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Are you driving your meetings into a ditch? December 2, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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As a consultant, I help managers and front-line supervisors to achieve their myriad, sometimes conflicting, corporate goals.  Usually, in the mining environment, this relates to daily production rates – how many trucks, how much rock, how many tons processed and sold.  Despite mining’s many inherent challenges of geology, mechanical breakdowns, and logistics, seasoned professionals have seen most of them before.  One of the largest barriers to improvement isn’t any of these, rather, it is the staff itself – sometimes an individual, but often a corporate culture that has become bogged down in habit – a habit of bad meetings.

One of the first things we do on a site is examine meeting effectiveness.  We use the 5-P model, modified to fit our particular clients’ needs.  Our model requires that each meeting have:

  1. Purpose
  2. Payoff
  3. Participants
  4. Process
  5. Preparation

In short, we want clear outcomes (for the meeting itself and the longer term strategy), the right people, a clear agenda, and enough preparation that no one is receiving important information “cold turkey”.

But there is another, sneakier way that meetings can be hijacked.  This article illustrates another “P” – one that you DON’T want to have if you want to get things done.  PLOT stands for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.  It states that more time is spent discussing low-impact issues simply because they are more familiar and controllable.  Bigger, more important issues are given mere minutes due to complexity and a tendency to trust the ‘experts’, while low value ‘bike sheds’ consume hours.

Though intended as a spoof, indeed there is likely some behavioral science behind this (Dan Ariely, are you reading this?).  We know that people can act quite irrationally when emotionally involved with an issue.  And if there’s anything that meetings seem to be especially good at, it is the nurturing of irrationality.

Prioritized Procrastination August 8, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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It takes a strong will to resist the pull of procrastination.  We fall into the trap for various reasons, some conscious, many not.  It happens at work, at home, and most of all, at school.  Fear, anxiety, social and economic pressures, stress – all conspiring to put up mental blocks and false leads against our perceived potential failures – and successes.

If you are awake, you are probably procrastinating.  And this article by Rory Vaden of Southwestern Consulting shows you just how insidious it can be.

We all have to-do lists.  Some are simple, some complex.  A typical project plan is a to-do list of sorts as well.  Everyone has their respective tasks and priorities.  But most projects and businesses also have their share of firefighting and reactionary management, silently wreaking havoc on the successful achievement of your goals.

Managers in particular face this battle nearly every day.  Especially at 24/7 operations that are so common in heavy industries like mining and materials processing, the first question on many managers’ minds is, “what happened last night?”  This sets every day up for potential failure.  Rather than addressing the pre-existing priorities, managers get sucked into the vortex of day-to-day reaction, moving farther and farther from their strategic goals.

Vaden’s tips come down to a few key questions when a new “priority” arises:

  • Was this activity on my primary to-do list when I arrived at work today?
  • Is this activity one of the key drivers of achieving success in my position?
  • Does this activity require my unique thought process?
  • Will this issue likely resolve itself without my intervention if I allow some time?
  • Is there another person on our team who is mostly capable of handling this?
  • Can the resolution of this issue wait until some point in the future without substantial repercussion?

As simple and straightforward as this list seems, these aren’t always easy questions to answer.  Also, like so many other choices, our inside voice can often ignore otherwise obvious signs to the right decision.  Hence, one of the best phrases in this article: objective accountability.

If you are having trouble focusing on those most critical tasks – the ones that provide direct, measurable value to your business – it may be wise to seek an objective opinion.  The key is not to necessarily look outside the organization, but at least outside your normal chain of authority.  Find someone that can not only provide a ruthless culling of your to-do list, but someone who will hold you accountable to stick to it once it’s done.

Pushing Time June 3, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM, Management.
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I’m a big fan of Alan Weiss.  Whether you are an actual consultant or simply someone who runs a business with customers, his advice can yield excellent results – though to be really successful, it needs to be applied somewhat ruthlessly.

Meetings are times when you will need to decide whether to make friends with the client and not make waves OR do the right thing.  Being a consultant is hard work.  You are already being injected into an organization, from the top, without much buy-in from the people with whom you must work on a daily basis.  On top of that, you must deconstruct the client’s workday into manageable parts and work on them in order of priority.  The problem?  Until the change is accepted and habitual, you are working in transition between the old and the new.

Unfortunately, even the most open-minded clients may perceive their existing workdays as unchangeable until proven otherwise.  This means that pointless meetings and sub-par time management will cause them to postpone meetings with the consultant – if for no other reason than the consultant is an “intrusion” on the existing schedule.

Don’t let it happen.

As Weiss might say, if you let the client postpone your meeting, you are training them that your time is less valuable than theirs.  And this is unacceptable if you are to be the client’s peer and partner in solving their problems – not just a subcontractor.  You must be up to the challenge of holding everyone to their commitments.  If you can’t keep your own promise to yourself to improve the client’s condition, how can you coach someone else to keep theirs?

For more of Alan’s monthly tips, click here.

It Can Always Be Better May 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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As any artist knows, the job is never really finished.  It can always use a little tweak here, a different word there, a different color, another nub of clay.  The joke could be funnier, the song more in tune.

So it is with almost any project.

The plan can always use another step, another detail, a finer division of time and effort.  The scope could always be just a bit bigger to cover that one final eventuality.  And surely, for just a few dollars more we could make the product just so and really push it over the top.

As you might guess, this approach to project management will lead to what is commonly called “scope creep” (not to be confused with the project manager himself). In the engineering world, it can take the form of “analysis paralysis” as decisions are postponed until “we have all the information”.

But what about a more insidious effect, born of our need for order and solutions to everyday problems – such as “where did I leave my keys”?

When your organization or industry is changing, there can be many overwhelming activities occurring all at once.  In addition, most of us lack the ability to filter out all of them, as they actively occupy our attention.  Why?  When faced with the threat of change, our brains are wired to pay special attention.  It’s as if we are walking down a forest trail, minding our own business when suddenly

Your brain ignores the trees, the sky, and all the other things around that pose no threat.  You focus on the changed conditions and the immediate threat to your survival.  As crazy as it sounds, this happens in everyday life as well.

It is mentally taxing to worry about all the little things that can inevitably could stand some improvement.  And our brains are wired to reduce risk whenever possible.

The challenge then is to literally train yourself to focus on only the most critical items that demand your attention.  There are many small annoyances that aren’t important to the organization’s success.  They may be small inefficiencies, some extra paperwork, or a procedure that no one follows properly.  They may even be costing the organization real money.  It’s quite tempting to address them because they are easy and can provide a short-term reward because you “solved the problem”.

But if you manage a large staff, a capital-intensive operation, or a complex project, these shouldn’t even be on your radar screen.  They are distractions – and dangerous ones at that.  They lull you into a false sense of security and postpone the inevitable when the big issues finally become critical, unavoidable, and expensive.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
Albert Einstein

Meetings and Play-Dates January 24, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Curious about “collaboration” as a buzzword, I Googled the phrase “collaboration without”.

The first four suggestions were:

You can also collaborate without email, limits, headaches, chaos, costs, co-location, and even – inexplicably – head shaving.  To our credit, we cannot apparently have collaboration without communication nor common values.  Seems logical enough.

This got me thinking; is it possible to have collaboration without meetings?  Of course, collaboration is defined by two or more people working together toward a common goal.  One would naturally assume that at least one “meeting” would be required somewhere in the process.

But if a meeting is defined as a formal session with a clear start and end, along with other niceties, I think it is perfectly reasonable to do without them.  What would this look like, and why is it important?

I’ve observed many people, sheltered in their cubicles, who believe that any human interaction during their workday is taking them away from the “real work”.  Any commitment outside their box must be received and accepted via Outlook.  Sad to say, but this attitude is probably causing them more grief than they are trying to avoid in the first place – not to mention bringing down overall productivity.

By demanding (whether from the employee’s or employer’s perspective) formal meeting agendas and set time commitments, the organization is forced to have such things as “pre-pre-meeting meetings”.  This is getting out of hand.  I know of no organization that can function without regular human interactions – formal or not.  It seems, rather, that many organizations have become groups of individuals who must have their entire days scheduled as if they were play-dates.

The problem is that collaboration, design, science, and even basic conversation is messy.  It does not conform to schedules, timetables, and clear agendas.  Don’t get me wrong – agendas have their place; the bigger the meeting, the more important they are.  But for daily interactions, sometimes you just have to go down the hall, pick up the phone, or (dare I say, as a last resort) send the email – no pre-meeting agenda required.

This means that those recurring meetings may not be required if no one has anything to share.  And they may not if, during the week, they have informally sat down together as groups of two or three to work out a resolution or a plan.  If your job requires synthesizing, analyzing, recommending, or planning based around some set of information, you don’t have to wait for the meeting to get it.

Don’t Be That Guy December 2, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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We talk a lot in my business about “management by walking around.”  Naturally, one can’t truly manage a workforce from an office or otherwise not in regular contact.  Indeed, I addressed just this very issue before, but as always, there are exceptions to the rule.

As a business coach, I must be constantly sensitive to my clients’ time and aware that anything I ask of them must fit into an already busy schedule.  Simply walking around and dropping in can easily consume valuable time, making my visits a chore and an annoyance rather than constructive.  Not only must I be aware of everyone’s “hard” scheduled commitments, but also of the more subtle differences in energy throughout the day.

One person may be ready to attack new tasks first thing in the morning and would welcome adding things to the list so that they can be prioritized all together.  Another leaves work the previous day having his morning scheduled just so and detests interruptions and changes until the major tasks have been completed.  Solution: drop in for a few minutes with Person A at the start of the day; save Person B for after lunch.

Taking this approach to yet another level, just because I avoid taking valuable time from Person B in the morning, doesn’t mean I can’t say “hi” or otherwise engage in a brief, non-work-related chat.  The subtle payoff is this: I (hopefully) will not be “that guy” that can’t talk about anything but work or always comes rushing in with a “five minute” task at all hours of the day.

Accepting coaching is already stressful and time-consuming.  If all you ever bring to your staff is another job that doesn’t quite fit into the schedule, hasn’t been well thought out, or is otherwise just another fire drill, your mere presence can cause stress and anxiety.  This feeling – even if mild and unconscious – can reduce productivity and creativity, even to the point of active resistance to your management efforts.

Two Laws June 10, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Please read my latest guest blog at “How to Manage a Camel”: