A common theme in my work revolves around the idea of getting fit for the future. It's about exploring what we can do to enhance our lives and our work as we head into the decade of disruption. Often the future will need us to have some new capabilities; like sense making, novel thinking or social intelligence. Sometimes it’s about capacity management; being fitter or removing the frictions or things that get in our way. This month’s Talking Point is about capacity and more specifically the capacity drain that email, meetings, Powerpoint and politics are causing in our teams and businesses. There are not enough hours in the day to achieve balance and enjoy progress if we are always in meetings, interrupted by memos, or managing the agendas of those invested in the status quo.
All great businesses and teams have leaders worth following, cultures worth belonging to and work worth doing. But if we let the mechanical nature of work stunt the creative flow and the Machiavellian nature of humans take over then our greatest work is at risk.
As I see it, there are four enemies to great work. Four dynamics at play that stop us from being our best, whether that be personally or collectively. These four frictions create stress, eat up our day and emotionally exhaust us. By consciously removing these enemies, we clear a path for an effective action-based work flow. In other words, work works, rather than it becoming a sequence of chores that turn into a daily grind.
There are four dynamics at play that stop us being our best
The four enemies:
- Email. It’s wearing us down. We need to focus more on our priorities and ignore the pull of checking the most recent message every few minutes.
- Meetings. They’re killing us. They need to be intentional and something we use as a tool rather than a habit.
- Powerpoint. It’s putting us to sleep. It's a great as a preparation tool, but boring as a presentation format.
- Politics. Office politics are slowing us down. Leaders need to spend less time managing their image and more time making an impact.
Here is how they work together to drain the desire to create in your best people. This is how they kill innovation, drive culture in the wrong direction and reward the wrong behaviours in our teams and businesses.
Unpacking the model
The Line of Intent that divides the model speaks to how the enemies have evolved over time, like rust on an old engine. Often the rust is holding the engine brackets together, and by scrubbing at them, you expose weakness. By focusing on emails, meetings and Powerpoint and scrubbing away the old unhelpful stuff you often expose a weakness in the structure of the business. e.g. some of the people you pay to turn up don't get anything done. This entropic build-up of inefficiencies is what happens mostly below the line of intent. Above the line things are more Machiavellian; when an unhelpful political drive sits maliciously over the 3 mechanical enemies it's harder to scrub away the rust and expose the underlying weakness. When people are covering their arse, spending time on the politics of work and using meetings, emails and Powerpoint to advance propaganda the great game of work gets harder to play.
We need email and meetings to make progress visible, and not simply demonstrate a form of 'busyness'
Staying below the line for a moment, we need email and meetings to make progress visible, and not simply demonstrate a form of 'busyness'. We need meetings and Powerpoint to inspire us, not simply inform us. Emails and PowerPoint are not communicating if they are simply overwhelming the recipient. Our job as a leader is not to dump information on others; it's to make sure they understand. The onus is on you as the leader to communicate well, not your people to get across your stuff.
Above the line, we need to drive ownership and accountability, not blame, and we need more leaders doing things, having an impact and not simply pushing agendas or propagating their personal points of view.
Essentially politics is about the optics or how something looks, and less about the impact made on real issues. Make a decision, make progress visible, drive ownership not blame.
We need meetings and Powerpoint to inspire us, not simply inform us
Email is not an insurance policy nor is it a to do list. When your day is driven by the content of your inbox you are putting out fires allowing others’ urgency to drive your work flow. Work comes before email. Be cognizant of what needs to get done and do that first. Email is sometimes a way of covering your arse. If you CC as a way of passing the buck it's a professional form of passive aggressive behaviour. If you BCC instead of having transparent conversations you might be playing politics. Email is not a substitute for conversation. Maybe instead you pick up the phone or walk down the hall to a colleague’s desk.
Work comes before email. Be cognizant of what needs to get done and do that first.
Meetings have become habits and not tools for change. (Read more about meetings as tools here). Bottom line: Don't be at one if you don't have to. Don't make them 30 minutes by default. Don't let anyone add an item to the agenda that was not there previously and get clear what you want as an outcome at the end of the meeting.
Powerpoint should be something you use to prepare a talk but not necessarily something you use to present a talk. Try in your next meeting presenting without Powerpoint on the screen, maybe tell a story instead. If you have to use slides, replace the bullet points with images. Then use the bullet points as presenter notes, not audience visuals.
Meetings have become habits and not tools for change
Fortunately, there are simple fixes to dealing with each enemy. They only take a small amount of effort, but they do require a strong dose of commitment.
- Check it at set times only. If it’s urgent, they’ll call you.
- Be brief. If it can’t be brief make a call.
- Don’t let your inbox set your priorities
- Make sure you’re only at meetings that matter. Halve your meetings.
- Initiate or attend only the right type of meeting based on your goal (See this previous Talking Point to learn more).
- Don’t let people waste their time or yours.
- Use bullet lists for presenter notes, not audience slides.
- Put images on your slides, not text.
- Tell stories, don’t recite words
- Sit in circles, so there is no status.
- Speak last and allow others to express their point of view.
- Make a decision. In all gatherings ask yourself ‘What question are we discussing? What decision are we making?
Lead. Let’s make some decisions without covering our arses.
So in summary, to counter these enemies we need to;
- Pick up the phone
- Know what we want out of a meeting
- Tell stories rather than read Powerpoint slides; and,
- Lead. Let’s make some decisions without covering our arses.
I get it’s not easy but, as Stephen Pressfield says, art is hard. He calls it the resistance, it’s a war. These enemies make the great work—the art—very difficult. Fight these four enemies and win the battle against email, Powerpoint and meetings. Watch out for those invested in the status quo as their politics will drive your business and projects down the disruption drain.