Monday, March 30, 2009

The "What" and "If" of Feedback

I love the practice of feedback -- it has helped me grow. Having worked in a company like ThoughtWorks, where feedback is such an important part of our culture, it also helps me stay sane. I don't have any bottled up feelings against anyone I work with and that just works so well in terms of making me feel relaxed.

Most models of sharing feedback recommend that you give feedback as soon as you notice an infraction in behaviour. When I say infraction, I mean that the observed behaviour deviates from desired behaviour. So, coming back to the point I was making -- most wise people recommend that you give feedback after each infraction. In fact the Crucial Confrontations model recommends the following high-level steps:
  • The first time a problem comes up,talk about the Content
  • The next time the problem occurs, talk Pattern, what has been happening over time. Pattern issues acknowledge that problems have histories and that histories make a difference.
  • As the problem continues, talk about the Relationship, what’s happening to us. The issue is not that others have disappointed you repeatedly; it’s their limited response to feedback has caused you to lose trust in them.

As you can see, each confrontation has a different purpose and message and is caused by a trigger - the infraction. I know however that quite a few people find it difficult to determine if they should give feedback and if the infraction is worth talking about. This is the best part I like about the Crucial Confrontations book. It asks you to unbundle the problem into What and If.

So obviously the first part of the problem is to determine what the impact of the behaviour was. What were the consequences to the work at hand, the customer or you? Why do you care? If you were to discuss the problem what consequences will you discuss? This is the most important part of the "What". This apart though, its quite important to think of the Intentions behind the behaviour -- and to ensure that we humanize the action by trying to think through the best possible intention behind the action. Lastly, its important to think that if you were to talk about this infraction, what's the positive future that you will speak of? What do you want for yourself and the other person, as a result of this conversation.

Once you've got the What sorted out, you at least have part of the content for your conversation decided. This said, the bigger question of "If" you should speak up still remains. A lot of us believe in giving the other person the benefit of doubt and our way of doing that is to ignore the infraction. Firstly, if you were to tackle the issue with safety and enquire the reasons behind the behaviour, you'll perhaps be doing exactly that. Secondly, if you are assuming that the deviation from desired behaviour was unintentional, then its all the more important to make the other person aware of the consequences, so that you can brainstorm ways of avoiding the situation in the future. The authors of the book recommend a few questions that I feel are really useful to ask yourself:
  • Does your body language or behaviour betray your concerns about the behaviour?
  • Have you made a judgement that you're not sharing?
  • Are you confusing the question of how difficult the conversation will be with the question of whether you have the conversation at all?
  • Are you subconsciously avoiding the conversation since you don't know how to approach the other person?

Now, if your answers to any of these questions is "Yes.", then you should definitely have the confrontation. So effectively, the only situation in which you don't want to have the conversation is when you haven't done any preparatory work.

I strongly recommend that everyone in a professional setting reads the "Crucial Confrontations" book. It provides a model for handling difficult conversations that makes life so stress free that you find more time to concentrate on your work. With time, these conversations become so easy that you will be able to have them without fussing over them too much. And then: life will be (as I often say) on "cruise control".

The Evolution of Communication - Ha ha!

Image linked from its original context here

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Using Whitespace and avoiding Logo-fication

Its strange how most TV channels these days have a ticker/ banner scrolling down the bottom of your screen which most people hardly notice. I don't think there's a single cricket match in India where the bottom of the screen isn't hijacked by advertisements. This doesn't seem to bother us anymore though. We've just switched ourselves off to these forcible interruptions into our experience. The same goes for news websites and other such resources on the interweb. Take a look at the example below -- this could be just about any website. We've gotten really good at subconsciously ignoring all of these unwanted encroachments into screen real estate. What we do see and focus on is the actual site content annotated as (2) on the picture alongside.(Please click on the thumbnail for an enlarged picture)

This thinking has made its way into how audiences respond to presentations -- we've got used to seeing such blatant misuse of slideware through the use of company names/logos (3 times on a slide in the case below), headers, footers, page numbers et all that we've switched ourselves off completely to these regions on slidespace. I'm going to ask you how many times you actually pay attention to these sections of a slide. That'll give you a fair indication of the utility (or the lack of it) of such practices.

There's a strong thought process especially in marketing circles to advertise the company logo/ name on each slide and the usual point is, "You won't use that space on the slide, so why not advertise our name out there?" That's exactly the point. I don't want to use that space. There's an amazing virtue of visual design called 'Whitespace" which we seem to have forgotten. There's a lot said about this topic and Garrey Reynolds mentions the Japanese principle of "Hara Hachi Bu", which literally translates into "Eat only until 80% full." The wisdom also translates into presentations where you could say, "Use only 80% of your slide space" or "Use only 80% of the time on hand." If you look at the most effective visual design, you'll notice that there's a tremendous amount of whitespace that allows the design to not only breathe, but also lets the main elements stand out. One of my theories about why Google is such a popular search engine is how simple and clear the main search engine page is. Its an excellent example of the use of whitespace. There's no chance whatsoever of missing the main point.
So, the point I'm trying to make is that you need to keep a lot of space on your slides empty for the main elements of your visual to stand out. If this means that you use a larger number of slides, so be it!

Now there's of course a reason why companies started to use their logo on every slide.

  • A strong sense of identity of where the presentation came from. I want to break this problem into 2 parts:
    • Internal presentations: I just don't see the point of using the company logo in internal slide-decks. Everyone knows which company they work for! So what's the fuss all about. Its quite easy -- give your visual some space to breathe.
    • External presentations: These presentations are trickier, so I'll break these up into two further situations:
      • Cient Presentations: Your clients hopefully know who you are since they either called you or are entertaining your call. In such situations, there's really no need to announce your company name on each slide, since that does nothing to strengthen your message. Instead, use a title slide that mentions your company name in no uncertain terms and spend some time talking about your firm if necessary. As you go forward, use consistent typography and a consistent color palette to help provide a unique brand proposition.
      • Conference/ Trade Fair style presentations: This is a trickier situation. You obviously cant control how long someone sticks at a talk, so how do you ensure brand recall?
        • Distribute a flyer: Having a takeaway from the talk will ensure that people remember what you spoke about and what your firm stands for. Ensure that an assistant gives out these handouts to people on their way out.
        • Use transition slides: Transition slides are visuals that you use when moving from one topic to another. These are usually breadcrumb slides that tie together the entire presentation. You can use your logo on these slides. The idea is to handle your presentation as many small presentations. This helps you engage those with short attention spans and less patience and also helps you reiterate your brand name/logo, without compromising on whitespace.
        • Ensure that you're the right person to represent your firm: This is a bit of a difficult question to ask yourself; "Am I the most engaging speaker for this topic?" If your answer is "No!", then its perhaps a good idea to renounce your ego and let someone else represent the firm.
    • Consistency/ Repetition: Having a theme that repeats your logo obviously forces some consistency in your visuals. It does so at the cost of whitespace however and at times irritates people. You can strike a fine balance by using theme that reflects your brand identity in the best way. Think of a color palette and typography that best describes your firm. What kind of pictures describe your corporate culture? How do your images reflect business as usual in your company? If someone were to enter your firm, will they see most of the colors you are repeating on your slides? Most importantly, how can you construct a message that's so simple and resonant that every point circles back to your original story?

Now you can still argue about the people that'll just walk past your presentation at a trade fair and not take notice of your logo. Isn't it worth bombarding them with your logo? Now my question is -- why do you want to target these people who don't care about your presentation? In the first place, is your message strong enough to attract this person? Beyond you wanting to attract this person, is there a reason this person should be attracted? Have you tried to address that WIIFM? If this person couldn't care enough to stay on between two transition slides then do you really think she's interested? If your flyer cant capture this person's attention, then do you really want to irritate her, by continuing to bombard her with unwanted displays of your logo?

Its important to remember that displaying logos has started to become a thing of the past. In the recent TED conference no presenters used the logo of their organizations on their slides. You may argue that they are famous speakers and I must tell you that many of them are not. Many of them represent organizations that they aren't even famous for representing. Isn't it worthwhile then, for them to use decks with organization logos on each slide? As it turns out, it isn't. Bill Gates didn't logo-fy his presentation with the name of his foundation. Jill Tarter (not many people knew of her before January) didn't use any SETI logos on her slides. Sylvia Earle (not many knew her either) didn't interrupt people with logos in her amazingly visual presentation either. They however had a very strong message and hence there's no forgetting what they stood for. Why then, do services firms continue to over-advertise and that too in presentations?

I'd like to hear the different situations in which you've had to use logo-fied decks to make your presentations. Do the above reasons cover your situation? If not, please do let me know of your particular situation so that I can learn from it and think through strategies to incorporate the use of whitespace in such scenarios.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A tale of two presentations

I'm a big fan of whiteboarding and I feel that given a good story, you can tell it as well with whiteboarded presentations as you can with a well structured presentation. Here are two videos around the same topic - the credit crisis caused by Collateralized Debt Obligations. The first one is by Paddy Hirsh where he uses nothing but a whiteboard and a marker to explain this reasonably complext topic.

The second one is a full-fledged, highly visual, multimedia presentation that explains the credit crisis by Jonathan Jarvis.

The second one is obviously quite pretty and amusing, but as you will notice a good presenter that knows his/ her story and is not conscious about his drawing skills (or the lack of them) can make the topic equally simple, engaging and understandable. A couple of thoughts I gather for presenters that want to exploit the flexibility of this medium:
  • Dont bother about the quality of your drawings. People like seeing other people's sketches. So the sketches you find awful, may actually be quite appealing to others. Also, your audience understands that you're trying to make a point and not being Pablo Picasso -- so take it easy.
  • Keep your topic simple. How can you explain it so that your grandmom could understand it? What metaphors will make it simple for your audience? How can you represent it to them effectively? Will you need props or can you explain it in a few minutes.
  • Keep your talk time short. Not many people can hold their attention to one thing for more than 7-10 minutes. If your talk time is going to exceed 6-7 minutes, then think of building in some kind of interaction - a question, a brainstorm, a show of hands. Just break the monotony of continuous speech. Remember, you may be good but not as good as the lunch that's coming up right after!
  • Use visuals over text. We're hardwired to respond to visuals. Use the Visual Thinking Codex by Dan Roam to think of the best hand drawn images that'll help illustrate your point.
  • Anyone who said that "a picture speaks a thousand words", did immense disservice to the science of visual problem solving/ presentations. What it makes many of us believe that if a picture can actually speak a thousand words, you don't need any words to explain it. That is really far from the truth. Kraig Parkinson once mentioned to me that he prefers blending text with visuals as part of his presentations/ problem solving approach. I believe this too -- draw your pictures as you speak. A pre-drawn picture doesn't explain your topic and more importantly steals focus from the point you're making. A picture that you build dynamically gets your audience's attention and supports what you're saying.
  • Lastly, always prepare a non-slideware plan for your presentation too. I've worked in a multitude of low tech and no/ erractic electricity supply environments to realize the value of this. Even if you don't have this problem to contend with, remember "Murphy's Law" - anything that can go wrong, will! So your projector could die, your hard drive could crash, you may accidentally delete the file, the bulb on the projector can create enough contrast, what have you. In such times, imagine the impact you create when you say, "Oh well, that's ok -- I can do without the presentation!". Its the ultimate first impression to make on your audience - they know that you know! Hallelujah!

I hope you enjoy the two presentations -- and that some of my thoughts are useful to you. Slideware is useful no doubt, but low tech presentation skills are invaluable!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The best Heroes episode in a long time!

Heroes has been frustrating me for months now. To know Hiro and Peter to be powerless (well Peter has a power now, but that's not good enough) was awful and the storyline wasn't going anywhere. But I guess the return of Bryan Fuller as the writer has really done the trick.

"Cold Snap"
was my favorite episode in a long, long time. Yeah, Peter still can't hold on to more than one ability at a time (wonder when that'll change), but Hiro can stop time (he still can't teleport). And Daphne dies yes; but not before the most amazing "Aaaw!" moment I've seen on television in recent times.
I hope this is the sign of things to come and we see the plot thickening and better character development as we go on.

Heroes -- why its frustrating me now!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Bill Gates did well on TED

I may not be a big fan of the guy, but I cant take away from him the fact that he did a really good talk at TED. His foundation has been doing some good work around the world and for what its worth, his talk had some very subtle inclinations towards a socialist world (or maybe its me hearing things!). Well anyways, I feel the talk is a must watch -- see it here.

Friday, March 06, 2009

My "Ten"ets of Leadership

Leadership has started to become the buzzword in my head recently. I think about it all the time and I try to keep thinking about what the good leaders I know do and what things I like to imitate/ emulate. I've been thinking of the "Ten"ets of Leadership in the last few days. Here are the top ten with a bonus thrown in:

Hire the best

Guy Kawasaki says, "A players hire A players, B players hire C players." This leads to the inexorable slide to Z players which finally leads to a Bozo explosion. What you want to do is avoid that slide by hiring A players and as Kawasaki rightly says, the A players actually hire A+ players. This in my opinion is the first step to building a high performance work culture where people want to learn from the colleagues they hire.


You can't hire the best people and not trust them. That's like buying a BMW, but pushing it to work everyday -- you can never enjoy the benefits. Sometimes, people may frustrate you, disappoint you but as Randy Pausch said famously in his speech - "Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you". He said, when you are pissed off at somebody, and you're angry at them, you just haven't given them enough time. Just give them a little more time — and they'll almost always impress you.

As a leader you have great power and I know I'm going to use a cheesy line, but so what - "With great power, comes great responsibility." As leaders we're responsible to share feedback when expectations are violated or when we're making judgements. Its hugely unfair to make a judgement that the person judged, doesn't know of.

Most importantly, stand up for your team and take the shit if you need to -- but ensure that you sheild them from outside influences and pressures. The key is that if you don't stand up for your team neither you nor they have face.

Shared Ownership

Build mechanisms to share knowledge openly and to make project progress visible. The Agile story wall is a great example of creating shared ownership around work. For teams in a different context, I urge managers/ leaders to share work on an open, visible space/ system and find ways to move from "your project plan" to "our card wall" (as Kraig Parkinson) famously said.


No two people are the same. Treat people fairly but understand their unique needs. This could manifest itself in many ways -- degrees of support, mentorship, coaching, training, sponsorship. This could also define the amount of time you spend with them and the kind of work they pick up and the kind of development areas you identify for them. This also influences the kind of interactions you have, the ways in which the person learns and the areas in which they experience a discomfort.

To me, individualization is a way of building connections with your team. The stronger your connection the more they cease to be resources and metamorphose into human resources.

Communication Channels that work

Spend one on one time with people. Now you may have "management work", but spending time with people is "management work". Find ways to delegate the repetitive "management work" and find communication channels for your people that you can exploit for coaching, mentorship, guidance, teaching, sponsorship etc.

Here's where I want to circle back to the idea of individualization. Its incorrect to make a blanket rule of how frequent these meetings need to be. Its important to have a fixed time that works for both you and your team member; but more for her than for you (that's the beauty of servant leadership). Some people prefer bi-weekly meetings, others weekly, others fortnightly and others monthly. The key is not the frequency, but the discipline around making these chats happen. To know why one-on-one communication is important as a manager, read Behind Closed Doors by Esther Derby.

Delegate well

The key to delegating is remembering that "responsibility without authority" is like trying to dance in an iron cast. When you delegate a piece of work please make sure you do the following:
* be around to support the person through the task;
* remember that growing people is about helping them learn to do something even if it takes you double the time it could have, if you were to have done the task.
* remove blockers;
* appreciate/ acknowledge progress (everyone loves a little pat on the back);
* let everyone that this person will need to interact with know that she is "in charge" - no one likes the "Who are you?" look.

Build feedback loops

Learning is about failing fast and learning from your mistakes. Create feedback loops in the team for people to learn from their mistakes. The shorter the feedback loop, the better the learning. On an Agile project, these manifest themselves as Pair Programming, Testing, Showcases, Iterative Development, Continuous Integration, etc. The key is to have mechanisms for review that are systemic in nature and are sustainable. Build these as part of the team's culture. The beauty of XP practices is that they can be implemented in just about any context, sometimes with little or no modification.

Commitment to growth

Regardless of whether your firm has a sponsorship program or not, you're responsible for the growth of people in your team. This is something I can emphatically say that you can't shy away from. You have the closest view of your team members' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats and you have the clearest idea of what she is capable of. Given that you're having regular one-on-one's you perhaps have the best idea of what her aspirations are. How can you not be responsible for growing your people then. And growth != promotions. Growth is about learning, picking up new skills, new responsibilities, new authority, new opportunities and this may translate into promotions and higher pay but that is secondary.

Set goals for project success

People like to know what they're working towards. Making these expectations very clear makes the big picture of the business vision really clear. It helps you empower your team to make decisions. Its so much fun to work in a team of smart people who can all play leaders when the time is right. It reduces the pressure on you to be always thinking of "the right thing".

Do the ugliest work yourself

If you want to gain the respect of your team members, don't just incessantly delegate. Work alongside them -- demonstrate your commitment to the shared purpose, do the work which no one wants to do, so that you reach a time when there's no "impossible" or "dirty" work.

"the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people". - Kautilya

Bonus -- Acknowledge your own mistakes

Randy Pausch in his lecture, talks about the importance of apologizing when you screw up. He also says, "When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." When you screw up and no one says anything, that means they gave up on you! The least you could do to build a great feedback culture, is to be receptive to feedback your team gives you. Don't build a defensive culture around feedback. Instead build a "gift culture" by setting a right example.

I guess you could keep adding to this list, but if there was ever a need for leadership primer, I would use the above "Ten"ets as a guide. For all practical purposes, Leadership is not rocket science. Its a skill, but one that's based on good old common sense. It may take time to start doing well, but cant be difficult as long as you remember the words of the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, "The greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others."
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