Category Archives: Activity Levels

Meeting Invitations

Let’s get one thing straight up front: I am not proposing to be any sort of Ann Landers when it comes to any sort of business conduct advice. I call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I try to base it on my personal experiences. And I am definitely not a Miss Manners when it comes to saying or doing the proper things according to some unwritten business protocol. I like to quote the Texas Comedian Ron White when it comes to describing myself: “I have the right to remain silent. Unfortunately, I seldom have the ability to remain silent.” However, today I may tread on the toes of the Mms. Landers and Manners, when I visit today’s topic, meeting invitations.

I think by this point it should be well known that I am not a particular fan of meetings. Any meetings. I believe that the current business climate has far too many meetings. And all of these meetings are invariably too long. I think that this meeting proliferation is a byproduct of the matrix organizational structures that are now the base-line organizational structure for so many businesses. I also believe that having meetings is an activity that sometimes confused with actual business progress.

Sometimes it appears that we are spending more time in meetings (actually not meetings, but what were once described as “conference calls”) making sure that everyone is aware of and aligned with the latest information and associated directions, than actually progressing in that chosen direction. These are calls where we go over what we have already gone over, with the possible exception of those pieces of the puzzle that may have changed or been incremented in, since the last time they were reviewed, if you know what I mean.

It appears that business has created something of a “meeting culture” where every meeting can hold significant importance and therefore anyone with what could be considered having even a tangential connection to the topic at hand should attend.

This brings me to today’s soap box.

If someone is invited to a meeting, that said meeting’s ownership does not automatically become partially theirs by the simple act of agreeing to attend that meeting. Meeting attendees should not presuppose the right to then invite any others to that meeting, just because they have accepted the meeting invitation.

This brings me to Rule One of meeting behavior:

“If you are not the meeting organizer, do not invite anyone else to the meeting without the express consent of the meeting organizer.”

If you have been invited to a meeting, good for you. If you truly believe that someone else should also attend due either to their topical knowledge, being a stakeholder in the issue to be covered, or just for comedic relief, you should reach out to the meeting organizer before forwarding that meeting’s invitation. There may have been an actual, viable reason that particular person was not invited to the meeting. On the other hand, they may have been genuinely overlooked and should attend.

The point is that you will not know for sure unless you ask first. It won’t take much time, and it may avoid future issues associated with the meeting.

On the other side of this forwarded meeting topic, if you are the recipient of a forwarded meeting invitation, there are two additional rules that you may want to follow. The first is:

“Ask the original meeting organizer if it appropriate for you to attend the meeting.”

After all, you were not directly invited by the meeting organizer. It would be a courteous thing to do to assure that your invitation and attendance is appropriate or desired. The second is:

“Do not feel that by having a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting you are appropriately empowered to forward it and invite still other people to the meeting.”

This is not a “more the merrier” sort of situation. This is how what were to be short and concise meetings become bloated, run long and lose much of their desired functionality. Again, if you have received a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting, when you are checking with the meeting organizer to see if it is appropriate for you to attend the meeting, you can then bring up the topic of additional potential meeting attendees.

Perhaps the meeting culture within business has progressed to the point where what we once viewed as a yes/no decision associated with attending a potentially germane meeting as a part of our position, has evolved to a position where it is now incumbent to attend all meetings that may somehow be related to our respective roles, as being now part of the greater defined job responsibility. Where it was once that we were relieved to not be invited to any specific meeting since it was then perceived that meetings got in the way of getting your job done, it appears that many are now genuinely disappointed if they are not on the initial meeting attendee list since it is now perceived that attending meetings is now a significant part of the job.

As you may have guessed by now, I have been involved (several times actually) in situations where I have scheduled a small meeting on a concise topic, only to have the meeting attendance balloon beyond normal recognition and the topics diffuse themselves to the point where progress is almost impossible. Now, I know that I don’t call many meetings, and that the ones that I do call are purposely kept short with a limited invitee list in order to drive both proper meeting behavior, and so as not to impinge on people’s limited availability of time.

I am beginning to believe that it is for these reasons that people seem to want to invite other people to my meetings.

Is it possible that there is some sort of cache associated with attending my meetings? Does their rarity and truncated length make them that much more desirable to attend? Do people get the same sort of satisfaction from attending one of my relatively few, short meetings, that would get if they were to get a reservation or access to one of those “in” bars or restaurants that it seems only the beautiful people get to attend.

There are no paparazzi skulking around my meetings ready to take pictures of the elite few that I have been invited to attend.

I am reasonably adept at calling and setting up meetings, as I am sure so many others are. If I had wanted other, or additional attendees to the meeting, I would have invited them myself. It really isn’t that hard to do.

So why does this happen?

I wish I knew. When I am invited to someone else’s meeting, the first thing that crosses my mind is not “who else should attend this meeting?”. It is more along the lines of “is this a functional meeting that I should attend, or not”. As I sit here, I am hard pressed to think of an instance where I have forwarded someone else’s meeting invitation either with or without their pre-approval.

On the other hand, I can usually count on seeing several more attendees than the number I have actually invited, at any meeting I set up.

Perhaps the greater change in the meeting culture of business is as I mentioned before: Meetings were once viewed as a necessity that usually got in the way of doing your job. As communications capabilities have blossomed, we seem all too eager to take advantage of the advanced meeting technologies available, whether we need to or not. Now what was once a necessity that got in the way is now perceived as just a necessity.

The perception seems to now be that if you are not in a large number of meetings, you are not busy. If you are not in all the meetings that could possibly impact your function, then you are not doing your job. As our abilities to meet and share information has grown, so has our desire to be a part of the meeting and sharing, whether we need to or not.

The matrix organizational structure, and the processes that must be in place to make it function effectively does require an increased amount of communication to make sure that the business can run relatively smoothly. Functional hand-offs require coordination. Coordination reduces the possibility and effect of “surprises”. These are obviously good things.

There comes a point in time where the business process and culture has become a meeting process and culture. A calendar full of meetings will then seems to be desired and aspired to, as opposed to limiting meeting attendance in favor of other functional activities. When that happens, it can seem that every available meeting has then become “open game” for whomever wishes to attend it.

You can tell that point has passed when meeting attendees start inviting other people to your meetings as a matter of course.

Work Not Done

Everybody is talking about efficiency these days. And customer value. But mostly about efficiency. How do we become more efficient? How do we gain efficiency? All that kind of stuff. The drive is to reduce costs.

We have all heard the trite, stale, overused homilies. Do more with less. Work smarter not harder. Yadda yadda yadda. Right. In todays (over) process driven business environment, I am pretty much convinced that none of this is going to work. We have to get our collective heads around the idea that true efficiency is in fact going to come from doing less with less while still delivering the desired performance result. Efficiency is going to come from looking at what gets done while at the same time quantifying what was actually not needed to be done in getting the deliverable result.

In the past I have been party to and sometimes involved in multiple local, regional, global, galactic and intergalactic programs aimed at standardizing processes and methodologies in the name of gaining efficiency. For the most part none of them have been what I would call an unquestioned success. In many instances they actually seemed to have added incremental effort and complexity to the existing model for doing business.

I think what they all lacked was a business case that took the time to quantify what the work effort required to provide the desired deliverable was prior to the change or standardization and what the work effort to provide the same desired deliverable was at the end of the change or standardization process. Hopefully the new work effort is less than the initial work effort required for the same deliverable. The difference between these two amounts is the “Work Not Done”. This would be the quantifiable improved efficiency.

This value is the work that was being done, but now is no longer being done. You want this value to be as big as possible. A positive Work Not Done value means you have removed effort from a process. You have streamlined. You have become more efficient. A negative Work Not Done value means you have added effort to the process. You are less efficient.

For so long we have had it hammered into our collective business psyches that standardization equals efficiency. We strive to standardize our products, our services and our processes in the hope of eking out additional efficiencies and savings. We seem to have pursued this single minded approach to standardization against the competing back drop of infinite specialization with respect to both the roles required for delivering the standardization and the infinite variety of products being created from the standardization for the customers.

Figure that one out. But I digress.

I think the idea of Work Not Done should consist of looking at the work effort, process, functions, roles and people associated with the delivery of something towards an agreed goal, and then deciding what parts of it can be removed (or not done) and still successfully deliver the goal.

I think it can be and should be as simple as that.

Now this may sound suspiciously like some sort of “Lean” principle, where everything that does not contribute value to a customer should be removed.

I guess it actually does sound a little like that, even to me.

However, my point is that if we are going to try and be more efficient, let’s be more quantitative and less qualitative about it.

Stop me if you have heard this one before….

Most of these standardization drives, and by extension the drives for efficiency seem to be based on the concept or principle that if we standardize we will be more efficient. Standardization usually involved the creation of a centralized function group that would be responsible for the standard and its implementation. This group is normally referred to as incremental effort or over-head. They have been added to the existing process where they didn’t exist before. They would be considered “negative” Work Not Done (or “incremental work being done if you prefer”).

There is then the maintenance of the ongoing standardized process where there is significant effort over time from both the centralized standardization group and the other (regional?) groups that have been standardized. At the end of this standardization process there is usually a centralized group that remains in place since the standards must now be managed and the regional groups that are now utilizing the expected standards must report their adherence to these standards back to them.

There is usually no place in the drive for standardization where a baseline of the current effort spent is captured, an expected effort associated with implementing the standardization change is estimated and a resulting and hopefully lower new work effort line is estimated. This would result in a quantified Work Not Done going forward goal is set for the success of the standardization to be measured against.

If you are going to standardize, you ought to expect to get some efficiency out of it, otherwise, why would you do it?

When looking at the mechanics of a Work Not Done business case there would be an initial Work Not Done “Deficit” or debt incurred as there will be a period of time where there will be incremental work input into the process or system in an effort to change the way the current work method is conducted. Once the change has been implemented there needs to be an ongoing return on the Work Not Done investment in the form of the work that is no longer being done during the deliverable process. This is the actual efficiency or work savings paying back on the change effort work investment. It is expected that this Work Not Done payback will eventually cover the incremental cost associated with the change effort, and then start paying dividends in form of savings for the business.

The shorter this payback time, the more efficient the new process or capability is. This is a quantitative approach to the desire for efficiency.

As Robert McNamara (President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense) once said:

“First get the data.”

I am also going to paraphrase one of my favorite authors here, Robert Heinlein. He said:

“If it can’t be expressed in figures, it’s not science. It is opinion”

Business keeps score, and reports it progress quarterly with figures. In fact many laws have been passed that limit a business’s ability to provide “opinion” on its relative or perspective performance lest they unfairly or inaccurately lead the market. There may be some qualitative (opinion) aspects to how a business reports its performance, but by and large it is quantitative and the figures speak for themselves. It would seem that this would also be a very good way to start looking at all efficiency and standardization programs – via the figure they generate.

I think many managers are of the opinion that simplification, cost reduction, streamlining, efficiency, etc can come from standardization. This is a qualitative approach. There is usually very little analysis (and quantification) of the incremental work required to implement a standardization change into a business. Everybody just seems to know that it is a good thing to do.

Heinlein addressed this type of topic in the past as well. He said:

“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”

I am not going to say that the odds are stacked that strongly against standardization in and of itself generating quantifiable efficiencies and cost savings. I just happen to think that most of that low hanging fruit associated with this argument has already been picked and that quantification of performance is needed.

If there is little analysis of the effort required to implement a standardization change, there is usually no time spent examining the Work Not Done payback that should be expected from such an effort. If a business is going to invest capital in an attempt to generate greater efficiency there is normally a return that is expected. Whether it is Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on (Invested) Capital (ROIC) there is a metric to see if you are efficiently using the capital resource.

When we are looking at trying to generate efficiencies, synergies or any other kinds of cost reduction we need to start implementing the same financial rigor into the process that we do when we are investing capital, and try and quantify the efficiency return we are looking for from a labor or a process modification investment. It should be in the form of Work Not Done.

We Love Our Distractions

I am sitting here writing this Blog, with the TV on, with a
football game being played. I don’t know who is playing, New York I think. I don’t really care. I’m writing
a Blog. At least I am trying to write a Blog. In the next room my wife has the
stereo on (utilizing Pandora – Michael Buble…I think…). I’m still trying to
write a Blog. I could probably turn off the TV and close the door and get more
focused on the task at hand, but that would mean that I would have to fully
focus on what I am doing. I don’t know if I can do that anymore.

I think back to when I am in the office and wonder if it
would be any easier to do this there. But then I think of how often my phone
rings. I always have to answer it. I don’t know why. I immediately prioritize
the ringing phone above almost anything else I am doing at the moment. I get
very, very few calls that are ever worth the interruption, but when I ever do, I
am usually answering them by the first ring.

I also think about my Instant Messaging. That seems to be
going off all the time. Everybody must feel that they must be using it these days. It makes me
wonder what we did before we had it. I can’t remember ever getting any  important information or messages via IM, but my hope springs eternal in that I will, so I always stop what I am
doing to see what someone else wants on IM.

I also have a door on my office, but I seldom close it. It
has a glass window in it so people can look in and see if I am there anyway.
People have a tendency to stop by and just come in to talk to me. It doesn’t
seem to matter to them what I am doing. They just walk in. Sometimes they
actually bring work with them, as if it is work that is more important than the
work I was already doing. Sometimes they just bring their coffee cup, which is
obviously more important than whatever I was doing before.

We won’t discuss email at this point. We all have
acquired an email habit / addiction that requires a “fix” at least every 5-10 minutes
lest some critical spam-like solicitation sit idle in our mailbox beyond its
freshness born-on date and we miss it. Have you ever been in someone’s office
when they start reading and responding to their email?

Not seeing someone feeding their email habit would be like
going to lunch with people and not seeing them texting or remotely reading
their email on their smart-phone. You would have a better chance of seeing the
tooth fairy than seeing people neglect their smart-phones for a full lunch hour.
Besides, messing with our smart-phones provides us the opportunity to show
everyone that we are with just how important we are and how crucial our input
is to the well being of the business.

Are you seeing a trend here? We all seem to love our
distractions. If we didn’t, we might take a few steps to reduce them, and focus
more on what we need to be doing. I am just as guilty of it as everyone else,
but I am trying to take a few steps to improve how I cope with the situation.

I have read that we become “dumber” when we multitask. The
average IQ of a man drops about 15 points when we multitask. I actually
believe this one. It means that senior management must multitask far more than
anyone else in the company had even suspected. It also means to me that when it is time to get
something done it is also time to turn off the IM, shut down the email and
close the door to the office. I admit that you can’t disconnect from the world
for extended periods of time, but the world can definitely get along without us
for an hour or two while we focus on getting something done.

I think it is also time to reintroduce the telephone to the
conversation. IM and email are not the media to use for conversations. If you
have to reply more than twice to an electronic message, it probably means that
the phone would be a better faster way to communicate. Use it once and get
done, instead of innumerable electronic messages of one type or another that scream
for our attention and distract us from what needs to be done.

We are goal oriented people for the most part. We like to
work, and then see the results of our labor. I think my wife likes to mow the
yard because she can see how good it looks when she is done. Many of my
neighbors have asked me how I convinced her of this idea, but I digress a
little here. The idea is to set smaller attainable tasks that can be handled
within manageable time periods. This way tasks can be accomplished in manageable
segments which reduce the opportunity for distraction and interruption.

These are just a few of the ideas that I think I will need
to implement in an effort to regain control of my day, and to get better
focused on the tasks I need to get done. They may work for you too. You may
have some other ideas and suggestions as well. The idea is that we all probably
could stand to reduce the number of distractions that we have to deal with as
we try to conduct or business.

By the way, the football game is still on, and I still am
not sure of the score, or who is playing, and the stereo is now playing
rock-n-roll Christmas songs…..

We are Working In Ghost Towns

I have recently had the opportunity to visit several of our companies other corporate offices as well as several of our customers at their locations. It was during these trips that I realized how much we had in common with our customers, and what the new norm seems to be in business. It seems that we are all working in ghost towns.

I visited major corporate offices in both the East and Mid-West and was surprised by how close to the front door I could park. I just pulled in and was only a few steps from the door. Initially I put it down to the fact that I prefer to get into the office a little earlier than average. It usually gives me time to get prepared for the day’s meetings.

During the day I had the occasion to look out the windows from one of the upper floors at the parking lot, and it didn’t look any better. It was far less than half full. This got me to thinking. I started to pay a little more attention to my surroundings in the building. It was quiet. Too quiet. There wasn’t a soul around.

I started to walk down a few random aisles. Most of the cubicles and offices were dark, with no name plates on them. The only real sound was the uneven whine-hum of the air conditioning system. If a tumbleweed had blown by I would have thought I was in one of those high plains desert westerns.

It was very similar at our customer’s locations as well. There were very few cars in the parking lot and even fewer people to be seen around the building.

I can remember back to a time (not so long ago) when if you were not at the office early in the morning there was a very real chance that you might not find a parking space. I can also remember (not too fondly) having to wait my turn through multiple elevators to make my way to an office on the upper floors of a building. It was a very lively and busy time.

I understand that the Telecom-Technology markets have had a reset, and that there have been some significant staff reductions. Some poor decisions by some companies and the general business downturn have helped to create a reduced resource demand. Companies no longer have or need the staffs they once carried during the market expansion periods.

I also think that we are now starting to fall victim to the very technology we have created to help increase our productivity. As a mobile business society we had to create the capability to be productive in those times when we were not in the office. In most cases this meant when we were out on the road. We needed remote access and all the other applications that we used when we were in the office. And we got them.

We got so good at working outside the office that it seems we have never gone back to it. It now appears that even people who live very close to their companies offices are choosing to work at home. In many instances companies are encouraging this arrangement. They are seeing the opportunity to reduce their overhead allocations for office space by having fewer people in the office. This helps the business unit’s bottom line by reducing the corporate overhead allocation for office space, but doesn’t seem to help the overall company since the office space is still there, but now it is just sitting empty and idle.

This brings me back to my topic. Our offices were once centers of activity. Teams worked, shared and collaborated face to face in the past. There was energy in the office and a general feeling of optimism. Now for both technical and economic reasons there far fewer people in the office. This seems to be the case with most offices. You walk around and there is no one there. It is quiet.

It doesn’t sound, look or feel like there is any activity or work being done in the office. If it doesn’t feel like there is a positive feeling for those of us still in the office, what can the feeling be for those who are outside the office? Those that are connected to the office through remote access technology (alone in their homes, or out on the road) surely can’t feel anymore, and in most cases are feeling much less comfortable with the progress of the business. Those that are now unemployed feel fully disconnected and are even less comfortable about it.

The office needs to be the center of our business activity. The office needs to be a place where people work and share their insights and opinions. I think we need to start getting people back into the office. We need to start by reducing the acceptability of remote and virtual office utilization. We need to encourage people who live near the office to come to the office. We need to increase both the activity and the activity level in the office.

We need to consolidate our office structures so that we do not have these vast stretches of empty, dark cubicles and offices reminding us of how good times were in the past, and how they are not so good now. We need to at least start to try and put energy and positive attitude back into the office if we are going to expect energy and positive attitude from the business in general. The only way that I am aware of getting energy and positive attitude is with people.

When the people are not there, neither is energy. The offices are relatively empty and dark without people. The convenience of virtual offices seems to me to be something of a contributing factor to the low energy and less than fully positive attitude that appears to be the norm in the office. Without people, working in the office is like working in a ghost town.

We need to start getting the people back in the office.

Take the Initiative

“If I can just make it through this busy time, I will be able to take a break…” At one time or another we have all either thought it or said it. It is what helped us get through a particular period of increased activity. It was the light at the end of the tunnel…so to speak.

I think what most of us missed in this scenario was that our work load was not increasing above its normal level. It was returning to its proper level.

There are always lulls in the business process. We tend to miss them as they don’t occur all at once. Gradually we find that we have more time to get things done, or drink our coffee, or any number of other diversions. With a little honest self examination you will know if you are working fully up to your potential.

It is at these times when you should take the initiative.

There are always important and significant customers that could use another “touch”. There are always budgets that could use another review, presentations that need to be updated and strategies that need to be revised. There are always things that we wanted to do to improve the business, or at least our portion of it.

In short, don’t relax. Don’t get busy. Get to work.

It’s hard to believe but it will invigorate both you and the team. It helps you maintain the “Act, don’t React” approach to business. Don’t wait for something to happen to drive your activity. Look to drive your activity in order to make something happen. It is not some trite platitude. It will actually work. It might sound a little odd, but taking the initiative to do more during a slower time will help keep the team more focused, and the business will run better.