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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