Category Archives: Decision Making

3 Essentials For Productive Meetings

A worthwhile meeting: What does it take?

A worthwhile meeting: What does it take?

What does it take to make a meeting productive? 

While there are a lot of valuable meeting improvement tips and techniques out there, I think the keys to making meeting time worthwhile for all involved are more basic.

They require advance work – not a lot, but necessary.

They also require some courage.

1. Appropriate Information

Does everyone attending the meeting have in their hands the information they need to reach important decisions?

Meeting Paperwork

Information is crucial.

One implication of this principle is that informational meetings are a tremendous waste of time. Multiply (hourly wages + salaries) X (number of people present) X (the true length of the meeting) — since they often run overtime. Compare that to the cost of the many electronic and paper means we have for disseminating information. It’s a no-brainer.

There may be some information that cannot be entrusted to computers or put on paper. There may be nuances you need to convey. But do the equation above, and there should be very, very few; very, very compelling reasons to hold that informational meeting. Better returns on learning how to write and convey nuance and appropriate confidential information.

If your meetings are to create social bonds within a team or group, fine; but call it that and design it well with that goal in mind.

Information - Data - Shared

Information – Data – Shared

Otherwise, meetings are about decisions – decisions that require group input. And decisions require appropriate information. Depending on the situation and the decisions needed, that may not mean everyone having the same information. But each individual should always have the information she/he needs for that meeting.

If appropriate information is lacking, don’t have the meeting.

One caution: “appropriate information” does not mean “complete information.” We almost never have “complete information.” Understanding and sharing information gaps with other team members can be one truly useful meeting activity.

2. The Right People

Since meetings are about decisions, everyone who needs to be part of these decisions needs to participate. Sometimes a delegate will suffice: someone with full and real decision-making authority – and the above-mentioned appropriate, up to date information.

Meeting Highlighter Blurry People

Everyone there – and clear about their role?

Whose part of the project or activity or outcome will be significantly damaged by not being part of the decision making process?

Whose perspectives are crucial to making this a success?

Who will be carrying the responsibilities for the next step and/or the ongoing work?

Whose authority is required to take the next steps?

If any of those people will not be there or does not show up, you either need to rework the meeting’s agenda to the decisions that those present can carry forward; or cancel the meeting and let people get back to their work.

Who needs to be there?

Who needs to be there?

If this happens too often, your sponsor, champion or boss (or all three) needs to take action so that you can have the meetings you need to have – and only the meetings you truly need to have.

And it is the meeting leader’s responsibility to make sure that all the right people are not just present, but participating.

3. Clear Decisions

If meetings are about decisions; if you (and everyone involved) have done the work to compile the appropriate information; and if the right people are participating: then, what a tragedy if the outcomes are ambiguous and ambivalent!"On the other hand . . ."

There are many ways to make decisions and many ways to record decisions. Use whichever ones work best for you; but have a clearcut process for making and recording decisions.

You Gotta Make a Decision

You Gotta Make a Decision

Without such an explicit process, people will leave the meeting confused – either immediately or a week later.

Without such an explicit process, you will revisit the same decision over and over again, making it and undoing it and remaking it futilely.

Without such an explicit process, your next meeting will not have a clear beginning point or a desired set of outcomes/decisions that are consistent with overall progress.

You can tell that I have wasted far too many precious hours in meetings that accomplished nothing productive. That doesn’t have to happen to you – not anymore.

Do You Hate Meetings?

Do You Hate Meetings?

Conflict Management Always Begins With Myself

Think quick! How many people does it take to create a conflict???

Serious Reflection

Serious Reflection

One.

We are always torn inside, “of two minds” about our own differing values, needs, interests, approaches.

No wonder so much that is written about conflict on project teams feels so mechanistic. The helpful suggestions and techniques seem cast inside a framework that implies the project manager is the wise overseer who must reconcile these “kids” who can’t sort out their differences; when, in fact, the manager – and everyone of us – lives with the continuing awareness that often we are not really sure of the best way forward.

Engage

Engage

So, the best ways to prepare for and deal with conflict start with myself.

  1. Invest early and often in building trust, respect and connection. Conflict will come. Don’t skimp on the basics.

  2. Cultivate a healthy doubt about your own certainty. Openly question, analyze and evaluate your own assumptions.

  3. Whether or not you are the project manager, pay close attention to ongoing team work to identify – early – and resolve conflicts before they become serious.

  4. Encourage and support the exploration of alternatives.

  5. Focus on actionable solutions. Don’t belabor what can’t be changed.

  6. Make clear decisions with the rest of the team about what path and priorities are being chosen.

Security / Insecurity

Security / Insecurity

Since about a quarter of managers’ time is spent resolving conflicts, seize this opportunity to do and to model constructive, productive work. The six points listed above are a great recipe for just-plain gluten-free management.

So, why don’t we do this more often?

  1. We have a natural aversion to tension, disagreements, pain and polarization.

  2. This “people stuff,” the risk of getting entangled in others’ emotions, seems like tumbling into a bottomless pit without a bungee cord.

  3. Managers and consultants are often counseled never to show uncertainty or doubt.

  4. Today’s conflict may ultimately be rooted in a history of disappointments, betrayals and losses – which can seem overwhelming and way beyond our reach.

  5. Discussion in a conflict will often shoot off unpredictably into unforeseen, unknowable directions.

  6. Aggression and hostility are infectious, heightening feelings of aggression and hostility even among bystanders.

We have to acknowledge, but question, all these assumptions, too.

Habits - Feelings - Beliefs

Habits Feelings Beliefs

Basic psychological needs are at the root of almost all conflict. It takes courage to manage people respectfully. And what does “courage” mean here? The determination to step into the fire, to get singed – but not consumed – to feel a sense of accomplishment and to step back in the next time.

For more depth on this topic, I recommend several excellent articles:

The Value of Unstructured Data

Paul Hake, a predictive and advanced analytics specialist with IBM’s Healthcare Analytics team, discusses the emergence of cognitive computing and how it can be applied to healthcare. Paul specializes in data mining and machine learning and has 14 year’s experience designing and implementing analytics solutions in the Healthcare and Life Sciences Industries.

As part of the Medical Development Insights series on URBN, I interviewed Paul about the intersection between “big data” and healthcare. Currently, “structured data” (easily quantifiable, often seen as checkboxes on forms) dominates the healthcare data field. However, “unstructured data” (narrative information) may contain some of the most important information for understanding, diagnosing and treating patients.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Several key quotes from this interview:

  • A lot of the useful, powerful data . . . is not captured in the structured data.”
  • 70% of the determinants of your health is behavioral.”

Patent Protection: Interview with Kirk Teska

I have recently begun an Internet radio interview show, titled “Medical Development Insights,” on the UR BusinessNetwork: http://urbusinessnetwork.com/medical-development-insights/

In this conversation,

http://urbusinessnetwork.com/intellectual-property-patent-law/

along with Jeff Karg, I interviewed Kirk Teska, an attorney with over 20 years of intellectual property law experience, managing partner of the intellectual property law firm Iandiorio & Teska based in Waltham, MA, and professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. Jeff is Director, Program Development, for TechEn, where he oversees project engagements by aligning client needs with TechEn’s suite of services and capabilities. He is the primary inventor on 22 patents in areas ranging from inhalers and drug delivery devices to water filtering faucets and blood collection disposables.

In the interview, Kirk examines intellectual property patent protection for medical devices, something he presented at the October 1, 2014 MDG monthly forum on “Intellectual Property Approaches To Safeguard Value.” He covered several key points:

  • Myths the general public – and many entrepreneurs – have about patents
  • What the potential inventor needs to know
  • How to work with patent attorneys

Kirk Teska’s book, “Patent Savvy,” was published in the fall of 2007 by Nolo Press. His second book, “Patent Management,” was published by ASME in 2010.

Air France Flight 447: Mystery Solved

The mystery of Air France Flight 447 – which disappeared, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean in good weather off the coast of Brazil in May 2009 – is no longer a mystery.imgres-1

The causes: a breakdown in communication; unclarified assumptions about team roles; deskilling of the workforce; and arrogance about previous success.

images
Sound familiar? Whether it is a highly complex, state of the art airplane or a medical technology designed, honed and manufactured under highly regulated conditions: we can become our own worst enemies.

William Langewiesche analyzed the tragedy of Flight 447.* Early in his article, he states his thesis clearly:

Over the years, “automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airplane pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight – but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises.”

Today “the very design of the . . . cockpit is based upon the expectation of clear communicationimages-5 and good teamwork.”

3 hours and 41 minutes into the flight from Rio to Paris, ice crystals clogged 3 air-pressure tubes. That knocked out the cockpit’s 3 airspeed indicators. This did not materially affect the performance of the aircraft. But it startled the pilots. “The episode should have been a non-event, and one that would not last long.” But it set off a chain of reactions by the pilots in the cockpit. It became unclear who was in charge. Assigned roles were ignored. There was confusion about who had done what and why. As a result, the plane went into a stall – clearly announced by the computer, but virtually ignored at first in the actions they took. In less than 5 minutes, the plane hit the surface of the ocean at a descent rate of 11,000 feet per minute.

images-2

As in the case of the West Africa Ebola epidemic, we see catastrophic consequences of admirable and generally successful efforts. Langewiesche is clear about this in the article: “the new airplanes deliver smoother, more accurate, and more efficient rides – and safer ones, too. . . . Since the 1980s . . . the safety record has improved fivefold.”

But the resultant “deskilling” of airplane pilots means that for today’s pilots “most of their experience had consisted of sitting in a cockpit seat and watching the machine work.”

The hard-won wisdom of project management can help us better use – and protect ourselves from – advanced technologies.

  • Risk assessment: “What can go wrong?”

  • Think about the big picture. “How will this piece of technology fit into the human experience of x?”

  • Surface the assumptions that underlie this project – and proceed to “perfect” the technology cautiously.

  • View people – veteran, resistant pilots; newer, less experienced pilots; regulators; clients; naysayers – as allies to learn from, not as adversaries to beat down.

*Vanity Fair, October 2014, “The Human Factor: Anatomy Of an Airliner Crash

Management Mistakes In the Ebola Hot Zone

Every project starts with a worthy goal. Unfortunately we often then assume that all reasonable people will accept the initiative. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa poignantly illustrates how that can go wrong – badly and fatally – even in something as important as health care.

Ebola-virus-structure

Once it was recognized that the epidemic was Ebola (in March 2014), the international community’s response was “rapid and comprehensive – exactly what you would hope.” But therein lay the seeds of an even worse explosion of cases a few months later – making the West Africa Ebola epidemic the worst ever. “The foreigners had come so fast that they had actually out-run their own messaging: there were trucks full of foreigners in yellow space suits motoring into villages to take people into isolation before people understood why isolation was necessary. . . . [I]solation centers [were] a one-way maze [where] relatives and friends went in and then you lost them.”

images-4Rumors then started about organ harvesting at the hands of rich foreigners. As fear itself became “a contagion,” people ran from, hid from and attacked health workers. They stopped cooperating – and as they fled their ancestral homes in fear, the disease spread unseen into other, farther outlying villages.

What does this horrific story have to do with project management in our everyday workplaces?

Well, it sets out in stark relief the unforeseen collapse of some of our best intended interventions.

images-1
If we were to replay the West Africa Ebola response, what might we do differently?

  • Realize that no matter how noble and important the effort, no problem solving will be effective without engagement of and clear communication with the affected parties.

  • Engage local champions – “drivers,” people with real credibility – to understand and explain the effort.

  • Surface and candidly address rumors. You just can’t afford to disdain and ignore viewpoints you consider irrational.

  • Have the humility to listen to the people’s experience, their concerns and fears, and cast your proposed solution in those terms – and modify it accordingly.

The source of all quotes is “Hell In the Ebola Hot Zone,” by Jeffrey E. Stern, Vanity Fair, October 2014, one of 2 excellent articles in this issue with clear implications for how we handle important problems – and ourselves – in this brave new world. I will be commenting on the other – “Anatomy of an Airliner Crash,” by William Langewiesche – in my next post.

Important Lesson From IRS Snafu

 

IRS Building

“Elizabeth Hofacre, an [IRS] agent in the Cincinnati office, . . . said an IRS lawyer in Washington, Carter Hull, micromanaged her work and ultimately delayed the processing of applications by Tea Party groups.

“She said Hull’s interest in the cases was highly unusual. ‘It was demeaning,’ she said. ‘One of the criteria is to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education, whereas on this case, I had no autonomy at all through the process.’ ” (The Boston Globe, AP, 6/7/2013)

We have taken many lessons from the IRS political circus to which we have been treated recently, and, as appropriate, keep returning to “How did this happen and how can we prevent its recurrence?” While there will be the usual political sturm und drang around this, vows of tighter control, proposals for more regulation – as the IRS agent, Elizabeth Hofacre, states, at its root, the problem came from an all too frequent lack of respect for the intelligence, ethics and decency of people in the workplace. No doubt, Carter Hull has his own intelligence, ethics and decency, but by becoming a micromanager, he exalted his own reasons and priorities above those of anyone and everyone “below” him. Heavy-handed managers seldom have the humility, usually lack a sufficiently broad perspective and rarely believe they have the time to listen to line staff.

images-4

Should Elizabeth Hofacre have pushed back more strongly and more eloquently at this intrusion from someone in Washington? Ideally, yes. But far too many people in the workforce have already seen the consequences, for themselves and/or others, of challenging people “above” them who definitely have some kind of agenda they are pursuing. They know the dangers all too really. No, what we really need is a healthier, more vigorous demand for good, common sense management, one that sees its role as nurturing people’s ability “to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education”. That will not solve all problems, but it will bring more people’s savvy and conscience into play when crucial decisions are being made.