Why I Don’t Check Voicemail or Set Away Messages in Email
With the rise of email and mobile telephony we have come to accept a state of permanent and immediate connection. Norms in business have implicitly shifted where response times to incoming email or telephone calls are not measured in days or hours but in minutes. Presence systems (indicators of your current status such as “busy”, “away” or “in a meeting”) within companies are visible to colleagues based on your shared online calendar system or the keystrokes on your computer (they can telegraph whether a colleague is busy or away for example). As a consequence of all this colleagues of mine now set away messages when they are in meetings that will last more than two hours.
Time is the only finite commodity we work with in business and we are asked to give more of it every day. As you get busier you have limited options to deal with the problem. You can:
- Work more hours
- Become more productive (do more in the same amount of time)
- Delegate or remove requests that take time
Working more is the lazy person’s approach to the problem. Personally I have hit the maximum number of hours I can possibly work and still maintain a quality of life so I am left with strategies for productivity and removing work that takes time. The interrupt driven nature of modern communications – beeping email alerts, incoming texts, ringing phone – can quickly destroy your productivity. In an attempt to (1) reclaim my time and focus and if I am honest, (2) to rebel against the business norm of permanent visibility and immediate response I have changed a few of my behaviors.
- I don’t set away messages in email unless I am on holiday. I don’t believe that I owe anyone an explanation for not replying within an hour or even two. Emergencies can be escalated to phone switchboards or text messages.
- I don’t check voicemail. Period. Part of this is due to living in Europe where my options for visual voicemail and transcription services (google voice etc.) are a bit more limited. What has surprised me about people’s response is that many ignore my voicemail message which clearly says, “don’t leave a message… use text or email since I do not check voicemail” My voicemails pile up nevertheless… and I have no idea where they go. I have not checked VM for six months. The world continues, my projects are all roughly on track, there have been no deaths (unless I was notified via voicemail of course).
I have no idea if this approach is backward or forward leaning; if I am on or off-trend. I only know that it is a personal survival tactic.
Election 2012 and the “Mischiefs of Party Spirit”
Every so often one’s reading of history collides directly with the experience of the present moment. I am currently reading volume two of Simon Schama
‘s A History of Britain
. Today (election day 2012 in the U.S.) I came across an essay by Richard Addisson. It was penned during the late 1600′s, a time of exhaustion from years of factional bitterness in politics. The language in the essay is wonderfully antique but the spirit cuts across the years like a searchlight.
“There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of almost every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense.”
I do not pretend that our politics today is more toxic than at any time in the past. One need only read a small bit of history to know that we have seen far worse… But to me it feels like the polarization of our political discourse diminishes each of us as we retell the tropes that belong to our party line – whether that be Republican or Democratic. For what I take away from Addison’s 17th century essay is this: The character of the discourse we have in love or in disagreement, in politics, business or family, defines the character of our person. That is to say, it is our choice to use divisive language and framing to discuss the issues we care about but in so doing we limit our own capacity for sound judgment, common sense and compassion. Worth remembering on this election day as we witness the transition from campaign 2012 to campaign 2016.
Addison’s full essay is titled, “Mishchiefs of Party Spirit” and is available here.
Social Profiling – The New Terms of Employment
(Photo credit: Steve Woolf)
I was amused by a recent job listing for Social Strategist at Wieden + Kennedy. The successful candidate will need to prove themselves in a harrowing public competition. Here is a sample of the challenges that will mark the “lucky” winner:
Challenge 1 – Create the best original Pinterest board dedicated to the sport of inline speed skating (NOT roller-hockey).
Challenge 2 – Create and post an original piece of content to Reddit that then receives the most upvotes in a single week.
Challenge 4 – Get the most people to friend your mother or your father (or a parent-like figure in your life) on Facebook in a single week.
Challenge 8 – Create the most reviewed recipe on allrecipes.com in a single week using cottage cheese as an ingredient. The reviews don’t have to be good.
Challenge 9 – Upload the most pictures of your armpit(s) to Instagram during the course of this challenge. The pictures must have your face in them to verify your identity and include the hashtag #mypits.
Reading through it one realizes that the veil between job assessment and fraternity hazing rituals are thin indeed.
On a more serious level it raises a long held concern I have about social profiling - that is, using people’s popularity on social networks as a proxy for job suitability. Recruiters in marketing and communications are increasingly putting a premium on your social footprint. What is your Klout Score? How many followers do you have on Twitter? Are you a blogger and, if so, for how long?
Many valuable skills such as inquiry, listening, systems-thinking and deep focus are also character traits – and they are not often associated with an overtly social personality. Yet these skills are highly valuable in business. Some of the best, brightest and deepest thinkers I know keep a low social profile.
Similarly we see the injunction that CEO’s should be on Twitter or keep a blog. While I fully recognize the value this can bring to an organization, having worked with many senior executives I can attest to the fact that for many of them it simply isn’t in their character. It also is not the first characteristic I look for in an effective leader.
All of that said, I will be watching the digital shame-fest that is this job hunt to see who rises to the top of the pile.
Our Digital Future Is A City We Have Known In The Past
I gave a talk a few weeks ago at Blogging the City
, a conference focused on urban design and city planning. The talk was titled, Architecture is Destiny
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
; how we structure the flow of information, whether through physical or virtual space, will define the character of the interactions that take place there. If we design public or virtual space for openness, participation and self-determination we get vibrant communities. If we push central planning too far and attempt to control all interactions, we get dead space. I extended the theme slightly during the close of my keynote last week in South Africa and the Integrated Marketing Conference.
Many of my notes never made the talks so I am reprinting them here.
Cities are never static. They learn. They grow and adapt based on the usage patterns of their inhabitants. Take my native San Francisco. Where does Chinatown end and the Italian section of North Beach begin? Where does the fraternity/sorority kingdom of The Marina end and give way to the posh neighborhood of Pacific Heights and so on? The answer is that these communities blend into one another. Their boundaries are necessarily permeable and unfixed because they represent the thousands of choices being made within these communities by individual actors.
Yet these choices share a common impulse: the desire for sociality, for security, a need for commerce and the exchange of ideas in the forum. The cost of admittance is participation – material or spiritual – and each member adds value to and in their part defines the whole. Like any city worthy of the name it is beautiful, seedy and corrupt all at once. It has no singular character and therefore defies neat description. We all live in this online megacity. Our content, links, likes and follows are all acts of participation that define its character.
The connected age is dynamic but immature. We are just beginning to see the outlines of its possibilities to transform culture, commerce, government and civic life. If we always design for openness and feedback, if we structure our organizations to learn from what our communities are actually doing and saying, we are fulfilling an important civic role. If we design our communications for durable relationship, if we put our values forward as a call to action then we are doing a service to the future. The most beautiful cities are the oldest, the ones that have had time to bear the mark of a million tiny optimizations at the hands of its inhabitants.
We cannot see the outer precincts of what we are building on the Internet. This is as it should be. ”Progress” is the sum of human actions and as such it is beyond singular control or conception. What we can control are the actions we take online. The quality of our content, the sincerity of our conduct and the civic commitment we bring to what we do.
The Bicycle as Transformative Agent
Christopher Alexander, in his startling book, The Timeless Way of Building
, asserts that our lives are shaped by no more than a handful of repeating patterns: how we get ready for work each day, the morning coffee ritual, preparing dinner with family, ending our day and tucking into bed and so on… These patterns shape our built environment and define how we experience the world around us for better or worse.
One pattern that falls into the “worse” column is the daily commute. It is likely a defining characteristic for the majority of urban/suburban dwellers. In the U.S. it is becoming a ritual of affliction. Nick Paumgarten wrote a fantastic New Yorker article on the subject in 2007 titled, There and Back Again.
Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way… The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl…
The summary caption that accompanies the article reads: “People may endure miserable commutes out of an inability to weigh their general well-being against quantifiable material gains.”
In a sense it is impossible to weigh the impact of a shift in a fundamental pattern of life without actually experiencing that shift. It becomes hard to simply “imagine” the trade offs we are making… That brings me to my life in Amsterdam and the role of the bicycle as a transformative agent. The bicycle is for all outward appearances a humble vehicle. But when you live in a city where cycling is the norm, your entire world changes in unimaginable ways.
The bicycle is the singular pattern that defines our life in Amsterdam. Cold or hot. Wet or dry. Whether dressed formally or casually.. Yvette and I are always on a bike. The bike allows you to experience your city in a completely different way. You move at a “a human” speed which allows you to apprehend so much more of what is going on around you. You feel connected to the city in a different way because your power of perception is exponentially increased. You actually see, hear, smell and feel the city that you live in. You are IN the weather. Upon a bike your options immediately increase. You can stop at a moment’s notice to pop into a store that you see on the side of the road. Simultaneously, your difficulties decrease. Parking is never an issue and there are no traffic jams when riding a bicycle.
Upon returning to San Francisco (another city that I love) for a business trip, I was struck immediately by a sense of claustrophobia. Being sandwiched in a car on a highway, start and stop. There was also the irony that while in perfect weather in San Francisco one rarely carches a glimpse of a commuter on bike. The city is so clearly designed around automobiles. Upon return to a Amsterdam I was more than happy to hop on my bike in the rain. It is well worth the trade
You Know When You Know
If I were to write a self help book it would bet titled, “You Know When You Know”
The premise of the book?
We are all naturally endowed with an innate sense of what is best for us. Call this “the inside voice.” The inside voice is pre-cognitive and immediate. It is closer to instinct than rational thought and the longer you deliberate the harder it gets to hear. However most of us do just that. We wait for our inside voice to be proven wrong. We wait because listening causes discomfort, anxiety or insecurity.
Your work is unsatisfying
Your partner is far less than an ideal match
Your employee or colleague is just not up to the challenge at hand
The inside voice challenges you to act. More often than not it is the voice of truth. Yet we wait weeks, months or years to decide.
I experience the phenomenon all around me. In friends that settle for a partner that clearly isn’t a fit because they are getting older and don’t want to be alone. In colleagues that remain in jobs that leave them cold and in business partners who wait for employees to rise to the occasion. In the meantime that failure to act leaves all parties locked-in, unable to move beyond the current situation.
I have come to believe that not listening to your inside voice is ultimately selfish. It not only deprives you of the future that you really want, it deprives others around you of the future that they deserve
You know when you know – and the sooner you act on what you know, the better.
The most successful people that I see in business all have a common characteristic; they are able to act quickly. Sometimes they are wrong but on balance their ability to be decisive and take action despite the discomfort that it causes is the root cause of their success.
The prescriptive part of the book would lie in exercises intended to close the gap between knowing and acting. So for the next 30 days I am making a small commitment. I am going to listen closely to the inside voice and try to close the gap between knowing and acting. I will report back here on the results.
Alternate titles for the book:
The world would be a better place if we acted more like cats than dogs
The Virtue of Products in a Service Industry
It is a truism that the more confusing the marketplace gets — the more desirable “products” become. It will grow increasingly important for creative agencies that hope to cut through the noise to package their consultative work appropriately.
The rise of apps -and our current ” there’s an app for that” culture – provides a helpful analogy.
As a society we are now bathed in an always-on communications and computation network that connects everyone we know (social media/social networks) with everything we have ever known (from Wikipedia to MIT’s Open Courseware to blogs on every conceivable topic… a bottomless pool of knowledge). Amidst this magical confusion, apps promise a bit of clarity; software whose design is fully concentrated on solving a specific and bounded set of issues (manage my travel, handle my to do list, make picture-taking more interesting and so on). Apps are successful precisely because they are discreet and, in the best possible way, unambitious.
In agency-land where we contend with the super-kinetic rate of change and how organizations can adapt to keep pace, products are our version of apps. A properly packaged service (which I am referring to here as product) benefits from similar focus and simplicity.
- Products are discreet and tailored to answer a clear business need or market truth
- They rely on standards, which means they are more cost-effective to reproduce and deliver
- Products are defined by a clear working method and deliverables which makes it easier to scale the offering beyond just one or two subject matter experts; training people on how the product works and auditing for quality of service…
- This “repeatability” allows for more time to be spent on packaging (design and typography, infographics etc.) which deeply enhance the perception of quality (see final point on processing fluency below)
- Products are easier for the client and the agency itself to grasp and sell… and this last piece is key when you might not have your subject matter expert (the practitioner) in the role of salesperson and need the support of your own agency to sell-in the service.
This leads us to the final virtue of products, one that might best be described as “the credibility that accompanies simplicity.” Well designed products deliver greater “processing fluency”. That is, they are easier to understand quickly and as such are perceived as more credible “..studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process—even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it—can alter judgment of the truth of the statement, along with evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author. In one study, people were more likely to judge easy-to-read statements as true. This means that perceived beauty and judged truth have a common underlying experience, namely processing fluency.” (wikipedia)
While any nuanced thinker gets the fact that every professional services engagement is unique and therefore consultative in nature, any good consultant should understand the value of packaging their offering into products.
On the Power of Clarity, Specificity and Persistence
I just read read a fantastic Esquire article about Robert Caro, author of the magisterial, multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro, despite being a self-admitted “fast writer” doesn’t begin his writing until he is perfectly clear on his purpose:
“Caro knits together his fingers until he knows what his book is about. Once he is certain, he will write one or two paragraphs — he aims for one, but he usually writes two, a consistent Caro math — that capture his ambitions. Those two paragraphs will be his guide for as long as he’s working on the book. Whenever he feels lost, whenever he finds himself buried in his research or dropping the thread — over the course of ten years, a man can become a different man entirely — he can read those two paragraphs back to himself and find anchor again.”
This is a testament to the power of distilling your goals and ambitions into a crystalline, written statement of purpose – then sticking with it. Each one of these steps is critical; (1) getting clear on exactly what your purpose is in any endeavor, (2) committing that purpose succinctly to writing and (3) coming back to it often for direction. Caro’s books are enormous and their creation spans a decade on average but their production is guided by one or two paragraphs.
I have been meditating for some time on the power of seeking clarity before taking action. So often we are permitted to go forward with flabby, ill defined statements of purpose. We set strategic aims and then lose the patience to be guided by them. We end meetings with general agreements but no specific actions. Often we allow ourselves to pass off hackneyed phrases for “insights” that will drive our business.
Because achieving clarity of purpose is painstaking work. I think we lack the discipline to demand it before setting things in motion (I am often as guilty as the rest). Just as often we lack the permission. We are driven by timetables that thoroughly erase the time for contemplation as individuals and collaboration in groups. We are measured by daily deliverables summed up in bullet point. Caro is a welcome reminder of what we stand to gain by seeking clarity, being specific and sticking with it..
The Problem with Exceptionalism – and Seeking Common Cause in Organizations
I have been working mostly with (and for) large global organizations for the past many years. I have found that, in business, size brings benefits but few virtues.
One problem that has caught my attention lately is what I would call “exceptionalism” – the belief held in a business unit, sector, or leader within an organization that their “case” or challenge (whatever it might be) requires its own unique solution. This makes a degree of sense. After all every situation and every person is, in the final analysis, exceptional. So every thinking human being can build a rational argument to support the notion that they require their own team, their own resources, their own agency, their own methodology, tools and on it goes. It is also not coincidental that a belief in exceptionalism is more often than not self-serving. Being exceptional allows one more access to budget and authority.
Indeed, there is a case to be made that business, as merely an extension of the pattern exhibited by all organic life, is trending towards increasing complexity and specialization. And specialization, by definition requires unique knowledge, talent and organizational structure. In my field it is clear that you need specialists (i.e. “exceptional” talent) for many initiatives you might undertake; for example search, mobile, ecommerce, privacy issues, social media and so on. No argument there. The problem is that exceptionalism tends to be the default setting within organizations; we begin by thinking we know more than others, that our problem is unique, that we have special needs.
Exceptionalism fractures an organization into silos that spend time on problems and challenges that, more often than not in my experience, are actually not exceptional – but shared. And this fracturing represents not only a waste of material resources through duplicated effort but more importantly the erosion of a culture of collaboration, shared language and meaning. The latter is far more difficult to repair once broken and far more costly in the long-run. And no coincidence, exceptionalism breeds more exceptionalism and begins to look like a form of pathology.
So what if we switched our default setting? What if we began, not with an answer (“I am dealing with an exceptional problem that requires an exceptional solution”) but with a question (“what does this have in common with the challenges faced by the rest of the organization?” ”who else is working on this problem?” ”who else knows about this?”).
Changing the default setting; from exceptionalism to what I would term Common Cause shifts your starting point:
I know best We know better
Distilled into its simplest form of action this is about beginning any inquiry by seeking common cause. Easier said than done, and certainly a trait that must be hardwired into the culture of an organization. That said, Common Cause cultures will dominate “Exceptional” ones.
Digital transformation is steadily eroding the competitive benefits conferred by size. It flattens the field of play by allowing online access to a global market and a host of plug-and-play services ( financial systems, shipping and logistics, on-demand manufacturing and so on) that were once the privilege of large, heavily capitalized companies. In this type of a world the massive drag caused by exceptionalism can slow innovation and increase cost – a deadly combination. So the benefits of size will be outpaced by the virtues of collaboration and common cause.
Considering the Power of Convenience
I have heard that in the late 70s – vinyl records had about 90% of the market share. Cassette tapes could not compete since they didn’t match the high-fidelity experience of vinyl.
Image via Wikipedia
Enter the Sony Walkman – a convenient, portable way to experience music. Sure it required cassette tapes and a corresponding drop in fidelity but within a few years the market share of cassette tapes exceeded vinyl. People wanted to take their music with them – and the loss of quality was a small price to pay for the convenience of songs in your pocket.
I was reminded of this story just a few short weeks ago as I sat in a posh advertsing office in Milan drinking espresso from a vending machine… Sadly the culture that brought you peerless coffee and never deigned to offer a to-go cup had given way to the quick hit convenience of push-button caffeine delivered by an automaton.
If I didn’t need that caffeine so badly it would have been heartbreaking… As it was, I barely gave it a moment’s thought.
It did make me wonder how often we fool ourselves that the game we are in (whatever that business endeavor might be) is about quality while ignoring the competitor waiting to eat our lunch with convenience.