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Archive for March, 2010

HOW PRODUCTIVE ARE YOUR MEETINGS?

Posted by Tim Bryce on March 10, 2010

As a businessman, one of my favorite movies is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” featuring Steve Martin as an advertising executive trying to return to Chicago during the Thanksgiving holidays. The movie opens with Martin attending a meeting in New York City where he is pitching an ad campaign to the President of a large corporation, played by William Windom. The meeting is rather long and boring as Windom quietly agonizes over the layout of Martin’s proposed ads. All of the meeting attendees sit quietly and patiently as they wait for Windom to make a decision (which he never makes). As it is the holiday season, they all have other things they want to do (in Martin’s case, it is to return home to Chicago). Ultimately, the meeting is a colossal waste of time for all of the attendees.

We’ve all been involved with such meetings where the person running it is either insensitive to the needs of the attendees or the subject matter is painfully boring. It should come as no surprise that excessive or pointless meetings are probably the number one cause for decreased productivity in organizations, be it corporate or nonprofit (as Dilbert has pointed out to us time and again). Understand this, unless someone is looking for an excuse to duck a work assignment, nobody wants to attend an inconsequential meeting.

Remarkably, there are a lot of people who don’t understand the basics of running a productive meeting, hence the problem as exemplified by Martin’s movie. There is nothing magical about conducting a good meeting. It just requires a little preparation, along with some leadership and structure during its execution. Here are some simple guidelines to follow:

PREPARATION

First, determine the necessity of the meeting itself. Do you really have something important to discuss or do you just want to simply “chew the fat.” Meetings are nice but we should never forget they distract people from their work assignments. Therefore, we should only hold a meeting if it is going to benefit the attendees and assist them in their work effort. Let us not forget there are many other communication vehicles at our disposal: memos, e-mails, web pages (including blogs and discussion groups), posted notices, general broadcasts over a PA system, etc.

If you are convinced of the necessity of the meeting, you will need to know three things:

Your objective – Is the purpose of the meeting to communicate a particular message, develop a dialogue and reach consensus, educate/train people, or to offer a simple diversion for the attendees? People do not want to hear the boss pontificate on some trivial manner (a la Dilbert). Make sure you have a firm grasp of the purpose of the meeting and what you hope to accomplish. Ask yourself how the attendees will benefit from the meeting.

Your audience – Be sure to understand the targeted audience, their interests, their work assignments, and their attention span.

How the meeting should be conducted (this is critical). Should it be held on-site or off-site to minimize distractions? Who should lead the meeting? How should the meeting room be setup, such as required audio-video equipment, flipcharts/blackboards, computer equipment, podiums, and the setup of tables and chairs. A classroom setup is fine for lectures and presentations but not necessarily conducive if the participants are going to work in teams. For dialogs and strategy sessions, a roundtable or u-shaped layout is better. Even the chairs are important; everyone likes comfort but if you want to keep people’s attention, there is nothing wrong with hard chairs that force the participants to sit-up and take notice during the meeting.

Print up agendas in advance so everyone knows the meeting’s purpose, the items to be discussed, the timetable, and what is needed for preparation. It is not uncommon to also advise the dress code for the meeting. If possible, send agendas and any other items in advance for the attendees to adequately prepare themselves for the meeting. This will save considerable time during the meeting.

Post scheduled meetings to calendars and, whenever possible, send out reminders at least one day in advance.

EXECUTION

Having a strong and fair leader for the meeting is essential for its success. This may or may not be the main speaker. Nevertheless, the leader has to play the role of traffic cop so the meeting doesn’t get sidetracked and stays on schedule. Knowing when to defer peripheral discussions to a later time or place (such as after the meeting) is important to keep everyone focused on the main mission of the meeting. Being the traffic cop often requires skills in tact and diplomacy so the meeting doesn’t spin out of control.

Here are some other items to consider:

* Stick to the agenda. Start and end on time and maintain order. Got a gavel? Do not hesitate to use it judiciously. Maintain civility and decorum. Allow people to have their say but know when issues are getting out of hand or sidetracked.

* Follow the old military principle of: “Tell them what you are going to tell them; Tell them, and then; Tell them what you’ve told them.” Developing a punchlist of action items at the conclusion of the meeting can be very useful for certain situations.

* Introductions are important so participants know the cast of characters involved and their interests. But do not waste an inordinate amount of time here. Also, name tags or name cards are useful to avoid the embarrassment of forgetting names and titles.

* Make the meeting worthwhile. Keep it interesting and informative; Heck, make it fun if you can. Make it so the attendees feel that they are not wasting their time.

* Again, know your audience – speak in terms your audience will understand. An eloquent vocabulary might be impressive, but it may also intimidate and confuse the attendees (beware of the “verbosity of bullshit” phenomenon). Also, read the body language of the attendees to see if they are paying attention.

* I am not a big fan of histrionics. Many lecturers like people to get up, stretch, shake hands with everyone or hold a group hug. This can be downright embarrassing to people. Get to the point and move on.

REVIEW

All meetings should be reviewed, either formally or informally, to determine the success of the meeting. Informal reviews are used for short meetings to determine action items to be followed up on. Formal reviews should be considered for all lengthy meetings. Standard critique sheets should be used for attendees and the leader to evaluate the meeting. Prepare a summary and evaluate the meeting’s success. More importantly, learn from the comments received. There is little point of going through the motions of a review if you have no intention of acting on it.

CONCLUSION

Mastering the execution of an effective meeting requires a little planning, a little organization, and a lot of management. Bottom-line, how do you know if your meeting was a success? People do not groan when you call the next one.

“Unless someone is looking for an excuse to duck a work assignment, nobody wants to attend an inconsequential meeting.”
– Bryce’s Law

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
http://www.phmainstreet.com/timbryce.htm

Copyright © 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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FLATTEN GOVERNMENT

Posted by Tim Bryce on March 8, 2010

For the last six months I’ve been watching the development of a new family-style restaurant in our area. This is not a new building or anything requiring major modifications to the existing structure. In fact, other restaurants operated in this same facility in the past. It has plenty of table space, an ample kitchen, and good bathrooms. Actually, it is rather modern in design. The signs are up, and when you look inside, it appears everything is ready to go. Yet, the restaurant remains empty month after month. As it turns out, the problem resides in the county and state agencies who are dragging their feet in performing the necessary inspections and assessing the impact fees; inspections that should be rather simple to perform, yet cannot seem to be completed. I cannot fathom this. It is my understanding that the owner doesn’t lack the necessary funds to pay for the permits and fees, and the restaurant looks ready to go, yet the government seems unwilling to let them open their doors. This leads me to believe that I am witnessing a business suffering from a bureaucratic government with a bad case of indifference.

I happen to reside in one of the most densely populated counties in Florida which has been growing over the last two decades at a rate of approximately 20%. This means we have a rather large budget supporting numerous county agencies whose mission, in theory, is to support the local residents and businesses. Obviously, their efforts should encourage business which would, in turn, result in more revenue for the county. Not so here. Inspectors give the distinct impression they couldn’t care less. Instead of working with local businesses to overcome their problems, they seem bent on closing them down any way they can. Last year, dozens of restaurants closed their doors in this county due to the slumping economy; now we have someone interested in opening one. Yet, government officials move lethargically to help the business open their doors.

The cause for all this should come as no surprise; the greater the organizational hierarchy, the more unproductive the entity becomes which means, in the context of government, an adverse effect on its constituents, namely business. Twenty-to-thirty years ago, when the government was smaller, county officials and employees seemed more amenable to helping companies, but as the county population grew (as well as the government in proportion to it), service seemed to decline. Normally, you would think a bigger organization involving more people and funding would be able to adequately service its customers. Interestingly, the opposite begins to occur when we create enormous bureaucracies. Corporate entities have known this for years and went through a period of flattening their organizational structures thereby forcing them to eliminate superfluous activities and focus attention on the essential duties and responsibilities of the business. Government needs to do likewise, not just at the local level, but at the state and federal levels as well.

We have long suspected there is considerable waste in government, but when it becomes glaringly apparent, as in the restaurant example, it is time to shake things up. It is one thing when corporations become bureaucratically ineffective (who must answer to shareholders), quite another when it is a government institution. After all, government is suppose to be a servant of the people, not the other way around. If this is true, government should be an expediter or champion of business, not an impediment.

Just remember, bigger is not always better; it does not innately make you more competent; in fact, it might make you more clumsy and ineffective. Therefore, our mantra shouldn’t be “fatten government,” but rather, “flatten government.” Just be sure to add the “L.”

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
http://www.phmainstreet.com/timbryce.htm

Copyright © 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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SOME MORE TEA ANYONE?

Posted by Tim Bryce on March 5, 2010

When the Tea Party movement surfaced in 2009, most of the media dismissed it as nothing more than a collection of crackpots and lampooned them heartily. Now, after elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, they’re not laughing anymore as they suddenly realize this is a legitimate movement. Both the Democrats and Republicans underestimated the movement and are now taking them seriously, particularly as the mid-term elections approach.

What the politicians and media failed to grasp is the general outrage of the country with politicians as represented by the Tea Party, a body of people consisting of both political parties who are basically saying, “None of the above.” The disgust of the people goes beyond Washington, and touches on state and local governments as well. And why not? What do people hear about their politicians? Sex scandals, obnoxious economic policies, insane budget deficits, pork, excessive spending and debt, as well as graft, corruption and greed. To all appearances, our politicians are obnoxious irresponsible clods who couldn’t manage themselves out of the bathroom, let alone our government. Bottom-line, they give the impression they are not getting the job done and people are fed up with it. To illustrate, recently I saw the following bumper sticker on the road, “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention.”

The Tea Party has grown much faster than anyone had anticipated. Local chapters sprung up seemingly over night and you would now be hard pressed not to find some Tea Party activity in your community. Consider this though, for every Tea Party activist, there is probably five pacifists who do not have the time to participate other than to donate money and vote. With such momentum, incumbent politicians should be running scared as a big blowout is in the offing and the political landscape will undoubtedly undergo substantial change in November.

The big question in the media now is what direction the Tea Party should go; should it become its own political party or merge with another? Again, I think the media is missing the point here. I don’t see this as evolving into anything other than what it is already, a powerful lobby that is run by the people as opposed to a corporate body. They can be much more effective in this capacity, whereby they can maintain their virtue and act as a government watchdog.

Let’s take it a step further though, the Tea Party may just be the political force needed to call for a Continental Congress to change some of the absurd rules influencing Washington, such as term limits, kickbacks from lobbyists, campaign reform, compensation, etc. Years ago, Milton Eisenhower posed the idea that the President has within his power the ability to call for such a congress. Unfortunately, no politician in Washington has the political fortitude to do so. Plain and simply, they are happy with the current system and would never dream of implementing such an idea. After all, they would have too much to lose if they did. However, if the Tea Party continues to grow as they are forecast to, they could very well become the political muscle necessary to call for a Continental Congress, which would be another reason why they should remain neutral in terms of political parties. If they were to do nothing more than this, it would have been well worth the effort.

As an aside, watch for incumbent politicians from both parties try to embrace the Tea Party as we get closer to November. It should be really funny.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
http://www.phmainstreet.com/timbryce.htm

Copyright © 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

Posted in Politics, Social Issues | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

WHY WE RESIST PLANNING

Posted by Tim Bryce on March 3, 2010

The short answer: “Because it requires work.”

The long answer:
People tend to resist gazing into the crystal ball and prefer to react to life as it passes them by. Some people believe planning in today’s ever changing world is a waste of time, that you must be more “agile” and accommodate changes as they occur. As anyone who has designed and built anything of substance knows, this is utterly ridiculous. We would not have the many great skyscrapers, bridges, dams, highways, ships, planes, and other sophisticated equipment without the efforts of architects and engineers. Without such planning, our country would look essentially no different than how the pioneers first discovered the continent. Although we must certainly be flexible in our plans, and we will inevitably make some mistakes along the way, little progress would be made if we did not try to plan a course of action and control our destiny.

People often take planning for granted, that someone else will be making plans for us, such as government officials, our corporate management, or even the elders of our families. Consequently we become rather lax about looking into the future. Nor is there any encouragement by anyone to plan our affairs, such as a tax break. Whereas other countries offer incentives to save money for the future, such as Japan, America does not. Therefore, planning is a rather personal activity; we either see the virtue in doing so or we do not.

Americans have become legendary reactionaries who procrastinate until it is too late. We see this in everything from business planning, to career planning, family planning, financial planning, and even planning for our demise. It is simply not in the American psyche to plan, but to react instead. There are plenty of examples to illustrate the point; such as Pearl Harbor (where General Billy Mitchell predicted the attack with great accuracy 17 years prior to December 7th, 1941); there is also Hurricane Katrina (where engineers and government officials knew well in advance of the weaknesses in New Orleans’ system of dykes and levees, yet did nothing about it); and, of course, 9/11 (where we learned a hard lesson of dropping our defenses in the face of terrorism).

Years ago, a long range business plan was for five-to-ten years. Such plans have become scarce in recent times; probable casualties of a dynamic world economy. Now, “long range” either means until the end of the fiscal year or end of the quarter. It is even difficult to get a prioritized list of objectives for a department, let alone a whole company. Instead, companies are now operating under a whirlwind of ever changing “priority ones,” thus confusing workers and causing them to be counterproductive.

In the I.T. arena, planning is still very much a faux pas, but then again, it has always been such. For example, in our “PRIDE”-Information Systems Engineering Methodology (ISEM), developers would like to skip through the early phases used for planning and design, in order to get to the programming phases. In other words, they didn’t feel comfortable in planning and instead preferred to be writing software. This makes for an interesting paradox: although they liked to skip down to programming (where the “real work” was performed), they also liked to complain about deficiencies in requirements definition and other design specifications (which would naturally result from the preceding phases had they been performed). The most common excuse you hear from developers is, “The users do not know what they want.” Basically, this is an admission that the developer is either not properly trained in or lacks the discipline to plan properly.

Part of the problem is that we have become very impatient for results and I think this can be attributed to our technology. For example, we now expect information at our fingertips, instant communications, quick turnarounds in medicine, etc. Instead of patiently waiting for results, we now want instant gratification. Consequently, activities such as planning are perceived as interferences for getting a job done.

There are, of course, several tools available for planning,

  • Calendars – to remind us of important dates. Even though there are many varieties in paper form and automated on computers and cell phones, it is interesting to see how few people actually use them.
  • Statistics and trend analysis – which is actively used in business to track historical activity, and hopefully to project corporate direction. Perhaps the best known entity to use such tools in the U.S. Bureau of the Census who produces some rather interesting projections which are often overlooked by the general populace.
  • Documentation – When building new products or other major structures, a set of blueprints are required to act as a road map during construction. Without such blueprints, construction or manufacturing cannot be effectively implemented or managed. The same is true in the realm of Information Systems, without a well thought out set of blueprints (flowcharts and other graphical techniques), you cannot assemble a system regardless of how well you can program. There are also project planning techniques like Gantt Charts, PERT, and CPM to express planned work dependencies, schedules, and precedent relationships.
  • Priority modeling tools – to keep track of objectives in priority sequence. This is also referred to as “To Do lists” or “Punch lists.” Regardless, the intent is to make people cognizant of objectives and their priorities, thereby assuring workers are accomplishing the proper tasks in the proper order.

CONCLUSION
If we do not understand or appreciate the need for something, we tend to avoid it, but that is not the excuse here. We all have at least a rudimentary idea of what simple planning can do for us, we just balk at doing it.

We fail in planning not because we lack the proper tools, there are actually quite a lot of them available to us, but simply because we lack the discipline or desire to do so. Rather, we prefer to wait until disaster strikes so we can blame others for our problems and hope they can bail us out.

Like it or not, planning represents work. It is also something many of us are not disciplined to do, regardless of how simple it is to perform. We can rationalize why we do not plan all we want, but in the end, it is because of one thing, plain and simple: we are lazy.

“Remember, it’s Ready, Aim, Fire; any other sequence is counterproductive.”
– Bryce’s Law

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
http://www.phmainstreet.com/timbryce.htm

Copyright © 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

Posted in Business, Management | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

FEEDBACK

Posted by Tim Bryce on March 1, 2010

Having written hundreds of articles on a wide variety of subjects over the years, I have had my fair share of comments and criticisms from my readership. My articles are typically designed to engage discussion. You won’t always agree with me, but I am trying to get people to think about things they normally overlook or take for granted. I have appreciated all of the feedback regarding my work, both pro and con. Compliments are flattering and appreciated but I also enjoy criticisms, to a point. If they are honest, articulate, and carefully thought-out, I enjoy them as much as the compliments. I learn from them. However, if they are vicious and aimed at character assassination, be it myself or someone else, they go directly to the recycle bin and the author loses all credibility with me.

I have one critic who I can regularly count on to try and refute everything I write about; if I say “black,” you can count on him to say “white,” regardless of the subject. At first I took him seriously, but when I noticed the frequency of his comments, I discovered he was only using my forum as a means to promote himself on the Internet. Consequently, I no longer engage in arguments with him and quietly remove his comments from my blog whenever they appear. If he wants a soapbox, let him write his own column and not piggyback on mine.

There are a few topics that will inevitably unleash a flurry of e-mails from readers; politics and religion are obvious ones, and trigger the most bloodthirsty responses. Attacking software developers is another. For some reason programmers feel free to criticize others, yet bitterly resent it when the shoe is on the other foot. I did an article on tattoos a few years ago which also triggered an avalanche of protest. The lesson here was when you discuss personal life choices, don’t expect people to remain mum on the subject.

I find subjects such as management and morality doesn’t seem to spark much discussion, maybe because people are not practicing either anymore. When it comes to the workplace, I believe people do not like to challenge the status quo and prefer to ignore controversy. Interesting. Perhaps people find it prudent to maintain a tight lip during these uncertain economic times.

I am a big proponent of constructive criticism, not destructive. Unfortunately, we see too many destructive comments thanks to the anonymity offered by the Internet. People will say things to you in a discussion group or an e-mail they would never dare say to you in person. These are the classless cowards of the Internet. I learned a long time ago you shouldn’t criticize unless you are prepared to offer an alternative, particularly in business.

All of this being said, I appreciate the feedback you have all given me over the years and I review everything that comes in and try to respond the best as I can. Keep those cards and letters coming!

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
http://www.phmainstreet.com/timbryce.htm

Copyright © 2010 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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