How do you manage a distributed team?

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.12.46 PMThis is a question I got in a 30-minute virtual mentoring session I had recently with an MIT project team. While I had  briefly participated on a distributed team – we all worked remotely – I had never managed one; I hadn’t even read up on the subject. I wish I had read the Inc. article by Justin Bariso, Google Spent 2 Years Researching What Makes a Great Remote Team. It Came Up With These 3 Things, subtitled In a quest to create the perfect remote team, Google researchers spent two years studying more than 5,000 employees. Here’s what they learned.

If you are at all familiar with Google you know it is an engineering-driven team that is managed based on data. So I’m not surprised that when Verionica Gilrane, the manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, wanted to learn more about the productivity of and effectiveness of Google’s distributed team model she spent two years surveying 5,600 Google employees and held focus groups with about 100. You can read her findings on Google’ blog.

She came up with three top tips for making distributed work feel more connected and enjoyable:

  1. Get to know each other as people. When I first started working as a manager it used to really bug me when meetings started with smalltalk. As an introvert who suffers from SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder), the last thing I wanted to do was make smalltalk. I’m also biased towards action – I wanted to get to work, immediately. But eventually I learned that smalltalk was a lubricant, it got people comfortable talking together before settling down to work. And Google found with remote teams it’s necessary to establish a rapport amongst those located at different places. Managers need to lead by example and make an extra effort to get to know everyone on the team by spending a bit of time at meeting before diving into the agenda.
  2.  Set boundaries: Rather than managers setting rigid meeting times the manager or leader of the distributed team should ask the co-workers when they like to take meetings. I know from experience that programmers tend to start work later than typical office workers – 8:00 am meeting times aren’t going to work well for them.
  3. Forge in-person and virtual connections: Sometimes face to face meetings are needed. Team leaders should provide clear guidelines and opportunities for team members to travel for in person meetings. When the team meets face to face everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce connections forged virtually. This spring I was offered the opportunity to mentor teams virtually rather than coming in to MIT, which would have meant spending two hours commuting for a 30 minute mentoring session. While I accepted the offer I had one condition: I wanted the first meeting to be face to face. I had found from experience that if I could get to know a team in person and see how they interacted it make virtual meetings work better for me. And I recommend this tip to you if you can arrange it. While Zoom, Skype and other videoconference tools work well, they still can’t compare with face to face when it comes to observing a group’s behavior.

Google has put together a distributed playbook which I highly recommend to anyone working on or managing a remote team.

 

Is “better meetings” an oxymoron?

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I’m probably one of the few people who enjoy meetings. But it’s a very specific type of meeting that I enjoy: mentoring entrepreneurs. What makes these meetings so enjoyable:

  • They are scheduled on demand by the entrepreneur. I dislike so-called “standing meetings” that is meetings on a regular schedule, not meetings at which everyone stands up. The problem with standing meetings is often there is nothing to meet about – but people attend because they should and much time is wasted.
  • The number of attendees is kept small. Typically no more than two or occasionally three entrepreneurs and two or three mentors, at most.
  • Every meeting has an agenda, driven by the entrepreneur. The founder always has a purpose for the meeting: they need help with something, reviewing a deal, learning how to add a partner, etc.
  • Meetings end with an assignment – for the entrepreneurs. The first order of business of these meetings is reviewing the assignment from the previous meeting. The last order of business of each meeting is developing the assignment for the founder. Assignments, homework, to do’s, whatever you want to call them, tend to focus the discussion.
  • Each meetings is recapped by the founder. These summaries get sent to the MIT VMS office, posted on the intranet, and emailed to all participants. Knowing that it’s up to the founder to recap each meeting tends to keep meetings on track. Reviewing the previous meeting summaries helps prepare for the next meeting. Summaries are also helpful to mentors and founders who miss the meeting for one reason or another.
  • Meetings are held in well-equipped conference rooms. The walls are all whiteboards, thank to special paint; every room has a video projector, there are plenty of seats available. (But at MIT, like many institutions with old buildings, it is hard to regulate the room temperature.) All mentor/founder meetings are held in the same building, same floor, though the room may vary.
  • Superb admin support is provided. The MIT Venture Mentoring Service sports well-trained, diplomatic, friendly admin assistants who can do everything from bring coffee to set up a conference call to hook up a laptop to the video projector.
  • Excellent scheduling software helps ensure attendance. VMS uses Qipo to schedule meetings. Email reminders with the objectives/agenda for the meeting are sent the day before. While it’s not encouraged, those who can not attend in person can call in.
  • All meetings are scheduled for 90 minutes flat. While occasionally we might wait for an attendee who is held up for some reason, all meetings end firmly after 90 minutes, no matter when they started.

So here’s your checklist for holding productive meetings! For more about meetings you can read the article The Science of Better Meetings by Steven G. Rogelberg in The Wall Street Journal, subtitled You can’t abolish office gatherings, but you can make them shorter, smaller and smarter with the help of recent research

Here are some valuable points from the article, many based on research:

  • In a survey last year by Salary.com meetings, were cited by 47% of 3,164 workers as the top time waster at the office.
  • Keep meeting attendance small. Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously said that if it takes. more than two pizzas to feed the meeting attendees you have too many  people at the meeting.
  • To widen the scope of meetings without having too many people there you can ask those outside the meeting for their input beforehand and provide a meeting recap afterwards.
  • Sit-down meetings last 35% longer than standing meetings with no gain in effectiveness.
  • Use a count-down clock to make sure your meetings end on time, which is important in not affecting attendees’ schedules.
  • Agendas need to have clear goals and/or key questions to answer.
  • Preparation for meetings increases engagement and sense of purpose.
  • If you have problems getting the meeting agenda together, cancel it!

While not every meeting can be as stimulating as mentor/founder meetings, you can certainly do a lot to ensure that your meetings are both effective and productive. And for a fun way to teach your entire staff how best to conduct meetings, screen the video Meetings Bloody Meetings staring John Cleese of Monty Python fame.

Collaboration and communication can be productivity killers!

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The common wisdom behind open office plans and co-working spaces is that doing away with private offices enables collaboration and communication through proximity. However, one unintended consequence of this radical change in office layouts has been the radical increase in the amount of time executives now spend in meetings: 23 hours a week versus 10 hours a week 50 years ago. For a full-on attack on meetings see the HBR article Stop the Meeting Madness.

According to the Inc. article Mark Cuban’s Best Productivity Hack Is Seriously Beyond Brilliant:

Rather than driving innovation, though, much of this collaboration is simply wasted time. Recent research from Bain and Company found that companies in the U.S. waste $37 billion each year on unnecessary and unproductive meetings, a number that’s been increasing steadily for the past decade.

But meetings aren’t the only productivity killer that Mr. Cuban has managed to avoid. Conventional wisdom has it that we should always remain connected, thus subject to untold phone calls, notifications, text messages, and other interruptions from our smartphones or laptops. According to Inc.’s article, it takes the average worker 23 minutes to recover from these distractions.

The real problem with both real time collaboration and communications is that they can both force you to adapt your schedule to someone else’s needs, often sapping your focus and concentration.

According to a recent interview with Mark Cuban there are “no meetings or phone calls unless I’m picking up a check. Everything is email.” The big advantage of email over face to face meetings, texts, chats, video conferences, social media, etc. is that email is asynchronous. You – the recipient – decide if and when to reply to the email. This is why I personally prefer email over synchronous communications channels, despite the fact that unlike Mark Cuban, I’m not “picking up a check. By relying on email I’m in charge of my schedule. My one exception to this is using MIT Venture Mentoring Systems scheduling software, Qipo, which is an excellent platform for coordinating schedules amongst founders and mentors for face to face meetings.

You may be protesting that you are neither a billionaire nor a retired entrepreneur who spends his time writing blog posts and mentoring founders. But as I frequently tell my founders, “You are the company’s biggest asset. How you manage your time is going to make the difference between your venture’s success and failure.” By minimizing meetings and real time communications you can get control of your schedule and allocate your most valuable resource – time – for maximum return: building your product and selling it. That’s a concept I call ROTI – Return On Time Invested. There are two exceptions to the email rule: face to face meetings with customers and investors. F2F is the highest bandwidth communication channel, so make sure you use it for meetings with the highest potential return.

One final note, the author of the Inc. article about Mark Cuban, Geoffrey James, concludes his article by writing “Indeed, I personally have run my business almost exclusively through email for the past 20 years.”

Pros and cons of illustrator scribes

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JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE A detail of a white board drawn by Erin King.

I’m a big proponent of scribes for important meetings, such as pitch scrubs. It’s asking too much of a founder to present their pitch, absorb the input from the reviewing team, AND take notes on important points. So we will be recommending to MIT VMS founders that they bring another team member to their pitch scrubs to act as scribe – to take notes on all the feedback from the mentors. And I mean all. Scribes should not act as filters, they are basically stenographers and there is no harm or shame is using one of those apps that records speech and indexes it for you. The goal is a document that the presenter and their team can review after the pitch scrub to decide what, if any changes, they need to make in their pitch based on mentor feedback.

Scribes have been around for as long as there’s been writing and courts of law still use scribes, known as stenographers, though their days are probably numbered as it’s inevitable that they will be replaced by technology of one sort or another.

However, there’s a new trend in conducting meetings and it is both more powerful and more interactive than scribing. It’s known as graphic facilitation. As the name implies, unlike scribes who are passive recorders, these graphic artists actually facilitate the meeting by illustrating points and the connections among them in real time. And of course the white boards commonly used can easily be photographed by anyone’s smartphone to keep and share a record of the visual presentation.

I first came across use of live, real time illustration in a presentation done by a doctor on central nervous system pain, How to do a great presentation without a computer or any electronic devices. You may want to both read this post and watch the video of the doctor’s presentation, it is extremely well done.

Today graphic facilitation is now a business. Collective Next is one such company highlighted in The Boston Globe article by Andy RosenQuick on the draw: Companies use live illustrators to spice up presentations. The title is somewhat misleading as graphic facilitation does far more than simply spice up what could be a dull, bullet point filled PowerPoint presentation.

Graphic facilitation can be used to not only enhance presentations but also to improve panel discussions, conferences, and other meeting events. Visual presentations can help the audience make connections amongst disparate ideas and can also help everyone think more visually. Real time illustration can catalyze collaboration in a way just not possible with the traditional PowerPoint presentation.

As Sarah Dolny, the Abcam events manager quoted in The Globe article said, “We wanted it [the illustrations] to be something that people can actually experience and see, and walk around,” she added. “Words are really powerful, but we wanted to be able to bring it to life in a creative, unexpected way.”

Collective Next and other companies have also begun to offer live illustration remotely, using an Internet connection to make services available for meetings in far-flung locations, an increasingly common occurrence in today’s distributed companies.

However, there are some downsides to using a graphics facilitator. For one they probably don’t have the technical vocabulary to visually scribe a biotech or other highly technical discussion. And the audience won’t want to have to slow down the meeting to explain terms and concepts. The other issue is that old saw, “I gave a man a fish and he ate for a day. I gave a man a fishing reel and he ate for a lifetime.” If there is a member of the presenting group or the audience with passable graphic skills their acting as graphics facilitator will help them improve those skills as well as send the message that everyone needs to think and present visually. The other issue is somewhat more arcane. Marshall McLuhan, the noted media philosopher, distinguished between hot and cool media. Hot media do it all for you, like a film. Cool media, like books, require the active engagement of the audience, which often can be more powerful. Having a professional illustrator at your meeting may push things into a cooler mode where counter-intuitively the audience may be less engaged, as the hired professional does their visual thinking for them.

Irregardless of these two possible downsides I applaud this trend. The only significant impediment may be cost. Collective Next’s event services start at a few thousand dollars and can range into the hundreds of thousands for projects that can span weeks, or even months. So the value of the event must be commensurately high to justify such an expenditure.

But once you have seen live graphics facilitation I promise you that you’ll wish you had that service for every presentation and event. And if your audience will be primarily millennials graphic facilitation may be a must-have, not just a nice to have.

“We’ve got a millennial workforce that is much more visual,” said Ian R. Cross, director of the Center for Marketing Technology at Bentley University. “It’s less interested and comfortable with long, wordy strategy documents, and it’s much more interested in connecting graphically, connecting with pictures, short sentences, emojis.”

Meetings Bloody Meetings

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I recently posted about the necessary evil of meetings. But I neglected the best antidote to this corporate poison: the absolutely wonderful DVD, Meetings Bloody Meetings, the 2012 update of this classic by John Cleese of Monty Python fame. Cleese applies the zany humor of the Pythons to helping make meetings more productive. He not only wrote and produced this video but stars in it as well. You can read more about it on the web site of Enterprise Media.

The objective of the video is to demonstrate that running a productive meeting is a learnable skill, with parallels to those of a court.

Even if you are only passably interested in meetings showing this video to your team will give them a hilarious break in the day and undoubtedly inspire improved meeting behavior in many of them. There’s a two minute trailer on YouTube. Unfortunately it’s unclear where you can lay your hands on this gem, which was originally done almost 50 years ago! (1976) And on VHS tape, if you remember what that was. It’s labeled “currently unavailable” on Amazon.  So it maybe now considered unobtainium .

Update! My friend Andreas Randow sent me this link to the full video!

Sales calls are all about the conversation, not the presentation!

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As I’ve written elsewhere, a presentation should be a means of getting to a conversation, usually with investors, but it could be with prospective partners, job candidates or attendees at an event. Too many founders tend to treat the presentation as an end in of itself. Sales calls need to be a conversation, not just a presentation. A dialog, not a monolog. Because while you are busy presenting your audience’s mind may wander, they may get bored, impatient or even irritated. Even if none of those emotions transpire they may feel frustrated as they want to respond, but etiquette usually prevents most people from interrupting. The one exception I’ve found is VCs. Much to their credit they have no hesitation about interrupting your pitch to ask questions. And that’s exactly what you want, so don’t be thrown and don’t attempt to herd the VC back into your presentation. Take advantage of their interest and answer on the spot. In fact I’d advise anyone pitching a VC or group of VCs, to start their presentation by stating that you would welcome questions at any time. This is where another trick used by experienced pitchers comes into play. Have a set of slides that go into detail about the salient points in your presentation and where you think VCs will probe. Your data about the size of the market is one obvious point. So instead of packing your market opportunity slide with an eye-glazing blizzard of facts and figures, keep the presentation slide simple and have backup slides readily available. So when you get that interruption: “Ok, so it’s a big market, we get that, but what’s its growth rate?” you can say, “Glad you asked, let’s take a look at this historic chart of sales of VR equipment over the past 5 years.”

I teach my mentees to use examples and to be specific. That’s why I was happy to come across a great example of turning a presentation into a conversation in an article that the intersection of two of my major interests: sports and real estate. Leave it to the New York Times, which has a real estate sweet tooth to come up with that articleInside the Hamptons House Where Kevin Durant Hosted N.B.A. Suitors in 2016, and the title on the continuing page in the print edition of The Times,  An East Hampton Estate Became the Site of a Significant Courtship by By Malika Andrews and Marc Stein. Just in case you aren’t a Times reader or an East Coast millionaire, The Hampton are the playground of the rich and famous. As a free agent, Kevin Durant, an all-start 7 footer, needed a place to meet one of his  six suitors: the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Boston Celtics — who would have Tom Brady in tow. Here’s the money shot of the article. Make no mistake, these six teams were there to sell themselves to Mr. Durant.

The front door of the current home opens into a spacious living room with tan couches on the left and a large, round, black table with six chairs on the right — suitable for meetings with N.B.A. teams. It was in this room that the elaborate virtual reality presentation that the Warriors prepared for Durant, to give him a glimpse of what life at Oracle Arena would be like, malfunctioned. To their relief, Warriors officials later learned that Durant was happy to take advantage of the extra time to chat with his future Hamptons 5 colleagues and hear more from them directly about how they thought the partnership would play out.

It was the Warriors who won Durant over. But who knows, if their VR presentation had worked it might have prevented him from talking with his future team mates and hearing what he wanted to know about joining their team.

So consider cutting right to the chase – skip the fancy VR presentation and spend your time working out how you will jumpstart the conversation with your prospective customer and how you will help guide it to cover the points you want to make. Some times technology works best by not working at all!

 

Meetings: how to deal with necessary evil!

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Pretty much everyone, except for me, hates meetings. I find the bigger the company the more the meetings. Unfortunately this isn’t a simple linear function, it’s geometric, not arithmetic. So the very small meetings I have with founders are great. No longer being part of a large corporation means meetings aren’t a problem – for me. If they are for you here are some tips from The Wall Street Journal article by Priya Parker entitled: We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This: Tips for Better Workplace Gatherings. As usual with The Journal, the sub-title is an excellent summary of the article. Too many meetings are an ineffective use of people’s time. A few small changes can make a big difference.

The article is taken from the book by Ms. Parker: The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, to be published by Riverhead on May 15. Ms. Parker is the founder of Thrive Labs, an advisory firm. The author interviewed dozens of organizers including a choreographer from Cirque du Soleil, a Japanese tea ceremony master, a director of an Arab-Israeli summer camp and a conference curator—to understand how they create galvanizing, generative moments.

Here are the tips, with my comments added:

Set the stage

I set the stage by sending out an agenda to all concerned so they will know the purpose of the meeting and what its objectives are. Not everyone reads their email so I bring hard copies of the agenda for those who missed my email for one reason or another. If the meeting has real potential to be combative I try to contact the prime combatants ahead of time to help smooth the waters during the meeting.

Let everyone see and be seen

I learned the art of cold-calling from working with professors at the Harvard Business School. If people aren’t participating either they don’t belong in the meeting or they don’t have anything meaningful to add. In either case they should be asked to leave.

Issue pop-up rules

This is a new one on me. But they idea is to create an amusing or creative rule that applies to your meeting and will change how the attendees interact and the outcome of the meeting. The author instituted a rule that anyone coming late had to do 10 push-ups on the spot. Not sure I’d go that far, but any way to help prevent tardiness is helpful.

Cause good controversy

Not sure I agree with this one! But inserting a controversial topic on the spot if the team looks tired and not engaged is one way to wake them up! Asking each attendee to choose one side of the argument or the other might be an effective way to both engage the participants and get at issues that may underlie the team or the company.

The author posits that following these rules can help change the corporate culture. I’m not sure about that. However, I would say that the way teams meet may well be governed by the company’s corporate culture. So if you don’t have a culture of diversity and respect for other’s opinions I doubt following these tips will help. But they certainly can help a team meeting. If you are interested in tips on how to manage a mentor meeting I have several posts on that topic.