionally, sitting across from someone with opposing views typically results in one person contributing ideas and the other dismissing ideas. Communication goes haywire.

      One more example of distance. I deciphered a pattern when I worked for a major public relations firm years back. On accounts that involved multiple agency offices, the further geographically a group billing on that account was from having to explain an invoice to the client face-to-face, the more money they billed.

      3 Getting close to yourself
      About to join the health club or about to lose 10 pounds sometimes seems as real as actually exercising and dieting. If we can convince ourselves that something will happen – actually might, could, should happen – then our minds seem satisfied while our bodies still suffer.

      Now, think of the times you stayed on an exercise routine and dropped a few pounds. What did you tell friends? Probably, “I have never felt so much energy and focus.” Why is that? Simple.

      When we’re out of shape, overeat, over-caffeine, under-sleep, and over-work, our minds separate from – rather discard – our bodies. Living in our minds requires less maintenance than taking care of our deteriorating shells. Yet, a physically sound body, connected to an alert mind, and all on a sensible schedule opens up new possibilities for productivity, learning, and achievement.

      5 Close-up Tips
      1. Agree with your loved one that someone will initiate a hug within 5 minutes following an argument. Even asking, “whose turn is it to initiate?” will lead to chuckles and snuggles. As my blogger friend Seth Simonds says, "We fight for the win when a win on either side means a loss for the whole"

      2. Approach someone you have wronged and, without even thinking, tell him you’re sorry and extend your hand. If he refuses, put your hand calmly in your pocket; don’t clench it. You might have another chance later.

      3. Deliberately sit in a meeting beside someone with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye. Create small talk before the session starts. Do this exercise at three meetings and you are likely to discover some common ground.

      4. Have coffee with someone associated with a group you disagree with and have strong feelings about. Sitting near each other and talking may not change your mind, but it could affect your heart.

      5. Exercise your body and mind by walking for 30 minutes three times a week while listening to a novel on your iPod. Congratulate yourself each time. Give yourself a hug. Then take a shower.
      Richard Skaare 01.13.09

      • One of the seminal works on space and communication is Robert Bales’ “Interactive Process Analysis.”
      • Seth Simonds’ blog offers some wise and practical advice on “getting close to someone close.”

      Credit: Graphic by The Gold Guys

      Saturday, January 10, 2009

      Navigating Web Caves ... How To

      Did you hear the one about the two Saudis and an American who go into a cave with 25 Europeans and a Dutch guide holding a lantern? Of course you haven’t because it really happened, and I’m going to tell you about it.

      The Saudis are my clients, and I’m the American consultant. We’re in Maastricht, Netherlands for a round of video interviews with their European leadership. The interviews will turn into content for the learning portal I’m helping the company build.

      It’s the weekend, and I decide an outing at a popular tourist attraction might be fun for all. The St Pietersberg Caves there are famous. Approximately 2,000 passages comprising 125 miles, the caves were formed from centuries of mining marl, which was used primarily in constructing area buildings. Napoleon visited the caves, Rembrandt’s paintings and downed American pilots were hidden there from the Nazis … many stories. So, why not go there?

      The three of us board a boat for the 30-minute trip down river, then a 20-minute climb uphill, followed by a 10-minute walk down inside the mountain. Before we descend, I discover that the cave tour is conducted only in Dutch. I approach the tour guide hoping that he excelled in English in school. He says curtly that, if I stay close to him and if he has time, he will translate for me from Dutch to English the information he just told the group. I will then convey his comments to my Arab-speaking clients, whose English, fortunately, is quite good.

      When we arrive in the cave’s first large chamber, whose rock walls are adorned with paintings and stories, the crowd gathers around the guide. I position myself on a nearby ledge up against the cave wall to watch his body language and not block the view of children. The first words out of the guide’s mouth are directed to me in English: “Don’t touch the walls of the cave.” My companions slip into the crowd to avoid being associated with the culprit.

      Think about that experience. You are trusting someone you never met to lead you where you have never been, explaining in a language you don’t know about unfamiliar writings and designs on walls in chamber after chamber. And what if your guide was to turn off his lantern and you were standing there in 50° blackness without a flashlight? How would you make your way back out?

      Now, think about the website, intranet, or portal you’re building. You’re leading people who don’t know you, down paths they have never been, to rooms of information where you use terminology that is yours not theirs. Fortunately for them but not for you, if they get lost and panic, they simply click out.

      Of course, good web designers and user experience experts know the standard tricks for helping people navigate sites. They can logically explain to you how those techniques will work. However, that doesn’t excuse you, the site originator and manager, from the process. Quite the opposite. Your role is to be the human in that process, the user.

      Long before getting user testing underway – you will be doing user testing, right? -- you have to be the user. When your consultants and colleagues are saying, “they’ll (users) figure it out,” or “after they read all the information …” you should be thinking, “I don’t want to have to figure it out,” and “I probably would skim and grab information, not read it all.”

      So, step aside from the others, realize that you’re on the tour alone, walk around the passages and chambers of your prototype site, and monitor your thoughts and feelings. Let me put you in the right frame of mind. Think cave.

      3 Directions

      1 Moving vertically
      The homepage is the orientation center. You will spend only 30, maybe 60 seconds here. No time for hype. You’re busy, and you came to this page for a purpose: to get an annotated map. If the map is too difficult to decipher, you simply will find your own route using the search function. You have a search function on the site, right?

      As you, the visitor, make your way down through a passage from the homepage to the information chambers, you should drop some breadcrumbs that show you how to get back. And you know what breadcrumbs are on a site: they’re the string of categories found consistently near the top of the screen that serve the same purpose as a “you are here” map. The highlighted “crumb” indicates where you are in relation to each step along the path. Click left on a crumb and you are back at a higher level. Keep the crumbs simple: they’re crumbs, not bread slices.

      2 Moving laterally
      Each chamber in the St Pietersberg Caves has distinct content. Some contain wall paintings, some plaques, and one has baking ovens that once fed people in hiding. No matter how different the content of the rooms, common to all is rock -- rock walls, rock floors, rock ceilings. Wherever tourists are, rock tells them they’re in a cave.

      Diversity is good. Yet, taken to extremes on websites by organizational family members who want to establish their own identities -- often meaning separateness -- visitors who wander to those places can get confused and lost. Unless politically impossible, make sure all parts of your site share at least the rock ... that is, share common design elements and structure -- colors, type fonts, heading styles, whatever -- that visually tell users they are in the same cave, just different chambers.

      Sometimes a departmental intranet was up and running before you decided to launch the central site. For example, the Supply Chain group has its own wiki-type site, which includes a learning management system and training courses. However, you have planned for a learning section on the main site for centalizing all training. Supply Chain wants its staff to link to your learning options but is unwilling to give up what took so long to build.

      You can think territorially about this and wage a battle, or you can think like an employee who, frankly, doesn't care who owns what. Easy access and minimal clicks are all that matter. Consequently, build a transitional page that visually signals users coming from or to the main site that they are about to move into a different zone.

      3 Moving out
      Bailing out of a site is simple. Once again, think like a user. What would make you do a u-turn and linger just a bit longer, then return soon and often? Of course, the content must be engaging and applicable. Assuming that's true, you the user would want to do something with that content such as:
      • rate the value of what you read or heard;
      • bookmark a page using your preferred service: Delicious, StumbleUpon, etc.;
      • capture and store information from various pages (e.g., Google Notebook);
      • share information with others by clicking on email, print, ShareThis, and various social networking options; and
      • receive email or SMS cellphone alerts on items of interest.
      5 Moving Tips
      1. Flash motion can add personality to pages, but sometimes that personality is narcissistic. A revolving header screams, “look at me because I’m more important than what you’re looking at."

      2. Moving images -- video, animation, etc. -- add entertainment and a human touch to content. Use those formats increasingly but let the site visitor choose to turn them on.

      3. The canned message on the homepage from your CEO probably won't move visitors. It's rarely read and never read on the second visit. Save the real estate.

      4. Keep the user stationary by integrating all media into pages rather than separate windows.

      5. Construct the homepage as a map, but realize that many, if not most visitors will move from another site directly to a page of specific interest on your site.

      Richard Skaare 01.11.09
      Credit: Photo by Luke Redmond

      Tuesday, January 06, 2009

      Beware: What You Create Could Own You

      Writing, designing, producing -- anything creative – can easily turn from imaginative to seductive. Our mission was clear and exciting when we started the article or graphic. Yet, at some point, after hours of brain-wrenching thinking and redrafting, we lost our way and what we were creating began to own us.

      I know this dilemma well, as illustrated by this story.

      The first speech I wrote in the first month of my first corporate job years ago had the industrial-strength title of “The Economics and Politics of Human Rights.” The title was mine. In fact, most of the thinking and all of the crafting – organizing, writing, and tuning – was mine. Or so I thought as I finished the first draft.

      My hazing as the new guy was to write a speech for an executive vice president who had been invited to present at a prestigious business school. Other executives were quite comfortable talking at Rotary Club luncheons in plant communities about the company’s exploits. My client wanted to take on ethical issues. Eager to prove myself, I readily took the challenge.

      I met briefly with the EVP who sketched his thoughts on the topic. I didn’t ask many questions because I was eager to frame up my own ideas, show him the finished piece, and then convince him to buy in. I wrote a draft quickly, hammered it endlessly, and gave it to the bosses on the three rungs above me. Two days later, they replied.

      The cover memo was glowing. I glowed. They even used the “unique” word. Then I turned the page to review specific comments on the text. The margins were cluttered with critiques, some harsh; whole paragraphs were crossed out; summary criticisms were added at the end. Whoa! Panic attack.

      By the third review of the massacre, I was getting somewhat objective. Perspective was returning. I realized that the more emotionally-laden comments were less about writing quality and more about the critics’ own enthusiasm for the topic. They were acting out the speech in their minds: envisioning it being delivered by the executive, watching the audience’s reaction, and anticipating questions. From that came their changes.

      I could disagree with their specific alterations, but I could not disagree with their passion to make this unusual speech even more penetrating. I realized that the phrasing, the texture, and the substance were still mine, but the final speech was a composite of the three seasoned communicators and the novice.

      After judiciously incorporating changes, I sent it to the EVP and subsequently met to discuss it. This time I listened. He liked the speech a lot. Much more important, however, he got talking comfortably and deeply about the impact on developing countries when their resources ran out and the metals company exited.

      Hearing his heart-felt reflections, I knew I had to rework the speech at least once more. He had added a dimension I had overlooked as I rushed ahead to create what I knew could be an outstanding portfolio piece for me. He had humanized the topic. And he had reminded me without ever saying it that the speech was his not mine.
      Remember the ring in JRR Tolkien’s trilogy? Everyone who possessed it was possessed by it. Similarly with our creative work, we are exhilarated by its power and sometimes overpowered by it. We flinch at suggested changes, restrict access to the work; position ourselves as authorities on it. Our pride blinds us to the ultimate purpose. In short, we mistake the means for the end, which is communication.

      How does this happen?

      3 Thoughts

      1 We view communication as proprietary, not open-source.
      The open-source concept, long fostered by software developers, is simple and uncomfortably counter-intuitive: give away your work to increase its worth. You come up with an ingenious original, but rather than protecting it as your property, you share it with others so they can add to and benefit from it. Your reward is that you started the value-adding chain.

      That’s our job as creative types. We originate, collaborate, appropriate, and then let go. In other words, I created a speech, my more experienced bosses perfected it with me, the executive adapted it to his style, and the audience walked away with a different perspective that they can share with others. I am proud that I started the process flowing. If I demanded we do it my way, if my superiors demanded the corporate way, if the presenter had demanded that he knew better, communication would have been lost.

      The best writers, designers, and other creative types I have known:
      • spend time walking around an idea or assignment;
      • agonize over approaches;
      • suddenly get inspired by an angle;
      • mash it up with other angles;
      • develop a love-hate relationship;
      • toss out the initial version;
      • and then yank it out of the recycle bin the next day and make it work.
      They like the finished piece -- sometimes too much. They run it by others and try to keep quiet when feedback is unpleasant. But eventually they come to their senses, knowing that the value of what they incubated flowed partially from others and mostly from their own imagination. They also know that, ultimately, the value of their work will be determined by the people who receive and use it. If those people “get it,” it’s really good.

      2 We view communication as standalone forms and job descriptions.
      We know that the function – the purpose – of our communication work is to transfer what is in our heads – or our management or client’s heads – into the audience’s heads in ways that will shift their attitudes and alter their behavior. Yet we seem to be more addicted to the forms than to the function: the blog we write, the website we design, the event we organize.

      Why wouldn’t we? Form gives us an immediate confirmation of accomplishment. It says we are doing our jobs producing publications as the publications manager or websites as the webmaster. Executing is what we get paid to do, isn’t it?

      But is the publication or website communication? Actually, no, not in itself. It’s a piece of the puzzle. We probably agree on that point. But who is putting the pieces together? Isn’t that the job of anyone who calls himself or herself a communicator? Are we not integrators rather than separatists?

      The point I think is obvious. Nothing we create should be a stand-alone. Our creations are nodes on a communication network. Together, we build that network.

      3 We view communication as a support service not a business function.
      I wrote about this issue in a previous blog post (Want to Communicate? Don’t Call the Communication Department). Summing up what I said:

      Management views communication as strategic and part of their responsibility, primarily for two reasons:
      • Their personal communication skills, they believe, helped get them to where they are. They understand communication better than anyone, they think.
      • They confuse communication with information, which they consider something they originate, regulate, and approve.
      Management views communicators as tactical.
      In part, that’s because they have met few professional communicators who are anything but implementers. However, they typically think that more tactics will correct the organization’s weak communication.
      Affirmation, appreciation, and respect for communicators can get skimpy in many organizations. We all moan at times about management’s failure to understand our work.

      But switch places with an executive. Could she not complain that we lack an understanding of the business? If we want our work to have a greater impact on the big picture, we have to put on tri-focals to see that big picture, the medium-range plans of the organization, and the daily interactivity of various functions.

      Finally, as if all of what I have said is not enough to overload your mind, here are ideas to help you reconsider ownership of what you create.

      5 Ideas
      1. Read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral & the Bazaar.
      2. Convert your next article, say on a profile of an ambitious employee, into three points that a salesperson could readily incorporate into a sales pitch he is making to a top prospect.
      3. When sending or presenting a creative work to your employer or client, have everyone in your group sign it.
      4. Identify the best communicator in the organization outside the communication department, and have him teach you communication from the outside in.
      5. Remove your title and those of your staff from business cards or call yourselves “Communicator.”

      Richard Skaare 01.06.09