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Tag Archives: meetings

With My Thumb Up My . . .

Experimenting with some short form blogging. 
I’m sitting in a conference room where I was supposed to meet with a couple finance people to go over our integrated master schedule. Nobody is here except me.

It’s kind of nice not having to deal with anybody, and I log onto my computer at my desk, but it’s just not the same and I’m bored.

Now I’ve moved into another conference room and it looks like I’m gonna be doing the same thing. At least I’m being taken out to lunch today, by one of the very people who’s supposed to be here right now. He will hear about this.

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Santa Claus is Definitely No Republican

One of the, shall we say, more charming practices of my Rotary Club is that of having someone play the role of “Ratfink” at most meetings. The Ratfink usually resembles either a stand up comedy routine or a roast. Either way, members of the club are generally involved, though when the roast format is used it can get a little snarky . . . to say the least.

My club’s last meeting was treated to a bit of a roast and, for the first time in the slightly over two years I’ve been a member, I was the butt of the routine. The presenter was a gentleman who is a political operative for a local, Conservative Republican of some stature and I know him reasonably well. He and his wife recently celebrated the arrival of their second child and I believe he is a good, devoted husband and father. We are Facebook “friends”.

Let me say something about Rotary International, in general, and my club, The Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise, in particular. Without getting into too much detail, I have come to see Rotary as a challenging, useful organization with goals I have no trouble agreeing with. The motto “Service above self” has always been dear to me, though my experience with it was mostly exhibited in how I performed my job and in my willingness and ability to help others around me. The Four Way Test is also a statement of principle I am in complete agreement with, to wit:

Of the things we think, say, or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOOD WILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Now, I truly have a hard time arguing with these principles, yet have no trouble recognizing there are some for whom they are merely words and the reason they are involved in Rotary is either because they’re looking for business or social connections or because it’s a way to be “charitable” without too much effort. I do believe those people are a small minority, though. But, I digress.

I live in what I believe is a reasonably conservative city; the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. My Rotary Club consists of some very (did I say “very”?) politically conservative individuals. I make no secret of my political proclivities, which tend to lean far to the left and many of my fellow Rotarians, like last meeting’s Ratfink, are Facebook “friends” who, since I am pretty prolific in my postings, must see some of the stuff (sometimes rants) I post. I do fret a little about upsetting them too much, as I believe we all want the best for our City, though we may disagree on how to get there. I do not question the motives of most, while reserving judgment on some who I believe are either horribly misguided or total assholes.

Santa's a Socialist

That Fat Bastard is at it Again!

The man who served as Ratfink, however, is not one of the latter. He had me stand up, which is customary during a roast-like rendition of the role, and pointed out that one of the “drawbacks” of being as vocal and public as I am on Facebook is that others who might not agree with me can see who I really am (or something like that). I should point out, at this stage of my life I don’t much care. In the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” I have had to spend the vast majority of my life being very careful what I said in order to avoid being ostracized. I don’t plan on going to my grave without showing my “true colors”, so to speak.

He then went on to point out to me that Santa is a Republican, evidenced by the fact he wears red. Now I’m quite certain there were many watching who relished this bit of roasting I was “receiving”, though I couldn’t see as I was at a table closest to the front and I was facing forward toward the speaker. I quietly took my medicine and, when he was finished with me and moved on to the next person, I sat down. However, when he was finished and was returning to his seat, which was only a table away from mine, I audibly pointed out my conclusion that Santa was actually a socialist, as he gives toys to children everywhere in the world. Never mind that red is in most of the world considered a color of revolution and that the old Soviet Union’s and the current People’s Republic of China’s flags are mostly red.

I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with him since, as we had a wonderful program of carolers provide us with entertainment and, afterward, everyone scurried off to their jobs or whatever it was their day was going to bring them. We also won’t have our next meeting for another two weeks as both Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on Thursdays, which is the day we meet. However, I know I will be speaking with him. In fact, he has offered to help introduce me to the right people within our City government so I can introduce my concepts regarding the future of work, the collaborative economy, and the use of social media to facilitate the governance and conduct the business of the City and its inhabitants. I’m looking forward to it.

I trust everyone has had a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus (for the rest of us) or whatever (if any) holiday you might observe. We also just experienced the Winter solstice; the shortest day of the year and many have celebrated the beginning of a new cycle in which the days will now begin getting longer until the end of June. Truly a festive time of the year. Now we have New Year’s revelry before us and I have a lot of work to do for the first time in quite a while. I wish everyone who comes to my little slice of the blogosphere much joy and happiness. With those two, prosperity is a relative thing and, of course, I wish for your health and well-being as well.


Is Meeting F2F All That Important?

Virtual Handshake

Nice to Meet You!

This morning I had a wonderful Skype conversation with my reasonably long-time “friend”, Euan Semple. I use “friend” because we’ve never met in person. We have, however, been connected through various social channels (including Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn) for something like six or seven years.

Euan had contacted me and suggested, since we were likely never to meet IRL (in real life), a Skype chat might be in order and asked if I was interested. I was. Actually, I was thrilled as I have enormous respect for Euan and the things he has accomplished. I urge you to check him out, especially his blog “The Obvious?“, to which he has been posting since February of 2001 (that’s 13 years!).

As the time for our conversation was approaching, I found myself wondering whether or not we should have a video chat, as opposed to merely audio. That got me thinking about the value of F2F (face-to-face or IRL) meetings, which then drew me into the value of virtual teams and meetings and, finally, all the possibilities and ramifications in between.

I have written previously about virtual teams and the value of in-person contact, but I took things in a slightly different direction this time (at least I think I did) and Euan added an important piece as well, later on in our conversation. So here are some of the things I was wondering:

  • How important is breaking bread together for team/group cohesion?
  • Assuming it can prove valuable, can you “share” a meal virtually? In other words, is there value to meeting at a time where all those involved (especially if it’s only two or three people) can spend part of the time — perhaps all of it — just eating and shooting the shit?
  • Assuming “water cooler” conversations can be quite valuable, is there a virtual analog, e.g. chat, IM?
  • Is there value in being able to pick up body language and, if so, how much?
  • How likely is it that a person can disguise their true feelings and “fool” their colleagues/fellow attendees when they’re meeting face-to-face? Euan had suggested it would be easier for some to do this in person precisely because of body language and eye contact.
  • What about when they’re meeting virtually? Can’t a video chat accomplish almost the same thing?
  • Can a virtual team work without ever meeting in person?
  • If not, how long should the intervals be between f2f meetings and what can be done in between to build cohesiveness and get things done?

This is just a placeholder and starter list. There are likely many issues I’ve missed and that others have thought of. I’d love to hear what you think.


Health News – Neuroscientists Find That Status within Groups Can Affect IQ

NOTE: This is the first time, to my recollection, I’ve posted directly from Posterous. I’m not sure how I want to deal with this, but thinking I’d rather share a link to the article than the whole damn thing. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating look at how social status can affect intellectual performance, which points out yet again the impossibility of understanding anything well in isolation from the system – or environment – within which it exists and operates. My comments from Posterous are at the end.

PASADENA, Calif.—Our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments, according to new findings from a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and four other institutions.

The finding flies in the face of long-held ideas about intelligence and cognition that regard IQ as a stable, predictive measure of mental horsepower.

“This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” says Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy at Caltech and one of the authors of the new study, which appears in the current issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. “Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”

“You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain-dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain-dead as well,” says Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and corresponding author on the paper.

To investigate the impact of social context on IQ, the researchers divided a pool of 70 subjects into groups of five and gave each individual a computer-based IQ test. After each question, an on-screen ranking showed the subjects how well they were performing relative to others in their group and how well one other person in the group was faring. All of the subjects had previously taken a paper-and-pencil IQ test, and were matched with the rest of the group so that they would each be expected to perform similarly on an IQ test.

At the outset, all of the subjects did worse than expected on this “ranked group IQ task.” But some of the subjects, dubbed High Performers, were able to improve over the course of the test while others, called Low Performers, continued to perform below their expected level. By the end of the computer-based test, the scores of the Low Performers dropped an average of 17.4 points compared to their performance on the paper-and-pencil test.

“What we found was that sensitivity to the social feedback of the rankings profoundly altered some people’s ability to express their cognitive capacity,” Quartz says. “So we get this really quite dramatic downward spiraling of one group purely because of their sensitivity to this social feedback.” Since so much of our learning—from the classroom to the work team—is socially situated, this study suggests that individual differences in social sensitivity may play an important role in shaping human intelligence over time.

During the computer-based test, about a third of the subjects underwent brain scans, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). This type of imaging allows scientists to track increases in oxygenated blood flow, indicating heightened activity, in the brain. At the start of the test, researchers observed increased activity in all the participants in a brain region called the amygdala, which is associated with fear and emotional arousal. Among High Performers, that activation decreased over time, while it remained steady in Low Performers.

“What is causing the Low Performers to be hindered by the social context is something for follow-up studies, but certainly the suspicion is that it’s a dimension of personality that is driving the difference,” Quartz says. That dimension could be neuroticism, the tendency to worry or to ruminate about social information. “The pattern of activity that we see originally in both groups, but especially in the low-performing group, is quite similar to the pattern of activity you see in studies looking at the neuroscience of neuroticism.”

The researchers also tracked activity in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain involved in the processing of rewards. They observed elevated activity in the nucleus accumbens when a subject’s rank within the group increased. “That shows that the task was motivationally important to people,” Quartz says. “When they saw their rank go up, that was a reward.”

The idea for the new study came, in part, from a study published in 1999 in which researchers from Emory University examined social rank—a strong and extremely motivating signal among primates. It has long been known that even monkeys that have never met before can quickly sort themselves based on social standing within the group. The Emory researchers isolated low-ranking rhesus monkeys and taught them a learning task. They found that in the presence of high-ranking group members, the monkeys who had learned the task acted as though they were not familiar with it.

“Social rank isn’t as well understood in humans,” Quartz says. “So we wanted to see what would happen when social rank becomes salient in a group of humans, as it does in most real-world learning environments. We wanted to see if this has an effect on the expression of IQ.”

Throughout the 20th century, IQ was used in different arenas as a way of sorting or classifying people into niches. Because people believed it to be a more abstract notion of cognitive ability, it was thought to have strong predictive validity of mental capabilities even from age six. But IQ was always measured in social isolation. “That reflects a long tradition of intellectual history, of considering rationality and cognition to be this isolated process,” Quartz says. “But one of the things that we’re learning more and more in social neuroscience is the role of our social contexts and the social adaptation of the brain.” Understanding the role social context plays and its differential impact on the brain may ultimately help educators and others to design more effective learning environments.

The present study found some unexpected trends, including the tendency for female subjects to be more affected than males by the implicit signaling of social status during the test. Although all of the subjects scored similarly on the paper-and-pencil IQ test, 11 of the 14 Low Performers on the ranked group IQ task were female, while 10 of the 13 High Performers were male. Due to sample size limitations, additional studies are needed to validate the finding and to investigate possible causes.

In addition to Quartz and Montague, additional authors on the paper, “Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses,” are Kenneth Kishida of Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Dongni Yang of the Baylor College of Medicine, and Karen Hunter Quartz of the University of California, Los Angeles. Montague is also affiliated with the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in London. The work was funded by the Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship, the Kane Family Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

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Written by Kimm Fesenmaier

Deborah Williams-Hedges
626-395-3227

The part of this I find fascinating, even though I’m tempted to point out I’ve always found meetings a bit mind-numbing, is the apparent systemic nature of IQ and overall cognitive ability, and it’s (again apparent; more research is in order) cultural sensitivity. The apparent gender bias, for instance, tracks well with much previously observed behavior. I suspect there would be other, similar results in the future related to less generic (genderic?) aspects of culture as well. Vewy intewesting!


My First Encounter with NASA

How Meetings End Up

From Space to Sleep

Yesterday, a friend of mine, Luis Suarez, posted some information on Google+ about sleep, which elicited a fair amount of commentary (including from me) and, in the process, reminded me of a story that comes from my first days as a member of the Flight Operations team on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program.

I’ve written before about my feelings regarding meetings and their efficacy, which I tend to frequently question. However, this was a meeting where I might have been able to learn more about the job I was embarking upon. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out like I hoped it would.

SSME, MCC, HPFTP, HPOTP, LPFTP, LPOTP, MECO

The aerospace industry, like many others, is replete with acronyms. In addition, I was working at an organization that was primarily an Engineering company and I’m not an Engineer. After over two decades there I have often noted I am now covered with a reasonably thick patina of Engineer, but this was at the very beginning of my tenure and everything was new to me.

This particular meeting was a telecon with our NASA counterparts at a time when the U.S. Space program was recovering from the destruction of Challenger. The year was 1988 and we were approximately 8 months away from returning to flight; human flight, that is. Although the SSME was in no way implicated in the disaster, we had been using the stand-down to prepare a Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, as well as a Critical Items List (referred to as a FMEA-CIL). It consisted of breaking down the operation of our engines into discrete activities beginning with “tanking” (the loading of fuel into the External Tank) and ending with MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off).

To make a long story short, I entered a packed conference room designed to accommodate approximately 35 – 40 people. It was full, with every available seat taken, and there was a conference phone, on the other side of which was an equally packed room at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. I don’t recall the specific technical issues that were discussed at that meeting, partly because I really didn’t have the faintest idea what they were talking about – especially because of the prolific use of the aforementioned acronyms and technical jargon, as well as the use of numerous bullet charts and a dizzying array of graphics which, presumably, represented performance data of various sorts.

The Hypoglycemia Zone

I sat in the back, against the wall, and tried to follow along, anxious to learn what I could about my new job and what my organization was responsible for. It wasn’t long before I felt my head bang against the wall. With horror, and not a little consternation, I realized I had dozed off. To make things worse, I was quite certain I had begun to snore, as I have been shunned by many because of my snoring. I also noticed I received a couple of sidelong glances from my new colleagues.

Needless to say, I got up and left the room, delaying my education . . . and hoping I hadn’t been noticed by too many influential people. I never forgot that day and, throughout my over two decades career there, I was always conscious of the possibility of falling asleep during meetings, especially terminally long ones where incredibly arcane technical discussions were accompanied by the kinds of charts I grew used to, and which Edward Tufte so vociferously decried. In that more than twenty years I also witnessed an awful lot of people dozing during meetings, especially if they took place after lunch – in the Hypoglycemia zone.

I really think meetings are over-rated and we tend to have far too many that are unproductive and unnecessary. Is this the case where you work?

Photo Courtesy of Rational Supervision


We Don’t Need No Stinking Meetings!

The Ubiquitous Conference Room: Where Collaboration Goes to Die

Before you get your panties in a bunch, I’m not really advocating the complete abolition of meetings. I always loved getting together with 20 or 30 of my closest associates and spending the first ten minutes – of what always managed to completely fill the exact amount of time allotted to it – with banter about our kids, our pets, our plants, and our plans for retirement. Regardless, it always seemed to me there were just a few too many of them, and many were just . . . well . . . kind of unnecessary. So I’m just saying maybe we should consider there are meetings that are a complete – or near complete – waste of everyone’s time. Allow me to provide an example and, hopefully, I won’t piss off my former employer too much by sharing this.

Quite a few years ago I was a member of the High Pressure Fuel Turbopump team for the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at a famous, but not very well-known organization. [Pop Quiz! Who designed the engines that powered the Saturn vehicles to the moon?] At the time, another company was in the process of certifying their design for the same pump, as (Warning! the following statement may be hotly disputed by the parties, and they are only a partial recollection from a limited perspective) NASA had determined their (the other company’s) design was more reliable and, therefore, more safe. Unfortunately, this other organization was having trouble with some of their design and they weren’t meeting their certification and delivery goals. For this reason, we were given a contract to produce ten more high pressure fuel pumps.
For a length of time I can no longer recall (this was in the late 1990s, I believe, and the experience was somewhat painful), but let’s say it was around or over a year, we had a stand-up meeting every day to discuss what had happened the day before and what we wanted to happen that day. There were always between 15 and 20 people in attendance. However, on most days only a few of these folks actually had to be there. Unfortunately, it was impossible at the time for anyone to know whether or not they were needed without attending the meeting to see and hear what was talked about.
At the time, Macromedia had a product they called Generator which, as the team’s webmaster and web content volunteer learner guy, I had discovered. Generator worked with Flash to create animated displays. Among the things you could do with it was to create a ticker tape that would run a stream of updates at the bottom of an employee’s display. I knew nothing of “social” back then, but it sure seemed to me that having people update their activity through the use of this ticker tape would obviate the necessity for at least half (probably more like 80%, thank you Mr. Pareto) of the meetings we were having. This seemed a significant savings to me. Unfortunately, I might as well have been standing in the corner talking to it.

Now that this occurrence has faded in my rearview mirror, I can look at it a little more rationally. At the time, it was just one of numerous ways in which I saw us spending far more money and effort than necessary to get things done (don’t get me started on how click-to-talk phones could have sped up the flow of components through the shop). It wasn’t to be.

Although I’m no longer in that world (corporate, that is), I have good reason to believe things haven’t changed much in all this time. I know they hadn’t by the time I left (May of 2010). Are you still having meetings that accomplish little other than to fill up the hours? Here’s a suggestion. Read the book by Patrick Lencioni – “Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable“. It’s a great business book masked as an entertaining fable, in the mold of Eli Goldratt’s “The Goal“. See if you can’t turn your meetings into what they should be, a vital and invigorating component of running an organization rather than a time-wasting drag on everyone’s energy and enthusiasm.


Do I Really Have to Look at Your Ugly Mug?

My Babies

No Rights Reserved. So There!!

I had a great lunch with two former colleagues (and continuing friends) at a superb Korean restaurant today; one I never would have gone to on my own merely because it was in a location I just wouldn’t have thought of stopping to eat in. Then again, for many years I haven’t been the type of person who goes out much for lunch. I used to bring my lunch and eat at my desk and continue screwing arou . . . er . . . working. So, during the conversation we got to talking about one of my favorite subject, which is how important is face-to-face contact . . . really?

Lots of people I know insist face-to-face meetings are, hands down, the best way to conduct meetings. They believe the numerous signals that can’t be communicated virtually are so important to understanding and communication that without them too much is lost. To them, conducting meetings virtually is not useful enough to justify engaging in often. To some, it is of no value at all unless it includes a voice connection (at the least) as well. I’m not sure I agree with them. Actually, I don’t agree with them at all. I am in the opposite camp.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of face-to-face meetings. After all, you can’t go out drinking together if you aren’t actually together. Nevertheless, in today’s environment and, perhaps, regardless of how much the economic situation improves, travel is expensive in all kinds of ways. There’s the money spent on the travel and lodging itself. There’s the lost productivity while stuck in airports or overcoming jet lag. There’s the societal costs associated with the resources used to fly jets, drive cars, etc, etc. There’s being away from one’s family and the pressure that brings. There’s the cost of bringing souvenirs home for your kids that will often as not end up under the couch within a couple of days, not to be seen for a while (and surely not missed).

I just don’t buy the argument that being able to read facial expressions and body language are all that important. Perhaps when negotiating a complex contract, where there’s a bit of gamesmanship going on, it’s absolutely necessary. However, in the kinds of arms-length transactions that make up the bulk of the activity people travel to conduct, we can usually presume a desire to achieve the same, or similar, results – can’t we? I have a lot of relationships these days with people I have never met in person. I’ve seen still pictures (mostly avatars), but nothing else of them. Frankly, I don’t even know for sure it’s what they look like. Yet, there are ways in which trust is attained; built up in thin, seemingly tenuous layers of  engagement; in the sharing of innocuous details of one’s activities and interests, etc. Some of my “virtual” friends I feel closer to than I do to many of my “analog” friends.

This I attribute to the richness of communication that generally emerges with the proper use of a good social system. For instance, Twitter allows me to engage with people on several different continents. Over time, I know (and I can reasonably confirm it to be true) where they work, what they do, what they like, and – especially – what they think about things I like to think about. Over time I can determine whether or not they keep their word; that is, how trustworthy they are. In communication and collaboration, nothing is more valuable in my opinion than trust.

I want to repeat my position here. I am not suggesting meeting people in person is not valuable or that we can do away with it. I do believe, however, if we found ourselves in a situation where we needed to work with someone we just wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in the same room with . . . it wouldn’t be all that terrible. I’m going to Boston next month to attend the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. Frankly, my main reason for going is to meet – in person – at least a dozen people I have been interacting with for various periods of time who I have grown to trust and respect. I wasn’t going to go, despite my desire to meet up with these new friends. Fortunately, one of them (@ITSinsider, aka Susan Scrupski) made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse. Had I not been able to attend in person I still would have continued my relationships with these friends, and I believe they would have grown and improved.

So. I kind of hope I’ve gored someone’s ox. Otherwise, why do I reveal myself this way? Who’s going to join the fray? Virtually speaking.


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