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    Entries in collaboration (51)


    Best practices are not always what they seem: Amazon meeting edition

    If Amazon isn't the world's most closely watched mega-organization, (due to all their data security drama, I think Facebook might tip them here), it is certainly in the top three or four. From their massive growth, increasing market share and market cap, dominance over such differing businesses as retail e-commerce and enterprise cloud computing, their massive lead in voice assistant technology - every day Amazon provides something about which to opine on for bloggers and podcasters and reporters.

    And I didn't even mention their incredibly covered and public search for their new headquarters location, HQ2, and their founder Jeff Bezos' side projects like reusable rocket ships, drone-based delivery, and even the Washington Post.

    So with any giant, powerful, and influential organization like Amazon, HR and workplace types like me, also like to look at the principles, culture, and approaches to human capital management and even the day-to-day practices of companies like Amazon, to see if there is some kind of 'secret sauce' that can be understood and perhaps even copied. Since Amazon is so successful, they must be doing something right, in terms of how work is organized, how people are managed, and how their culture translates into innovation and productivity. This kind of examination isn't new to Amazon of course. Companies like Google, Netflix, even Jack Welch's GE back in the day have all been scrutinized and dissected by outsiders in order to try and cherry pick HCM programs and strategies to be used in other firms.

    But I think the problem with this kind of approach, the modern spin on the 'best practices' method of improving workplaces and business outcomes is that outsiders often miss the real purpose, goals, and intent of another organization's strategies and practices. After all, the nature of being on the outside suggests that we can't really know everything about how an another organization operates, and how their internal programs support their culture and business strategies. We can guess, sometimes make an educated guess, but usually we can't know for sure.

    Which brings us back to our pals at Amazon, and one of their peculiar and unique workplace practices that has been reported before, and made the rounds again last week as a result of some comments Jeff Bezos made in an interview.

    Amazon, it seems, starts internal meetings with everyone in the group reading a 6-page memo about the subject of the meeting that has been prepared in advance, and sets the tone for the impending discussion. Here is some of what Bezos had to say about this practice, taken from a piece on Business Insider:

    "For every meeting, someone from the meeting has prepared a six-page, narratively structured memo that has real sentences and topic sentences and verbs. It's not just bullet points. It's supposed to create the context for the discussion we're about to have."

    Everyone then sits and reads the memo silently, which often takes a good half-hour. And then they discuss the memo.

    Think about that for a second - first, when was the last time you sat down and wrote 6 pages worth of anything? That is a lot of words. A standard memo, using a normal font size, margins, and spacing will run about 500 words per page. So 6 pages gives you about 3,000 words give or take. Trust me, as a blogger who has written probably too many words over the last decade, crafting 3,000 words is not easy.

    And Amazon seems to understand that too. According to Bezos, "A great memo probably should take a week or more to write". Think about that - a week for someone to prep for a meeting. When was the last time you spent more than 15 minutes prior to a meeting going back through an email chain or searching for some PowerPoint presentation on the file server to make sure you knew what the meeting was really about and you were prepped.

    But the reason I was interested in this approach to meetings was not just because it (seems) to be an interesting and novel way to make sure that everyone in the meeting is prepared to have a productive discussion, each armed with at least a common, baseline understanding of the subject. It is also interesting to me because their is, I think, another, more subtle takeaway from reviewing this 'best' practice.

    And it is this:

    Amazon is not successful because they hold better meetings, my guess is that they are successful because they likely hold fewer meetings than other comparable organizations. When the barrier to having a meeting, a week of effort to craft a 3,000 memo, is high enough, then I suspect that Amazon finds better, and more productive ways to avoid meetings in the first place. Maybe it is a phone call to the right person. Maybe it is more clear lines of accountability and decision making. Or maybe it is just, 'Gosh, who wants to spend a week writing about this before we can decide, let's just decide and move on.'

    My takeaway from this 'best practice' isn't 'Let's have better meetings.' It's 'Let's have fewer meeetings.'

    And while the 6-page memo idea probably wouldn't fly in most workplaces, having fewer meetings overall is probably something just about everyone would embrace.

    Have a great day!

    Note - this post is about 885 words by the way.


    Get Lucky

    This weekend, a decent, reasonably warm beginning of summer weekend in Western NY, while in the car on my way to either the gym or the gun club or my volunteer work with the homeless, 2013's song of the summer, Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' came on the radio.

    You have to remember 'Get Lucky'. It was peppy, infectious, ubiquitous on the radio and on play lists just a few year's ago. The perfect summer song, probably. For some reason after hearing the song again, and for the first time in a while, I thought about a profile/interview of the guys in Daft Punk, (hardly anyone knows their real names, so I won't bother with them here), that ran in GQ, right around the time when 'Get Lucky' was on high rotation.

    If you don't know much about Daft Punk, you probably know at least this - 'Get Lucky' was their biggest commercial hit, and that Daft Punk are the guys who wear the robot helmets, and have almost never been photographed without them (see pic on right).

    The reasons for the helmets, disguises if you will, are as inscrutable as the performers themselves, but probably are not too hard to at least guess at.

    By wearing the helmets the Daft Punk guys get to concentrate on the art, not some kind of curated image, (actually it is a curated image, it's just one they define and control 100%), and also get to enjoy life outside of Daft Punk and the helmets as more or less 'normal' people. For international pop stars, the ability to walk down a street in New York or Paris or anywhere else and not be bothered by selfie-seeking fans has to be pretty valuable.

    But back to the reason why I thougth about this and wanted to write about a four year-old song and interview.

    In the GQ piece, the writer tries to learn more about how some of the songs on Daft Punk's new album were put together. Specifically, he asks which of the two Daft Punkians were responsible for a particular robot voice sound effect that is present on much of the material, as the effect stands out quite a bit.

    The answer from Daft Punk?

    "It doesn't matter.

    Love that answer. The two guys in Daft Punk have their partnership and process down so much, and are so comfortable with each other's position that they don't need to claim ownership of any particular aspect of the creation. 

    Can you imagine McCartney or Lennon answering a similar question about 'Hey Jude' the same way?

    If you are really, truly, going to have a successful partnership or a team, one that can withstand all the ups and downs that naturally are going to test you, I think the Daft Punk position of 'It doesn't matter who did what, just listen to the result" might be the most important and telling condition for that kind of success.

    If the robot on the left was interested in tying to make sure he got the credit and the acclaim for every element that he specifically contributed to the results, then you don't really have Daft Punk any longer. 

    You have two guys dressed in robot costumes.

    What's the song of summer 2017? 

    Have a great week!


    Competing not collaborating - check this before your next leadership retreat

    Put enough smart people in the room and you are sure to work out a problem, devise a solution, or otherwise come up with a bunch of great ideas to cure whatever is the crisis du jour at your organization, right?

    I mean, it seems like both common sense, and is backed up by most of our personal experiences that if you have a group of intelligent, motivated, and capable folks that at least some kind of solution or direction can be agreed upon. We have all been in these kinds of sessions and meetings - probably hundreds of times. It's not really all that complicated - get the right people together, let them collaborate, and good things generally happen. And usually the 'right' people are ones with some differing yet complementary skills, have a wide range of perspectives, and most of the time, have distinct power levels, either officially or unofficially in the organization. That proverbial mix of generals, captains, and soldiers if you get my drift.

    But what happens if the room is filled with only generals - or in your case, a group of leaders who are more or less peers in the organization?

    Well, according to a recent study from the University of California and covered in Quartz, it could be that in these 'leaders only' sessions collaboration gives way to competition.

    From the Quartz piece:

    Corporate boards, the US Congress, and global gatherings like the just-wrapped World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, are all built on a simple theory of problem solving: Get enough smart and powerful people in a room and they’ll figure it out.

    This may be misguided. The very traits that compel people toward leadership roles can be obstacles when it comes to collaboration. The result, according to a new study, is that high-powered individuals working in a group can be less creative and effective than a lower-wattage team.

    Researchers from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, undertook an experiment with a group of healthcare executives on a leadership retreat. They broke them into groups, presented them with a list of fictional job candidates, and asked them to recommend one to their CEO. The discussions were recorded and evaluated by independent reviewers. 

    The higher the concentration of high-ranking executives, the more a group struggled to complete the task. They competed for status, were less focused on the assignment, and tended to share less information with each other. Their collaboration skills had grown rusty with disuse.

    There's more to the review in Quartz, and of course you can access the full paper here. But the big 'gotcha' from this kind of research is the reminder that just because you assemble the collective 'best and brightest' in the organization to work through some kind of tough challenge, it does not mean that you can assume everyone in the room won't have their competition and self-preservation antenna way, way up. 

    And it is also interesting to note that the researchers found that while individuals power hampered the group's ability to collaborate effectively, it did not detract from any one individual's ability to reason cognitively.  Said differently, the group of leaders studied performed worse collectively that they all would have individually.

    Competition at work is sometimes, maybe lots of times, a good thing. It can serve to raise the performance bar in an organization. But be careful what you wish for when you put too many powerful, competitive leaders in a room and expect them to work out the best decisions for the collective.

    It's said that power corrupts. It might also be said that too much power in one room amps that power and competitive nature of these people so far that not much good will come from it.

    Be careful out there.


    Facebook at Work and Google Wave

    Remember Google Wave?

    Sure you do. You probably even recall nagging your friends and contacts for a (at the time) coveted invitation to join the Google Wave beta.

    Google Wave was going to be the next big, big, transformative thing in workplace collaboration technology. It was the re-imagination of email, chat, file sharing, and 17 other things - packaged in a completely new way. It was, for a little while, exciting and cool. Most of the folks who get paid lots of money to prognosticate on such matters expected Google Wave to become, if not truly transformative, at least an important and eventual essential component in the enterprise software tool set.

    Fast forward about a year (give or take) from the launch of Wave and somehow, for some reason, those optimistic forecasts about the importance of Wave turned out to be wrong. Wave did not catch on, at least not enough, and not as a workplace essential tool, and Google pulled the plug on the adventurous project. (Still, mad about that, personally.)

    I have not thought about Google Wave all that much in the ensuing years, (man, it seems like just yesterday, but it has literally been YEARS since Wave was shuttered), until the recent announcement and reactions to the reports that Facebook is planning on releasing its own workplace collaboration technology, which most are simply calling 'Facebook at Work'.

    But unlike Google Wave, which was greeted with (generally) optimistic predictions about its importance and relevance to work and workplaces, the early reaction to the notion of 'Facebook at Work' has been almost universally pessimistic and negative.

    The arguments against the success of 'Facebook at Work' are numerous and expected:

    People don't want to mix personal online socializing and networking with work.

    Facebook can't be trusted to secure sensitive and proprietary corporate data.

    Enterprise social networking tools, ironically often referred to as 'Facebook for the Enterprise', have been around for years, and have never really, truly caught on in a substantial way.

    That kind of thing.

    I have no idea if Facebook at Work will even be released as a product (Facebook has not made any public comment on these reports), much less become a successful, popular, and essential workplace collaboration technology.

    Maybe it will. And maybe it will fail spectacularly like Google Wave. And maybe it will never even be a 'real' product.

    Who knows?

    But I would also suggest the litany of commenters and pundits who have already written off Facebook at Work as a potential important enterprise tech solution also have no real idea either.

    Google Wave was going to be the next big thing. Until is wasn't. Facebook at Work has no chance of infiltrating the workplace. Until it does. Or maybe it won't.

    I think you get what I am driving at by now. No one, not me, or any of the smart people at TechCrunch or Business Insider or CNet or anywhere else really knows.

    So stop worrying or thinking about Facebook at Work for the time being. If and when it ever is released, then make your own evaluation.

    And while you are waiting, maybe send an Email to Google to see if they will reconsider resurrecting Wave. I liked that thing.


    CHART OF THE DAY: Read this while you're eating lunch by yourself

    Chances are if you are catching up on blogs on your lunch break today, you are probably at your desk, alone, while you read and munch on that tuna sandwich.

    Today's Chart of the Day comes courtesy of the retail and consumer goods research and advisory firm NPD Group that took a look at American's eating habits - specifically examining just how often people are eating alone. Turns out, you are not alone in eating alone. Take a look at the data and then some FREE commentary from me after the chart:

    A quick read of the data shows that we are eating alone about 60% of the time for breakfast and that about 55% of lunches are solitary occasions. We recover, and get more social for dinner however, with only about a third of evening meals take solo.

    What might this mean for you the HR/Talent pro? As usual, who really knows, but let's take a shot anyway.

    1. People will be more productive, (and probably happier), on the whole if they can take a complete break, even for 15-20 minutes from their work and the cognitive processing that accompanies said work. If someone never takes a break during the day time, then by about 2 or 3 in the afternoon they are likely to hit the wall, looking to some kind of artificial short-term remedy (like an energy shot which are disgusting or a candy bar, which are not disgusting but you probably don't need one), to try and make it until quitting time. If you in HR/Talent are really interested in helping people achieve the most they can at work, you are going to care if/when your entire organization seems to slow to a crawl at 3:30 every day. 

    2. Most people eat breakfast on the run and lunch by themselves at their desks because they have this sense of 'I can't take a real break, I just have too much to do', even if that is not really true. But we have gotten conditioned to see fully disconnecting from work as some kind of admission of slacking off, or of lack of dedication. We also think 'busy' equates to 'important' and while sometimes that is true, I bet the really important people at work probably are taking more social and casual lunches than most. HR pros should be mindful or at least aware of any ill-effects of burnout one symptom of which is an army of cube-dwellers eating/working through lunch day after day.

    3. If you need to 'catch' people that usually prove difficult to pin down, (Note: I am one of these kind of people), then you might want to attempt to hit them up at lunch time. Sure, there is some risk in interrupting someone's 'downtime' at lunch, but chances are they are not really taking a break anyway, they are by themselves still glued to their computer, and you won't be competing with anyone else for their time. 

    What's your take? How often are you eating lunch alone at your desk? See any problem with that?

    Have a great week!