Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Can You Get Them to Drink? Effective Communication in the Workplace

Imagine that you have spent two years developing guidelines for engaging with some key corporate issue. Or you just undertook a major survey with an important stakeholder group and wrote a 6-page summary of the central findings. You are finally finished and you send around your laboured document as an email attachment. Do people read it, do they understand it, do they do something differently as a result of this heroic effort?

How can you best broadcast essential information to a staff of hundreds?

It might not be enough to just send out your email message and hope that people find it in their in-boxes and have the time to read it (the 6-page summary mentioned above took me 1 hour to read carefully). Or might not get everyone's attention at the monthly staff meeting in your 3 minute report. How can you get people in the "room" either physically or metaphorically?

We have been speaking to a couple of internal units about this in the last weeks and some interesting ideas have come up revolving around taking a campaign approach to internal communications, using a combination of existing structures/processes and creating some new information sharing opportunities. Here are a few steps that might be helpful:

Step 1: What staff gatherings already exist? In our organization we have a monthly staff meeting, a bi-weekly management meeting, our weekly Free Coffee mornings, and an ad-hoc series of "Brown-bag lunches" which can be programmed. Each of these activities is more or less optional (although for some attendance is more strongly encouraged than others). Each seems to attract a different segment of our internal population, and numbers are usually not very high (staff meetings are the highest, but also the shortest, and most jammed with information.) Matrix those gatherings out with the type of people who go and the rough numbers - how far does that get you?

Step 2: Where else do people congregate, wait or rest? Can you take a few walks during your work day and notice where people stop and pause? We have our cafeteria, especially the line for the coffee machine (can you put a sign there?), at the tables in the cafeteria (can you laminate the guidelines and leave them on the tables?), at the reception area (comfy couches), where else?

What about the toilet? We currently have one sign in our toilets about cleanliness in French, English and Spanish which has been read, I am sure, millions of times. Everyone in our building can recite "Please flush the toilet" in three languages. What about having some kind of revolving mechanism whereby ads, short papers, executive summaries, guidelines get put up in the toilets and changed weekly? Maybe one item per week so it gets maximum attention? Anywhere else (think of your smokers, where do they go?) You are trying to pick off different segments of your population over time, be strategic!

Step 3: What is the message? Instead of pasting up all 6 pages of the survey in the toilet, or leaving stapled documents on the tables, can you boil it down to one attractive page, with the main action you desire from the reader at the top? Can you use questions to get people's attention? Remember you are still competing with lots of other stimuli, no matter where you are (except perhaps the toilet). Also think of your segment, if young professionals are the ones that come most to the Brown Bag lunches, and are very interested in building their own capacities, how can you frame your information for them?

Step 4: How can you get a few more people to come? If you have a little budget, perhaps you can do small things that would get a few more people to attend your events. For example, offer pizza at the brown bag lunches (Legal Pizza anyone?) Or before the staff meeting, send out a message asking people for questions (If you could ask the Membership Unit one question what would it be?) then say you will pick two to answer at the staff meeting, and give a prize to the two questions you pick (then tell them about your survey results). Or in the Free Coffee morning tell people in advance that you will run a quiz about your guidelines, (link the URL) and will be awarding free lunch tickets to everyone that answers them correctly - hand out the quiz while people wait in line at the coffee machine, or put on the tables while they chat, and collect them later and send the list of winners out by email (they are now the experts on the guidelines, not only you!)

Step 5: What kind of support and take aways/reminders can you offer? Once you have people's attention, whether it is in the Ladies room, in cafeteria, or the conference room - what can you give them to remind them of your essential information? Can you make a postcard with top tips that you can give away and they can put it by their desk (include the contact person, and URL for more information), can you put the location on the knowledge network for the full document, can you create an interesting aid memoire (magnet or badge - "I wonder what our Members are doing today?"). Can you follow up with a card offering an hour of your services? Our unit did this for the holidays, we created a holiday post card with a clock on one side saying that we would like to give a gift of our time (one hour), and on the back we put the list of "services" or things that our unit could do, and we sent it to all the different units through internal mail. No one yet has cashed it in, but at least they know more about the kinds of things we are doing, and they probably kept it up somewhere for at least a month before recycling it with the other holiday cards.

Step 6: Keep track of where you are and create your own product bank. Whether you want to do a one week blitz using all these things, a three-month campaign, or want to work over the calendar year, keep track of who you are getting and what you are using. Where are the gaps? Have you gotten the DG yet, or are you missing a few senior managers? Maybe a lunch date or a 10 minute coffee will do. Or maybe the administration is one of the key users of your guidelines, so a special meeting called with them will work. And because of inevitable turnover, can you slip your summary into the new recruits pack with HR? And keep all your supports, papers, take aways, in a central place in a resource bank complete with Frequently Asked Questions, YouTube videos of you answering the different questions, case stories of people who have used your guidelines successfully and saved time and money, and of course your guidelines or survey results.

Next year, just a reminder in the loo might be enough to get people thinking about your issue again.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Facilitators' Notebook: Using Powerful Questions

You might remember Gregory Stock's "The Book of Questions" (1985) which was a small book of 200 short, provocative questions that you can think about yourself, or use at dinner parties or other social situations. I have used it in the past to create rather disruptive questions to ask participants in workshops on ethical decision-making, as the questions in this book deal with values, beliefs and life (in most cases they are a bit too strong for the workshop room, so adaptation is needed). But the notion of using purposeful, thoughtful, thought provoking questions to lead into a topic is an alternative to simply presenting the topic, or a statement and asking people to discuss it (where do you start and where does thi go?)

Here is a question sequence adapted from "The Book of Questions" that I have used in the past to get people thinking about ethics and values (today with my more asset-based thinking, I am not sure I would use this, but offer it as an example). First question: If you had a cockroach in your kitchen, would you kill it? Second question: If you had a butterfly in your kitchen would you kill it? Discussion: What is the difference between a butterfly and cockroach? Why does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? What values are we using here to drive our decision-making? Where do these values come from? etc (roughly adapted from Question 25) We could just give a lecture on ethical decision-making. However, people might be more personally involved in the topic when you start with questions like these.

I read recently about a new set of question cards that been produced for dinner parties, that sounds like the questions are a little less controversial but equally engaging. (If I can relocate the URL I will add it in comments.) You can look for other sources of good questions, or good stubs, or kinds of questions. You might never use the question the way it is originally stated, but it might give you ideas to adapt. You are looking for an unusual question, one that makes people stop and think deeply, get some energy out of it, and say, "Now that is a good question!"

Or you can have your group come up with the questions. After lunch energisers each day might be one of their own questions. For example, after the introductions at the beginning of the workshop, once everyone has given their biodata, ask the group to stop for a moment and think about what they heard, about the group, the things people have done, their goals and aspirations. Task them to each think up a thoughtful, thought-provoking question that they would be interested to ask the group that gets a vibrant discussion going. Maybe share a couple of examples. Then have them write them on a card and collect them (they can be anonymous if they want). Each day, or at intervals during your workshop, ask someone to pick a card and give the group 10 minutes to have a wonderful discussion using their own powerful questions.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Life as a Car (or Cart, depending on where you live)

I sat down this morning to design a workshop agenda for a group that I now work with frequently. Looking at their goals for the afternoon brainstorming session, the same techniques came to mind that I often use for this kind of thing. They are interactive, productive, create great artifacts for recording, and participants love them. Great, right?

But I use those techniques alot and I was not so excited about this first draft of the agenda. It reminded me of a management training workshop I attended last year. The overall design was good, but it seemed to me that the trainer was on autopilot. The delivery was too mechanical, the trainer did not appear to be excited, experimental, learning herself - that affected my experience.

When you are working with a group as a trainer or facilitator, no matter how watertight the session design, you are ultimately the primary vehicle for their experience, optimising their contribution, managing the emotions they go through as they explore new ideas, and potentially challenge old assumptions, and work with them to harness the energy they need to try out the options generated.

At some level you need to model this too, try some new things, experiment and show the excitement you get from new ways of working and thinking. Anyways, I want to be able to look ahead to the workshop and feel excited about it (not bored!)

So I picked up Thiagi's "100 Favorite Games" and have had a good time adapting a few of these activities to this groups' needs. After all, if I am the vehicle for this group's afternoon brainstorming, I might as well give all of us a good ride.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Better Than Sudoku

Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Brain Training, Scrabble, all of these ways to keep your brain exercising and in top form. Here is another one. Try to think about process (how) as well as what you are doing all the time. Every time you do something - a project, proposal, a conversation - consider what you are saying and how you are saying it; who is hearing you and what they are thinking about what you are saying (both implicitly and explicitly). What is the big picture and how does this activity fit into our strategy? What are we talking about and how does this fit into our ground rules for discussions?

Complicated enough to keep your brain in tip top condition!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Teambuilding Without Holding Hands

We had a very productive retreat last week and at the end of it, there was a palpable sense of identity as a team. That was one of our goals, to build this team, along with the imperative of the design task that precipitated the idea of a retreat in the first place. When a retreat was first suggested a few weeks ago, it was met with nervous laughter, and comments which conjured images of a group hug (teambuilding seems to have become a bit of a punchline). So one challenge was to structure the retreat in a way that built the team, but did not have any recognizable "teambuilding" element.

Of course, teams that have worked together for a while are more comfortable with activities that explicitly explore the personal and behavioural side of team members and their inter-relationsips. With teams that are at an early stage, perhaps teams in name only, then a gentler approach seems to be more appropriate while trust is built.

I have read recently some revisionist teambuildng literature by McKinsey which argues against the touchy-feely kind of teambuilding front-loaded onto a retreat or meeting (the Gordian Knot or Squaring the Circle type activity - the titles speak for themselves). Instead they find that the teambuilding effect is greater when the work comes first and then space is opened at the end of the retreat to discuss how the group worked together. Therefore, reflection on how the team works and how it could improve its performance is based on a real work experience, rather than a simulated experience. We used this approach in the retreat and it seemed to work well, aside from the fact that time and attention at the end of any event are scarce resources. I found that people were much more willing to explore the process of working together after having had two days of structured work and some unstructured discussions, rather than having that group maintenance conversation in abstract at the beginning.

We paired this final process discussion with the StrengthsFinder, which people took in the breaks during the retreat (it takes about 30 minutes to take the online questionnaire and the results are instantly delivered). We each shared our top strength and how we felt that this strength had manifested itself in our contributions and behaviour during the retreat. We made a few joint comments to people, appreciating their specific roles in some of the key change moments in the meeting, and then generally discussed how we had worked together to achieve our goals. The discussion from next steps and task passed smoothly through to our process, in spite of having had limited focus in the past on what makes us all tick, separately and together. We even used a ball at the end so the group could self-facilitate the discussion. At that point, this was no issue. I could not have imagined introducing that at the beginning of the meeting when the urgency of the task, the tentativeness of group cohesion, and my reputation as an interactive facilitator were clearly in the "wait and see"category.

I still think there is a place for some of the more game-based teambuilding activities, perhaps with teams who are already formed and have specific issues or new ways of working that they want to explore. But with newly forming teams, and teams that are perhaps allergic to agendas with mysterious activity titles, I think that the get to work, and then talk deeply about how you did it approach is the way to go.