Optimising your ‘end of year’ review for maximum impact

Optimising your ‘end of year’ review for maximum impact

Late November is the time when many of us are reflecting on our progress for the year and updating our stakeholders.

This can be fraught, particularly in an increasingly cost-constrained environment. Many recent working session stories have had a cost theme, as have many of the stories I have been working on with my corporate clients.

In that light I wanted to share one critical idea to focus on when preparing your next progress report.

Prioritising impact over activity is ever more important in these increasingly cost-constrained times. Let me explain what I mean.

Saying ‘we have been busy' is rarely enough. Providing a list of things you and your team have completed over the past period is the easy way out and only marginally useful. Even when the list is well-grouped, it is rarely insightful. It can also be overwhelming and just says ‘we have been busy'.

I once worked with the head of projects at a global car company and she asked me why her CFO never responded to the weekly update email he requested.

When I reviewed it I could see why.

She had listed literally 100 project tasks that had been worked on, categorised by area, without offering any insight as to how these linked to the overall objectives.

Saying ‘we are on track' is better. Our Traffic Light pattern helps you tell a straightforward good news story. You can say ‘all is well' and then back that up using a classic time-ordered structure. It works from past to present and then future by beginning with what has been done, moving on to what is currently in train and then what is planned.

This at least offers stakeholders comfort to know that they have nothing to worry about. This can be sufficient, but is not always so, especially in times of heightened attention to costs.

Saying ‘we have delivered X value' is better still. You can tweak Traffic Light a few ways to achieve this.

  1. Order by project area. Instead of ordering the ideas by time, you could outline how much you have achieved in each project area. The difference here is that you would say, ‘we delivered xyz results' rather than ‘we completed abc activities'
  2. Order by impact. Another way to structure the supporting points is to explain where you have delivered the greatest impact first, then move to moderate then to the least.


Explaining how your team could deliver more impact is best. This requires you to take a step back and look for opportunities to optimise your ways of working within your area as well stepping outside that area to focus on your purpose.

If you reflect on the reason why your program of work exists and ask whether your priorities and activity are still the best way to achieve that goal, you may find some gems. Here are some questions you might ask:

  1. Are the boundaries or constraints that we believed to be in place at the start of this program still relevant?
  2. Has anything changed outside our area that would render some of our work either more or less useful, and so deserve to be reprioritised?
  3. Could we work in parallel rather than in sequence to deliver more quickly?
  4. Are we gold plating for the sake of technical perfection rather than value?
  5. Do we have capacity to support another critical area of the business? (Dangerous, I know … but potentially value adding all the same!)


I offer these as thought starters rather than a complete list of questions. If you have seen others in play that are not here, let me know and I can share them in next week's email.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS We have now uploaded two new podcasts into the portal that are not yet available anywhere else. Check them out … I think you’ll enjoy them. 

Political Trade-offs

Political Trade-offs

 

Have you been in a position where you must implement a solution that you disagree with?

This is the situation Anya found herself in recently, which set up a great discussion around trade-offs, politics and what to do when your CEO is one of your objectors.

In tonight’s working session we helped Anya craft a story that has some useful lessons.

In sum, respectfully documenting disagreement can place responsibility where it belongs while also providing one last chance to reverse the decision.

  1. Disagreement can be respectful
  2. Feeling pushed into a taking a poor decision may signal that you are taking on someone else’s responsibility
  3. Communicating your disagreement can put that responsibility back on the decision makers

Disagreement can be respectful

We played around for quite a while to work out how to present this story so that it both gave the leaders what they were insisting upon while explaining the costs of this approach.

We decided to

  • Avoid going in ‘all guns blazing’ and recommending the Clarity solution given it would get the general manager, executive director and CEO offside.
  • Stick with the leaders’ preferred recommendation but help educate them about some areas where they were ill informed. For example, they were conflating ‘on prem Clarity’ and ‘Cloud Clarity’. Their high-cost experiences were based on the on prem version of Clarity being used for project payslips, not the Cloud version Anya preferred to use for project management.

Feeling pushed into a taking a poor decision may signal that you are taking on someone else’s responsibility

Part of the difficulty in crafting a story like this is the emotional frustration that can get in the way. As Anya said, she had expected to sit down over the weekend with a couple of gins and tonic to work out what to say to her leaders.

The reason it felt difficult is that she was feeling the heat of a poor decision that would be costly and time consuming to implement in comparison with her preferred solution.

Laying out the trade-offs for the leaders gave her an opportunity to pass the responsibility for those trade-offs back up the chain to those who were making the decision.

If the reports were costly or late, it would no longer be her problem.

Communicating your disagreement can put that responsibility back on the decision makers (and protect you too)

Leaders are charged with making decisions with the whole organisation in mind, which can lead to unpopular decisions. Sometimes, however, these decisions can also be ill informed simply because they are not close enough to the trade-offs incurred.

This is where a delicate effort to convey those trade-offs while respecting someone’s position is essential to return the responsibility for the costs of a decision to the decision makers.

 

Tonight we took two steps to achieve that. We

  • Balanced curtesy with a directness that meant they could not avoid seeing the cost to the business they were recommending. For example, we edited the so what …
    • From this … Given our existing relationship, I recommend proceeding with Service Now for the 5 PMOs, despite delayed reporting and greater cost when compared against Clarity.
    • To this … I recommend proceeding with Service Now for the 5 PMOs, prioritizing our existing relationships over delayed reporting and greater cost compared against Clarity.
  • Structured the story to compare the two options by factually comparing them to draw out the trade-offs they were making.

I have laid out the storyline below for your use, but do encourage you to check out the recording further down. It was a great conversation.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Davina

A New Influence Framework

A New Influence Framework

One of my colleagues, Louise, has a treasure trove of practical human relations models.

I have her to thank for introducing me to the Bolton and Bolton Work Styles framework we use in the Core Curriculum, for example.

Over coffee last week she shared another one that I think will help you too.

David Rock's SCARF model identifies the key drivers that trigger reward and threat responses, so shaping our ability to influence others. Let me first introduce the model and then offer an example to illustrate how it can be used.

Model – SCARF offers five psychological triggers that can trigger reward and threat responses. Here they are:

S: Status. Withdrawing status can cause stress circuits to light up more than physical pain. Equally, if status is nurtured it can light up reward circuits more than if someone is given a financial prize.

This is why receiving negative feedback can create significant stress. It affects how we perceive others perceive us.

C: Certainty. David suggests that the brain is a certainty creating machine always trying to predict what is going to happen. Great leaders create certainty with clear expectations providing great certainty. This also lights up those reward circuits in the brain.

A: Autonomy. Most of us value having a certain degree of autonomy, control and choice in what we do and how we work. This is why being micromanaged is rarely enjoyable. It may also say a fair bit about why so many employees are reluctant to return to the office full time.

R: Relatedness. Our brains interpret new people as an automatic threat. This reduces once we have a small interaction that moves people into the category of ‘like us' rather than ‘not us' and therefore fearful. He suggests that even small personal interactions can build significant relationship capital.

F: Fairness. He says that a fair exchange activates the reward circuitry, and an unfair exchange triggers the danger response. Being more transparent than you think is ‘really needed' about the reasons behind decisions and how they are fair is key. This triggers the reward circuitry and avoids creating threats.

Example – understanding which two or three drivers most affect us and our stakeholders helps us have greater influence.

David says that all five SCARF ‘drivers' influence us to some degree. The trick is to know which are the dominant drivers for us and our stakeholders.

These dominant drivers help consciously nurture positive relationships and avoid pushing people's buttons.

For example, it is easy to create conflict with someone who has ‘status' and ‘autonomy' as their two primary drivers. All you need to do is say that their work is substandard and to micromanage them toward improvement.

This will ‘trigger' those who prioritise status and autonomy more than those who don't.

It will deliver a primal response that moves them toward a stress state rather than a reward state. This heightens the risk of conflict and reduces our ability to influence that person.

In contrast, inviting someone with status as a dominant driver to improve their work in a way that lifts their status may trigger a reward state. You might, for example, invite them to improve their work before sharing with others.

He suggests that being aware of our own drivers and that of others enables us to build better relationships and so have greater influence.

You can learn more about David and his work at the Neuroleadership Institute here.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

 

PS – My first podcast episode is now out. Learn more from risk expert Anthony Wilson about how he has successfully engaged decision makers on risk management. His top tip: risk management = change management.

Access the Cutting Through podcast inside the portal in the new podcast tab.

What if stakeholders are wedded to out of date views?

What if stakeholders are wedded to out of date views?

I had a fabulous conversation this week with a client who is head of technology strategy for an insurance company.

He has come to a roadblock in his efforts to shepherd a major technology decision through the ExCo that I thought might interest you.

A dominant decision maker is wedded to an out-of-date view, which he has formed through discussions with friends rather than experts. This not-uncommon challenge is compromising my client's ability to get the best decision on a major technology investment.

The solution is of course challenging, but tweaking a Watch Out pattern before working out how to navigate it through the hierarchy was key. Here are the three steps we took:

Firstly, remember that a deductive Watch Out pattern starts with a positive statement to build rapport and then alerts to negative events on the horizon. Here is what that looks like:

Statement – We have been going well with project alpha

Comment – However, there are risks ahead that will affect project alpha

Recommendation – Therefore, address risks

Please note that I have revised the language being used here to describe Watch Out to improve on the language from the book. We too learn and grow!

Secondly, tweak the pattern to begin by validating the ExCo member's point of view before ‘adding to it' with new information in the comment and recommendation. Here is how that worked:

Statement – Previously XYZ solution was the best available solution even though it required a number of workarounds to meet our needs. He then explained why this was so in fleshing out this part of his paper.

Comment – However, now that ABC new technologies have evolved, DEF is a superior solution that requires fewer workarounds. He then put his case as to why DEF is now the best solution.

Recommendation – Therefore, we recommend investing in DEF solution.

This is the skeleton of the story that he felt would work.

Thirdly, think deeply about how to shepherd the story through the hierarchy to influence the key decision makers.

This involved working out who would be best to deliver this message to whom and in what format.

My client thought deeply about the relationships he has built across the leadership over the past year to work out who was best placed to influence the particular ExCo member and his peers.

He has intentionally nurtured these relationships for a time such as this, which is now paying dividends.

Without having these relationships to leverage, he would not have the influence needed to see his technology investment through.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – I am starting a podcast called Cutting Through in the coming weeks. As Clarity First members, you have early access. Watch out (!) for an email bringing you the first episode.

 

Thinking harder about the context

Thinking harder about the context

You will I hope be familiar with the Ten Point Test by now, and may have even used it to check whether your storyline is robust.

As much as I think this is a robust tool, the question for testing the context has been niggling me as incomplete.

Having ‘noodled on it', I now have some thoughts on how to improve that question.

Here's the new question: Is the context timely, topical and tight? Let me break that down for you.

Timely: Make sure the material is recent for the audience.

Try to avoid, for example, starting every project update with a description of the project which has been in play for some time.

Rather, use the context to remind your audience what you covered in your last interaction with them about that topic. For example:

In our last SteerCo we explained that Project X was on track across all metrics except budget, which we planned to correct this coming month.

Topical: Introduce aspects about the key topic that should be known to the audience.

This anchors your story around the right issue and sets you up to use the trigger to explain why you are discussing that topic with this audience right now.

It also doesn't surprise them with potentially controversial ideas that are unfamiliar to them and which may stop them reading further.

Tight: Keep it short, ideally less than 15% of the whole story.

If you find yourself going beyond that, you are most likely adding too much detail which flags two potential problems. You are

  1. explaining something, which means your audience doesn't know it and raises questions about whether it is appropriately ‘topical'
  2. about to bore your audience by ‘drowning them in data'


I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

A ‘hack’ for helping you synthesise your so what

A ‘hack’ for helping you synthesise your so what

It’s not often in a working session that we are reflecting on hospital entrances! This morning we were helping one of our new members craft her manifesto as an architect.
 
It was fascinating on two fronts. We learned more about the nexus between architecture and people and were again reminded of the value of inviting people from vastly different disciplines to help each other think through a proposition.
 
Being an ‘objective outsider’ who knows and understands the process but isn’t too close to the detail is hugely helpful.
 
From a more technical standpoint, however, there was another takeaway that related to techniques for synthesising the so what message.
 
My suggestion is to focus on the recommended action and the reason for undertaking rather than stepping through the steps to get there.
 
Let me use today’s example to illustrate what I mean.
 
Here is where we landed after reviewing the process steps in the original (below) with the sections annotated separately.
 
The whole ‘so what' …
 

Architecture should be seen as an interdisciplinary approach for designing and delivering restorative experiences that enhance health and wellbeing.

 
The ‘so what' broken into two sections for your reference …
 

Part 1 – recommended action – Architecture should be seen as an interdisciplinary approach for designing and delivering restorative experiences
 
Part 2 – reason for taking that action – that enhance health and wellbeing. It might also help to think of this reason as a benefit rather than a feature. The list of ideas in the original version could also be described as a feature of this approach.
 


Here is the original version with the highlighted process steps that we tied together by asking ‘why are we taking these steps?’
 

Architecture should be an interdisciplinary practice [that draws on humanistic and scientific disciplines to build with an intimate knowledge of human nature and the natural environment to improve health outcomes in healthcare facilities]


 
Focusing on ‘what is to be done’ and ‘why that is a good idea’ is a simple hack for lifting the quality of the synthesis in the so what.
 
I thought this was a perfect example to illustrate that point. You can watch the full recording below.
 
I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina

Another idea for engaging tricky stakeholders

Another idea for engaging tricky stakeholders

It always amazes me how these emails naturally follow a theme. The last two weeks I have written about techniques for influencing difficult stakeholders.

Today I had a coaching session with a consultant from a management consulting firm and he shared a terrific technique that fits this theme.

‘Fred' often uses questions to thaw difficult stakeholders before moving the conversation onto his recommendations. Let me unpack his strategy here for you.

Fred took four steps to engage a particularly prickly mine maintenance manager. He

  1. Understand their concerns fully
  2. Meet one-on-one when stakeholders are hostile to your or your recommendation
  3. Start with questions to demonstrate you are focused on their needs
  4. Use neutral language to segue to your own agenda


Understand their concerns fully. Fred understood well that the maintenance manager at the mine was ‘not a fan' of him or his colleagues.The project had begun too aggressively before Fred joined, and he now has to repair the relationships.

The maintenance manager had felt as though he had been accused of running a sloppy shop. He felt this was harsh given he had made important improvements in his first 3 months at the site.

Fred used our storyline planner to flesh these issues out. 
Download the latest version here.


Meet one-on-one when stakeholders are hostile to you or your recommendation. This reduces the risk that either one of you might be ambushed. It also allows for easier course correction if the conversation does go off track.

Start with questions to demonstrate that you are focused on their needs. Fred's gem of an opening question won the maintenance manager over and also unearthed extra ways Fred and his team could help.

He asked: What is keeping you up at night? and then gently probed to get the mine manager talking.

He deliberately did not offer solutions but held back, making sure he allowed the mine manager to unload fully.

Use neutral to segue to your own agenda. He then suggested that perhaps ‘looking at' maintenance processes might help address the issues that the mine manager had raised. Fred deliberately avoided using value-laden terms like ‘addressing', ‘fixing' or ‘improving' and remained very factual in his recommendations.

The mine manager was then ready to hear what Fred had to say, and allowed Fred to work through the introduction and lead to the ‘so what' for his story.

I will hear how it all went when I work with Fred again in a couple of weeks.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

More on nudging indecisive stakeholders

More on nudging indecisive stakeholders

Last week I shared some ideas for engaging indecisive stakeholders by redefining your proposal. I suggested three steps: make it matter, make it easy and make it a win for them.

Given the often great difficulty of nudging stakeholders over the line, I wanted to share some more ideas for ‘making it matter'.

I find I can sometimes tip the balance toward a decision by putting more responsibility on stakeholders and less on myself. Here are four tactics that I have used recently:

First: ask your stakeholders to prioritise for you. You might explain that your team will need clarity around their work to continue to add maximum value over the coming period. If we don't proceed with this, what would you prefer us to work on?

Second: create competition. Explain your own decision frame so they have visibility around your own constraints. For example, I explained to a potential client this week that I can only hold dates in my diary when I have formal confirmation of a project. I explained that there are currently two clients wanting me to help their teams, both of which are working through their procurement processes. The one that comes back first will get their preferred schedule.

Third: ask them what is holding them back. You can decide whether you do this privately or together. In understanding their barriers around time, money or competing priorities, you can get a better sense of the problem. You can then tailor your proposal accordingly. This is the strategy we used for Ravi's issue last week

Fourth: decide that it is better to get a firm no than no answer at all. Indecision requires work. It means that you and potentially your team are distracted by repeatedly trying to get something over the line that may or may not proceed.

I refer back to Kenny Rogers here: Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em and know when to walk away.

Being open to receiving a ‘no' can be liberating. It opens you up to new ways of thinking about the existing problem or creates room for new opportunities.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina
How to handle indecisive stakeholders

How to handle indecisive stakeholders

Has this happened to you?

You put your case multiple times to the decision-making team. They like your proposal but aren't ready to commit.

Yet, they all know your proposal is important. Nobody disagrees with that but even after multiple presentations to answer their questions they still won't sign.

What is going on here? How do you handle that?

While there are many strategies you could employ, I offer one today that I have used successfully and which was the focus of discussion in one of this week's calls.

I encourage you to dig deeply so you can get develop a small proposal that will intrigue your stakeholders enough to make them want more.

My three thoughts are to make it matter, make easy and make it a win for them. Let me unpack this using Ravi’s example from today’s working session.

First: Make it matter. Identify a current pain point that your recommendation will solve for your stakeholders. We discussed this during today’s working session. Ravi brought a challenge that was more complex than it appeared on the surface.

He has an idea for improving math education in his school district and is beginning to engage with the superintendents in it.

The initial challenge here was not just what to say in the email, but what to propose.

What was the best way to hook the school superintendents in the conversation, not just jump to his desired outcome. We needed to understand the barriers he would face in engaging the superintendents. We did this in four steps. We

  1. Thought about what else the stakeholders might be balancing. We got quite specific about this. What would a typical teacher’s day look like at the moment? How full is it? What is it full of? What unusual stresses might there be at this time?
  2. Brainstormed the sorts of concerns the stakeholders might have about his recommendation. What tradeoffs would stakeholders need to make to say yes? Does your recommendation require
    1. Too much time?
    2. Too much money?
    3. Other projects to be sacrificed?
  3. Used those as a stimulus to draw out the key concerns your stakeholders have
  4. Honed in on how he might overcome those concerns by throwing more ideas around


We realised there was a big opportunity here. Students in his school district were already behind the average before covid appeared. Despite this, teachers were continuing with pre-covid teaching strategies.

We thought Ravi’s approach might help change their strategies so students leapfrog ahead, rather than continuing the previous slow trajectory.

Second: Make it easy. As you can imagine, wherever students have been in covid lockdowns they are behind in their learning. Teachers are struggling to catch them up and looking for ways to do that. They are also overburdened and reluctant to take on anything extra.

We discussed strategies to reduce the initial burden on teachers while still finding a way to pilot the approach in schools.

For example, Ravi might help teachers’ aides learn the www.ProblemSolvingMaps.com methodology. This would reduce the burden on teachers preparing for maths classes.

BTW – if you have school children, you might enjoy looking this up. It looks like a terrific technique for teaching children to build general problem-solving skills.

Third: Make it a win for them. While you will no doubt have a longer-term vision for your recommendation, it may be too big a ‘sell’. Start with something small that will solve a problem for them while also creating an opportunity for you.

Our suggestion here was for Ravi to connect with some local teachers. He could ask them to identify the biggest inflection point in a student’s math journey and to offer to pilot a solution focused on that point.

He could then work with a small group of teachers’ aides who might appreciate their own opportunity to learn and to help their students at the same time.

So, although we only drafted the start of the email, we made substantial progress for Ravi in helping him think through his challenge.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

EXERCISE: Strengthen your ‘synthesis muscles’

EXERCISE: Strengthen your ‘synthesis muscles’

 

Synthesis is at the core of everything we do at Clarity First, and so when I saw an example come across my desk this week I couldn't resist turning it into an exercise.

This email is laid out nicely and yet there are a couple of areas where synthesis can be improved.

When reviewing this one, remember our ‘value ladder' that lays out the different kinds of messages and ask yourself some questions:

  1. What level are these messages at?
  2. How can I synthesise to make it easier for the reader to glean the messages by skimming?

I have included the latest version of the Value Ladder here as reference as well as download links for the before and after versions.

I hope you find it useful.

Dav

 

PS – Those of you who have been following our ‘synthesis project' will note two things with this version of the ladder.

  1. ‘information' includes data that may be catalogued and categorised.
  2. ‘synthesis' can be both informative and insightful. I have labelled that extra level of insight as ‘flair'. We can no doubt debate this more in our next Momentum session!

 

EXERCISE: Rewrite this invitation so your grandma could understand it

This week we worked on an email and ended up discussing another truism that can be very hard to execute on.

This morning’s one was: ‘Write it so your grandmother could understand it’.

As an idea it is both good and infuriatingly difficult to execute on.

How to do that?

The key to this morning’s example was to focus on the substance of the message, rather than on the ‘process’ required to gain accreditation.

Here are two steps to take to transfer the learnings into your own work:

In general, focus more on the ‘why’ …

  1. Introduce not just the topic but why it matters. In the example below you can see there is an embedded assumption that the audience knows why this accreditation process matters. I have added some definitions on the slide for those unfamiliar with the human resources landscape.
  2. Dig further into the ‘why’. Ask yourself why you are communicating to this specific audience about this specific topic that they now understand is important.

Practice this by leveraging the example we used in the working session.

  1. Take note of the graphic below that highlights some of the problems with the original.
  2. Download the original, be inspired by these problems and rework it yourself.
  3. Review the recorded working session where we wrangled with it as a group
  4. Check out an enhanced version of our ‘after’ for your reference. I took what we did in the group (which was helpful but not ‘finished’) and refined it further using my knowledge of the actual situation.

I hope you find that useful.

Have a great week.

Dav

How to capture more value from an overview presentation

How to capture more value from an overview presentation

What to do when your manager asks you to ‘give a presentation’ to introduce your team?

Perhaps you have a new senior executive who needs a briefing or perhaps there is a slot to fill in a coming Town Hall?

Do you work through your org chart or can you turn this into a bigger opportunity?

I hope you know me well enough by now to assume the latter!

Today I would like to offer some further insights on this topic while also linking back to a previous post addressing a similar challenge.

So, here are some thought starters to help you ‘niche’ your purpose statement and will turn this potentially burdensome request into an opportunity. I offer three initial areas to explore and three follow-on questions:

3 initial areas to explore

Dig into three areas so you can ‘niche’ your purpose and turn this burdensome presentation into an opportunity.

  1. Think very carefully about the role your team plays within the organization strategy. How do you add value? Why are you ‘organised’ into the structure in the way you are? Why do you even exist as a team / unit / division?
  2. Ask yourself what the rest of the organization could do for you if they understood your role better. Could you equip them to help you better by supporting or perhaps not resisting some of your requests? Could they adjust their approach to enable you to deliver more value? Could they get more out of your services if they understood you better?
  3. Find out why you have been asked to present to this audience at this time. Are you ‘just’ on a roster of education presentations or is this ad-hoc? If so, what is behind the request? Does that inform the value you could deliver or obtain from this presentation?


3 follow-on questions

Once you are clear about the answers to these questions, go further and ask three more:

  1. As a result of this presentation, I want my stakeholders to know, think, do …. What?
  2. Who among those stakeholders are going to be most influential in achieving that outcome?
  3. How can I tailor my messaging to hit home with them (as well as everyone else, but particularly with them?)


>> Click here for an example that we worked on within the program

Have a great week.

Talk soon,
Davina

1 Story, 3 Lessons

1 Story, 3 Lessons

In our most recent working session we helped Brooke prepare a ‘quick’ storyline. Even though on the surface this story appeared straightforward, it turned into an onion.

The more we layered into it, the more we found we needed to think through.

There were enough layers, in fact, to lay the foundations for at least two weeks’ worth of emails so your weekly emails over the next few weeks will focus on our learnings from this session but of course you are welcome to devour them all right now as well!

Here are the three lessons I want to share with you. 

  1. What to do if you have more than one purpose?
  2. How to decide if the story should be a grouping or deductive?
  3. How to slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that resonates with your audience?

You'll find the recording of this working session at the bottom of the page.

 

Lesson 1: What to do if you have more than one purpose?

 

I’ll start at the start and share insights from the early parts of our discussion regarding the notion of ‘quick and easy' as well as the purpose.

Firstly, when you become bogged down with questions preparing your ‘quick and easy' communication, slow down. Don’t keep trying to smash through.

We began this working session optimistic that we would help with two pieces of communication, one for Brian and one for Brooke.

However, as we started probing and attempting to smash our way through Brooke’s story it became evident that this wouldn’t work.

Every time we thought we had something right, another question would arise that made us ask more questions.

We may have kept pushing for too long as we really wanted to make time for Brian's story, but it was an interesting exercise.

The eight or so people in the room could all see that we needed to slow down and stop smashing it out.

If you watch the recording, you will see what I mean.

Regardless, listen to your instincts and slow down when your drafting starts to feel ‘tense’ and ‘off’.

Secondly, avoid compound purposes and instead favour using the higher order action.

This single sentence provided a remarkable amount of discussion for what was in the end a fairly simple script for a presentation.

I have attached the four draft purpose statements we crowd sourced in the chat from our call along with my commentary.

The bottom one provided some extra useful debate around the right verb to use.

Did Brooke need endorsement, approval or support … or all three?

We landed on support as it required stakeholders to both endorse and approve.

If she asked for endorsement or approval, then there was no guarantee they would offer practical support.

If they committed to support, however, they would by implication be endorsing AND approving.

So, such a lot of discussion for such a small thing but very instructive all round.

 

 

Lesson 2: How to decide if the story should be a grouping or a deductive?

 

In this lesson, we continue unpacking Brooke's presentation by drawing lessons from our journey solving the top-line story structure.

As we wrestled with Action Jackson and then Watch Out, the nature of the reasoning required emerged as the decider.

We chose Watch Out as the reasoning was relevant to the whole story, not just one section. Let me unpack that for you here.

We firstly explored the Action Jackson pattern

In Brooke’s story, we initially thought we could use an Action Jackson story to explain the impending changes, as follows:

This story structure worked until we learned two important things. Stakeholders were under the impression that all forms would be migrated to the new platform by October. These same stakeholders could cause delays if unhappy that not all forms would be migrated immediately.

In other words, the mini deductive chain under the discussion about the second top line point related to the whole story, not just that section.

So, what to do?

We elevated the reasoning to the top line and quickly flipped to Watch Out

We flipped into a Watch Out pattern to provide room to explain why an interim solution was needed. Here is where we landed: 
:

We thought Watch Out built with what would be comfortable and easy to agree to. It confirmed that high-use forms would be migrated as they knew before setting them on the path to wonder what would happen to other lower-use forms.

Once they were ‘warmed up’, we could then explain why those other important forms would not be migrated to the new platform as quickly.

Assuming this persuaded them, the natural question then would be around the implementation, which we discussed in the third, therefore point.

Lesson 3: How to slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that resonates with your audience

In this lesson, we look at how to structure the supporting elements for the ‘therefore’.

There were a few considerations here that I hope will help you in your own storylining.

The key takeaway relates to how we slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that also resonates with your audience.

We agreed that we had some choices about how we organised the actions at the end of the storyline (under the ‘therefore’). We could categorize them by type of query, by type of solution or perhaps by frequency of use within the ‘medium use’ chunk.

So, we started by ordering them by type of form with the type of workaround for each kind of form nested underneath, as follows:

Therefore, we propose to use existing systems for these queries

  • Access general maintenance forms in system X (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)
  • Access loan forms in system Y (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)
  • Access account management forms in system Z (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)

This however, proved unsatisfactory was too general and didn’t connect to the stakeholders’ current working processes. They may be left asking “but … how do I do that”.

So, we fixed the situation by explaining how to change their process rather than ‘what to do’. Here is where we landed:

Therefore, we propose to use existing systems for these queries

  • Use ‘a different’ pathway to access the same general maintenance system for XYZ queries
  • Swap paper forms for the ‘bla bla system’ to access loan forms
  • Swap temporary digital forms for ‘this’ system when solving account management queries

Please excuse our creativity around masking specific details … I hope you can see the point lurking beneath them.

You can see where this section fits in the overall story below.

I hope you have found this series of lesson learnt from Brooke's Watch Out story helpful.

I have included the recording of the session below in case you would like to watch it.

Talk soon,

Davina

 

Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Do you always have too much to do?

It's not entirely surprising since our only finite resource, time, is at the heart of the challenge.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty constant topic when coaching people on their communication.

How do we find enough time to think through our communication? How do we know when to prioritise thinking through a particular piece … or when ‘smashing it out' is the right strategy?

It's also top of mind for me as I head off for a month away on Tuesday. Yes, a month.

So, today I wanted to focus on ‘time' and share some ways to help us all take advantage of it rather than be held hostage to it.

I'd like to suggest we can ‘hack' time to enhance our work and our life by harnessing two thinking modes.  This might be an odd idea, but let me give you the high-level first and then work through it in three parts.

  1. Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us.
  2. Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.
  3. So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life


I'll now expand on each of these further.

Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us. Let me introduce them both:

  1. Focused thinking, which is what we commonly imagine as ‘working'. This involves diving deeply into a task and as the name suggests, focusing on it. This is when we are actively reading, thinking, solving something specific. It can play out as time alone or time collaborating with others to complete a task.
  2. Diffused thinking, which I suggest most of us don't make nearly enough use of. This is the thinking that happens while we sleep, are out walking the dog, cooking dinner or perhaps in the shower. It's those non-focused times when our brain is processing in the background. It's also the times when breakthrough ideas often emerge. How often have you had the ‘aha' moment at a seemingly random point?


I first learned about these from Barbara Oakley in her Coursera course, Learning How to Learn. You may also find this free course enjoyable.

Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.

Without necessarily using this language, they all seem to me to be taking advantage of diffuse thinking mode.  

Greg McKeown has written two excellent books on this subject. The subtitles for each sum up the key ideas:

  1. Effortless: Make it easier to do what matters most 
  2. Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less 


Cal Newport of Deep Work fame offers ideas to avoid distractions so we can focus properly when at work and switch off when not. There is overlap between his work and Greg McKeown's, but I have found both to be great reads.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang takes the ideas further and discusses the increasingly popular shorter work week. Again, his title and subtitle are instructive: Shorter: how working less will revolutionise the way you get things done. 

His thesis is that if we focus harder during a shorter time period we are forced to change the way we work which he says is a good thing.  This will force us to become both more efficient and more effective. We will change the systems we use, the way we use our time and help us deliver more over all.

He reinforces the idea that the extra time off helps us be happier and healthier. The beauty is that our time away from the office allows our ideas to ‘marinate' while we aren't ‘working'.   

These are not the only people talking about these issues, but ones that I have read and enjoyed. All offer ways to rebalance their use of focused and diffused thinking in their lives.

So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life.

Firstly, in work, particularly where problem solving and communication are involved.

Many of my clients leave thinking about their communication to the last minute. They want to finish their analysis first and then are understandably squeezed as the deadline looms. Or they don't have enough information about the communication context to start and so leave it until they have no choice but to begin.

As an alternative, I suggest this five step strategy to help us start thinking early so we can take advantage of these two thinking modes.

  1. Start very early with a roadmapping session. This is where you think through the purpose and audience at some depth and possibly also start mapping out the high level story structure. You may do this alone or preferably with leaders who have greater visibility over the strategic context around your work than you do.
  2. Follow with short bursts of focused activity to draft the one-page storyline. One Clarity First member sets 30 minutes at the start of the day to get as much as he can done for major papers. Then he leaves it until the next appointment he has made with himself. This way he makes progress, isn't stressed by the deadline and can allow the ideas to marinate in the background.
  3. Iterate around the one-pager until the messaging lands. This can not only take some time but be counterintuitive. Our natural inclination is to dive into the details and start writing words on a page or preparing charts and diagrams. This, however, is time consuming and leads to redundant work.
  4. Finally, prepare your doc or deck. Once the messaging lands this is very easy to do quickly. It does, however, require some confidence in your ability to land the messaging earlier!


Secondly, in life. Now, this one is going to be different for everyone as demands on us and our life stages vary. I could be general here, but the authors I mentioned have offered good quality advice on the subject so I'll avoid that.

Instead, I'll explain why you won't be hearing from me for the coming few weeks. I'm taking July as a mix of holiday and sabbatical.

My husband and I are heading away for a month to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and to catch up with our 22 year old who has recently moved to New York.

We'll be taking the first couple of weeks away as a ‘proper vacation' and then using the second half of the break as a sabbatical. This will give us time and space to reimagine our life and work.

On my side, I'll be thinking about two things in particular:

  1. Progressing a project around ‘big picture thinking' and ‘synthesis'. A group of advanced Clarity First members and I have been working on practical tools to help people make the leap between summary and synthesis. Taking this to the next stage will require both focus and ‘marination'!
  2. Optimising the Clarity First strategy. The intensity of my workload during the covid period has not allowed for much of this kind of thinking and planning. I am very much looking forward to thinking more deeply about the way forward for the business. It has been an exciting couple of years as my online programs have become more interesting to clients. I want to capture the learnings and optimise the program further.


So, during July I will send you weekly emails as always, however they will be scheduled before I go.

Have a great few weeks and I look forward to seeing you on the other side.

Kind regards,
Davina

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Over the first half of 2022 a small group of us have been working on a conundrum: what process can we use to synthesise ideas?

We observe that this is a huge challenge for people when communicating and solving problems that storylines and issue trees help solve.

 However, in making full use of them we need more.

 So, we resolved to meet monthly, use the problem-solving tools discussed in the Clarity in Problem Solving course as a process map and work on it.

 This is the third discussion in that series which might start to be useful for those outside the sessions themselves. Do let us know if you would like to join the working group.

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

I was reminded this week how we must get our thinking straight in a one-pager before we prepare a document.

In using client material to prepare some exercises I had to work backwards from a document into a storyline.

Wow.

It is so incredibly easy to miss the thinking errors in a document, especially in a PowerPoint deck.

I have pulled out the main problems I gleaned from this example which would have been more easily avoided if the author had prepared a one-pager first.

I have described the top-line first and followed with three prominent errors I saw throughout the deck.

Spotting the top-line problems was easy as it was neatly laid out on an executive summary page. Take a look below to see what I mean. How many problems do you see?

The confluence of factors affecting the market have created significant uncertainty

0. Spot and futures prices are high relative to historical benchmarks and have increased significantly from uneconomic lows only 18 months ago

1. The are many internal and external factors influencing current market outcomes

2. The impact for energy companies has varied and one of the key differentiators has been plant performance

Finding and fixing errors in the supporting pages was difficult as the language and links between ideas were at best muffled. Here are three traps that I drew from the top and supporting areas of this story for your inspiration.

Ban meaningless words … say what you mean! Look at how general the language is and how lacking in specifics. There are very few descriptive words and even fewer numbers.

Follow through when you set up with a frame … Point 2 above references internal and external factors influencing (how???) market outcomes (meaning???). If you are going to introduce concepts like that, use them to group the ideas below.

Avoid repeating higher level ideas within sections … I commonly see people repeat the idea above in the same or similar words. Most often this will be the last point in a list. Be careful to avoid that sort of repetition within your storyline. These sorts of ‘tell them what you told them' tactics can be useful in a document, but muddy the thinking within the storyline itself.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing more to you next week.

Cheers,
Dav

PS – A warm welcome to our new members.

I have opened the doors to Early Birds and at the time of writing we have half a dozen who have joined today alone. We look forward to working with you!

If you are enjoying the program, please do tell your friends and colleagues about it so they can join. Download the brochure here to share with them.

How poor communication and burnout can be linked

How poor communication and burnout can be linked

You might be scratching your head about this week's topic, but let me ask you this.

How often have you burned the midnight oil or perhaps missed your child's soccer match because you were RE drafting an urgent paper?

Or, perhaps you aren't writing a paper then, but rather doing things others should have done because you were misunderstood?

This topic led me to speak with Dr Sharon Grossman or ‘Dr Burnout' as she likes to call herself.

Today I'd like to provide access to the recording and also check in to see how you are doing with the number 1 ‘anti burnout strategy' that we offer in the program.

Preview the recording

In this conversation I discussed three traps which I hope you are starting to avoid in your communication.

  1. Shorter is better – not always
  2. The main message is better kept to the end – no!
  3. A list of topics = a great structure


While these might now seem foundational to you, I think you'll enjoy the conversation and get some good ideas out of it.

Check in to see how you are doing (and take you to the recording)

I also encourage you to use it as an opportunity to reflect on your own practice.

For example, how disciplined are you about mapping your thinking onto that single page to get sign-off on the messaging before writing the paper?

Let me know how you are going on this front:

  1. I am very disciplined about getting sign-off on the one-page storyline before preparing major papers
  2. I am somewhat disciplined
  3. I am am not disciplined


When you click through any of these links you'll be taken to Sharon's podcast and simultaneously, I'll be able to see how you are all faring in this regard.

Have a great week!

Cheers,
Dav

 

Why not to use tables alone when recommending which option to use

Why not to use tables alone when recommending which option to use

When I heard that NASA spent millions of dollars trying to find a ball point pen that would withstand the challenges of space I didn't query it too much.

Until I heard that the Russians went with a pencil, that is.

What's wrong here?

While not being present in either decision-making process, it highlights the value of thinking hard before proceeding.

It might also point to the value of pushing ourselves to think through options, which was the topic of a client discussion this week.

We observed that providing a table with ticks and crosses to discuss a series of options is, although common, inadequate. It requires the audience to interpret the table rather than you sharing your insights about what it means.

So, this week I offer a framework to help you develop and chunk your criteria so you can avoid leaving your insights ‘on the table', if you'll pardon my pun.

I offer three steps to employ this idea:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the framework
  2. Think about how to use it
  3. Refer to an example.


Familiarise yourself with the framework. Here are the four considerations that I think need to be canvassed when evaluating options for solving problems:

Strategy – Does this option help us deliver against our strategy? If so, how? If not, why not?

Return – Does this option help us deliver a strong return? ‘Return' might be considered many ways. It might be purely a financial measure, or alternatively consider softer issues such as social or environmental returns.

Practicality – Is this option easy, or perhaps even possible, for us to implement?

Risks – Does this option raise risks that will be hard for us to mitigate against? Or not?

 

Think about how to use it. As with all frameworks, we can use them to generate and to evaluate sets of ideas by helping us identify and fill gaps in our thinking.

Frameworks such as this stimulate us to ask whether we have covered all relevant issues, and whether we have done so well or not.

It is then up to us to measure our options against each criteria, draw out what this means for our decision making and make appropriate recommendations.

The framework helps you prioritise each of your criteria so you can calibrate your tradeoffs more effectively.

Refer to an example. This is a set of criteria for evaluating a set of options relating to a case study, which we explored in a program MasterClass some time ago.

The class focused around options for solving a disagreement about the best way to run races close to the daylight savings changeover when days are short.

Note how I have grouped the different criteria that emerged from the the discussion about the options.

In doing so, the tradeoffs become apparent given the first and third options have the same number of ticks and crosses each.

This then leads us to make a tradeoff between return and strategy: which one is more important?

That way we can decide which option is better. 

 

I hope that helps. More next week.

Davina

PS – this follows on neatly from last week's email about pros and cons (click here to read the post). 

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

I had a fabulous question this week: where do we fit ‘pros' and ‘cons' in our storyline?

That is a ‘ripper' of a question.

My answer is this: lists of pros and cons don't belong in your communication, they help you think through that message. 

Let me explain.

If we provide lists of pros and cons for an idea we are providing information rather than insight. This matters, because we are asking our audience to do the thinking work for us. Let me illustrate with an example

Pros of skiing in Whistler in January

  • Skiing is fun
  • There are lots of things to do when not skiing
  • Terrain is amazingly diverse
  • Resort is huge, with lots of different areas to ski
  • Altitude is relatively low, so altitude sickness and asthma risk are lower than other resorts
  • Easy access from Sydney (single flight + short bus ride)


Cons of skiing in Whistler in January

  • Snow can be patchy, especially early in January
  • Skiing is expensive
  • Snow can be ‘heavy' compared with other resorts
  • It rains more here than some other resorts
  • Costs have risen since Vail took over the mountain


If, instead, we do the thinking for our audience, we will deliver insights that emerge from our own analysis of that pros and cons list. In comparison, here is what that might look like:

Despite Whistler's snow not being as light and fluffy as at some other resorts, it is the best place for us to ski this coming January.

  • The skiing is incredible (diverse, expansive, sometimes fluffy snow)
  • The village is fun when off the slopes
  • It is easy to access from Sydney (single flight + short bus ride)
  • Costs are manageable (know lots of people to ski with so don't need lessons, can invite friends over to eat in, etc)
  • The low altitude means vulnerable family members stay healthy


If your audience is explicitly asking for pros and cons lists, pop them in the appendix. Focus your main communication around your interpretation of that list instead.

I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina


PS – For those of you in our recent group session who were asking about the recording in the portal about ‘taking a great brief', click here to access. 

2 ways to spend less time prepping your comms

2 ways to spend less time prepping your comms

Love or hate Jeff Bezos, he has had some very, very good ideas when it comes to decision making communication.

I was talking about one of these with a client earlier this week. Given she liked the ideas and planned to implement them, I thought I'd share them with you also.

The most prominent idea relates to avoiding PowerPoint in favour of tightly crafted prose narratives to maximise quality decision making. Let me explain the two key ideas my client found so useful.

Avoid PowerPoint presentations. In relying on Edward Tufte's work on visualising information, ‘Jeff' decided to ban PowerPoint for reasons that seem sound to me.

  • Preparing decks is hard to do it well, and he questioned the value of spending lots of time fussing over lining up boxes and making ‘pretty slides' versus thinking hard about the ideas to convey.
  • Presenting is a slow way to convey ideas. According to Tufte, we can absorb information three times faster by reading than by listening to a presentation.
  • Great presenters can ‘wallpaper over' cracks in their logic with their energy and charisma, leading to poor decisions.

Here's what they do instead.

Rely on short, tightly crafted prose narratives instead. They don't insist on any particular way of writing these, just that they be short and effective in setting up a great discussion. Their use in meetings is, however, prescribed as follows. The papers are

  • Read during the meeting. This at least two few benefits: everyone actually reads the papers and the quality of the thinking is better because of the extra focus paid to them.
  • Designed to be a ‘goldilocks length' that takes about a third of the meeting to read. They suggest 3 pages for a 30 minute meeting and 6 for a one-hour meeting on the assumption that the typical exec takes about 3 minutes to read a page. Interestingly, apparently Jeff Bezos is always the last to finish reading as he critiques every single sentence by asking: what if that were false?
  • Reviewed in advance to ensure they deserve their place in the meeting.

I hope that provides some useful food for thought. A number of my clients are moving to prose-only papers for senior bodies.

I'd be interested to know the balance in your organisations. If you click the relevant link below, I'll see the tally and can factor this into my program design for you.

In my organisation, decision making papers are …

When you click the link it will take you to the site.

More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – Please do tell your friends and colleagues about the Thinking Skills workshop that I am hosting later this month. I will introduce some foundational ideas that will help them (ie they will get a small piece of what we offer inside Clarity First). Learn more here.