Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Meetings Defined: Productive or Waste of Time?

What are meetings?

Here's a popular meeting definition:
"A meeting is an event at which minutes are kept and hours are lost!"
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On a more serious note, however, the most basic definition of a meeting is "an assembly of two or more people for a particular purpose." This coming together of people for a common purpose may be formal or informal, regular or irregular, statutory or at will.

With the all-pervasive power of technology that ensures 24X7 availability of personnel, meetings no longer have to take place in person, face-to-face, in any one physical location. We can assemble our teams and work-forces in virtual space at disparate locations through webinars, conference calls, video-conferencing, document sharing etc.

Most managers rue the fact that they have to spend endless hours of their work life in the act of participating in or conducting meetings. Common wisdom estimates that about half the time spent in a meeting is wasted in non-operational discussions.

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This leads to human resources in organisations becoming frustrated because of the feeling that instead of adding productivity to their day or adding value to the work they perform, meetings take away from their effective time on the job.

So if they're so unproductive and account for such a waste of one of the most precious, non-renewable resources of a business enterprise, why do we have so many meetings? 

What do meetings do?

Notwithstanding the bad press, a meeting--or live, inter-active communication among members of a group--is still the most effective way for people to brainstorm ideas, exchange notes, share information, set the course for a period of time, plan actions, organise events, solve problems, decide important issues, get feedback and so on.

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A meeting develops the social mind of a group of people who have come together for a specific purpose or agenda. It is a great way for a group of co-workers to bond. Time that seems wasted in informal communication and eating and drinking is actually necessary to creating the common ground that will ultimately increase productivity. Meetings play a major part in increasing comfort and familiarity in work relationships among people who must work together in long hours of proximity to achieve a common organisational goal.

Thus, quite apart from fulfilling short-term organisational agenda, meetings also act as bonding mechanisms that help define the team and clarify the collective aim. 

In doing their bit to turn loose groups of disparate individuals into close-knit, inter-dependent teams and task forces that become more than the aggregate of the individual members, meetings create commitment and also serve to boost collective confidence in the team's ability to complete difficult tasks within given deadlines.

With the right hands at the helm, meetings can bring visibility to and give greater authority and sense of accomplishment to junior employees or new entrants as they are encouraged to share their opinions and ideas and add their skills and competencies to those of the established group. In the ideal situation, different organisational strata can interact on an even plane and align their individual activities around the organisation's priorities and objectives.

Effective Tool for Management

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I'm a great believer in the power of regular informal meetings with my co-workers. Even if we get together for just a few minutes every week, meeting with my subordinates and colleagues allows me to touch base with them and gain better insight into their lives and priorities, 

During those short meetings, I can catch up with them on the week that went and plan the week to come with the benefit of their agreement and insight, I see it as an opportunity to make sure my team has equal access to relevant information and ensure that we are all on the same page.

I feel that the time we spend during the meeting re-creates our commitment to each other and to the team as a whole and thus energises us to work better for the collective cause for the rest of the work week.

More, the quick cup of coffee and informal conversation we share after the meeting agenda is exhausted helps realign our comfort levels and de-stresses us as we are get out of our individual boxes of problems and deadlines and try to help others with their issues and problems instead.

The author, Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee, is Managing Partner at Expressions@Worka training, consulting and mentoring studio for the development of communication and soft skills

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Jack Reacher Lesson to Remember!

"Look, Don’t See. Listen, Don’t Hear."
I was reminded of this wonderful old adage by Jack Reacher. For those of you who don’t know who Jack Reacher is, go to a bookstore and pick up a Lee Child novel.

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Reacher is this Bruce-Willis-in-Die-Hard kind of character. He’s an ex-US Military MP who lives in the United States of America but in no particular city or apartment. He’s the quintessential wanderer who goes where his feet and heart and some means of transport take him. He has no luggage, no credit cards, no clothes other than the ones he’s wearing at the moment. Whenever necessary, he buys a new set and trashes the old one. The one thing he does carry in his pocket is a tooth brush. Oh, and he seems to find extreme trouble wherever he goes.

But this post is not about Jack Reacher. It is about this communication lesson he reminded me of in one of his latest exploits.

One of the ways to become a good communicator is to always be alert and observe your environment. You can pick up a lot of unintended information from the surroundings (and the people who inhabit those surroundings) if you only “look” and “listen.”

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And looking is not the same as seeing just as listening is not the same as hearing. Seeing and hearing are automatic. If your visual and aural mechanism works, you will have to see and hear. You have no choice in the matter. So as you walk down the street, you see and hear all that is available within the range of your sensory abilities of sight and sound. At the end of your walk, though, if I asked you what you saw, you would only be able to identify those objects and auditory signals that you actually “looked at” or “listened to.”

That’s the trouble policemen have when they investigate a public event that has multiple witnesses. People look at and listen to only certain sights and sounds that are available in their surroundings. The sights and sounds they choose to concentrate on depends on their individual mental filters—their own personalities, their interests, their knowledge-set, their previous experiences, their moods and emotions etc. etc. etc. Policemen investigating a public crime have to sift through almost as many clashing statements as there are witnesses.

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Going down Lansdowne Road, for instance, someone who’s very, very hungry may be drawn to those sights—the farsan being freshly fried in the old Gujarati shop, the puchchkawala, the mishti displays, the roadside kachori seller—and thus would probably miss a huge hoarding advertising a cellphone operator that allow you to make calls at 1 paisa for 2 seconds. Similarly for sounds: at any given moment, you have many layers and types of sound available to you. You can hear all of them but you can only choose to listen to some of them. The sounds you prioritise and give your attention to may vary according to your mental state and your needs of the moment.

Looking and listening are choices you make; seeing and hearing are not. When you really look at or listen to something you can see and hear, you process the information received not only with your audio-visual mechanism but also your mind and all its components.

Of course, you may engage your mind in various degrees according to your needs and desires. But that is another post.

The author, Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee, is Managing Partner at Expressions@Worka training, consulting and mentoring studio for the development of communication and soft skills

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Rumour Mill: how and why stories change when they go from person to person

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I tell you a story. You repeat it to someone else, who tells it to someone else and so on. In just a few tellings, the story I narrated has transformed into another story altogether. Try this. You'll see.

This is how rumour works as it spreads from person to person. Stories change completely as they go from ear to mouth to ear. How to they change? Why do they change? In what ways do they change? Read on to find out.

Most obvious to us all is the fact that the story becomes shorter in each telling. The extra, descriptive details are the first to go: whatever the listener's mind perceives as information not integral to the story is pushed aside or neglected and thus lost in the re-telling. This is because the mind discards what it perceives as an unimportant detail.

Of course, if a specific descriptor is of special interest to a particular listener, it will be retained however trivial and insignificant it may be. For instance, an obscure cricket statistic that does not have anything to do with the basic structure of events being recounted may be thrown into the story by the raconteur. This would not generally be included in subsequent reports, but if one of the listeners is an avid cricket fan, the detail would stick in her mind and she would definitely include it in her version of the story.

The shortening of a story also depends on several other factors such as:

  • individual skills and experiences of a listener and his reasons for listening (what are you listening for--the broad strokes? the details? Your personal experience of stories like this, your interests, the way your own memory works etc.)
  • the purpose of listening (do you have to take an exam based upon this story? are you listening for fun?)
  • the compatibility between the vocabulary and language skills of the sender and the receiver (if you don't understand a concept or a word, you are likely to disregard it)
  • the cultural connotations in the telling (I call this the unfamiliarity effect. Certain characteristics, events, idioms, expressions, stereotypes, archetypes etc. may not find any special resonance with you if you don't intimately know the socio-cultural foundations of the story)
  • more, the speaker's audibility, enunciation, accent, vocal expression etc.

To go back to other changes, however, you must have noticed that some details are also added to the original story. I call this the "if it were so it would be better" syndrome. We are all storytellers. Once we have heard the story, it becomes our story to tell, so we tell it our way, with details we feel would make it a better story. Also, if we don't follow the logic of certain bits or if we feel certain parts of the story contain "faulty" information, our mind fills in the blanks and makes its own logical connections.

While the bare bones of the story mostly remain the same, the story changes in many ways, some subtle, some more obvious. The tone, tenor and mood of the story may change according to the teller. The emphasis on certain events and details may change. The logic of the story may alter. Sometimes, you may also be compensating for the perceived lack of storytelling skills of the person who told the story before you.

Other factors that affect information as it passes from one person to the other would be things like the emotional and mental state of the speaker and the listener (nervousness, anxiety, fear, euphoria, depression); the credibility, to you, of the person from whom you get the information; physical factors like noise, distance, smudges, distractions etc.

The author, Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee, is Managing Partner at Expressions@Worka training, consulting and mentoring studio for the development of communication and soft skills