Saturday, September 21, 2019

Throw a Flag

Having devoted a big chunk of my adult life to serving academics, I've been around a lot of academics (and pre-academics... even pseudo-academics). I don’t think of myself as an academic... more of a para-academic. But I enjoy the sport... a lot.

Often times academic discussions might be characterized as experimental speech. Sometimes there may be explicit rules, such as “what is said here stays here.” Often, in academic contexts, the rules are merely implied, allowing participants to float ideas for the community to debate. The productive tension found in a robust community results in better, more sound ideas that may then serve as foundations for action or further thought.

I’ve found a handy tool suited for this sort of tension-filled, robust debate or experimental speech. Empower people to throw a flag. We sometimes get so focused on the ideas that we disregard the people. A highly productive team should self-police and throw a flag when necessary.

So I tell colleagues: If you find me committing a foul, please throw a flag (I've been known to commit unnecessary roughness, pass interference, and such, during exuberant, academic debate).

Sometimes people throw a flag; there are those more tuned-in to feelings and perceived attacks and those valued members throw a flag… for themselves, but often on behalf of others. Throwing a flag gives the team a moment to refocus, and perhaps the speaker to clarify, or apologize. Just knowing that there are those empowered to throw a flag gives people freedom to speak, to float ideas and advocate for their positions. The presence of such a guard rail usually results in more productive discussion.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Better Meetings

Someone recently asked me for tips on having productive meetings. For many, it is worth thinking about, and tuning up, our approach to meetings from time to time since we spend so much time in meetings. If we can squeeze a bit more productivity out of our time in meetings, it can really pay off.

Here’s some simple approaches that have been helpful for me for both 1-on-1 meetings and team meetings:

Have an Agenda

The best way to know that we are all on the same page is to have a page. Having an agenda doesn’t have to be a barrier to the sometimes-productive free flow and chasing down rabbit trails that happens in meetings, it merely gives people a sense of what we expect to cover.

For many, seeing what is on the agenda allows people to be at ease since there shouldn’t be any surprises. For others it helps them focus on the item at hand since they know that items that may be important to them are on the docket.

Have Some Categories

I have found it really handy to have a standard rubric for agenda.

For agenda that seemed to routinely have more items on the list than time would allow; I’d use these categories (in this order):

  1. Communication: Quick “heads up” items that folks in the meeting would benefit from knowing (not a circle brag… but the sort of things that might be in our silos that others ought to know). These items do not require deliberation or decisions.
  2. Strategy: These tend to be more big-picture and systemic items, the kinds of things that once settled will continue to payoff over time since a system is setup.
  3. Tactics: These are the one-off kinds of things that need to be discussed or solved.

Prioritizing an agenda according to categories helps keep the most important work on the front burner. It also incentivizes people to reframe what might be a tactical item as a strategic item, which could result in solving high-payoff systemic issues rather than dealing with similar recurring tactical issues.

There are all sorts of rubrics that could be used, here are a few others I’ve used:
  • Follow up (old business), Decisions, New Projects 
  • Discussion, Deliberations, Decisions

Share Access to the Agenda

Meeting participants should have access to the agenda as it is coming together. If the circumstances are suitable, I like to let people add their own items directly. I’ve used various file-sharing tools; my favorite these days are in the Google-Suite (Google Docs works well for meeting agendas, and Google Drive makes sharing easy). Use hyperlinks on your agenda to connect to supporting documents.

Sharing access gives people ownership, and allows them to be prepared to make the most of the meeting time.

Archive Agenda

I have found it really handy to archive agenda. While not minutes being able to go back and see an old agenda is handy.

Here’s how I do it. I set up a shared folder for each regular meeting. I call the agenda file “agenda” and just update that for each meeting; thus participants can easily find the agenda for the next meeting. Once the meeting is over, I save a copy (snapshot) of the meeting in an archive folder and then update the agenda file for the next meeting.

Respect the Clock

I tend to have the clock determine the length, start, and stop of the meeting rather than the agenda. People know that when I’m leading a meeting we are going to start and end on time, that we’ll have an agenda, and if we don’t manage to cover everything, whatever we don’t cover can wait until next time (because I’ve prioritized the agenda).

Be Sure to Connect

This is one that I’m still working at. It is easy for me to be so agenda-driven that I forget that an important part of the meeting is to connect with people. Since we often are working together in short bursts of electronic communication (text, emails, and such) meetings give us the interpersonal context and foundation for ongoing work. Five minutes or so of chitchat is an important part of most meetings.

Consider a Consent Agenda

A consent agenda is a handy tool for many meetings. Keep a list of consent items, linked to supporting documents whenever possible, for which the participants are responsible. Give participants the opportunity to pull anything off the consent agenda that needs discussion or deliberation, and then consider everything left on the consent agenda as understood and approved.

Have any feedback? Are there helpful approaches to meetings that you would like to share? Leave a comment below. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Beware: The Word Processing Department

It is hard to imagine that there is such a thing as a Word Processing Department today.

When I was an IT Director many moons ago, I found a sign like this (full disclosure, this is a reproduction… but I wanted one for myself). It went back to a day when my predecessor supervised the Word Processing Department. It was 30+ years ago and they discovered word processing software (a Data General product called CEO that ran on their MV 4000) and the HP LaserJet printer. They had one of the first LaserJets; it apparently cost around $5,000 and I was recently told “it was worth every penny.” Since they were sharing the one LaserJet printer at the College among 30ish administrative employees, they consolidated their resources in the Word Processing Department.

When there were letters to be distributed to donors, prospective students, alumni, students or other big lists, they looked to the Word Processing Department to format, mail-merge, and print. It is hard to imagine a day when it took a third-party with special skills and gear to produce a letter, a day when folk would schedule a walk between buildings to get to the one shared laser printer on campus.

At some point, before I arrived on the scene, the Word Processing Department became obsolete. People gained expertise with the software, and the software got way better. The gear got cheaper. And people invented new ways to exploit the technology. Eventually the day came when people did not need the Word Processing Department any longer.

I imagine that there was a season of frustration that preceded the demise of the Word Processing Department.
  • Fellow employees served by the Word Processing Department (internal customers) likely did not always agree with the priorities and schedule. I suspect that internal customers wanted faster turnaround, and I suspect that there were some who considered their work the most vital, and thus should always be bumped to the beginning of the queue. 
  • I suspect that the folks in the Word Processing Department were frustrated too. It could be that folks would seldom work according to procedure, not getting work to them on time or in the proper form. 
  • There were likely rogue units in the organization who did not play according to the rules and found ways to work around the Word Processing Department, maybe even getting their own unauthorized gear.
In this specific case, I don’t know how it all shook out… whether the Word Processing Department died slowly, clinging to the perceived value of centralized resources (and control) or they were glad to distribute the tools widely as soon as possible.

Like I said, with Microsoft Word on my iPhone and three printers at home, it is hard to conceive of a Word Processing Department these days. But I suspect there is often something like the Word Processing Department in a lot of organizations.

These days, in part of my work, I’m seeing something along these lines when it comes to Web. When it comes to Web, organizations easily see the outward-facing value and develop their Web presence. When the Web was getting started it was common for the IT Department to be the first to manage things, not merely providing infrastructure, but also designing the site and developing content (it is on computers after all, so it must be an IT thing). Before long that gets frustrating for the organization and management of the Web (still mostly outward facing) moves to a unit more aligned with the marketing functions of the organization.

Then the organization realizes that even though the website may be designed to be outward facing, the internal customers use the site a lot… so much so that it may seem like the internal customers are among the most important customers (they are the customers with faces, the colleagues we bump into in the break room). So meeting the demands of the internal customers becomes a priority, all the while the internal customers invent new ways to use the technology. It is great for efficiency… but may not be as great for effectiveness as folk turn inward, neglecting the vital outward-facing work.

Eventually we realize that there isn’t anything all that mystical about the technology and the tools are distributed. It could be as simple as a bifurcation, splitting between internet and intranet, or it could be distributed among several outward-facing and inward-facing strategies.

I’m also seeing a similar sort of thing happen with video. A marketing department develops expertise in producing outward-facing video, and then the organization determines that the same tools could be powerful for internal communication.

I am very much in favor of powerful and efficient internal communication. And I am in favor of collaboration and cross-pollination in such ways in which, for example, a marketing department would serve as a resource to help more inward-facing initiatives ramp up.

But my concern is that it easy to lose focus, allowing powerful internal voices to draw marketing departments away from their main thing. The perceived efficiencies gained by centralizing resources and control are not worth the price of neglecting, or even diluting, outward-facing work.

Do you have any Word Processing Departments in your organization?
  • Units where resources are centralized, controlled and rationed (even though they are really not all that scarce any longer)? 
  • Areas where internal customers are competing with external customers, pulling time, talent, and treasure inward that ought to stay focused outward? 
  • Policies and procedures that seem to generate a lot of friction (energy that generates heat but no motion) that could be elevated by simply distributing technology or resources? 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Churn from Playing Office Politics

Another driver of churn: playing office politics. The HBR IdeaCast featured a good entry on the subject recently. Both the audio and the transcript are available here:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pushing the Churn Metaphor

I had a lot of positive feedback on my post on churn. One of the emails reminded me that I gave little consideration to the more conventional dictionary definitions of the word. I was using the word the way I have often heard it… more along the lines of business slang.

So… allow me to push the metaphor just a bit more.

   churn, noun – a vessel that agitates and separates

The most common use of the word is when it is a noun, describing a device… usually a butter churn. There was a time not all that long ago when a butter churn was a common household appliance. If you had a cow (or even a goat I suppose), you probably had a butter churn.

The metaphor still works when thinking about churn in terms of business/organization slang. A butter churn is an agitator (now… I want to be really careful about saying anything that might be misconstrued as a negative stance on butter… because I LOVE butter). In a butter churn, the agitation separates the watery stuff from the oily stuff.

Organizational churn separates as well. It isolates people, creates factions, and often results in defensiveness. Unlike a butter churn that productively separates the desirable stuff from the undesirable stuff, organizational churn usually just unproductively separates.

   churn, verb – to stir or agitate violently

This verb form usually describes the movement of a liquid, or at least something that is moving like liquid (leaves blowing in the wind might be described as churning). Churn is different than flow. There might be violence in a flow (whitewater), but there is positive energy. Churn generally is violent stirring or agitation without anything positive or productive.

I don’t mind a bit of whitewater when it is associated with productive flow in an organization (truth be told, I’m often exhilarated by a bit of organizational whitewater and have some skills navigating whitewater). Skilled leaders can tell the difference between whitewater and churn, and can confidently navigate whitewater, assuring those in the organization that everyone will make it to the other side and it will be worth it.

   churn, verb – excessive turnover by a financial broker of a client’s holdings in order to generate commissions

This may be the definition that most closely parallels some of what I was getting at in the previous post. Unscrupulous financial brokers will churn their client’s accounts merely to create activity, regardless if there is any productivity, because the financial broker benefits from the transactions.

We often have churn makers in our organizations; they will likely not earn a commission because of the organizational churn, but they think they acquire some other capital in creating churn. When we identify such churners, we need to rehabilitate them, redirect them, or in some cases move them out of our organization.

Can you think of any other definitions I’ve missed? I’m always glad for your feedback.

Friday, August 02, 2013


Churn: that part of organizational work that consumes resources but produces little benefit. It is organizational friction, lots of activity with little productivity, lots of heat but little light. Every organization has it. I’ve observed it in small and large organizations, mom-and-pops and the world’s largest businesses, the most profitable companies and non-profits, the hallowed halls of academia and the holy ground of churches. Churn exists everywhere; it is part of the price of doing business

While churn can occupy large parts of our days, it seems that it is seldom about the main thing. Churn doesn’t often swirl around strategic issues, but rather surrounds our tactics. It is what makes that task that ought to take 20 minutes consume 2 hours, or  even 2 days.

There is no use in trying to entirely eradicate churn, nor should we obsess on it. Churn is part of the price whenever people are working together, and it is worth it since the benefits of building an organization (working together) outweigh every alternative (is there really an alternative?). 

We can’t eliminate churn, but we can reduce it. I’m sure I’ve created more than my fair share of churn, but I’ve had some success in reducing it as well, and I’ve seen resources that might have otherwise  been burned up by churn redirected into productive work. We accomplish more, take less of a toll on our people, and have more fun doing it when we reduce churn. 

Here are some of the strategies I’ve used to successfully reduce churn.

Organizational Discipline 

Work The Manuals
A lot of churn is simply a result of people not knowing what to do. Organizations may have missed keeping up with our emerging cultures approach to information. There was a day when we focused on acquiring knowledge; now our focus is on access to knowledge. Students are less concerned with knowing the facts than being able to access the facts. If our organizations rely on merely what people can cram into their heads, we are inviting churn. 
The best way to make sure that we’re all on the same page is to have a page. And the best page, of course, isn’t on paper but rather in electronic form, indexed and accessible at the desktop or on a handheld device. The manuals should be considered a living document, easy to edit and expand. Make it an incremental process. There’s no need for an exhaustive manual in the beginning; take it step by step. And once something is manualized, always drive people back to the manual to get them in the habit of looking to the manual first. 
Work The Org Chart 
Churn is minimized when (1) communication networks are open and fluid and (2) decision-making structures are understood, simple, and locked down.  (See my brief article on Networks and Structures here>>>)
Ambiguous organizational structures result in churn. I’ve observed some of the most churn when people work for (or at least perceive that they work for) many superiors; trying to keep all the bosses happy inevitably results in churn. When people on the inside of a decision making structure are not sure how they fit, they end up spending far too much time and energy looking around (staying out of trouble) instead of focusing on what is ahead (accomplishing the goal). 
That is true for folks outside of the decision-making structures as well. When it is not clear who has the authority, resources, or perspective to move things forward, people are easily lost in a game of hot potato as they and their issue are dumped off from one person to another. (See my brief article on No Hand Backs here>>>
The best org charts are built from a bottom-up perspective. Rather than answering the question “which positions should work for this boss to best resource this boss,” we should ask the question “which leader would best resource this position?” 
Work The Communication Networks 
We shouldn’t merely assume that everybody knows everything; we should champion the cause of open communication. Whenever possible we shouldn’t waste any energy on controlling information (that easily happens when we confuse organizational structures with communication networks); let every interested party in on the communication networks. Create a culture in which people can know and chime in on anything they want, a culture that welcomes open communication but does not confuse the decision making process (a culture that understands that while every perspective and opinion is valid, it may or may not ultimately impact every decision). 
Utilize both push and pull strategies for open organizational communication. It is not enough to have open-door policies that require people to ask (pull); we need to push information out. Furthermore, we need to archive that information so that it can be easily searched and referenced in the future. 
Open communication reduces churn not only because people know what is going on; it also is key in building trust.  

Personal Discipline 

Don’t Create Problems to Solve 
It seems that most every organization has someone who creates (or at least draws attention to) problems that only they can solve (or at least think they can solve). These are the ones who routinely make mountains out of mole hills, usually because they think they are uniquely suited to summit the mountain. They want the attention and sense of self-worth that comes from solving important problems, so they create important problems that they can publicly solve… all the while scooping up their colleagues in a whirlwind of churn. To reduce churn we need to resist being that kind of person, and we need to identify those who do this and redirect their energy. 
Don’t Short-Circuit The System For Expediency 
Bosses need to be especially vigilant in exercising this disciple. It is too easy to take matters into our own hands and just handle things ourselves. Even when we are right, we are wrong when we short-circuit the organizational structure for expediency (unless there is truly an emergency). It creates churn by both (1) sending folk scurrying in response and (2) disempowering folk for future decisions. I’m not saying that we need to stand idly by, hoping that the systems will work; we simply need to expend the little bit of energy to work the system. (What may seem like a little bit of churn for leaders can result in relieving a lot of churn for those deeper in the organization.) 

Leadership Discipline


Build a solid organizational structure and stick to it. If it doesn’t work, fix it until it does. And then work the system by delegating not only responsibility but authority and resources as well. Trust the decision makers closest to the situation, thus reducing the churn of always running up and down the chain of command. 
Don’t Underestimate The Impact Of Churn 
For a lot of people, the strongest root of stress is a feeling of powerlessness. That powerlessness often manifests itself as churn… and many leaders are oblivious to it. It is easy to be blind to the churn that occurs deeper in the system (whether we have any hand in causing it or not). Leaders can go a long way toward increasing workplace satisfaction (thus boosting productivity) by being churn busters… not only doing what they can personally to reduce churn, but building systems that minimize churn.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Go On Vacation

I’m getting ready to head out on vacation Friday. Since we’ll be in Canada, I’m looking forward to being unplugged for a week. While I’ll probably fire up an internet connection in our condo, I won’t pay for data roaming, so I won’t be checking my email and such several times an hour throughout the day like usual.

I love my iPhone. I’ve been a smartphone user from their inception; Palms and Blackberries were great, but the iPhone is the best. There is certainly a bit of a tethering that comes with these great tools… but I think it is more than mere rationalization when I say that I can make the most of my evenings and weekends by knowing what is going on through my iPhone and knowing that I can be reached if someone needs me. But I also know that I’ll get the most out of this week of vacation by being unplugged. I get about the business of truly relaxing, faster and better, when I am untethered from my email.

Since I know that I’ll be mostly unplugged next week, I’m working harder than usual to tie up loose ends and letting folk know that I really do not want to be bothered unless there is truly an emergency. I probably ought to always work this hard to prepare for vacation. It could be that I’ve just gotten a little lazy due to the convenience of tools like the iPhone… but it could be something deeper, including:

Inflated Self Importance – Sometimes I get the feeling that folk purposefully allow emergencies to pop up that they are uniquely suited to fix. They remind themselves, and all those around them, that they really are important because only they can solve these kinds of emergencies. I’ve occasionally allowed vacations to be interrupted by emergencies; in every case, when I’ve looked back, I’ve realized that it really didn’t qualify as an emergency. While I may have had a tiny rush knowing that I was just that important to have to take that call, write that email, or pick up that FedEx… it has never really been worth it. I suppose that the President of the United States really must be on call with all the trappings (staff, Air Force One, and all), but seriously… I’m just not that big of a deal… not even close.

Personal Insecurity – What if one were to be really gone and nobody noticed? Sometimes I wonder if I keep myself in the middle of things when I should be on vacation just to be sure that I really am in the middle of things.

Insecurity of Staff – It seems that some folk can’t go on vacation because their coworkers, colleagues, and staff are paralyzed without them. Sometimes folk can’t function (not enough perspective, authority, knowledge, etc.) and other times they won’t function because they won’t risk making a mistake, fearing that the vacationing one will come back and blow a gasket.

Disorganization – Finally, sometimes it is just plain old lack of organization. We can’t really go on vacation because we never sufficiently button things up. The "emergencies" that we allow to crowd in our vacation could simply be result of our own lack of work and organization.

We have vacation policies in place, not just because we must, but because it is good for business. People need to take a break, a sabbath to wind down and be rejuvenated. As CFO, I see that vacation liability as an actual expense on our budgets, a pretty big expense, and I think it is worth every penny. When I don’t really go on vacation, in a very real way I’m ripping off the company; since they are really paying for vacation, I owe it to them to give them the best vacation I can for their money.