WhatsApp, Bluejeans, Zoom and Skype Walked Into a Bar

Despite all the tools at our disposal, working across time zones and distances is still one of the hardest things to pull off in global organizations.

The new tools do help: video conferencing has finally arrived in the form of Bluejeans, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp and other services. They are all stable and inexpensive enough that everyone with more than one office should be using them. There’s a quality to seeing people’s faces, surroundings and expressions that creates relational and contextual fabric, and it shouldn’t be missed.

On a technical note, of the options out there, I prefer Bluejeans and Zoom because they are better at mixing phones + internet calling, and have more build-in redundancy. Your mileage may vary.

That said, tools only get us so far. They aren’t the same thing as communications. And to get communications right, we need well-groomed behaviors, ones that build the sort of trust and easy back-and-forth that happens much more naturally when we see each other face to face.

If you’re trying to build these behaviors in your organization, think about communications norms at four levels:

Personal norms are the discipline each person has about how they communicate, how responsive they are, and what tools they use. Ideally everyone everywhere would have great personal communications norms. The challenge is, this is rarely the case, and even if it is, there’s enough variation in peoples’ behaviors and expectations that personal norms alone are rarely enough.

Interpersonal norms are routines that two people or more who need to communicate regularly establish (including teams). To operationalize this, you need to have both good tools in place AND make space for conversations about how you’re going to communicate. This boils down to the nitty gritty of things like: how are we going to handle the regular stuff and when something goes wrong. What’s ‘our normal’ for rate and pace of communication flow? Which tools will we use for which kinds of conversations? How do we escalate? And on and on. To avoid getting bogged down, I’d suggest having short conversations that drive to quick resolutions, try the new behavior for a week and then revisit. This is much higher yield than hour-long group conversations about norms, which tend to peter out and be more talk than action.

Organizational norms are often unspoken, but shouldn’t be. The people in your organization communicate in a certain way, with a certain tone, frequency, rate and quality. Often it feels productive to discuss organizational communication norms—“people like us communicate in this way”—but this conversations run the risk of lacking teeth if there isn’t ongoing and sustained work after the meeting about how to meet that agreed-upon common standard.

Note that this is the thorniest topic to tackle cross-border, since communications norms and tools are so different in different places (most obvious: email culture in the US, Europe; WhatsApp/Text/call culture most everywhere else.)

No Norms doesn’t seem like a category, but it is. It’s the assumption that in a global organization, neither pairs of people, teams or the whole organization needs to invest in how it communicates. This rarely yields optimal results.

I’ve generally found most success in moving the needle at the level of interpersonal norms, whether pairs of people (peers, with a boss, etc) or small teams. I’ve also noticed that there are lots of ways that good teams communicate successfully, but they all communicate successfully.

Similarly, I’ve never seen a high-performing team or organization that has low responsiveness and poor communications. Because without responsiveness and an open flow of communication, there can be no real trust.

To boil this all down, ask the question: when I throw the (communications/idea/issue/topic/need/question/request) ball to someone I work with, how confident am I that she’ll catch the ball and throw it back to me?

Here’s How I Intend to Make You Feel

For the longest time I was blinded by my own good intentions.

I’d focus too much on what I’d meant others to feel and see, asking them to carry the weight of any miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. They should be open to honest feedback, and not caught up in the specifics of how the message was delivered. They must know that we all value their hard work, never mind that it wasn’t as well-received as they’d hoped in that big meeting. And certainly they are filling in the blanks just the way I’d expect, even though we’ve not been in touch for a few weeks or months.

Well no, actually.

Good intentions are nice enough. They are certainly better than bad intentions. But, to quote that old saw, all you need is good intentions and a token (OK, a Metrocard swipe) to get a ride on the NYC subway.

The skill of leadership is the skill of mobilizing others to action. This starts with consistently, intentionally, and skillfully translating our right intentions to everyone else’s right experience.

If our message doesn’t land in the right way for different people – people who process information differently, people who show up differently, people who have different relationships to power and autonomy and to themselves – then that’s on us.

Razoo tweets and Ira Glass

On Monday I noticed a tweet from the nonprofit fundraising site Razoo, quoting a blog post of mine from 2012.

Razoo_tweet

It was the elegant graphic they’d created from my blog post that made me do a little jig.   The bonus was when I scrolled I saw that the other folks they’d quoted recently: Roald Dahl, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mr. Rogers. That’s a group I’ll always be happy to be a part of!

Razoo_all

What’s the Razoo team doing here? Finding a few choice phrases and sharing them, simply and elegantly. Easy enough for anyone to do, really.

This got me thinking that part of the reason we don’t create and share enough of our own work is that we set the bar way too high. Our job isn’t to be brilliant every day and to say something that’s never been said by anyone anywhere ever. I’ll say that again: our job is not to say something that’s never been said by anyone anywhere ever. If that were our job, almost everyone would produce nothing.

Our job is, quite simply, to give something of value to a like-minded community. Tiny observations, drips of inspiration, curated content about something we are passionate and have a point of view about…these all count. It is in the act of giving, consistently, to that community that our voice gets stronger. And as our voice gets stronger, so does that community.

Ira Glass nails this point perfectly in this NPR video interview. What’s particularly great, which I only heard because I’m writing this blog post, is that at minute three he plays a tape of a broadcast he did eight years into his job at NPR, and explains why it is  terrible.  Just terrible execution of a good story idea.  Eight years in, and Ira Glass, future winner of the Edward R. Murrow award, wasn’t any good.  If you care at all about building your capacity as a communicator, listen to minutes 3-5 which include Ira’s one-sentence take on what the story really was.

Here are Ira’s words of wisdom on doing creative work (and here’s a video that brings Ira’s words to life):

All of us who get into creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like, there’s a gap…That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.   But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, y’know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point they quit….

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline…Because it’s only by going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

Go out there and create something.

“Brave”

Last week, my wonderful four-year-old daughter had minor surgery to have her adenoids removed.  In the hospital she heard lots of encouraging words from Mommy and Daddy and from the doctors and nurses. The surgery went really well and she was a champion through it all.

The following morning, as I walked into the kitchen she looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Daddy, I was really brave when I went to the hospital.”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, smiling back,“you were.”

“Daddy,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes. “What does brave mean?”

What a sweetheart, and how wonderful it is to be a child where the world is full of questions to be asked.

In this moment she reminded me how often grown-ups will listen to the words we say and keep quiet if they don’t understand what we really mean.

It’s our job, not theirs, to fix this.

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

What I care about, what you care about

Having beat up on the MTA once before for its ads, it only seems right now to sing their praises.

I liked this subway ad a lot.

3.2 million minutes saved every day (80,000 riders x 40 minutes saved) seems like the kind of thing sensible people would be in favor of.

The typical nonprofit message here would have been: $6 billion project approved!

Why?

What I care about (if I work at the MTA): declaring victory on is budget approvals, the size of the project, contractors getting hired, etc.  The $6 billion budget.

What you care about, as a citizen: 40 minutes saved a day for 80,000 people.

Simple, but easy to forget.

 

Have personality

Saw this great sign yesterday morning at Fairway Supermarket in Pelham.  Fairway is the best combination of high quality and affordable food at any supermarket anywhere (they also make Zabar’s-quality lox, pickled herring, and olives, among other things).  Fairway’s original supermarket has been in business on Upper Wast Side of NY since the 1930s, and in 2007 they started an expansion blitz that has taken them to Harlem, Red Hook, even Stamford, CT.

This sign made me laugh out loud, and it reinforced the notion that it’s always better to have a personality.  Personality has a point of view.  Personality has a voice.  Personality will piss some people off but will make your rabid fans even more rabid-y and fan-y.

If you’re going to have personality, do it every time.  Every sign, every email you send out, every blog post, every quick reminder.  We’re not talking stand up comedy here, but if you write more like you talk and less like you think you’re supposed to write, you’re heading in the right direction.

Medium is the message

When you’re talking to your top partners, your top customers, your top donors, how do you talk to them?

Not, “what do you say?” but “what medium and language do you use?”

You certainly don’t send the people closest to you formal letters or emails starting with“Dear So-and-so” and followed by “just thought I’d drop you a line…” with three full paragraphs of supposedly off-the-cuff exposition.

For those closest to you – friends, colleagues – there’s a way you talk, right?  There’s a rhythm and a cadence and a certain ease in the communications – direct and informal and personal, and a little humor is OK.  The people closest to you usually get short emails along with text messages and phone calls and voicemails, whatever’s easiest because that person is top of mind, their contact information is at your fingertips, and you’ve got an open channel of communication.

Formal and professional is fine too, it’s just not how you communicate with a partner in crime.  And we all need more partners in crime.

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Pictures and Frames

Here’s an idea pilfered (with permission) from my friend Jennifer.

It turns out that when people go to museums, they spend up to 10 times as much of their time reading the blurbs next to the artwork as they spend looking at the artwork itself.

Which might be why, when we try to describe what we do, we essentially write blurbs that are good enough (at best) to sit next to the picture…which is a shame since we’re all in the business of creating art.  You know: “We aim to revolutionize the customer experience by enabling real-time interaction in a customer-centric fashion using…..”  (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz).

And yes, the nonprofit sector is the worst offender here, because the things we’re doing, the things in the picture frame, are so motivating and so real, and they inspires such a deep human connection that it’s doubly shameful that we use such wilted language to describe what we do.

So, the next time you sit down to write down what you do or to explain it to someone, start by imagining the picture that’s inside the frame, and describe what you see instead.

I promise it will be more real, less polished, and less likely to be interchangeable with the next organization up the block that seems, to all of us, to do the same thing you do.   (And I bet you’ll write it in real English too!)

Go ahead, even if it’s not your job to do this stuff, imagine the picture that’s inside the frame for your organization.  Describe it 6 words or less.  Send your description to the CEO and to the people that really matter.

Have fun.

[NOTE: Just realized that Katya’s (Network for Good COO) blog has some great step-by-step tips about how to do this.  Thanks Katya!]

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The next day test

I gave a speech the other day that was fine.  I said what I wanted to say, made the points that I wanted to make.

But fine, I fear, is forgotten.  Fine isn’t remembered when a person walks out of the room.  Fine is checking the box.

I think I went wrong in the preparation: spending so much time focusing on what I wanted to say, while forgetting to think about what I wanted to happen: what I wanted the audience members to do, to feel, to remember, to repeat to the next person.  And not just 5 minutes later, but the next day or the next week.

People don’t remember lists and plans.  They remember the narrative, especially a narrative in which they are the central actor, and it’s clear what action they are meant to take.  They also remember what they can feel: a personal connection, humor, a spark, even an image.

“What am I going to say?” or “What points am I trying to get across?” seem like the right questions to ask when drafting a speech.

But “What do I want someone to remember?” and “What do I want someone to do?” are much more important.

Next time…

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