Executive Productivity

Flu Pandemic or Not – Time for your Business Continuity and Sustainability Plan!

fearofcontagion1

When the WHO global alert level for swine flu hit phase 5 (imminent) in April ’09, some well-prepared business leaders were moving swiftly to enact existing plans to ensure they could continue to do business even if their employees and customers faced restrictions on travel (including commuting) and gathering in-person. Thankfully, a  full-blown pandemic did not materialize in the weeks after, but it still begs the question: Do you have a business continuity strategy?

A flu pandemic is only one of the ways your sales, production and distribution activities could be disrupted. Increasingly, weather extremes (with accompanying fires, floods, ice and snow) and unreliable power grids are making themselves felt. Last September, almost no one in the Midwest was prepared for the fallout of Hurricane Ike, the third most destructive to make landfall in the United States. In Ohio, alone, 1.8 million customers were without power – some for more than a week. In his excellent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman explores, among other things, the increase in severe or unusual environmental activity we are living with. From that point of view, Global Warming is more aptly described as Global Weirding, and leaders should take heed that their past experience with weather trends may no longer prepare their business for what lies ahead.

Interestingly, when teams explore strategies around new models of sustainability for a business, they can sound much like the business continuity group planning down the hall. Options for conservation, telecommuting, distributed generation (generate power where it is needed, thus reducing transmission losses), solar heating and passive cooling, and reuse of “waste” streams as “feed” streams for other processes – all can help an organization be more resilient to disruption in infrastructure.

Strategies for business continuity vary by industry. A manufacturer – especially with only one production location -  faces a far less portable business than a knowledge firm. The manufacturer’s continuity strategy might, for instance, revolve around prevention of damage (i.e. from wind, fire or flood), combined with plans for distributed power generating capacity, letting them survive for some time off the grid. That said, most companies have a more portable “white-collar” or knowledge function, and it is here we will focus for the rest of this article.

Just recently, we were delighted (a bit amazed, really) to encounter a small knowledge business with a truly effective continuity plan. In a nearby community, a fire broke out and destroyed a good portion of a city block of retail and mixed use buildings. Sadly, the local retailers were hit the hardest, with insurance coverage their only hope. But while most tenants were sifting through the rubble, this one firm was actually attending meetings and getting on with business, thanks to mirrored offsite infrastructure and home offices. We reached out to offer help and alternate operating space, and were amazed that they were inconvenienced, but not at all desperate. Such foresight and planning is all too rare.

Business leaders who haven’t recently reviewed the cost of offsite backup for their knowledge and communication functions will be pleasantly surprised. A client in the “knowledge work” business recently compared the price of a 20-person state-of-the-art virtual office with the cost of a conventional “bunch of servers in a closet at headquarters, with a geek to run them” setup. The virtual office design relied on hosted servers and VOIP phone service, meaning that headquarters had only Internet service (with backup service), and each user had a laptop and VOIP phone on their desk. Everything else, including the phone system, was somewhere else in a datacenter – a datacenter with the resources for a truly robust continuity plan. Should anything happen to HQ – extended power outage, fire, flood or plague – the workers simply route their extensions to cellphones, pop their laptops up at home, or on a wireless card, and keep on producing.

Startup and running costs per year, including utilities, A/C, space savings and rent reduction, and technical support for this small operation were calculated to be tens of thousands of dollars per year less than their existing costs. What opportunities exist for savings in an operation of your scale?

For leaders and executives who have not already arranged for their knowledge workforce to work remotely, we have an article on Remote Collaboration from a Home Office (also good for Road Warriors). We’ve freshly reviewed and updated it. Also, ask your IT department about accessing your work computer remotely and securely via programs and services such as Virtual Private Networking (VPN), Microsoft Terminal Services, Remote Desktop Connection, Citrix Services, LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. Mac users are not shut out, either. Often, a Mac can control a PC just fine. If you happen to have a Mac at work, Google: “access your Mac remotely” for plenty of options, or try LogMeIn for Mac. Standard access is free.

Business continuity planning, as important as it is when disaster strikes, is neglected when it is not aligned with the overall business strategy. The forces of disruption are on the rise, the cost to implement a business continuity plan is falling, and the synergy with sustainability efforts is growing. Review and revise (or create!) your plan to protect your customers, your employees, your community and your profits!

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WSJ bestseller – The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich

4hourworkweekcover2Love it or hate it, this book is bound to offer new views on cherished assumptions.

And boy, does author, Tim Ferriss have the power to polarize opinion. This controversial Princeton University guest lecturer has written what I consider to be an innovative antidote to a problem for our clients and their colleagues – trapping themselves into working for the sake of work. Right from the start, I would recommend you separate your opinion about Tim and his choices, style and values from the ideas and tools presented.

But read it you should. There is a good chance that your top performers, road warriors, independent thinkers and millennials (those born roughly from 1981-2000) have at least heard of Lifestyle Design. His premise is simple: working long hours for many years, deferring the activities of retirement until we are too old to participate in them (and possibly, can’t even afford them) is a broken model. As an alternative, he presents the concept and practice of Lifestyle Design – separating earning power from activities, incorporating mini-retirements throughout life, and re-focusing new-found free time on learning and service as a worthy pursuit.

I think this last point is important to highlight. Were I Tim, trying to reach the likes of Ann and me, I would have mentioned sooner that it’s not all about globe-trotting sybaritic pleasures. Many, if not most of the experienced Lifestyle Designers interviewed in the research discovered that they faced the challenge previously connected to retirees: When your income is no longer dependent upon your activity, you’ve given yourself a long holiday (or three) and you don’t care if you ever photograph another wild gazelle, then what do you do? Fortunately, there is a chapter on filling the void and inventing your next purpose.

For some entrepreneurs, especially, this book will shine a light on the common pattern of leaders who weave themselves indispensably into their business model – becoming a growth bottleneck, a key-person risk and a prisoner all at once. Similar to Gerber’s “The e-Myth, Revisited“, Ferriss offers leaders ways to disentangle from their processes – to move from self-employment to owning a business system.

Available in book and other formats, I recommend The 4-hour Workweek to anyone who must manage or collaborate with Lifestyle Designers, or aspires to become one. See you at the beach!

©2008 Gary Ralston all rights reserved.

Download a brief audio presentation by Tim Ferriss here.

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GeekNotes: Business Learning, iPods and the Spoken Word

promo_whichipod_img20070905Today, a colleague of mine wrote to ask about making the best business use of his new iPod. It’s a great question, and applies equally to people who have purchased the iPhone, or any other portable media player. While this article is aimed at personal use by the busy executive, consider that many corporations and universities are using iPods to deliver training and communications with great success.

Ann and I have purchased over 200 audiobooks since 2003, a mix of business, non-fiction, fiction and instructional material. I have also tried a variety of podcasts and instructional videos, and have experimented with recording meetings with iPod microphone accessories. Beyond work, our entire family is into audiobooks. We have – no lie – SAVED summer holidays with the right selection of family-friendly audiobooks to while away the highway miles.

Ease of use and balance of features are keys to the iPod’s market success. We use iTunes to sync our library of media to our iPods. This setup is simple, elegant, and available on both our Mac and Windows computers. If you have another brand of media player, or are using Windows Media Player, the concepts should still apply.

Here are a few thoughts:

iPods are great for multitasking, but audiobooks, podcasts, and video all take more focus.

We listen to audiobooks when we can control interruptions for 15 or more minutes at a time. It’s easy to pause music, or even pop out the earbuds without a worry about your “place”. Not so with audiobooks. You don’t want to lose your place, or miss anything, so interruptions are awkward as you try to be polite while pulling out of the universe of the book and fumbling for the pause button. So we save the audiobooks for exercising, mowing the lawn, in-flight, walking the dog, or our regular three-hour drives to Indianapolis to visit family.

Video on my little iPod Nano is surprisingly sharp, but it requires my full, seated attention. I have instructional videos loaded, but don’t often have the occasion to watch them. If you fly much, or your commute involves public transit, video blogs may work better for you.

There is no shortage of material – but the narrator and the writing can make or break the experience.

If you are reading Harry Potter novels, you know J. K. Rowling, but if you are listening to books you come to know and love the voicings of narrator, Jim Dale. While I love and recommend the writings of business consultant, Ram Charan, I fatigue when he narrates his own material. Some books come alive in your hands – Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” comes to mind – but flop when read aloud. Ann had to stop listening to a lovely book narrated by actor, Brendan Fraser, because she couldn’t reconcile the book’s content with her images of Fraser’s cartoonish Tarzan character from Disney’s “George of the Jungle”!

Almost all audio storefronts let you listen to a sample from the audio production. Make sure you can handle the narrator’s voice for 5 to 20 hours.

Watch out for abridged versions.

Audiobooks come in Unabridged and Abridged versions. Ann and I almost ALWAYS get unabridged versions of fiction. I accidentally bought and listened to an abridged version of “The DaVinci Code”, by Dan Brown – spoiled it for me. With his next book, I was extra-careful to select, “Angels and Demons (unabridged)”. Abridged versions of business books are usually okay.

iPods since the ‘mini’ can play Audiobooks faster or slower than normal.

Why would you change the speed?

  • FASTER (For flying through business books – they CAN be dry, yes?),
  • NORMAL (for fiction and listening to the incredible narrators,) and
  • SLOWER (for note-taking or language study, I guess – I’ve never had occasion to use it).

The neat trick is that this doesn’t drive the voice pitch up to ‘chipmonk’ (Sorry, Alvin!) To set audiobook play speed on an iPod, choose Settings > Audiobooks and choose a speed. Setting the play speed affects audiobooks purchased from the iTunes Store or audible.com, or files converted to .aa or .m4b formats.

There are LIFETIMES of audiobook, podcast and spoken word media available.

Our favorite sources:

  • audibledotcomAudiobooks: we subscribe to Audible.com. The iTunes Music Store also carries the Audible.com inventory, and has a few exclusives, but an Audible.com subscription is much more affordable.
  • podcasts_icon20070905Podcasts: including free content, we use the iTunes Music Store. Great podcasts include David Maister’s business master class; CBC Radio 3 – new Canadian artists, eh?; BBC, PRI, PBS and NPR productions; Newspaper and newsmagazine blogs, including WSJ, NYT, WIRED, Globe & Mail…
  • i_in_sessionInstructional Media and Lectures: Apple collaborates with universities to present “iTunes U“. Much of the content is free, and the calibre of the lecturers is, well, genius.

iPods can be high quality RECORDING devices, too.

iLoungeNeed an audio recording of a presentation or meeting? There are a host of microphone accessories that turn your iPod and iPhone into a stereo digital recorder. Read all about it at iLounge.com.

These are simply starting points. Go to your favorite websites and publications and poke around for podcasts you can subscribe to, directly, or through other storefronts. And while there’s plenty good for your business brain here, treat yourself to some of the amazing best selling fiction and incredible narration available, in every genre, both at the iTunes Music Store and Audible.com. Happy multitasking!

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GeekNotes: Remote Collaboration from a Home Office

TinCanMenToday, a colleague in private practice asked a very timely question about collaborating from a home office:

My partner and I are looking at expanding our telephone coaching practice and would like to find some screen sharing and collaboration tools…. What are you using these days to coach / consult at a distance?

More and more, our globe-spanning customers need to collaborate from a residence or on the road. They do so to be more productive, to support balance between life and work, to access new markets, and to reduce the number of climate-heating airline flights they are responsible for. While collaboration tools have advanced and become more reliable, some of the basic services – voice, cellphone and Internet connections – are not. Further, today’s executives face many of these IT challenges on their own.

This summer we have conducted remote meetings with clients and colleagues who were participating from their offices and homes in Brazil, France, Switzerland, Canada and the US. We have hosted meetings from our own home office, in hotels, airport lounges and coffee shops, and on occasion, stuck in a rental car. In almost all cases, at least one attendee was relying on residential-grade broadband, Voice over IP (VoIP) or “found” WIFI access, and a few key tools.

If you plan to RELY on remote collaboration, it will take a bit more than the typical home network, but it can be done. Here are some observations about what works for us, in our home office or on the road, when conducting remote business meetings:

Make sure your voice connection is bombproof (or have a plan B)

VoIP. Cellular Phones. Skype. Compared to the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS lines), the new tools of voice communication can be, well, moody. Yes, you can save a bundle. Yes, you have many more features. Yes, you can make phone calls from far-off places. No, you cannot count on them. So what do you do?

  • Use a high-quality telephone conference bridge. If all your other technology fails, as long as the voice bridge is up, and you circulated documents ahead of time, the meeting will continue.
  • Look for an unlimited monthly plan, with optional per-minute fees for toll-free callers. Don’t over- or under-pay, and see if you can find one that complements your screen-sharing meeting application. Dedicated conference bridges, with live operators and per-minute, per-caller charges for access are very reliable, but in my opinion, overpriced – especially for their toll-free options. Now that almost all business users have mobile phones and near-unlimited long distance calling plans in their region, toll-free numbers are of most use to the traveler dialing from a hotel phone.
  • Free bridges make you pay. On the other end of the spectrum, there are now many free conference bridges that are simply awful, in my experience. Skype, Gatherplace and GoToMeeting all bundle a version of freeconferencecall.com as bridges in with their entry-level offering. Meaning no disrespect, I have never had an incident-free meeting with them.
  • When we are providing the bridge, we use either RingCentral Digital Office for three-way meetings, or for larger ones, WebEx Meeting Center or GatherPlace Premium. All offer either 10,000 minutes or unlimited calling as part of their package for about $40 / month / concurrent meeting.

Consider TWO broadband connections at home – NOT overkill

Our home town, Columbus, Ohio, was an early market for Time Warner’s broadband over Cable. As a result, we saw how a cable system ages in a neighborhood, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, over the past 10 years, we’ve seen both Cable and DSL broadband suffer significant disruptions. In 2007, for instance, our business-class cable service was unreliable for 6 months. It was JUST fixed, when our DSL line quit for a week. So there are two reasons to have BOTH a Cable and an alternate connection in your house:

  1. When (not if) one service goes down, you can switch to the other.
  2. Video, screen-sharing and file downloads can interfere with Voice over IP (VoIP) – and remember, we need a bombproof voice connection.

Your alternatives are increasing, and in the U.S. include DSL, Fiber-Optic and Cellular Router. Satellite connections are not a good option for voice connections because of the lag.

  • Isolate VoIP from other services. We have chosen RingCentral Digital Office VoIP service because it sounds good, and has great long distance plans. Still, we put the adapter on its own broadband connection. We put all other computers, video and screen-sharing on our other cablemodem connection.
  • Competing for bandwidth. If you have teens or power users, you have yet another reason: iTunes video downloads and bit torrents. Download a whole season of a show at once – a 2 to 5 Gigabyte package – and you trash your remote meeting in the process. (Remember when kids just wanted a car? Now they need their own cable modem! Sigh.)
  • Tip: Let the VoIP adapter control your bandwidth. If you use a VoIP adapter, look for instructions to hook the VoIP adapter up  BEFORE your home router, like this:
    [Cable or DSL Modem] <–> [VoIP Adapter] <– >[Router] <–> [Computers]

If you are the outsider, use the tools the client uses

Since we are the “outsiders” in our clients’ worlds, we must use what they do. That means I can be contacted through (big breath):  AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Google, Skype, SMS, ICQ, Jabber, E-Mail, Facebook, Linked-In, Myspace, Cellular Phone, Telephone and Fax, and work with you using PPTP, IPSEC and Cisco VPN, Polycom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Acrobat Connect, GatherPlace, Xerox Docushare, eRooms, Basecamp, several flavors of Microsoft’s collaboration tools (they really should stop re-branding the stuff!)  and some more I can’t recall just at the moment.

This is a drag. Someone, hurry up and unify this stuff so we all can use whatever client we wish and not have to know (or pay for!) all these nearly-almost-but-not-quite-the-same services designed to lock us in.

The reality is that established corporations have policies about what they will and will not allow on their networks. They also choose by the reliability of the products, and these days, that means the service provider has invested intensively in a global network of servers in the hope that all participants get uninterrupted connection.

  • My top enterprise-grade screen-sharing and presentation choices: WebEx (now owned by Cisco Systems) or GoToMeeting (from Citrix.com – a really smart company).
  • Some of my colleagues speak highly of Microsoft LiveMeeting, but I don’t see a way for small businesses and workgroups to affordably adopt it, in comparison to the competition.
  • I can’t recommend Adobe Acrobat Connect. Some may love it, but for me, it has frustrated and disappointed too often.

If you are the host, use what is compatible with your client’s platform – and screen size!

Being a good host means making your participants change as little about their computing environment as possible. Macs are now experiencing double-digit market growth, and are making ground in corporations. Linux is much more uncommon as a desktop, but it is out there. I don’t know anyone currently screen-sharing on their phone’s browser, but the technology exists, and I BET it might be possible on Apple’s iPhone. Bottom line: If any of your customers use another platform, then choose a solution that works for them, too.

  • Know your roles. Each application may have a slightly different label, but the roles are:
    • Host – you set up the meeting;
    • Presenter – you display your screen;
    • Participant – you view a Presenter’s screen.
  • Not everyone needs to host or present. Many tools allow you to pass the role of presenter around, but NOT for all platforms. If your customers will ONLY watch YOUR screen, it is enough that the solution offer them a “Participant” – often a simple Java client in a web browser.That said, when Ann and I collaborate with clients, we often reverse roles and have them work on their own files while we observe their screen. For our practice, we insist the solutions we use include cross-platform Presenter as an option. Webex and GatherPlace work well, offering Mac and Linux Host, Presenter and Participant. GoToMeeting works with Windows, and mostly with the Mac. Here’s a great comparison chart at GatherPlace.net. (Disclosure: We are in the referral program for GatherPlace.)
  • CinemaDisplay3sizesTip: Be aware of your screen size when presenting. That new 2560 x x1600 monitor looks drop-dead gorgeous on your desk, but when you go to present that report with WebEx, you run into a problem: Your participants (those with smaller monitors) might only see the top-left corner of the document, or get seasick scrolling around to see the whole of the presentation. And remember that guy on the iPhone? 480×320? Fahgeddaboutit!!! Screen-sharing software has a ‘fit-to-window’ function, but it might be better for you to reduce your monitor’s resolution for a more consistent experience. (Photo Credit – Apple, Inc.)
  • Tip: Watch your own presentation. At times, Ann and I will connect to our own meeting with a second computer or via our iPhone / iPad just so we can have immediate feedback about our participant’s experience, and catch a stalled session before the participants even have a chance to notice.

Mix and Match for your needs and your budget

  • Don’t buy more seats than you need. You can often add additional seats online, instantly, on the rare occasion you need them. For instance, we rarely have more than 5 computers in a meeting, even when we have 15 or 20 attendees – most people share a single connection in a board room.
  • If you will need to conduct more than one meeting at the same time, buy concurrent meeting rooms. Ann and I cover this by having one meeting room with WebEx, and one with GatherPlace, but we could easily and affordably add a room to either service.
  • In order of affordability (one year of operation):
    • Gatherplace.net (Choose Premium for Screen Sharing and decent Telephone Bridge)
    • GoToMeeting.com (Great screen sharing; weaker cross-platform support.)
    • WebEx. Screen-sharing is great. Get their Bundled Teleconferencing or you will end up with a surprisingly large bill.

Audio: How you sound is even MORE important in a remote meeting

Radio personalities and podcasters count upon the right microphone and studio environment to create a more intimate, right-there experience for the listener. Indie film producers also know that great audio can make weak video ‘look’ better. With a little care, you can increase both clarity and impact of what you say in remote meetings.

  • Record yourself. Few go to the trouble of recording how they sound on their cellphone, bluetooth headset or computer microphone. At the very least, call and leave a voicemail on your own office system (not a cellphone).
  • Get a decent phone. Some 2.4 GHz cordless phones interfere with your WIFI connection (try 5.8 GHz or DECT 6.0 models). Some phones interact poorly with VoIP and cheap conference bridges and trash your voice. Some phones just sound bad. We use Uniden cordless phones at present, and like them.
  • Get a headset with a noise-canceling microphone. Plantronics, HelloDirect, Sennheiser and Logitech all make decent noise-canceling headsets for any common device or phone. I frequently get positive comments about voice quality when I’m using my Andrea headset, which was designed for voice recognition software.
  • Bluetooth headsets and speakerphones usually suck. If you are NOT in the main conference room, avoid speakerphones if at all possible. If you must, ClearOne makes decent portable speakerphones for your computer. Likewise, Bluetooth headsets are a work in progress. Ann has gone through many supposedly top-of-the-line Bluetooth devices. I own one of the best noise canceling headsets currently on the market – the Aliph Jawbone. I can talk in normal tones 6 feet from a running lawnmower, yet Ann can’t stand the tinny, digitized sound when I’m in a quiet room. There you go.
  • Just say no to background noise. Background noise is a double-whammy – you sound bad in the meeting, and you end up SHOUTING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO. Stuck in a noisy location? Use the MUTE button on your phone to give relief to the other participants until you need to speak (from the background noise, that is!). If it is comfortable enough, consider sitting in your parked car – a virtual sound booth on wheels!
  • Get your nose out of the mic! Okay, everyone knows what I’m talking about – the rumbling downdraft we hear when you exhale through your nose or mouth onto your microphone. Position your mic at the corner of your mouth, out of the ‘wind’!

Video: I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…

I like video in my remote meetings. I think it adds an important element of presence, and a dimension of communication that minimizes misunderstanding. However, it can make things MUCH more complex.

  • Start small. If you plan to experiment with video, Skype video is very good, easy, and free. Apple has built FaceTime into every iPhone 4 for video chat over WiFi. Logitech provides decent external webcams. Pay a little more for their high-end models to get better optics. All recent Apple computers have excellent little webcams built in. WebEx offers good presenter video, and now offers a panel of up to 6 locations at the same time in even their basic product. Most of the instant messaging services offer video, but they can be a pain to configure. Polycom provides GREAT multipoint videoconferencing, but suffers from even more demanding network and firewall setup requirements.
  • Set the stage. Most workspaces are designed to light your work, and not you, so out of the box, most people look ghastly, if the face can be seen at all. (Think: videos of informants on a current events expose…) A professional who chooses to use video often should really re-think their office, furniture, lighting, wardrobe and background so they can send a presentable image. A doorway or a window in the camera’s line of sight can alternatively distract and blow out the image. New video software offers the option to put in virtual backdrops, but again, this requires even more control of lighting and camera vibration. Or, you can get a pop-up backdrop, as seen here. For an EXCELLENT, accessible introduction to making your cheapo-webcam look great, visit this article at Strobist. (Photo Credit: David – strobist.blogspot.com)
  • Stay tuned for TelePresence. You like Skype Video? Have between US $50,000 and $500,000 to invest per location? (I wish I were kidding…) Check out the latest telepresence suites from Cisco, HP and Polycom. For somewhat less ($5,000), the Polycom CX5000 works with Microsoft Live Meeting or Office Communications Server for a panoramic 360° view of the room and its participants, with auto-switching close-ups to the current speaker.

Bringing it all home

So yes, it is possible to achieve great remote collaboration on a budget, but it requires a whole new suite of products, services, choices, skills and sensitivities. Start with the premise of a bombproof voice connection and reliable telephone bridge. Add redundant Internet service, then select a remote collaboration tool compatible with your colleague’s environment, and with a reputation for reliability. Tune up your audio quality, and add properly-lit video when all else is solid.

Hard work? Sure it is. But when it all comes together, we’ll be more productive, form better remote relationships, and hopefully do it with fewer carbon-spewing airline flights! See you online…

Updated extensively 2010-10-19 – GKR

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Taking Strategic Daily Action

BinocularSaltFlatsJoe, the executive, (not his real name) confided in me: “A year since I started, and I’ve been assimilated. I’m now part of the problem I was hired to solve.”

His plight – dealing with an almost overwhelming amount of operational detail, while trying at the same time to effect strategic change – is not unique. Even when executives know they need to keep their eye on the business goals one to three years out, they struggle to connect their priorities this quarter, this month, this week, and today, to the long-term goal.

Once we have helped the organization develop a sound business strategy and goal, our role changes to one of implementation coach. Now, Joe, an experienced executive, really does know what to do. Our role as a a thought partner is to help interrupt the immediate demands on him. We instituted a brief  Shape of the Week meeting every Friday.  Conducted using Skype video and screen-sharing, the goal of the meeting is to help Joe review and sequence the key priorities to act upon in the upcoming week to best build momentum toward the three-year business goal.

Example topics of discussion:

  • Capacity for Accelerated Growth – of the people you need to bring on board in order to fuel growth, in what sequence should you hire to both produce cashflow, this quarter, and momentum, long-term? Are you hiring builders and not maintainers where your strategy calls for new growth or significant change? (see our post Oct 29, 2004 for more…)
  • Management Capacity – What changes in your managers will increase their capacity to manage, and thus, give you more capacity? How effectively do they mentor to grow productivity in their own people?
  • Critical Decisions – What decisions about the next quarter and the next year need to be made, now, so that they do not become crises when the moment of action arrives? (With Digital Decision-Making, effective decisions can be made well in advance of the point of action.)
  • Emerging Market Trends and Discontinuities – What is your future scan turning up? What is your Plan ‘B’ for trends and potential disrupts to either your industry or your business model?
  • Culling for Growth – If your strategy calls for a change in the future, what should you stop doing? Why? When? How?

My broad recommendation for leaders and executives is to create your own planning discipline – a breathing space, a thought partner, a walk in the park – for getting above the daily demands and making the upcoming week count in the journey to your strategic goal.

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The Managerial Moment of Truth

New course in improving organizational performance is missing link for business leaders and managers

Our capacity to have truthful, effective discussions at all levels defines our organization to our employees, suppliers and customers. The capacity for honest, direct conversation fuels our success, and when it is in short supply, can lead to erroneous decisions, diminished performance, strained relations and missed objectives.

Every day in our practice, we see business leaders and their managers tested with opportunities, large and small, for direct conversations to improve performance. Too often, they falter – it is just too difficult, and too risky, to say what they need to. From departments of huge multinational firms, to partners of the smallest startups, managers are (and need to be) asking: Is there an easier, better way to talk candidly about the stuff that is critical to our success?

MMOTCover150x219This crucial question is at the heart of a course developed first for Blue Shield of California, called: The Managerial Moment of Truth (MMOT). Created by organizational consultant and bestselling author, Robert Fritz, and proven in practice by Bruce Bodaken, CEO at Blue Shield, the course is now available to the public. Ann and I have been very fortunate – we were introduced, during program development, almost a year ago, to the principles found in the course and were the first to present the new training. Here’s an inside look at what we are finding.

For the manager, A Managerial Moment of Truth (MMOT for short) begins with two parts: Recognition and Decision.

  1. It starts the moment we realize that the result is not what we expected. The outcome can be worse than expected, or much better than expected, but there is clearly a difference that matters.
  2. It continues with the very next decision we make: Do we, as manager or leader, decide to open up a discussion to address the discrepancy, or do we turn away from a priceless opportunity to strengthen our organization?

About that “priceless” opportunity – if we can address the difference, change behaviors and learn from the situation, we increase productivity and move closer to the results we, and the organization, want. But since managers often turn away from these opportunities at step 2, we must ask the next question: Why?

Frequently, as managers we don’t bring up the issue when it first arises because we don’t want to stir up emotional conflict – will giving accurate feedback regarding performance hurt the employee’s feelings? Will it (further) demotivate the employee? Will they react badly, leading to increased conflict or retaliation? Few managers seek out conflict, so the path of least resistance is to put the discussion off.

Another common reason we don’t promptly move to discuss such situations is that we speculate. In the training, Fritz brings up an excellent point to consider:

“When you think you know the answer to something, do you ask a question?

As human beings we create theories to explain the unknown. A better approach is to really ask questions about what we don’t know. When we speculate, we think we know what we actually don’t know.”

Whatever the exact reasons, the outcome is the same: a person or group misses the information and feedback they need to improve performance – they can’t change what they don’t know about.

The Managerial Moment of Truth course presents a real alternative for leaders and managers. Helena Hörnebrant, an organizational consultant at Sigma Exallon Sweden, reported the following results from her course participants:

“Two of the top managers said ‘Finally I’ve got tools for my everyday situations. All other management methods just tell you to deal with issues immediately but not how – but the MMOT method really gives me tools to act and help in situations which I normally don’t know how to handle’.”

Our own clients really like the MMOT. As Ann observed:

“It gives them a way to think about and structure a successful conversation about difficult stuff – invaluable for successful implementation. We have seen people starting to use the MMOT very quickly and in crisis situations, picking it up, working with it. We conducted the first Managerial Moment of Truth 6-hour course over two days. Two of our participants, after the first day, leapt in and actually handled a tough MMOT with a problem employee.”

Another client took the opportunity the day after the course to dig into why their management meetings were so very unproductive. They used the techniques from the course, including analysis of design and execution issues. The three managers sent each other e-mails documenting their learning and action plans. The following meeting was significantly better. All participants were well prepared. The team stayed away from off-topic discussion and unnecessary detail. Instead of blaming, individuals took accountability for their results – both good and bad.

There is a real complement between doing a business strategy and participating in the Managerial Moment of Truth training. After an MMOT program, our managers and leaders are more likely to succeed in implementing the changes required by the business strategy. They have the tools with which to study reality, to diagnose problems, and to frame, discuss and implement lasting solutions. The MMOT course helps the business strategies succeed as never before.

Fritz and Bodaken’s excellent book, The Managerial Moment of Truth (Free Press), comes with the training materials. The book, itself, was rated by BusinessWeek as among the “Best Business Books of 2006″. It is available in hardcover and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and all major booksellers, as well as in eBook (pdf) at simonsays.com.

Please contact Ann or Gary Ralston to learn more about the course, and to see if it is right for your management team.

About the Authors: Ann and Gary Ralston founded Ralston Consulting Inc. in 1997 to help business owners and leaders accelerate profitable growth in their organizations. They serve emerging and middle market companies across North America, from divisions of Fortune 500 firms to start-ups and family-owned businesses. They can be reached at info@ralstonconsulting.com, 614-761-1841, or www.ralstonconsulting.com.

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Apple iPhone disrupts yet another product category…

applereinventsphoneSteve Jobs, one of the great showmen of our time, has done it again. Following on the heels of the Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iTunes and OS X, Jobs demoed the new iPhone at the keynote presentation for MacWorld Expo San Francisco.

Meanwhile, nearly 2500 miles away, in Columbus, Ohio, a group of geeks young and ol… uh, seasoned, were hungrily pushing the refresh button on their browser to get the latest word from Ryan Block, a reporter from Engadget.com covering the closed keynote and posting transcripts and photos to the website in near real time, thanks to the wonders of wireless. (Does anyone remember the press corps running to the phone booth after an announcement to file their breaking news???) Between the four of us, we have owned countless phones from Motorola carphones and handhelds of the 80′s to the latest Treo and Razr and Q, and used almost every cellular service in the region. Any cellular company would be privileged to have us as a focus group.

And we were in awe of what we saw.

yourlifeinyourpocketApple has not taken an incremental approach to improving the cellphone. Instead, as they so often have, they have rewritten the rules of interaction with the device in ways that seem so patently obvious and intuitive that it makes you think: ‘That’s how it should have been done from the start!’ This phone is ALL touchscreen. No stylus. One button on the front. Use one or more fingers at a time to operate it. Beautiful scrolling. Turn it sideways and it automatically goes into widescreen mode. Simple. Except here is Apple, clearly thinking so far ahead of the pack, and already to market – shipping in June from Cingular / AT&T. Explore Apple’s new iPhone, here. See the full presentation, here.

One anonymous quote we saw on the blogs: “Today, it would suck to be any other cellphone manufacturer.” We would agree.

If you haven’t seen Steve Jobs in action, watch Apple’s previously-recorded Keynote presentation, here. Oh – one more thing: they also released a box that plays your digital content on your TV. And changed their name from Apple Computer to Apple, Inc. And had Yahoo and Google onstage at the same event. And ended the presentation with a mini concert from John Mayer. Busy bees…

Now here’s the big business strategy question coming out of Apple’s example: Does your organization see itself as an innovator? Is it putting up the resources and doing the head-hurting thinking, planning and execution required to redefine your product category? If not, what will it REALLY take to rewrite your organization’s destiny?

Photos appropriated, with appreciation, from Engadget.com.

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Innovation – The Toyota Way

ElegantSolutions317x2One million ideas a year. A culture of innovation. An intrinsic belief that good enough never is. Matthew May, a longtime Toyota business partner, shows you how Toyota’s principles and practices will help you engage your creative spirit and bring elegant solutions to your work and life.

This fast-reading article is based upon the book: The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, by Matthew E. May and Kevin Roberts.

Yet another gem from ChangeThis.com – download here.

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Web Business Tools Ready for Prime Time

KeyonCap213x141Here’s a collection of tools we use to increase our business networks, business communication and business effectiveness. Sure, many web tools are overhyped, but we actually count upon these tools. Check them out, try them on, and let us know how they work for you.

linkedinlogoLinkedIn.com is an online network of more than 8.5 million experienced professionals from around the world, representing 130 industries. (Think Myspace and Facebook for the Executive Business Crowd). Last month, my “network”, (described as direct contacts, friends of friends, and their friends, all whom I can contact directly) grew by almost 5,000 people. Ann and I are pleased to see that many of our most trusted clients and colleagues are already “LinkedIn”, and we invite you to join us!

ctlogo_lightblue3CopyTalk.com was made for the busy exec who lives on a Mobile Phone or a BlackBerry. Their Mobile Scribe package (US$59.95/month) gives you unlimited 4-minute dictations. You can make these dictations using any phone and the transcriptions will be converted to text and delivered via email or secure site the same day! During our tryout, Ann and I dictated post-meeting notes, and found that in most cases, and despite using jargon, a remarkably accurate transcript would reach our inbox within 2 hours. While we don’t currently subscribe to this tool, if our volume of meetings and summaries goes up, we’ll be signing up quick!

Update: Our contact at CopyTalk, Chris Clayton, saw this posting and gave us a call. Chris was a great helping us out during our demo period, and will do likewise for our readers. Tell him you saw it at ralstonconsulting.com. Sign up and your second month will be free. Then, for each account you refer, he’ll give you a free month of service. (Ginsu knives not included…) :-)

skype_logo_screenSkype.com, with over 100 million subscribers and free or cheap chat, voice or video calls to anyone on any phone in the world, may be the fastest-growing technology ever. What really told me Skype.com had become mainstream was when, in the same week, I Skyped with my 83-year-old mother, Ann video-Skyped with a client in Zurich, and my dear techno-challenged colleague Skyped to Africa. Skype is pricing their services to be incredibly disruptive to the usual players: $14.95 / YEAR for unlimited outbound calling to conventional telephones through the US and Canada.

Getting connected is everything: After working with Polycom videoconference products, as well as all the consumer-grade products, such as AOL Video for Instant Messenger, I can tell you that the first hurdle of voice and video calling everywhere is NOT sound or picture quality – it’s getting through all the firewalls to connect in the first place! Here, Skype shines, showing an uncanny ability to connect without complaint wherever I travel. Connection is not perfect, and sound quality ranges from crystal clear to that of a mobile phone, but it really works as a cheap or free conference system that is easy to use. Global travelers are increasingly relying on PDA’s with WIFI and Skype to stay connected reliably and affordably wherever they are.

Now here’s a tip for laptop users: since most laptops have built-in microphones, just use a pair of headphones or a Bluetooth headset to improve sound quality and eliminate echo. Have several users? Use a Skype for Business account to manage them more cost-effectively.

WO_LogoWebEx Weboffice.com is a moderately inexpensive, reasonably reliable cross-platform way to share your computer screen with one or more people, anywhere in the world. For $75 / month, we gain a single virtual conference room, with unlimited use (we pretty much ignore the rest of weboffice – too costly). In our collaboration testing this summer, Webex Weboffice narrowly beat out GotoMeeting.com ($39/month for single account, annual contract, and our recommendation for Windows-only businesses [see update, below!]), Adobe Acrobat Connect, IPXConnect.com, and our old favorite, Timbuktu from Netopia.com. While not necessarily the easiest to set up and manage, WebEx has a good network. The connections are fast, reliable, work on Mac and PC and can scale (if we pay for it) to thousands of participants. That said, seemingly EVERYTHING else about Webex is available cheaper and often better elsewhere. Watch out for their high e-mail, storage and teleconference rates – we use alternate services. Contact Steve Boss at Webex for more info.

UPDATE 2007-9-18: We are now using GatherPlace.net and it’s “premium” package with advanced teleconferencing features. For us, it is better and cheaper than WebEx. While it doesn’t have videoconferencing, as WebEx does, it is cross-platform, reasonably stable, nice and fast, offers remote support, requires no client software other than Java, and has flexible pricing starting at $29 / month, and scaling from 5 to 2,000 guests. I like the fact that I can create custom-named “rooms”. I create one for each client or project – a nice personal touch. We pay $43 per month, 1 concurrent session 5 guests, premium audio. We like it so well, we joined their affiliate program.

UPDATE 2008-5-9: The playing field has changed again. Recently, we have had enough problems with GatherPlace on the Mac that we have discontinued our account. In the meantime, WebEx for Mac has been upgraded, and now seems more stable. It includes point-to-point video for up to six locations, but we get best stability with the video off. In addition, network giant, Cisco, bought the company. We now have two accounts at WebEx. This pattern, of competitors pulling ahead in popularity and market share, only to fall and be lapped by another, is commonplace in the world of IT.

UPDATE 2008-7-23 AGAIN! Citrix GoToMeeting 4.0 now fully supports Mac computers as Hosts and Clients, and has VOIP built-in. The product was simply amazing on the PC for screen sharing when we tested it in 2007. The parent company, Citrix, are past masters at streaming PC screens at amazingly low bandwidth. While GoToMeeting doesn’t have single or multi-point video as WebEx does, GoToMeeting is a real contender at half the cost, with much faster first session setup and an easier-to-learn interface than WebEx. We’ll keep you posted

UPDATE 2009-8-24: We use Webex.com, having left WebOffice behind. STILL too costly on the phone side, but REALLY good Mac client, just updated last week.

So now you have it – tools you can really use to save time and money while accelerating business growth. If you have another good one you can count on, let us know!

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How leaders stay in the game when things go wrong…

TennisServe258h153wTennis has a lot to teach business leaders about focusing on reality under pressure.

A mental game, as much as a physical skill, it is a game where even world-class players “beat themselves” or “psych themselves out” when they get frustrated. A player might miss several shots they think they should have made. They get frustrated. They lose their acute focus on this point, on the ball and on the present. They dwell on what went wrong, and how it should have gone. Almost immediately, they begin to lose, point by point, to an opponent who is no more skilled, but better focused on reality and in the moment of play.

The pattern in business:

• You are focused, working toward a goal: i.e. market dominance.

• Something goes wrong: i.e. The marketing campaign by the new VP you hired, falls flat.

• You get frustrated or angry or scared: i.e. This shouldn’t have happened!

• You go searching for who is at fault for such a major screw-up.

• Your team fears your reactions, so no one is focused on the goal as they lay low. (Market dominance, was it?)

• Work doesn’t get done. Decisions slip. Truth isn’t told. The team focuses inward.

• If your competitors keep their focus, they might just take your customers, one by one, while you are busy looking into the past, or the future.

Should and shouldn’t, along with a sense of frustration or anger or disproportionate fear, are key flags that you are no longer focused in the present, on reality – on the very information that can help you do something useful about the situation. You are focused on the past, and on yourself, or on an imagined negative future.

In our minds, we use should and shouldn’t to cling to what should be happening and avoid dealing with what is actually happening, or what we fear might happen.

Where (and when) is the focus? Is the tennis player focused on himself, and the past of how he or she should have played, the future potential of losing the match, or is he or she focused on the ball, on the match? In business, is a product manager denying that customers simply don’t use her product, even if given it for free? Whether we are in the past or in the future, we are not focusing where we need to – on mastering the situation in the present, and moving toward our larger goal.

How to re-focus:

When angry, frustrated, scared, or using “should” or “shouldn’t”:

• Stop fuming and worrying;

• Drop the expectation; and

• Get curious about the situation.

Here are some good questions to ask:

• What is going on, right here and right now?

• What is going on that I don’t want to see?

• What do I really want, here? What is my bigger goal?

• What is my plan? What actions will move me closer to my goal?

On the tennis court, the players who keep their focus in the moment and on the ball, take the match. In business, the game will go to the leaders who can discipline themselves, even in the face of bad news and setbacks, to focus on reality, and on the goal.

Game on!

© 2006 Gary Ralston. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author: Ann and Gary Ralston founded Ralston Consulting Inc. in 1997 to help business owners and leaders accelerate profitable growth in their organizations. They serve emerging and middle market companies across North America, from divisions of Fortune 500 firms, to start-ups and family-owned businesses. Gary can be reached at gary@ralstonconsulting.com, 614-761-1841, or www.ralstonconsulting.com.

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