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Meetings

A short and pithy piece this month, from starting your day early to setting a delivery delay on your emails.

  1. Start really early
    Forget all that larks and owls stuff. Face it that larks rule the world and owls just try to keep up.
  2. Don’t immediately say ‘no’
    Make ‘I’ll think about it’ your default setting.
  3. Get into the habit of looking things up and checking facts
    The internet is a treasure house of information, facts and figures. Your brain is overloaded. Being right is a good habit, and it’s quite easily achieved.
  4. Set achievable goals for every single day
    Or one goal. Doesn’t matter. Write it down. Go for it.
  5. Plan a bit further ahead
    Always have your sights on something ambitious and exciting, and keep stoking the fire.
  6. Don’t go to meetings that produce no results and no decisions
    We all know that six clever people in a conference room is no guarantee of a successful outcome.
  7. If you want to get something done, start small
    The most efficient meeting is just two people.
  8. Delay sending your emails
    Go to the tools menu on MS Outlook. You can set a ‘Rule’ to defer delivery by up to 2 hours. No more embarrassing mistakes or hot headed notes.
  9. Try not sending an email at all
    Remember the old days. Nothing wrong with meeting someone or calling them.
  10. Reconnect with one old friend a day
    Doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just let them know you’re still around and interested in them.

This is David Wethey’s Marketing Society blog for this month. You can also read it here https://www.marketingsociety.co.uk/the-gym/ten-ways-get-more-out-working-day

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As I write this on an early morning Eurostar, newspaper talk is of green shoots. So are all the faces around me wreathed in happy smiles? Well, no. But that is because the ones that aren’t asleep are all feverishly gazing at their phones, Blackberries and laptops. Why feverishly? Because we have just emerged from that undersea world of communications blackout we call the Tunnel.

Stop at traffic lights, and you’ll see the passengers in the car alongside are looking down. If a meeting breaks for five minutes, colleagues will immediately check texts, emails and Facebook. Some will even make that a higher priority than a bathroom break. See what happens when an aircraft lands. Look at kids, teenagers, young adults, everyone. Look at spectators at the Test. Eyes down – even in a full house.

Just think how different things are from every previous moment of history, when our natural gregariousness led us to chat with the people around us. Now we’re preoccupied with communicating with people who aren’t there. Our thumbs are working nineteen to the dozen. Give us two generations and our thumbs will be longer than our fingers.

We are checking on what we can’t see – not what we can. We used to have a laugh with the person beside us. Now we Tweet it to our followers. We are here, but our minds are elsewhere.

Things may be looking up, but we are looking down. I worry about that. I’m a great enthusiast for bright eyes and a smile. With the eyes cast downwards and the mouth set in concentration,
I can’t see either. ‘Social Media’ – bit of a misnomer, isn’t it?

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It’s exactly a week since Boris’s nightmare interview with Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr Show.

“You’re a nasty piece of work” was Mair’s now famous put down. This piece is not to endorse that view. Nor is it to echo Boris’s father Stanley or his friend Darius Guppy in mounting a staunch defence of the Mayor of London.

My worry is that we have developed a new bad habit – universal adversarialism. Or to put it less politely, it’s open season for everyone slagging off everyone else. We have an adversarial parliamentary system – which is unlike, for instance, the USA. They seem to have survived without it for nearly 240 years and governed themselves adequately. We have an adversarial legal system. Policing is largely adversarial. Sport is almost entirely adversarial.

As to the ‘Fourth Estate’, both broadcast and print media are increasingly confrontational. Not that that is anything new. Even before he was sent to jail, Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, ‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’

Slagging off on TV and radio is of course not confined to editorial pieces. Audience participation shows like Question Time and Any Questions actively encourage members of the public to join in and attack their tribunes and prominent citizens in general. Plays, soaps and movies are packed full of aggression and verbal abuse – echoing no doubt what is happening behind closed doors in hundreds of thousands of households.
I am commenting on a social trend, not advocating censorship. In all relatively free societies from the days of the Greek agora and the Roman Forum down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, there has been a tradition of popular protest. Even under totalitarian regimes brave souls have risked their lives by criticising those in power.

Nor is it wrong to argue and debate. I strongly recommend a book by Susan Scott, an American consultant – Fierce Conversations (Berkeley Trade, 2004) – in which she urges the reader not to shirk difficult debates with everyone in their lives, where necessary, including oneself.

I worry about the way adversarialism is delivered. My concern is that from children upwards we are all starting to see confrontation as the default setting, rudeness as a stock in trade, and aggression as a natural way to debate. You see it in road rage. You even see it on pavements and in the Tube. Watch a junior football, rugby or cricket match. I am not sure what is worse – the language and demeanour of the kids, or that of their parents on the touchline or boundary.

I am dedicated to helping everyone make better decisions. That is why I wrote my book Decide, and why I am now hard at work on its successor. The crucial cauldron for decision making by teams and organisations is the endless series of meetings they all rely on. Meetings are at the same time the most frustrating part of decision making (because they seldom produce any decision whatsoever), and the best hope, because decision making is precisely what the meeting was designed to achieve.

But check out your friendly local meeting. Is the atmosphere collegiate? Is the language calm and urbane? You must be joking. Inevitably confrontation now dogs the meeting as it threatens to poison the rest of our life. And because confrontation is unconstructive, it impedes debate and reduces the chance of arriving at a decision.

I say it is time to blow a whistle, to sound a warning, to call a halt to the slagging off. If we can achieve any progress in this direction, we will start to see that we can make far more progress by debating and discussing in what we used to call a civilised fashion.

And then, Mr Mair, calling someone a “nasty piece of work” will say more (and not in a nice way) about the slagger, and less about the slagged.

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My headline is a quotation from Kevin Murray’s excellent new book “The Language of Leaders”. As the book was only released from embargo yesterday at a spectacular launch party in Uniever House, I guess I am probably the first to quote from it. I certainly won’t be the last. Kevin interviewed more than 60 CEOs and Chairs, and has distilled a rich blend of wisdom and advice.

The entreaty to listen is as important as it is sometimes (for many of us at least) difficult to do. I am reminded of my own weakness in this area as I read through the transcripts of the interviews I am doing for my own book on Decision Making. Several times I read “DW interrupting”, or “DW overtalking”!

How embarrassing it is to have one’s faults so graphically displayed. But that’s not important. What matters is that in our need to communicate, we often put our desire to get our point across ahead of the need to understand where everyone else is coming from.

Let’s return to that familiar aunt sally, the unproductive meeting. Think back to the last time you emerged from an hour’s or hour and a half’s worth of meeting frustrated that nothing was achieved, no decision taken. All that effort in juggling diaries to assemble the key stakeholders, and you and your colleagues are no further forward. I’ll bet there was at least a trace of all of the following:

• Somebody important either failing to make it, or having to leave early
• The more dominant personalities doing the lion’s share of the talking
• 40 or 50% of people in the meeting making very little contribution (not talking – maybe not really listening either)
• The agenda not completed
• Main problem still not solved
• No decisions
• Time on the project running out

All this is crucial in today’s corporate environment where, as Kevin points out, leaders need to demonstrate speed and agility as well as consummate communication skills.

Is there an answer over and above persuading even the most loquacious and articulate to try and listen? That is certainly a big part of it. In his book Kevin quotes David Nussbaum, CEO of the WWF in the UK, as advocating listening with our eyes as well as our ears, to ensure we can read the body language of others.

This is very reminiscent to me of Professor Charles Spence’s emphasis on synaesthesia (using two or more of the senses at the same time), in his analysis of consumer decision making.

But behavioural change in adults (particularly corporate heavy hitters) is not easy to bring about. Equally important in redressing the balance between listening and being heard is ensuring that all decisions (including those determining how companies communicate in public) are made on the basis of the best data.

Best data has to include consideration of the views and recommendations of the quiet ones as well as the dominant ‘overtalkers’. These views can just as easily written down and read, as spoken and heard. Even metaphoric listening is far better than not listening at all.

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On Sunday evening, my daughter, her boyfriend and I watched amazed as two bright orange globes traversed the night sky in perfect formation. Within a minute they were followed by a third, identical to the others, describing the same southerly parabola.

 

They weren’t aircraft. They weren’t fireworks. They made no noise. They were definitely flying objects, – and – as far as we were concerned – unidentified.

 

So I did what any right thinking, new age star gazer would do. I posted a report on sightings@uk-ufo.co.uk.

 

Was I planning to view a celestial newcomer at that time? Indeed I wasn’t. My modest plan for the evening was Downton Abbey and an early night before the rigours of the working week. If I had had half a mind to the interruption model, it was more about catching the latest blockbuster commercials that tend to be slotted into the closing sequence of X Factor. Just before my Sky at Night moment, I did in fact see a distinctly odd spot for the splendidly rebranded Eurostar (all credit to the design agency Someone), starring Jarvis Cocker (why?).

 

The “UFO” experience made me think about unpredictability, and how refreshing it is to be surprised now and then by something completely unexpected.

 

It also made me revisit a powerful piece of thinking that was new to me when my friend Serge Nicholls brought it to my attention.  

 

It is about two types of reasoning – one which starts by setting a goal and working rationally towards its achievement. The other does not begin with a specific goal. It starts typically with a group of people, and allows goals to emerge contingently. This came out of a study into 30 entrepreneurs in the US, and what makes them tick. The author of the study “What makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial” (2008) is Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Washington Business School. She calls the goal-driven reasoning “causal”, and the more lateral, discursive sort “effectual”. It is effectual reasoning, or effectuation, that is characteristic of almost all entrepreneurs.

 

Apparently most entrepreneurs consciously or instinctively plan on the basis of three assets:

 

·        Who they and their friends are, and what they all bring to the party

·        What they know – education, training and experience

·        Who they know – in terms of social and professional networks

 

Sarasvathy contrasts a goal-driven warrior like Genghis Khan (objective  – conquest of the known world), with the explorers like Magellan and Columbus who set out on voyages across uncharted waters, with confidence in their own abilities and not a lot else.

 

There are a couple of quotes from Saravathy that I particularly liked. The first was: “Entrepreneurs…act as if they believe that the future is not out there to be discovered, but that it gets created through the very strategies of the players”. I suppose one of the great explorers would have concluded that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you have arrived, as long as you do something useful when you get there!

 

The other quotation was: “Expert entrepreneurs explicitly stated that being in a market that can predicted was not such a good idea, since there would always be someone smarter and with deeper pockets who would predict it better than they would. But being in an unpredictable market meant that the market could be shaped by their own decisions and actions”.

 

Armed with effectual logic, we can cope better with surprises – good or bad. I will return soon to what I believe are the implications for decision theory, at least for “effectuators”.

 

Meanwhile my new friends at www.sightings@uk-ufo.co.uk have solved the mystery of our orange globes. Chinese Lanterns. Did you know they can reach a mile high or more? Scary!

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Everywhere we look, there is spin. Not the Swanny sort. Nor the spider type. It’s the Alastair Campbell variety. 

When Thatcher’s spokesman was Bernard Ingham, no one called him a spin doctor, but everyone knew his job was to present things in a way that showed the PM and Government in the best possible light. In the Blair years Campbell was called a spin doctor, and the art had developed to the point that he was planting ideas, policies and scuttlebut, as well as speaking on behalf of his boss. 

Now we have politicians, business leaders, football and rugby managers (to name a few) spinning cheerfully for themselves, while every organisation even remotely in the public eye hires publicists and spokespeople to do it for them. Very few public figures make straightforward statements or answer direct questions. 

What are we to make of it? Does it matter? Is it a sign of lower standards in public life? Does it suggest that there is much less respect for the truth? 

Or is there another explanation? Is it the media’s fault for being much more aggressive and intrusive than in former times? 

Yes, I believe it is. Interviews and discussions on radio and television are more gladiatorial. The level of politeness that you would expect in a private conversation or a business meeting is absent. Listening and courtesy have disappeared, to be replaced by hectoring and rudeness. Where once there was wit, there is now even more strident assertiveness. 

Faced by this kind of journalism, is it surprising that interviewees have to be coached in evasiveness? Statements and press releases are often carefully worded to avoid vouchsafing the real story or the real truth. 

Is this another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences? 

  • Journalists determined to pursue their goal of investigating issues in the public interest
  • Public figures (could be the Prime Minister, could be the CEO of BP, could be the England Rugby Manager) become more skilled at evading and blocking
  • Journalists decide to be more aggressive
  • Some success in the short term as interviewees fold under pressure
  • PR and communications advisors deliver more effective media training in spinning stories
  • Interviews and discussions become increasingly acrimonious, and the public figures give less and less away
  • Stalemate…
  • …but worse – what happens in public view on TV and radio starts to influence how everyone else behaves, especially young and impressionable people. 

In his entertaining autobiography “Parky”, Michael Parkinson puts his success on TV down to being able to get more out of celebrities with a gentle and courteous approach. Maybe more civilised behaviour on both sides of the average interview would pay off: less rudeness, less spin.

It has to be worth a try.

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This week a procurement client sent an SOS for material to help him write a board paper on a significant industry issue – the tension between marketing and procurement. I found what I thought was a perfect backgrounder – a deck of charts produced by my US partner for an ANA webinar.

My client’s response was a bit of a surprise. “Very interesting, but very logical”, he wrote. “The most interesting aspect in my eyes is getting over to marketing teams that we can add skills when they think they are doing everything well”. 

I guess I am predominately a left brain kind of person, so logic is where I start. Yet so often persuasion is best achieved by ensuring a balance between rational and emotive thinking and language. I had made a trite assumption that left brain thinking would work better with procurement. If a marketer had made the request, I would have probably tapped into more of a right brain approach. 

So obvious and so uninventive. 

I want to share a related thought triggered by this episode, and also by having sat this week through some final agency presentations in my day job as a client adviser on agency selection . My observation is that there is a physical characteristic common to most successful people, most good communicators, most effective problem solvers – and, I suspect, most good decision makers. 

I call it Bright Eyes. It is a gloriously unscientific description. And here I am talking about people, not rabbits!

There definitely isn’t an ‘ometer’ to measure ocular luminosity. But I am sure you all know what I mean. People with bright eyes are just so much more convincing, more appealing, more likeable, easier to follow and agree with. They tend also to manage meetings better.

It is an emotional appeal, not a logical one. Yet it helps us single out winners, good potential recruits, people we want to work with and for. In a logical left brain world, dominated by data, numbers and rational arguments, how refreshing to think that we can sometimes put the criteria and sub-criteria on one side, and instead be swayed by a look and a feel that some people have, and others don’t. 

Viva Bright Eyes. There is even an anthem about it.

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BBC Radio 5 Live is doing full justice to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This Saturday morning (10th Sept) I caught an excellent interview by Phil Williams with Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell.

In it he used the phrase “Fog of War” to describe the immediate aftermath of the news of the attack on the Twin Towers reaching London. “No one had any idea what was going on”, he said. All the other EU leaders were calling Blair for news, and Bush was unreachable in Air Force One, flying back from Florida. If Blair and the Europeans didn’t know what had happened, they could hardly make any sensible call on what to say or do. 

For all decision makers the fog of war (at least as a metaphor) is a significant hazard. Not having enough information on which to base a decision is unsettling. Too much data can be confusing – as we have discussed before – but too little is dangerous. 

Powell came up with another graphic phrase to describe that happens in the middle of the fog: “everyone just sits down talking to each other”. 

I’m reminded of many meetings I have attended over the years. We are supposed to be meeting to decide what to do next. There are probably at least two options on the table. Inevitably some of the discussion will be running ahead to how we execute the decision, and what might happen after that. Will it work? How will the competition react? 

But suppose we don’t for certain what the situation is now. We may still be lacking key facts and data. If we don’t have enough information, or we don’t have the right information, what chance do we have of getting it right? 

Dangerous stuff fog.

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Just look at all the artificial aids we now take for granted:

  • Ubiquitous mobiles and other hand-held devices that ensure everyone is accessible 24/7
  • Instant news on countless broadcast channels, on mobile, in the street, and at transport hubs and reception areas
  • Text, email and messaging services (as well as phone lines) to speed up conversation with colleagues and associates
  • Video and tele-conferencing
  • Skype
  • Social media
  • The vastness of the internet to speed up research

So why do so many people in organisations and in their non-work lives still get it wrong so often and in so many different ways?

Regular readers know that I lay considerable blame at the door of our commitment to the meeting culture that gives us all the illusion of ‘moving things on’, when so often meetings serve no useful purpose, and absorb billions of people hours that otherwise might have been productive.

The meeting is an intrinsically low-tech phenomenon, born out of the gregariousness of home sapiens. I see it as generated by social instincts, not commercial ones.

So it is ironic that technology has now given us the automated invitation system that has institutionalised meetings to an even greater extent.

From the department of invented, but plausible, statistics I believe that 50% of all meetings take the participants no closer to a decision, and that more than 60% of the people hours are wasted.

But the meeting is not the only villain of the piece. Here are five other contenders:

  • Conference calls (non-video). Catastrophically flawed whenever you have more than four participants, and/or when the people on the call don’t know each other
  • Email language: limiting, prone to emotional and irrational overlays, and can easily provoke over-fast (and misguided) responses. It is also easy to give the impression of working by simply exchanging emails!
  • Facebook and Twitter – potentially time-wasting and narcissistic, unless used judiciously. They are as dangerous for taking people’s eyes off the ball, as for inciting riots
  • The tendency to phone and text people who are not with you, instead of engaging with the people who are
  • The unreliability of so much data that your researches can turn up. This can be, as Simon Hall of Savvy Friends (formerly founder of BHWG) says, because it is so easy to skew and bias it for commercial reasons. It can also be because of what David Aaronovitch in The Times today (p.19) calls ‘Bad Science’.

It wouldn’t take you long to add to my list.

We would be lost without our whizzy tools. But I am far from convinced that technology has overall advanced the cause of making better decisions, better.

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Prioritisation is a major element of decision making. Both as individuals and organisations / teams we constantly need to take decisions not in a vacuum, but in relation to other goals and other decisions.

We prioritise in all sorts of situations by ranking one goal ahead of another, or by judging that ‘x’ is more important than ‘y’. I call it “Morethanism”. Some examples:

  • India’s cricketers clearly put playing in the IPL ahead of Test cricket
  • The recent defence review judged that maintaining capability on land was more important than naval power, hence dispensing with carriers, Sea Harriers and the Nimrod replacement
  • The Coalition Government have made NHS spending a higher priority than spending in any other Department…
  • …and made the call that spending cuts have a higher priority than defending jobs

Morethanism works like any other decision matrix, except that you need data and intelligence to help rank the relative importance of different goals before coming up with a number of options. So the process looks like this:

  1. Best data and intelligence – and keep looking for more
  2. Clarity on which goal(s) is/are more important than others
  3. Frame – and if necessary keep on framing till the central question (and any others) have been well and truly defined and agreed upon
  4. Structure the most viable options for achieving the goals (in order) and solving problems
  5. Identify upsides and downsides in each option
  6. Reward / risk analysis, ensuring that you are not swayed too much by the attractiveness of an option if it has a dangerous downside
  7. Carefully weigh reward and risk, and then make the “Morethan” decision.

What we always have to remember is that prioritising is not an end in itself – all it achieves is the ranking of goals. We still have to frame questions, solve problems, and make decisions.

Prioritisation – like any multi-dimensional mental challenge – is what makes champion decision makers stand out from the rest. It is also really difficult to do by yourself. Even corporate despots, maverick generals, and you and I as individuals, are well advised to ask around, before setting out to try morethanism in a single scull. I am not a fan of most meetings, but to prioritise in a tough situation, or in one where there are conflicting opportunities, you are going to need meetings – and productive ones at that!

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