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One critical question to ask before jumping into a decision

On May 4, 2010, white smoke began to emanate from a parked SUV in the middle of a crowded Times Square. Fearing a potential catastrophe, the police called the bomb squad.

The bomb squad was remarkably methodical in their approach. One detective operated a robot that broke windows on the Pathfinder. Another detective donned a heavy green protective suit and approached the vehicle to gather more intelligence. Two more detectives helped X-ray the contents. In a magnificent act of teamwork, the bomb squad deliberated, aligned, cautiously removed the material and disassembled the bomb. Crisis averted.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because organizations approach most decisions with bomb squad like thinking: slow down, discuss liberally with others, gather as much intelligence as possible, wait for buy-in, avoid mistakes at all costs. It’s a great approach when the stakes are high, but it’s terribly wasteful when they’re not.

In a world where speed matters more than ever, low stakes decisions present an opportunity for a much faster approach, locksmith thinking.

When the locksmith gets the call, he doesn’t assemble a team. He gets in his van and drives, involving as few people as he can get away with. When he arrives at the problem site, he asks for only as much information as necessary to start working. Then, he picks the lock as quickly as he can. The sooner he’s the done, the sooner he can drive off to pick the next lock.

Here’s a critical question to ask before jumping into your next decision: are you diffusing a bomb or picking a lock?

Webinar: The Future of Meetings

This Thursday, August 7th, 10 AM PDT / 1PM EDT, I’m doing a live webinar called The Future of Meetings. Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to help many Fortune 500 organizations change the way they hold meetings, and I’ll be speaking on some of what I’ve learned in the process.

The event is hosted by the wonderful folks at Citrix and moderated by my good friend and bestselling author Michael Parrish DuDell. We already have about 600 people signed up, and if you’re interested in modernizing your meetings, I’d love for you to join too.

You can register by going HERE.



Fighting meeting bias & hangout with me tomorrow AM

Two things I wanted to share with you:

1. Meetings can be a great way to reach intelligent decisions, if (and it’s a big if) we can use them to counteract our cognitive biases. Unfortunately, meetings often amplify them. McKinsey Quarterly has an excellent article containing suggestions for taking those pesky cognitive biases out of meetings.

2. I’m participating in 24 hour social media-thon, called $10k on 10/1 for Charity Water (organized by the inimitable Mike Bruny). Myself, along with a number of other entrepreneurs are holding Live Google hangout sessions tomorrow in an attempt to raise $10,000 or more for clean water in Orissa, India. My hangout is at 9AM EST and tickets to attend are $45 each. It’s a great cause, and I hope you’ll check it out.

Hiring a consultant to hire a consultant?

Last year, when Parkland Memorial Hospital was faced with hiring a new CEO, the governing board began by holding a meeting. Unfortunately, according to one board member, midway through the session, they couldn’t even agree on what they were deciding. By the end of the session, the only thing they had “decided” was to appoint a subcommittee that would create a list of consulting firms that might advise the board on its search.

It’s even worse than it sounds. As Bill Hethcock explains in the the Dallas Business Journal:

“The consulting firm — when and if one is hired — likely won’t be the same firm that helps the Parkland Board of Managers find candidates to interview for the CEO job, board member Jerry Bryant explained. The board most likely will designate a search firm for that, he said.

“If what we’re saying is we need to hire a consultant to help us hire a consultant, I’m opposed to that,” said board member Eddie Reeves, who is, by the way, a communications consultant.

The indecisiveness on display here is cringeworthy. But although it’s tempting to blame the individuals involved, when you’ve seen scenarios like this in as many organizations as I have, you realize it’s more productive to criticize the process.

When any large problem arises in an organization, the standard protocol is to call a meeting. It’s understandable, in times of uncertainty, as human beings we have an instinctive desire to gather. Unfortunately, when responsibility is ambiguous, like in the case of Parkland, gathering exacerbates the uncertainty, fostering inaction. It’s a classic example of diffusion of responsibility, everyone is responsible, therefore no one is responsible.

This is precisely why the first rule of the Modern Meeting is: only meet to support a decision that’s already been made (or at least proposed). By having a proposed decision be a prerequisite to anyone even stepping foot inside a meeting room, it forces one individual to assume responsibility, define what the decision is, and clarify how that decision should be made. In other words, lead.

Now let me be clear, because this part of the Modern Meeting Standard is often misunderstood, this doesn’t mean the leader has to make this preliminary decision alone. She can (and often should) involve others, she just can’t use a meeting to do it. Go ahead and reach out to others individually via e-mail or phone (remember one-on-one conversations are not meetings). You can even hold a brainstorming session if you want (also not a meeting). These options are more time consuming, but that’s by design, to encourage  only as much intelligence gathering as necessary.

If Parkland’s governing board had done this heavy lifting before the meeting began, they would have had a much better chance of ending with a real decision. It’s simple really, when you start a meeting with a proposed path, instead of from scratch, the bias is for action.

Careful though, the Modern Meeting is never supposed to be a rubber stamping session. It should always include authentic disagreement and vigorous debate about alternative paths, or else the meeting shouldn’t take place. This means that occasionally, particularly in the case of high-stakes decisions, even a Modern Meeting can lead to a stalemate.

But if you ask me, “hiring a consultant to hire a consultant”, like the majority of issues organizations face day in and day out, doesn’t qualify as high-stakes.

My talk at Google

Hi there. Many of you have astutely noticed that I haven’t posted on this blog in some time. That’s because I’ve been working restlessly on a new book. I’m looking forward to sharing the details in the future (might be a while), but for now, here’s a speech I recently delivered at Google’s New York office. In it, I prescribe three keystone habits designed to change your meeting culture for the better.  As I explain in the video, these habits may seem small, but each packs a powerful punch!

If you can’t see the embedded version above, you can watch the video HERE.

When you find yourself on an ad hoc team

Training seminar, volunteer event, reality show competition, plane crash on a desert island…

From time to time, you may find yourself on a short lived ad hoc team, often with people you don’t know very well. When you do, here are four problems you’re likely to encounter:

  1. No clear leader emerges. Without one, decision making is going to be difficult, design by committee is inevitable.
  2. A leader emerges too soon. One premature dominant vision squashes diversity of thought.
  3. The wrong leader emerges. The person who grabs the wheel isn’t necessarily the best driver.
  4. The presumed leader isn’t accepted as such. Who made her boss? some might ask.

Leaders shouldn’t emerge, they should be chosen. Here’s a process.

  1. Isolate. Allow everyone to spend a little time apart. Each person should write down their vision for how to complete the project.
  2. Present. Have everyone come together and let those interested in being the leader, present their visions to the group
  3. Elect. Formally allow people to vote for the leader they believe has the best vision.

With this process not only will you have a formal democratically elected leader, but you’ll have the visions of everyone from the group, uncorrupted by groupthink. The leader can use these ideas to adapt his plan.

Of course, it can take guts to propose a process like this. Ironically, it takes a leader.

Direct vs. indirect collaboration

Some of the most wonderful collaborative moments occur indirectly. If you’ve ever been in a desultory conversation with colleagues, when the perfect solution to a collective problem or the perfect arrangement for working together seemed to magically show up, you know what I’m talking about.

The appeal of indirect collaboration is obvious: it’s powerful and seemingly effortless. So it’s no surprise that anytime we need collaboration, we’re quick to engage in a passive egalitarian exchange of ideas, and hope for that collective eureka moment. The key word here: hope.

Just recently a couple of entrepreneurs asked me to a cup of coffee. They were doing work that was complementary to mine and thought if we all put our heads together, we were bound to discover an opportunity to collaborate. So we chatted about our lives, our businesses, our goals, our dreams, and waited for the collaboration to happen. But it didn’t.

And therein lies the problem with indirect collaboration, it’s not available on demand. It happens by way of serendipity and you can’t create serendipity.  The best you can do is foster it.

Steve Jobs understood this. When redesigning the Pixar Studios complex, he famously put all the bathrooms (he decided on just two) in one central space. Sure, it was inconvenient for many, but it ensured people from every corner of the organization would frequently bump into one another, fostering lots of random conversations. The chance that any one of those conversations would lead to collaboration was slim, but enough conversations, and one of them was bound to lead to the next great project.

Clay Hebert understands this too. His new platform, Spindows, allows speed video networking between people in the same organization. Spindows  randomly connects users based on a particular topic or common interest. The beauty of the service is that it allows you to do a lot of sessions in a short amount of time. The more chats, the greater the likelihood of a collaborative breakthrough

Indirect collaboration can be a worthy long term strategy but it requires foresight and patience.

If you want collaboration right now, you’re far better off going with a more direct approach. Direct collaboration doesn’t require serendipity,  just leadership. It involves one person, putting themselves on the line, risking rejection, selling their idea to others. A champion.

Sometimes we forget that this is the way collaboration usually happens. It’s effortful not effortless. It’s often messy, seldom romantic, and can sometimes lead to broken hearts and bruised egos. But it’s much more reliable.

When a mistake isn’t

Every single time I get caught in the rain, I curse myself for not bringing an umbrella. But do I ever learn my lesson? Fortunately, never.

Sometimes things that look like mistakes, aren’t. Instead, they’re the inevitable negative outcomes of a high variance strategy (one that you might have never known you had).

Talk to me on a rainy day, as I stand there soaking wet, and I’ll tell you that not carrying an umbrella was a mistake.

But talk to me now, as I look back in hindsight, and I’ll tell you the truth: it wasn’t. I hate carrying an umbrella, I’ve always found it an incredible nuisance. So long ago, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I must have made a decision to stop. Because although I lose on the few days when it rains, every other day when it doesn’t, and I don’t have to bring that infernal umbrella, I win.

We all have high variance strategies like this that are working just fine. Don’t let things that look like mistakes, like missing the train, buying the wrong pair of jeans, or getting burned by a colleague you trusted, fool you into thinking otherwise. Maybe you don’t need to change your strategy, maybe you just need to realize that you have one.

A Good Samaritan Policy for organizations?

When an issue comes up and responsibility is ambiguous, many good employees willing and able to take charge, don’t. Why? Blowback. Act without clear authority, and others are quick to label you as reckless, political, or insubordinate. And that’s when your actions are successful. When your actions fail, run for cover.

But in a modern, fast changing world, where issues aren’t falling so neatly within the boxes of the org chart, we can’t always wait for every stakeholder to gather in a room together to sort out responsibility. Organizational agility demands a culture of initiative where individual members feel empowered to take responsibility. Perhaps organizations need their own version of a Good Samaritan Law.

In 1959, California was the first state to pass a Good Samaritan Law when several bystanders failed to assist people who were injured, likely because they feared being sued. The law attempts to prevent any hesitation to help, by protecting bystanders from legal liability (and in some cases even requiring bystanders to provide reasonable assistance). Since then, every state has adopted some form of the law.

Does the Good Samaritan Law work? It’s up for debate. Some argue the law is too ambiguous, ensuring that shrewd lawyers who are insistent on suing a Good Samaritan, will find a way. But at the very least, the law sends a strong message: we, as a community, stand by those who attempt to do the right thing, even when it leads to unintended consequences. This kind of bold stance, even if mostly symbolic, can help foster a culture of caring, initiative, and responsibility.

Maybe a Good Samaritan Policy, at least in spirit, can do the same for organizations. If leadership declares that they will stand by well-intended members who step up and lead during times of group inaction, even when it results in the occasional failure or ruffled feathers, then those well-intended members just might act more often. And hopefully a Good Samaritan Policy will encourage their colleagues to be a bit more trusting of them when they do. Because when people are genuinely quick to praise initiative, and slow to admonish it, you may realize that your organization has more Good Samaritans than you could have ever imagined.

A book to help End Sex Trafficking

I’m honored to be a part of an important project initiated by Erin Giles, Business Philanthropy Coach.

It’s a book called, End Sex Trafficking — a collection of 60 essays on love, knowledge + freedom by trailblazers like Seth Godin, Danielle La Porte, Jonathan Fields, and yours truly.

All of the authors proceeds goes to the Not For Sale Campaign an organization fighting to abolish slavery every single day. None of the essay contributors, the publisher or the editor is taking any money from sales, it’s not just a book, it is a chance to change the world.

More than 27 million human beings are enslaved in the world in 2012.  Stand up for freedom. 

BUY THE BOOK HERE. And then tell the world. Thanks.