Categories
Program Management

Make it harder to make it better

Monday 8 AM. You grab your mug, take a sip, open your calendar, and notice that a call has been scheduled for 8:30 AM. You don’t recall it to be there on Friday afternoon but your coffee didn’t kick in yet so you’re not sure. The subject is quite generic. Double-click on the invitation to see what that’s about. Nothing more than a Teams or Zoom link in the body. If you’re like me, my initial reaction is to decline it. If you’re not, I hope you join my team after reading this article.

Short of time? Jump straight to the summary at the end.

Meetings are just too easy to be scheduled and most people don’t do the due diligence before sending an invitation. If you want to have more effective meetings, you should first make them harder to schedule. In his “Indistractable” book, Nir Eyal presents a few suggestions to help improve your meetings. I’ll wrap up the article with a couple more.

No Agenda, No Meeting

A few years ago, even before reading Nir’s book, I politely declined a call saying that I didn’t understand its purpose and there was no agenda. The organizer provided an agenda and re-sent the invitation. I accepted it and from that moment on, most invitations from him included an agenda. While that could have been a one-off case, imagine the ripple effect if multiple people in your organization start doing the same. What if a VP does that? That is the kind of change that can exponentially spread if you convince a few influential people to give it a try.

A few benefits from it:

  • Confirmation if you or other people are actually needed
  • Understand if other people should be invited
  • Prepare for the discussion
  • Ask questions even before the call

No Prep Work, No Meeting

Nir mentions that “the primary objective of most meetings should be to gain consensus around a decision” and that the organizer should put in the work to elaborate on the problem description, their reasoning, and their recommendations. The time invested in that prep work translates to time (and money, as we’ll see soon) saved for multiple participants.

It doesn’t need to be a 10-page long document covering all the details that you want to discuss in the call. A single-page one would do the job and it should be a must for most meetings.

Multiple Laptops, No Meeting

Depending on the company culture, it’s widely acceptable to have all participants using their laptops during a meeting. One may argue that it may be needed to look at something relevant or to respond to urgent requests. Let’s be honest and agree that most of the time, we are just distracted checking e-mails and chats, or (the fallacy that I love the most) multi-tasking. IMHO, that’s just disrespectful. If you can’t pay attention to the meeting, then decline it and say that you have other high-priority items to work on.

Establish a one-laptop-per-meeting rule. Include in the invitation that you expect the participants to be fully engaged and that they should not bring their laptops to the conference room. Only the presenter and maybe a notetaker will have their laptops on. You should remind them about the rule before the meeting starts and politely ask for people’s attention if someone breaks the rule.

Are you curious about how to make it happen for remote teams? I am too. If you have an idea, please share it in the comments. I’d love to give it a try.

Estimate your meetings’ costs

Most people don’t realize how much meetings can cost. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. You scheduled a meeting with 8 people including you. Let’s assume that the average cost per employee including all benefits is around $200k/year, i.e., the cost per hour per person = 200,000 / (12 * 22 * 8) = $95. Total cost for a 1-hour call = 8 * 95 = $760. Make it a weekly series for 3 months and that will cost your company 12 * 760 = $9,120! That by itself would make me reconsider those calls, but that’s not all.

Besides the direct cost, there is also the indirect cost for distracting people from their other tasks. According to a study from the University of California Irvine, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds for people to get back to their task after being distracted. That’s about 40% extra for that 1-hour series. Would you pay around $13k for that? Considering it may change your mind about scheduling it or, at least, make you better prepare for it.

Ask for meeting notes

The organizer should take notes or assign somebody to do so. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and I recognize that I’ve done (and still do) that several times. As a participant, you can help to replace that bad habit.

If you don’t get the notes within 24 hours after the meeting, just shoot an email to the organizer asking for them. The longer it takes for the organizer to write them down, the harder it gets and the more likely to miss important decisions or action items. That can be a bit embarrassing for the host if he/she keeps doing that over and over. By doing that you can help build a culture of more effective meetings in your company.

Summary

  • Decline to meetings if they don’t have an agenda
  • Decline to meetings if you noticed that there was not enough prep work put in them
  • Limit to one laptop in the call to drive focus on the topics been discussed
  • Estimate the cost of your meetings and don’t schedule them if you wouldn’t be willing to pay for them
  • Ask for the meeting notes if you don’t get them within 24hs
Categories
Culture

2 must-haves to build a culture of learning

Success can come in many different forms, but if your organization wants to have a chance to continue succeeding, learning must be part of its DNA. Similarly, learning can be achieved by taking different paths (training, coaching, sharing, teaching, …), but most of the opportunities come from day-to-day work since that’s where people spend most of their time. However, practice by itself doesn’t guarantee learning.

Allowing team members to voice their thoughts and building an environment that stimulates taking risks are required to convert experience and practice into learning. However, these can only be achieved if psychological safety and blamelessness are present.

Psychological Safety

Can you think of an occasion at work when you held your thoughts? If so, why did you do that? Didn’t you feel comfortable sharing them? Were you afraid of saying anything ‘wrong’, of any sort of retaliation, or of sounding incompetent? While several factors (introversion, people in the room, …) can contribute to people not to voice their opinions, lack of psychological safety is definitely a common one.

Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. That means that people should feel comfortable to share their ideas/suggestions/mistakes/concerns with their teams with no fear of being punished. Sometimes reactions apparently as harmless as a giggle or cutting someone off can erode the psychological safety of a team.

Workplaces with low psychological safety can jeopardize the ability of teams to innovate and to learn from each other. New ideas usually come from tiny increments of work through a sequence of several, maybe unintentional events. A comment may trigger a discussion, that raises a problem, that drives ideas, that may lead to a brand-new product. However, that flow will not happen unless people feel safe to speak up and that may lead to missing many learning opportunities. The way an organization handles incidents tells a lot about how much psychological safe is valued in its culture.

Blamelessness

All the services are down and you start receiving tons of notifications. A war room is created and then the ‘fun’ starts. If that gives you goosebumps, you may have had a traumatic experience. If that brings you some memories of collaboration, teamwork, and synergy, you may have experienced an incident where the focus was solely on addressing the problem and on avoiding it to happen again.

Blamelessness is the notion of switching responsibility from people to systems and processes and it fosters psychological safety. That means switches from ‘who’ to ‘what’. Teams should assume that people have done their best with the knowledge and tools that they had at hand. That’s similar to the Prime Directive for Retrospectives and bringing that up in the first incidents and post-mortems can set the scene for a learning instead of a blaming experience.

The Bad Apple Theory (or Old View) maintains that:

  • A complex system would be fine assuming you don’t have unreliable people (Bad Apples)
  • Humans are the dominant contributor to accidents
  • Failures come as unpleasant surprises and are introduced by unreliable people

Instead of thinking that we have bad people in safe systems, we should think that we have well-intentioned people in imperfect systems. That mindset will drive your team to learn from failures and build the foundation for them to focus on problem-solving instead of covering their tracks not to be blamed later.

Another aspect to watch out for to ensure blameless incidents is hindsight bias. If somebody says “I knew that was happening. It was so obvious!”, that should ring a bell. Hindsight bias is the common tendency for people to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they actually were. For example, if a friend says after a game that he knew since the beginning that his team would win it. There was no way to know that for sure, but he/she actually believed that he/she knew. This sort of attitude needs to be purged from any team. A way to handle that without calling out someone in front of many people is to have a 1:1 session and describe why those comments would damage the team’s capacity to handle and learn from an incident.

Fundamental attribution error can also be another call for action if noticed. That’s the tendency to assume that somebody’s action depends more on the type of person he/she is than the environment that influenced that action. For instance, somebody pushes an update that breaks a system and a colleague concludes that that person is not reliable since he didn’t graduate from a renowned university. Again, that represents a type of behavior that deviates from the main focus: understanding the problem, fixing it, and learning from it.

Being able to identify and fix these common counterproductive behaviors is required to build an environment where people know they will not be blamed and that they will be safe to thrive, take some risks, and learn.

Categories
Program Management

4 tips to be more productive

Amidst the current pandemic environment, you can see a flurry of posts and online seminars about productivity. That comes as a legit help for people who may be facing challenges to be or to feel productive while working from home. I’d like to share a few tips that have worked for me while working in the office and that turned out to be applicable also when working from home.

Knock off 1-2 tasks first thing in the morning

I like starting my days selecting 1 or 2 tasks that I can knock off within 30 to 45 minutes. It sets my mind on a path of accomplishments for the whole day. It’s my way to start my day off right. While it can be an easy-to-implement and effective tip, it’s worthwhile to bring up a few points:

  • You need to be conscious not to spend the rest of your days picking up only easy tasks just to cross several items from your to-do list;
  • Reading e-mails or catching up with IM (Teams, Slack, …) should not be one of those tasks;
  • Prioritize tasks that can unblock work for other people who are waiting for you;
  • Allocate time in your calendar so that people don’t try to schedule meetings and to help you to build a habit;
  • For a habit to be built, you need to have a reward after completing those tasks. Choose something meaningful to you (drinking a cup of coffee, checking your Instagram, reading your emails – if that gives you peace of mind, and so).

‘No’ is my default answer for most asks

You’re only as productive as your ability to say ‘No’ to new tasks. By definition, there is no focus if you’re focusing on several things at the same time. Multi-tasking is a fallacy and insisting on that will kill your performance!

You can benefit in a few different ways by saying No for most requests:

  1. People will re-think if they actually need you to do that. ‘Why’ would also do the work;
  2. People may try to convince you once you push back. That will probably lead you to better understand their motivation and will help to confirm if the work is as ‘urgent’ as they may claim;
  3. No gives you more time to think if 1) you should actually do it, 2) you should confirm you won’t do it, or 3) you should delegate it. Delegating tasks appropriately can generate wonderful results for you and your team.

Eat healthy food and work out frequently

Your body needs to be fully functional so that you can perform your duties well. Eating well is known to be related to productivity boost and the World Health Organization has stated that “adequate nutrition can raise your productivity levels by 20 percent on average

For me, reducing my overall carbs intake (mainly at lunch) has helped me to stay productive during the afternoon with no need for extra doses of caffeine. Intermittent fasting a couple of days a week has also made me feel better overall. I’ve learned with nutritionists that if you cook your own food, you have a much better chance to eat healthier by simply doing that. Important: by no means, I’m qualified to suggest which diet approaches you should follow and should seek a nutritionist to find something that works for you.

Working out on a daily basis is my stress-relief valve. When it comes to stress management, it’s important to understand its physiological relation with our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). SNS is our fight-or-flight system and it helps us to get focused when it’s time to execute or when we’re in danger. Switching between the activation of SNS and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is naturally done throughout the day. However, if you don’t have a way to manage your stress, your SNS may be overactivated and that will, for instance, impact your ability to innovate. Being creative to execute your routine tasks can save you several hours in the long run.

Combine eating healthy with regular exercises and you’ll be less likely to miss a day of work. Each day represents 5% of your potential productive time during a month. Get sick and you’ll lose a couple or a few days, which is more time than the performance “gains” you think you’re getting by skipping lunches or by deprioritizing that morning workout.

Sleep time is non-negotiable

The effects of sleep deprivation on our body and the number of people in the United State who suffer from some sort of sleep disorder are mind-blowing. I’ve always strived to sleep around 7 hours a day but reading the “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker made me take sleeping time more seriously.

Sleeping at least 7 or 8 hours every day has become a non-negotiable requirement for me. I had to implement a few challenging changes in my routine though:

  • Stop using my phone or laptop (blue-LED devices in general) at least 30-45 min before my sleep time. That helps the natural release of melatonin hormone, which is needed for us to fall asleep;
  • Replace regular coffee after lunch with decaf or caffeine-free tea. Decaf coffee contains only 5-10% of the amount of caffeine found in a regular one;
  • Change my workout hours to later on the next day if I happen to have late-night calls. I’m a 6AMer usually. As a matter of fact, working out without enough sleep will burn lean mass (muscle) instead of fat and it may make you feel miserable during the day. Finally, exercises should be done at least 2 or 3 hours before your bedtime to not impact your sleep quality.