The 3Cs of great meetings

Most people hate meetings, a lot.

Responding to a 2015 Harris poll, 46% of people said they’d rather do “almost anything” over a status-update meeting. 17% said they would choose to watch paint dry, and 8% claim they’d rather have a root canal.

Admittedly, this just proves that 50% of all statistics are made up, inaccurate or exaggerated.

Still, we can agree that most staff meetings (or similar) are a drag and most people dread them.

In the face of this knowledge, your first option is not to have these meetings at all. When choosing between a terrible meeting that demotivates people and nothing, by all means cancel the meeting, send a memo instead, and see what breaks (if anything).

But you can also give your meetings a huge shot in the arm by reminding yourself of the 3Cs of great meetings: communication, connection, and celebration.

Communication is probably the meat and potatoes of your current meeting. We get together to share (ostensibly) essential information. To improve the quality of your communication, send content in advance, and expect people to have reviewed it before the meeting. Use the in-meeting communication to give context on what’s already been shared, emphasize key points, and have a discussion—limit yourself to the things that you can’t write down.

It’s the other two Cs that nearly always get short shrift.

Connection is the big one. I remember, two years into my first real job as a management consultant, noticing that I was consistently spending more of my waking hours with my work colleagues than with my girlfriend (now wife).

Without connection, these hours feel empty.

You can build in connection with rituals at the start of a meeting. Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously started all staff meetings with “trip reports” both about work and about his team’s weekend. The point was to give everyone a chance to experience one another as whole human beings, and to remember that we are more, and have more to offer, than our job and role at the company.

Celebration is the most rare. Why is this? Maybe we’re embarrassed to praise someone in public or to be praised. Maybe it’s just hard to deliver compliments in a genuine way. But this is a muscle we can easily build. Just think, in advance of the meeting, of something a colleague did last week worth celebrating. Best of all, this doesn’t need (and shouldn’t only) to come from The Boss. It can come from anyone to anyone. The easy shortcut: sentences that start with, “I really appreciated it when you…”

You’ll want to figure out how to make the 3Cs, communication, connection and celebration, work for your own culture. It will depend on how formal or informal you are, how important hierarchy is for your organization, and how you approach structure or lack thereof.

But all meetings—especially staff meetings or other regular comings-together of larger groups—should have elements of all three Cs, each and every time.

The Story of a Truth, Revealed

We all carry around The Story of Me: the things we know to be true, an admixture of strengths and idiosyncrasies, faults and foibles.

Our identity is a many-layered thing. At its deepest layers are the things about Us we are most sure of. These things, buried so deep, are the hardest to see: attributes and mindsets, tendencies and habits so firmly held they become invisible.

Then, one day, someone shines a new light on one of these until-now truths. This is a someone who cares enough, knows us well enough, is expert enough and speaks so clearly that the truth they’ve uttered cuts all the way to our core.

Like hearing our own recorded voice, or seeing ourselves in a video, something previously invisible is at the center of the screen, revealed. We can’t look away. It takes up our whole field of vision.

This is a tough moment.

This Truth was so deeply held it formed part of our identity—it touches on the story of who we knew ourselves to be.

It is natural, in this moment of revelation, to experience this new Truth as a flaw, one that eclipses our strengths, our natural talents, the things that make us special.

At first, preoccupied by this new Truth, our performance plummets. Because we can’t tear our eyes away, all we see is the ways it makes us less than we thought we were. Preoccupied, we lose our ability to do things naturally: the grooved behaviors that worked so well in the past feel off, but we don’t know what else to do, how else to act.

The natural reaction is to turn away, to hide from this new Truth. It feels so ugly and misshapen, making us feel clumsy, awkward.

That’s not the answer. We shouldn’t run from this Truth. It has, after all, been offered up as a gift by someone who cares.

Nor should we be sucked into obsession, seeing the Truth in our every action, being fooled into thinking that it is Everything.

Our job, instead, is to stand firm. The “it’s all I can see, I’m a failure, I should give up” stage will pass if we are patient and we can stay grounded. Our job is to live with the truth, not to hide from or banish it.

If we can do this, then, in due course, we’ll arrive at the next stop on our journey: the It’s Not Everything stage.

In this stage, we begin to see the playing field more clearly. A number of important Things that didn’t make sense—surprising impacts we’ve had on others, results for us or our team that were less than we’d hoped for—are explained by their connection to this new Truth. In the It’s Not Everything stage, we’re not fully comfortable yet, but a fog is lifting and we’re getting more clarity. With clarity comes progress.

Finally, in time, we arrive at the last stop in our journey: the New Story.

We’ve shifted, we’ve test, we’ve adjusted, we’ve trialed-and-errored, and we’ve loosened our grip just a bit on the way things were. We’ve integrate this Truth into the New Story.

This New Story is a more real story of Us. It’s one in which we’ve traded a shiny, but ultimately faulty, piece of the puzzle for a new one.

This new piece at first seemed imperfect and misshapen.

In time we’ve cleaned it off, honed the edges, and discovered it for what it really is: a stronger, more reliable, more real than the piece that was there before.

Remembering Jason Polan to Find our Inner Artist

The artist’s job is to see the world around him.

I didn’t know Jason Polan, or his work, until I heard last week that he passed away. Jason was a 37 year old artist who, among other projects, had the beautiful, outlandish idea to draw every person in New York City. He completed 11,000 drawings, and would have gotten much further had he lived longer. Jason’s drawings are raw, irreverent, deeply human, joyful, and full of life. As Jason once quipped, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”

I particularly like this one.

Jason Polan drawing
Man on 6 Train by Jason Polan

The writer and artist Austin Kleon starts his homage to Jason with one of Jason’s tweets, “It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”

If the job of the artist is to see, then we have two questions to ask:

Am I an artist?

What does it take to see?

The first question, ironically, is the easy one. Today, you’ve no choice but to be an artist, even if, to start, you do it with a tiny, lowercase ‘a’.

The artist is the person who does more than she is told, who sees something unformed and forms it, who sees something that is missing and takes the steps to create it. To do art is to create, and no matter how big or small you dare to dream today, what we need from you is the creation of things that only you can see, the making of things that only you can make.

But what about seeing? How, as Jason asks, do we learn how to see?

We begin by deciding that seeing is a thing that we do. For me, that decision came in the form of deciding, in 2008, to write this blog. It’s been reinforced by the daily and weekly decision to keep it up for the last 12 years over more than 1,000 posts. That commitment, week in and week out, to create original content moves me from looking at the world to seeing the world; and the act of writing about what I see makes think harder about what I’ve seen and what it means.

But you don’t need a commitment as big as a public blog you’ll write for a decade. Not, at least, to start.

Creating Space

What you need is a bit more space.

Last week, in a rush of enthusiasm, my 15-year-old son shared a drawing he created last summer. He didn’t think of it as anything special, just something he’d done one day at camp when he sitting at Saturday morning services, a bit bored and trying to pass the time. (Apparently, as we just discovered, he also taught himself calligraphy over the summer.)

Because no good teenage deed goes unpunished, a few days after sharing how beautiful we thought the drawing was (and talking more about my son’s art—he makes beautiful ceramics too), we had a conversation about time.

Specifically, would that drawing have ever been created if he’d had access to his phone, to Snapchat, to Reddit, to YouTube?

And, before we get on our collective high horse about teenagers and screen time, let’s turn the mirror back on ourselves: we can easily replace “teenage-phone-distractions” with our “grown-up” distractions: the crush of email, meetings, our news feed, the latest crisis at work, and, yes, Candy Crush and its ilk.

Boredom is the Artist’s Friend

Think for a moment about what happens when we’re bored.

Our idle mind gets jumpy. If we can remind ourselves not to get hijacked by endless internal thoughts and dialogue, we find a bit of stillness. Our mind wants to turn this open, unstructured space into something.

If we allow it room to breathe,  eventually our undistracted mind will chooses to create something.

This new thing, this interesting thing, is the (metaphorical) corner of the pattern my son drew: the start of something worth creating. Once we put this down on paper, we have a jumping off point. Then, having crossed the threshold from nothing to something, it is much easier to fill in the rest through a process that is as much discovery as it is exposition.

Our choice, then, begins with recognition that being always-on, always-busy eclipses the potential for any blank space. Without blank space, without a little boredom and the prospect of a blank page, we will never begin.

But begin we must.

A small shock to the system can help. Here’s a thought: try a painless, one-month commitment to something you want to create. Use Austin Kleon’s 29-day calendar (recently updated for the leap year), and see what happens when you do some new thing for 15 minutes a day.

Do it for Jason Polan, to make up for a fraction of the beauty lost when he passed long before his time.

Feels Like the First Time

I’m in an airport terminal for an early morning flight and I spot an Au Bon Pain.

Instantly I flash to the first Au Bon Pain store in Cambridge, MA where, nearly 30 years ago, I had my first ABP raspberry croissant.

It was still warm, crispy on the outside, and the cream cheese filling was just tangy enough to balance the sweetness of the raspberry. It was heavenly.

That memory is enough to get me to walk into this small, shabby Au Bon Pain outpost in LaGuardia airport. Their raspberry croissant is good, though it is but a shadow of the original. Even so, it’s created just enough of a positive flashback that I keep on coming back.

Whether we’re selling a product or a service, whether we’re a marketer or a salesperson or a philanthropic fundraiser, we are in the business of creating feelings, emotions and memories for our customers.

The strongest, deepest memories can create customers for a lifetime.

When your clients think about you, what do they remember?

 

Looking for a U.S. sales lead for 60 Decibels

Hello blog readers, I’d like to ask for your help.

I’m looking to hire someone to work directly with me to lead up U.S. sales for 60 Decibels.

As a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that 60 Decibels is the company Tom Adams and I co-founded last year to make social impact measurement fast, nimble and useful to the people working to create social change. Our goal is to put the voice of the customer back where it belongs: at the heart of social impact measurement.

We’ve had a great first year. We are working with some of the most dynamic, forward-thinking investors, companies and nonprofits around the world. In 2019 we spoke to more than 50,000 customers in more than 30 countries, delivering more than 200 Lean Data projects. We have a 30+ person team based in four countries. We work hard and we believe in what we’re doing.

The real secret to our success is a handful of loyal customers who show up as true partners. They push us to do our best work. They have high standards and ask us to keep raising the bar. And, quietly but consistently, they support our success by spreading the word to others about the good work that we do.

The salesperson I’d like to work with understands that this is the only approach to build something that lasts: client by client, day by day, doing work worth talking about.

The person we’re looking for has personal experience with social impact measurement. She might have gained this experience working as an impact investor, a philanthropic funder, or a social entrepreneur; or maybe she’s worked to provide impact measurement solutions to those sorts of organizations. Regardless of her specific path, she has significant first-hand experience with the problem we’re trying to solve. She’ll also understand that great selling starts with passionately believing in an idea. She’ll be an effective storyteller, always be looking to learn, and demonstrates all the hustle, resilience, and sense of humor that are the hallmarks of any great professional.

As a regular reader of this blog, I’m guessing you have a sense of the kind of person I’m looking for. Above all, I hope it’s clear how personally I take my work, the values I try to bring to it every day (reflected in our 60 Decibels values), and my willingness to share when I’ve gotten things right and when I’ve fallen short.

I believe that this sort of grounded authenticity is what ultimately empowers us to enlist others in our shared mission of making the world a better place.

The full job spec is here, and people can apply directly for the job here.

Applications close on February 15th, but I’ll start reviewing applications immediately, so don’t delay.

Running for the Train

As everyone in my family knows, I have a persistent, daily, absurd issue with running for the train.

Each morning, to get to work, I walk a half mile from my house to the train station. At a relaxed pace, that walk takes 12 to 14. Walking briskly, you can do it in 10-12 minutes. Most mornings I do it in 8-9 minutes, and when things get bad, I sprint to the train in 6 minutes.

Mind you, this is all while fully dressed for work. And it’s not because I’ve overslept: I wake up at least 75 minutes before the train, and often I’ve been up for as much as two and a half hours (to exercise).

But here we are in January, and, like any period after a proper vacation, I find that on the first day back I  leave the house “early” and stroll casually to the train. While walking, I inevitably remark to myself how enjoyable this is, not just because I’m not huffing and puffing but also because I’m not starting my day with stress and rush.

Yet, most of the time, by Friday of that first week I’m back to rushing.

There’s a quality that all our days acquire when we get pulled back into the thick of things. For me, that quality is “rushed.” You will have, I suspect, a different default vice than I do.

Of course, it’s obvious that my vice isn’t serving me in a productive way.

Though, strictly speaking, that’s not true—since I engage in this behavior day in and day out, it has to be serving some need. This need seems to be the belief in the importance of the few extra things I do before dashing out of the house, or maybe there’s a bigger story I’m telling myself about how cramming activity into every last minute will sum up to a more productive day or week.

And yet, just imagine if they changed the schedule and moved the train five minutes earlier. I’d adjust, instantly.

While I continue to ponder my own foibles, here’s a question for you: what qualities do you let creep in to your days that don’t serve you—things that cause stress or worry or simply the theater of busyness? What trade-offs are you making that you could let go of? What things about how “busy” feels might be open to questioning? What mindset shift would make that sort of change easy and lasting?

What would be your equivalent of “if they changed the train schedule…”?

Here’s to a great start to your near year and new decade.

Accompaniment

I got to spend the afternoon cooking with one of my daughters. We were making quinoa latkes, a recipe I highly recommend (even if you’re neither a vegetarian nor making piles of latkes for Hanukkah.) They’re delicious and, except for the bit where you cook them in oil, extremely healthy—they’re made with sweet potatoes, kale, quinoa, ginger, panko and eggs.

My daughter is a great baker and a good cook, so she’s comfortable in the kitchen. That said, even though she wanted to be in charge of making the quinoa latkes, she needed help, from time to time, in the form of accompaniment.

Accompaniment, when done successfully, allows someone to succeed at a new, stretch assignment while feeling supported along the way.

In this case, my daughter understood and could follow and execute the recipe. But there were a few steps that stumped her: How much should the boiling water bubble before turning down the flame on the quinoa? Do you use a peeler and grater on fresh ginger? How soft, exactly, do the sweet potatoes need to be?

Each of these questions was a quick, easy answer, small enough that they required very little from me, but important enough that without them she could have gotten stuck.

While she was cooking, I busied myself with other kitchen tasks: peeling and chopping up a big butternut squash and cutting up a pile of Brussel Sprouts for later. This was a good choice, because it kept me nearby—not pulled into another task—while also reminding me to resist my natural tendency to help a little too much (also known as “taking over”).

The latkes were great, and the lesson on accompaniment is one I’ll take forward into 2020.

When we accompany successfully we inhabit the essential space between giving too much freedom (“here’s what you need to get done, here’s how I’d like to you to do it, let me know if you need anything”) and too much direction (micromanagement). This allows the person you’re supporting to stay in the driver’s seat, even in the face of challenges, and to feel supported in overcoming these challenges without giving up control and agency. At its best, successful accompaniment begets pride in accomplishment, an increase in trust, and more confidence for the next task.

Of course, pulling this off when standing next to a family member, together in the kitchen on a relaxed holiday afternoon, isn’t too hard. Finding this balance—of staying present, available, and quick to help—in the midst of the push and pull of our busy days and jobs is harder.

The two must-haves are staying aware and being highly available and communicative.

  1. Staying aware: find a way to continually track, in a light-touch way, the progress of the person you’re supporting, so you always know whether things are on or off track and can be ready to help.
  2. Being highly available and communicative: it’s your job to demonstrate that the door is wide open and that, even though you’re not involved every step of the way, you are present and available. Being there to jump in quickly to solve a problem, and then pulling back again to give back the reins, is a great way to ensure that someone feels supported and still in control.

One final note: I want to thank all of you for accompanying me throughout 2019. I hope you’ve found this year’s posts useful, and that they’ve supported you in the important work that you do. I wish you all a happy, healthy 2020.

What Will You Announce Today?

“If you brought umbrellas, don’t forget them on the train.”

On a rainy Monday morning, my train conductor—after all his obligatory announcements about arriving at Grand Central and what track we’re on—adds this helpful reminder. This five second addition helps 500 people have a better, drier, more efficient day.

We have the microphone more than we realize: most obviously in what we say and what we don’t say, and whether we choose to follow the script that’s given to us.

But we also hold it as we walk down the street, or into a shop, or walking past our co-workers: the eye contact we do or don’t make, the people with whom we do or do not share a smile, the decision to stop for a moment and really, truly listen to another human being.

What will you do with your microphone today?

Should We Boil Social Impact Down to One Number?

Kenya clinic blood pressure
Image source: The Kenyan Experience in Combating Non-Communicable Diseases, 2013

No, we should not.

Let me tell you why, with a story about how we keep track of our health.

Last week I attended the Financial Times Investing for Good USA Conference in New York. If you haven’t noticed, the FT is taking seriously the shift towards using money as a force for good. Their Moral Money reporting is getting a lot of column space and resources—they even have a newsletter (part of a paid FT subscription) with lots of great content.

During Q&A at the social impact measurement panel at this conference, a woman in the audience, sounding exasperated, asked whether social impact is like health: is it something so nuanced and complex that we can never fully understand it in a simple, clear and comparable fashion?

The implication seemed to be that until we can boil social impact down to a single number, like IRR, we can never really understand it.

I love the health analogy, but I disagree wholeheartedly with the conclusion.

How Do We Measure Health?

Let’s think for a moment about how we measure health. While a person’s health is complex, there are some basic, universal measures that indicate well-being: blood pressure, resting heart rate, BMI, cholesterol levels, respiratory function, and so on.

Think about the characteristics of these measures: they are easy to gather, we collect them directly from patients, and they can easily be compared.

We gather this data annually in a physical (and gather a subset of them every time we visit the doctor), and doctors and nurses use these data to get an overall sense patient well-being. If these measures are way off, a patient might be unwell and in need of further testing.

Some Core Principles of an Effective Measurement System

Let’s think about the core principles that are in evidence here, because they give us good guidelines for how to think about social impact measurement:

  • Find measures that apply broadly
  • Determine what good and bad ranges look like
  • Regularly gather primary data to understand how individual patients are faring
  • When those indicators are off target, go deeper with specialized measures

It feels obvious that doctors have a core set of things they can measure to understand well-being. At the same time, we are not scared off by the complexity underneath. Indeed, we recognize that we must master that complexity to truly help patients: the human body is complex, so we must be comfortable with complexity to understand it fully.

And so, in patient care, simplicity and complexity happily coexist.

The Core, Comparable Metrics of Social Impact

Similarly, for social impact measurement, there are broad indicators that can be easily compared (many of which align with the Impact Management Project and for which we’ve developed questions and benchmarks at 60 Decibels):

  • WHO is being served: income levels, access levels, gender, members of excluded groups, etc.
  • WHAT is their experience of the product: Net Promoter Score, customer effort score, etc.
  • HOW MUCH does the product or service improve their lives: meaningfulness of impact, other indicators of changes in well-being (income, confidence, safety, empowerment, etc.)

All of these data can be easily gathered directly from the people experiencing (or not experiencing) social impact. And, just like blood pressure, gathering this data from the actual people being served is a prerequisite to understanding whether a specific product or service is making a difference.

From the People Being Served

“From the actual people being served” bears underlining: if my doctor wants to understand my health, she wouldn’t be satisfied knowing the BMI or blood pressure data of people like me. Instead, she would use population data to understand what the healthy range was and compare that range to what she reads on her dial when I’m standing right in front of her.

That might seem obvious, but in social impact measurement we seem too easily convinced that studying similar interventions is good enough—that we can simply extrapolate that data to our investment and be done. The fact is, as in medicine, studying other, similar interventions is the starting line, not the finish line. When I arm myself with that desk research, and then couple it with what I learn about the lived experience of the people my impact investment is serving, then (and only then) am I in a position to understand the impact performance of my investment.

Conversely, if we never listen to the customers being served by our investment, we’re saying the equivalent of (at my hypothetical doctor’s appointment), “typically, 46 year old white men have a blood pressure of 125 / 85.” That’s good to know, but it tells me nothing about whether I’m eating too much salt or at risk of heart disease.

Even more obvious, we would never expect that a blood pressure reading or BMI, alone, would tell us everything we need to know a person’s health. So why are we so obsessed with finding a single, one-number measure of social impact? These simplifying measures are, at best, directional indicators of a deeper reality that lies beneath. Importantly, that is not the same thing as saying that all that complexity must can and should boil up to that single number.

Finally, let’s not be frustrated that we can’t compare everything to everything. After all, we can only compare lungs to other lungs, not to livers or kidneys. Despite this limitation, we are not powerless to deduce whether one person is healthier than another.

Embracing Simplicity and Complexity

That’s good news.

It tells us that, in human health, we are comfortable with embracing both simplicity and complexity. We understand that the human body is itself a system with countless underlying organs and sub-systems. We recognize the need to understand these systems at a micro and a macro level. When we do so, we are in a position to successfully manage human health.

We can and should be just as comfortable with the notion that social impact happens as part of complex systems; and we should be optimistic that a core set of simple, easy-to-measure, comparable indicators can give us an enormous amount of insight about actual, on-ground social impact. Like in human health, we should also embrace the need to understand this deeper complexity if we are serious about managing social impact performance. That means deep, specific data about my specific intervention, coupled with cross-cutting, universal measures that apply to all interventions.

A Glimpse of the Future

This is all well within our grasp.

The first step is to stop telling ourselves that there’s some magical shortcut between here and there. Our work, and the people we aim to serve, are too important, and the amount of capital coming towards social impact is too big, for us to aim to skip steps.

Most important, let us never forget is that this work is about real, actual, living people. These people are the locus of change. It is a core part of our job to listen to them so that we can truly understand their perspective and their lived experience.

This is the only way we can manage social impact performance to achieve meaningful better outcomes.

And someday soon, doing all of this will be as normal and as natural as taking someone’s pulse or their blood pressure.

The Fallacy of Long-Term Career Goals

I’ve always been terrible at setting long-term career goals. To start, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up (outside of maybe a veterinarian, because I loved animals). That felt like a profound shortcoming to my 10-year old and 20-year-old selves.

Partially this was because the list of “grown up jobs” that I’d heard of was absurdly short: teacher, doctor, lawyer, fireman, policeman, musician…maybe architect on a good day.

But the real problem was the half-baked notion that this process works from the outside in.

Done properly, it’s the other way around.

I know I’m in the right job if I’m thriving and learning, if I’m creating things of substance that I believe in, and if I’m working with great people. That’s the whole enchilada.

If you’re finding it hard to find all those things at once, that’s OK. Start with great people and find a way to work with them. The rest will follow.

And, if you’re wondering what I mean by “thriving and learning:”

Thriving is doing your best work. Work that makes you stand out, work you get lost in because you’re in the zone when you’re doing it, work that people keep noticing—whether in how you show up or what you delivered. Pay attention to this praise, especially if it’s for things that come easily to you. That is the kernel of you at your best.

And learning? It’s self-explanatory, and it should be non-negotiable. It is, and always will be, the only path to growth.