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“It’s a truth universally acknowledged” that employees resent meetings and try their best to avoid attending them. Surveys show that as much as fifty percent of people in an organisation believe that they are a waste of time. Executives can spend up to 20 hours a week on them. They interfere with productivity; time spent could have been put to better use. But, no enterprise, big or small, runs without periodic meetings.
We Don’t Like Meetings and We Don’t Want Them Gone
Still, when asked if meetings should be abolished altogether, the same number of people reply that it would not be a good move. They feel that meetings are essential for maintaining a democratic spirit. Ideas should be aired, discussed and modified by groups of people; otherwise, the management style will be seen as autocratic.
Two factors are at work.
1. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality — Meetings have agendas. Items on an agenda vary in importance from critical to trivial. Professor Northcote Parkinson, him of the much quoted, eponymous law, also described a constant characteristic of meetings: The Law of Triviality.
There is an inverse relationship between the importance of an item and time spent on discussing it. Plans for a large investment on a major expansion will get passed over in a few minutes whereas a half hour or more will be spent on arguing about a new coffee dispenser in the lounge. It’s easier to talk about something that you are familiar with than something beyond your knowledge limits. (This law is also called “ the bike-shed effect ” based on a popular anecdote.)
2. More People, Less Effective the Meeting: There is also an inverse relationship between the number of people attending and effectiveness of a meeting.
The optimal number is 5. As the number increases, meetings become more and more unproductive. At 20, chaos reigns; from here on — 20 or a 100 — the number in the room doesn’t make a difference. It’s imperative that only those who can contribute effectively to the discussion be invited to take part. This is one element that is seldom carefully addressed.
The challenge, therefore, is to structure meetings to make them matter.
First, and For Ever, No “PowerPoints”
Jeff hates PowerPoint (or any other flavor) of presentation app. He believes that “ Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas. ”
That’s an earth-shaking diktat for all of us who automatically reach out for these tools when making a presentation.
Well Structured Narrative
The man says, in a much-quoted memo that he sent out: “Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as Powerpoint. The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page Powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.”
The fundamental argument is not so much about the medium itself — Powerpoint or written document — as the need to think critically and clearly.
Here’s how it’s done
Step 1: Writing the Narrative
The person or group responsible for the meeting, spends a good amount of time producing a 4-6 page, tightly reasoned, carefully worded, written narrative. (More on how to do this in another post).
Step 2: All Those Needed for the Meeting Gather at an Appointed Time.
Step 3: Read the Narrative for 30 Minutes.
The document is NOT distributed ahead of time.
Everyone present now gets a copy of the document and spends 30 minutes in silent reading. They note down their observations, comments, opposition and so on, now.
Wouldn’t it be more efficient if the document were to be given in advance? No, says Bezos; “Just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting, as if they’ve read the memo, … you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read — and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for.”
Step 4: Discussion Begins Now.
The document is used as the anchor for all that follows. It’s easy to keep all members tightly focused on the task at hand with everyone being on the same level of knowledge about the agenda. The event acquires both magnitude and direction.
Meetings have been given a bad rap. Some of the reasons are valid. In order to extract maximum effectiveness, Jeff Bezos of Amazon uses an unique structure for all meetings in his organization. In summary, here’s how he does it.
- Prepare a carefully-written, 4-6 page narrative about the topic for discussion.
- Invite the smallest possible number of people for the meeting. Limit invitees to those who can make meaningful contributions.
- Circulate the document at the start of the meeting and give everyone present half an a hour to carefully read and annotate the paper.
- Tether discussion to the contents of this document.
- Designate one person to be responsible for summing up the discussion and to provide an action-taken report.
The sole purpose of meetings is to create change, hopefully for the better. Like any tool, meetings are neither good nor bad in themselves. It’s how we use them that matters.
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” ― Carl Gustav Jung
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan
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“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway
But then, we are not talking about writing like Hemingway or Nabokov or Alice Munro. You have come up with a project. You are sure it’s a winner. You work at a company like Amazon and to take it forward you have to first write about it in a 4-6 page narrative. This document will serve as the pivot for all discussions about the project, something that your colleagues and bosses can read with ease and grasp the ideas you are putting forth.
What are We Looking At?
First things first, we must be in tune with Jeff Bezos’ recommendation. “Writing a good 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page Powerpoint … the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.” Powerpoint presentations are banned at Amazon. Meetings, when needed, have to be structured around a pre-prepared, carefully thought out, flowing narrative.
The prospect of writing a business narrative is daunting to most of us. We baulk at the act because we have never received training for it. Writing with clarity and flow is hard work. Even Hemingway viewed it with trepidation.
Most narratives, business or fiction, have a typical structure. Once we get familiar with this simple scaffolding, the process of writing becomes natural and effortless. Let’s look at a 4-step method of producing a business narrative that even Jeff will smile at.
Step 1: Where are We Now?
As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” What was it that provided the original impetus or spark for putting forward this proposal? Write about it in simple words. The starting point could be one or more of many things. Maybe it was:
- Pain points: Write about whatever produced discomfort in your present situation: things that make you uncomfortable, wary, anxious, frightened or angry.
- Dangers ahead: There may be lurking threats to the organisation which you feel need prompt and proper handling.
- Opportunities: Maybe it’s about things that present a lucrative prospect and could be harnessed for the good of the company. Describe it.
- Innovations: In a rapidly changing business world, it may be that you feel the present set up does not encourage new ideas. To survive, you sense that innovation has to be nurtured.
- Competition: Today’s world is brutally competitive. You know that other groups are sniffing at your heels. We have to start moving faster and farther than them
The number of starting points are limitless but you will have a single, specific item. Identify it and write in detail about it.
Step2: Where are We Headed?
If you don’t know where you are going, one thing is certain: you won’t get there. Describe your goal and ambition. There are many frameworks for outlining this section. A popular one is the “SMART” mnemonic:
S = specific – be clear about what you want.
M = measurable – assess results by objective means.
A = assignable – allocate specific people for specific tasks.
R = realistic – stay within your ways and means — don’t over reach.
T = time bound – be hard nosed about deadlines.
Step3: The road map
We live in the age of Google maps. You wouldn’t stir out anywhere new without first getting a road map. Your narrative must talk of three things.
- The various steps that need to be taken to get to the goal.
- The time limit and deadlines for each step.
- Obstacles that are likely to pop up en route and your plans for working around or over them. Anticipate road blocks.
Step 4: What will it Look Like when You are There?
“Are we there yet?” — the constant refrain of children on a road trip applies to your narrative as well. Don’t just go with gut feelings. Refer back to the stated goals and make sure that you have reached every one of them. Take a hard look.
- Use objective methods of assessment.
- List the benefits and joys of having reached your destination.
- Pitch it against the list that started your journey.
Not Just for Business Narratives — be an Ace Speaker
Storytelling is a sure-fire way to capture attention. Anytime you need to make a presentation, convert it into a story and you will hold your audience during your talk. The framework that we just saw can be used to rephrase an idea into a narrative. With a little imagination, a boring sermon can be transformed into a tale of how the idea was born, its goals, the path to implementation and the view from the top. Like the ad says: “Just do it.”
You don’t have to use the steps in the order listed. You can play around with it for dramatic effect. For instance, you could open with a vision of what the end looks like, shift to the reason for starting the journey, talk about the road and end with what your goals were. Play around with the four steps and see which order suits the spirit of the narrative
Come Back to Papa Hemingway
You don’t need a vast vocabulary or a smart turn of phrase to write well. Hemingway said this when putting down Faulkner: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Write from the heart. Focus on:
- Simple language.
- Short sentences.
- Brief paragraphs — each one containing one idea, each paragraph flowing logically into the next.
- Anticipating objections and addressing them ahead of time.
- Redrafting your manuscript many times. Be a ruthless critic of your writing, logic and flow. Every word must have a reason to be there.
Writing well is the best way of thinking well. Which is why anything written is given far more value than spoken words. Penned sentences linger as a legacy of a human being, sometimes well beyond the life of the person who wrote them. To disseminate great ideas, you need to write captivating stories.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan
All rights reserved
A carefully-crafted resume is the keystone of a job application. A large number of employers will also ask for a covering letter. Most, often, you will use a standard template: a few lines dashed off thoughtlessly.
Why Bother With a Covering Letter?
Giving a lot of time and attention to the covering letter might appear old-fashioned in an age when applications are submitted online. Still, a well-written document can make you stand out amongst a crowd of applicants.
The covering letter is a single-page letter of introduction — yourself, to the hiring manager. It is a carefully-crafted argument for why you are the best person for the job.
Remember, applications are scanned for specific keywords, phrases and qualifications, often by apps and bots, before being passed on for review by humans.
When Do You Send A Covering Letter? Always.
Quite often, a covering letter may not be mandatory. Don’t take this as an opportunity to slip out. Always send one.
No Templates, be Creative
Although you can recycle some portions of the letter, the bulk of the message should be one-of-a-kind, targeted at the company and the job you are applying for. Resist the temptation to automate the document.
Use this outline for writing your letter.
Begin with the usual salutation, a name preferably, or the designation of the person doing the hiring. Increasingly, there is a tendency to be informal: a “Hi” or a “Hello” rather than the “Dear …”. Judge the nature of the organisation before you decide. If it’s a young, start-up, open to fresh ideas, stay informal. If it’s a well-established company, then a more traditional style of address.
STEP 1: Start with Them, Not Yourself.
It’s customary to start by talking about yourself. Don’t. Your resume will do that. Do some research on the organisation and learn what their mission/ vision is. Point out how your ambition fits with theirs. Keep the tone enthusiastic but not over-powering. As the Taoist saying goes, pointed, not piercing.
STEP 2: Talk About the Job and How You Fit the Description
Show that you have understood the nature of the job and the specific requirements of you. Describe how your skills suit the position. How do they solve a problem or address a pain point for the company?
Many a time, tucked somewhere in the body will be a question or task assigned to you. The employer uses this as a check to see if you have scrutinised the application well. Make sure you respond and highlight your response.
STEP 3: Close With a Call-to-Action
The last paragraph should be a single-line recap of the company, the job and your fitness for the position. Give a contact number or email address, even if it’s there in the resume.
Keep It …
- Short – not more than 2 or 3 sentence per paragraph.
- Succinct – don’t use grandiose or flowery language.
- Neutral in tone – don’t be fawning, effusive or stiff.
And Don’t Forget to …
- Spell check, grammar check, obsessively. Nothing negatively portrays you as much as a sloppily-written document, full of spelling mistakes and poor grammar.
There’s no question that the resume is the make-or-break factor in your application. Remember though that an outstanding covering letter could deliver the tipping force to your effort at getting a job.
Looking for work can be very disheartening. Finding your perfect job takes a lot of courage, persistence and ingenuity. Steve Jobs said:
“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” ― Steve Jobs
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan
“Mayday, Mayday!” the dreaded call from an aeroplane going down echoed all over the world when the COVID pandemic struck. The Internet was the parachute that brought us down in one piece (at least those of us who were lucky enough to be outfitted with one) — “shaken, not stirred”.
It’s been months since many of us have seen the familiar insides of our workplace. The ability to work from anywhere, anytime has been around for some years. It took an event of this worldwide magnitude to show us the full potential of working from home. Whatever our reaction to teleworking — overjoyed, frustrated, angry or neutral — we have to come to grips with it being a part of our working style for the years to come.
For some, it might seem like having your cake and eating it too, but teleworking has its downside.
We ache for the day-to-day bantering with associates. Many, if not most, of the tacit communication channels that were present in the physical office, are no longer at hand. Water cooler conversations are gone. The office grapevine has collapsed; we no longer know who’s doing what, with whom and where.
“Out of sight, out of mind”: this well-worn aphorism has never been more valid than in the age of COVID. Memories fade over time. We begin to wonder if our colleagues think about us at all.
Visibility is key to success at work. Staying on top-of-the-mind-recall is going to involve a new set of rules and behaviours, some of them awkward for the kind of person you are. We need to take a fresh look at workplace dynamics. Here’s a game plan for the new reality of work, for staying virtually visible.
You, as a brand
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. ― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
You have to learn to sell yourself; this could be disturbing to many. Far from being an attempt at blatant self-promotion, you need to see self-branding as an essential part of the new reality. Unless you do, you will be left behind when it comes to promotions and advancement.
Email is your light sabre
The bulk of all communication, work and personal, happens over email. Hardly anyone puts pen down to paper anymore.
- Answer all you mail within an hour or two. The closer your response is in time to the mail you received, the better the chance of your reply being seen in the right context. We don’t think about it this way but developing a reputation as a prompt responder is a great way to stay visible.
- As you come across material — websites, quotes, small extracts —that is interesting, forward it to those who might enjoy reading it. A little trick: don’t just send the link. Precede it with a paragraph or two with your comment or opinion. This way, your message is personalised; the recipient will feel compelled to read the matter and see what made you think that way.
- Don’t restrict your forwards to dancing cats and other pieces of fluff on Youtube. People may enjoy them but will rarely remember who sent it. There is also a real danger of being seen as a mindless pest.
Linkedin, not Facebook or Instagram
Be active on Linkedin, the premier social network for professionals. There is a popular misconception about LinkedIn being only for job searches and recruiters. LinkedIn offers a terrific amount of good stuff.
Complete your profile with care. There are any number of articles which will tell you how to do it with flair. Google them. Your profile is your resume. Nurture it with care.
- Scout around on Linkedin Groups and join some which interest you.
- Be active with your posts and comments.
- Read articles posted. Connect with people who share similar interests.
- Hashtags are a great way of locating exceptional pieces. You don’t need a ton of connections and followers to find interesting reading.
- Unlike Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where your posts have a life of minutes, LinkedIn has a much longer half-life. Your posts stay in circulation for days.
Rather than wasting your hours on Facebook or Instagram, you’d be much better off on LinkedIn. You may not become an influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers, but you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who notice you and remember you.
Who knows, if you need to find a new job, all this work will be useful.
Birthdays, anniversaries, events
Start sending personal notes to people for birthdays, anniversaries and other memorable events. Maintain a calendar.Being regular with these notes is particularly important in the days of social distancing where you cannot attend events in person.
Random acts of kindness
- One of the things that bowl people over is to receive small, sincere notes of thanks and gratitude. Now is the time to start saying “Thank you” for acts of kindness. Think back and pick up on significant events.
- Volunteer for causes. Pay it forward. Increase good karma in the world.
There have been very few eras in human history shrouded in such immense amounts of uncertainty and darkness about the future. None of us imagined in our wildest dreams that we would be witness to such a radical change in the way we work. Mindfulness and living in the moment are the key to maintaining equilibrium.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” ― Author unknown, commonly misattributed to Marilyn Monroe
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan
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