#ProjectSnowfall

This is a post I couldn’t imagine I’d be writing when I first came up with the name Project Snowfall. It was sometime mid-2014 and at that point end-of-the-year-2015 seemed like forever away. Also, I wouldn’t have started this blog for almost another full year. The sheer number of things I’d have to learn, refine, and eventually, become proficient in hadn’t really dawned on me at that point. I knew I wanted to do something I’d never even come close to doing before. Like most of the things that I’ve accomplished that started off in the same category … 

I jumped in with both feet…  plugged my nose …and ended up way over my head, barely treading water (Luckily I had help). 

For those of you that know me, this will come as no surprise, but for the rest of you … I have a tendency to get into stuff. Hobbies are never just interests, but rather more like a set of sequential obsessions. I’m never in half-way. It’s either a soul-encompassing-full-tilt-dedication-to-every-detail, or it’s a passing interest I’m never too invested in.

After a little more than a year and a half of effort, the results of my most recent of obsessions was about to be put on display for a group of roughly 200 people.

The plan was simple.

Every year my company puts on a Holiday Party for the 120-ish staff and their guests at a really nice hotel. Every year the MC’s at the party stand up, tell a few jokes or stories, and generally move the party along with your more typical corporate event type fare. This year, Brian and I were going to change that. Rather than kick off the night with some awkward (yet naturally charming) banter between the two of us, we were going to create a short film documenting our preparation for the big night and finally our arrival at the hotel (think Billy Crystal’s entrance videos at the Oscars). 

Here’s my memory of how that all went down just a week or so ago…. 

I’d been pacing back and forth in a too-small hotel room for the past two hours when my co-master-of-ceremonies-and-general-partner-in-crime (Brian McKay) and I looked at each other and knew it was go-time.

Photo 2015-12-05, 5 36 46 PM
Brian and I moments before leaving the hotel room – It’s Go Time!

We received simultaneous text messages from our company’s head of marketing as well as my wife saying the audience was almost ready for us. The gears were turning and there was no stopping the machine at this point.

There’s no describing the feeling I had as I walked down the hallways of the Hotel Fort Garry, up the stairs to the 7th floor, and then waited in the overly-decorated hallway outside the grand ballroom.

It was a moment I’d planned for over a year and a half ago.

It’s that feeling you get when you realize you’ve put so much of yourself into a piece of work and it is about to be well and truly judged. It becomes less about your work at that point and more about all the pieces of yourself  you’ve invested that are actually being evaluated. Sure, we’d run all of our ideas past our families, but were they actually any good? Would this mixed group of colleagues, friends, and strangers have an appreciation for everything that went into making this whole thing possible?

I read an article once that drew a comparison between a software developer’s code and their own intelligence / insight into the workings of their mind. The author was trying to reason out why developers are so hesitant in sharing their code / admitting to flaws / what-have-you. At the time I actually quite enjoyed the article, but now that I have some understanding of the more traditionally artistic side of this equation, opening your code to review / criticism feels trivial by comparison.

If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for just a moment, sharing your art is more like sharing a small part of who you are and not only your mind. It feels deeply personal – or at least it did to me anyway.

It’s a commonly quoted statistic that the number one fear most people have is public speaking (it’s not by the way – apparently that one is closer to #13, who knew?).  Yet there I was, about to stand in front of 200 people, on stage, telling a few jokes Brian and I had worked out a couple of days earlier, and I wasn’t even remotely worried about it. The 15 minutes preceding our arrival on stage, however, now that was scary.

Looking through a small section of beveled glass in a pair of french doors, I only had a partially distorted view of the room inside. Two of the executives from our company were on stage welcoming everyone to the holiday party. They spoke for a few minutes, toasted the employees in the room for their hard work throughout the year, and then explained to the crowd there would be a short movie presented before the rest of the night got underway. Not even the two of them knew what Brian and I had in store (they had asked not to review it prior to the party so they could enjoy it at the same time as everyone else #awesome #trust).

The lights in the grand ballroom went down further, the projector I had carefully set up a few hours earlier glowed brightly with the all-too-familiar frame of Windows Media Player taking up most of the screen. The screen blackened … and then sparked back to life with images of myself nervously flipping through a phony set of notes I was pretending to need for the rest of that evening’s festivities.

Below is what Brian and I had worked so hard on over the past 18 months. It was the culmination of days and days of planning, weeks of filming, and literally hundreds of hours of editing (major props to BMac’s proficiency with FCPX).

<< the video was muted by youtube due to copyright infringement – because of the audio tracks we used.  I’m looking for an alternate way to share the video without causing a similar issue – stay tuned>>

Let me add here that if I never have to hear the first minute of Uptown Funk ever again it would be too soon (#ISaidHundredsOfHoursOfEdits)

We could hear dull thumping through the doors as the music started up and … the room felt …

Silent.

Standing in the hallway Brian and I couldn’t hear a thing going on inside the room. For all the feigned nervousness we had scripted into the short film, we were now dealing with the impending reality of having an answer to the question:

What if nobody likes it?

The next 4 minutes are a complete blank in my mind. Rather than pacing around the hotel room, we basically stood on one foot or the other waiting for some kind of positive acknowledgement of our efforts. Finally, the following image came on the screen and we could hear the audience erupt into loud and genuine applause. It was at that moment Brian and I finally released the breath we didn’t realize we were holding.

theplan.png
“The Plan”

The mural above was graciously hand-drawn by a super talented co-worker of ours (Arik Petrov) and we are so fortunate to have had his support in the planning and execution of this wacky art piece. As it turns out, it was crucial to the success of the entire montage which culminated in this detailed mural being visible for only a few (extremely important) frames.

#SpoilerAlert (stop reading if you haven’t watched the video)

By the time Brian shows up in the dress we were both feeling pretty confident people were digging what we’d put together and at the very least we didn’t need to be embarrassed when we walked in.

The timing was perfect, the end of the film faded to black … Brian and I strutted confidently up to the doors of the ballroom … turned the handles … and found ourselves … locked out.

Lucky for us the goofy feel the rest of the movie had left the entire room laughing along with us only we didn’t realize how well this “gag” was going over until afterwards. Two of our colleagues tried opening the doors from the inside but they were locked from that direction as well (#firehazzard).

Thinking quickly we darted around to the back doors of the ballroom and were greeted with an amazing response. Roaring applause and a full-on standing ovation left me humbled and positively grinning from ear-to-ear. I was high on that moment for at least the next two days (OK, so maybe I’m still just a bit pumped about it :)).

Being recognized for something great is always a good thing. Being recognized for something you invested an emotional part of yourself towards completing is nothing short of incredible. The non-stop barrage of congratulatory messages, back-patting, and general kudos has been phenomenal, and at the risk of repeating myself, incredibly humbling.

With the big unveiling finally behind me, I’m glad I can consider this whole thing called ProjectSnowfall a huge success, move forward armed with the new skills and knowledge I acquired during the production, and start keeping my eyes open for my next big obsession.

Next Level Feedback – How-To

For Part 1 of this post Click Here

Alright, continuing on from last week…

We’re all on board with the fact that feedback is valuable, we all want better feedback, and we can probably do a better job of writing it than we have been, yeah? Good, then we’re on the right track!

Next up … the hard part … HOW!!

Lots of processes you read about online are great at identifying the reasons why you should do something but often don’t go into enough detail to really support the hypothesis or provide a clear way forward to assist in making any real change to the habits you currently have in place. You should KNOW this isn’t that kind of blog, right?

The fact is, upping your game from where you are to where you want to get to can be accomplished by focusing on the strategies mentioned in part 1 and following through the steps outlined below. Before we jump right into it, however, lets talk about why I think this particular process so great, and why I think it really unlocks your ability to up your game!

There are lots of books written on the ideas of managing people and businesses, or even specifically on providing valuable feedback. This list is a sample of some of the books I’ve read, most of which are pretty good with the exception of Crucial Conversations and (ironically) Thanks for the feedback. These books put a stronger emphasis on the people and practically disregard applying any one particular method over another. The idea that values and relationships come before process or rules is absolutely critical (check out Start With Why as a bonus read for a deeper look at this exact point – or watch this video for the “short short version“). The interesting thing, which may be obvious to some, is that when you look at some of the common themes presented throughout most of these books, you end up with a pretty short list:

Honesty, Trust, and Transparency

2

This feels a bit like: if people trust you, believe that you have their best interest at heart, have the capability to understand where you’re coming from, and you’re willing to put your name on those opinions (lending some additional credibility) in a forum that can be reviewed by both the receiver and their managers, then they’re more likely to take your observations and grow from them.

Hmmm … this suddenly feels a like one of those obvious information is obvious moments doesn’t it?

I subscribe to the ideas put forward in the Alan Fine and Dale Carnegie books as guides for how to engage with people and help them realize their own potential. Luckily, we can also derive a few strategies for facilitating the creation of the best possible feedback with ideas merged from those two books as well.

The first key to great feedback … is to avoid writing it at all

Wait, what?

I mean this in the most literal way possible. When you’re sitting down to write feedback don’t write anything down at first, someone else can (and probably should) do that for you.

3

One of the biggest breakthroughs I had in coaching people on this topic is when I realized just how powerful a facilitator can be. Acting as a record keeper and assistant during an initial brainstorming process. This is true brainstorming. Sit down with a facilitator you can trust (there’s that word again) and suddenly the words just start spilling out of your mouth probably faster than they can be recorded (make sure its all getting captured before moving on, however, your ideas are all gold!). It’s amazing how much of an improvement you’ll see in your own feedback when you advance from writing on your own to using a facilitator. It’s so easy to give yourself an “out” when you’re sitting there drumming your fingers on the keyboard or tapping a pen/pencil on your notepad. There is nothing stopping you from just throwing your hands up and saying “Bah I can’t think of anything!” and then finding yourself doing something else within a few minutes.

To start, we’re going to come up with a list of themes or concepts that can describe the person for whom you will be providing feedback. This is just a list words, don’t worry about the grammar, don’t worry about phrasing, don’t worry about antagonizing language, just get it all down. Pretend as though you were posed the following question:

Give me the first set of words that come to your mind when you think of … <Mr. Black>

Positive things, negative, it doesn’t matter. Just get all the descriptors you can think of out of your head and into the hands of your facilitator. The idea here is to get enough points down to be able to describe the person in 20 words or so.

For example, here’s a list:

  • Project Management Skills
  • Organization / Organized
  • Leader / Leadership
  • Task Completion
  • Communication
  • Time Management

These concepts aren’t associated to things they excel at or need to improve on. Are they a fantastic Project Manager, or do they need all the help they can get? Are their communication skill excellent, or lacking? We’re not worried about any context, stories, or extra words at this point. When the list is done, you can move on to step two.

Context is key

We talked about this a bunch in the last post. Without context, the receiver won’t have any clue what it is you’re talking about. We need to make sure that isn’t the case. Now we mentioned the first step was a good brain storming session with a facilitator, and one of the keys there is that the facilitator doesn’t provide any opinions on the results. Next up … context!

The faciliator’s job is to ensure the completeness of the information provided. This is a definitely a skill that requires practice, but asking questions that demand answers will definitely help to flesh out the categories noted in our previous step. Leading with questions like:

“How so”?

“In what way could they be [better / improved / more like ____ / etc.] (this counts for both areas for growth as well as strengths)

“Compared to the [best / worst] person in the same / similar role how do they compare at ____”?

Leading (or being led) through this exercise should result in a conversation where your feelings about the individual are put forward in a way that feels natural and un-hindered by the constraints of typing, sentence structure, or even tact. The idea here isn’t to write your masterpiece, its to make sure that when you do sit down to write it everything you need is already there.

Some of the most valuable things to focus on when providing this additional context are:

  • Why the category you’re discussing matters (to you).
  • Managing the perception people have as it relates to the category at hand
  • How you feel they could improve in the future
  • Frequency of their successes or failures (as a result of the trait)

Remember, the goal here is growth … you want to make sure you’re truly celebrating the individual’s successes as well as assisting them in overcoming their weaknesses (perceived or otherwise).

Give me an example

We have now created for ourselves a list of categories and provided an explanation as to why those categories are relevant (to you). You know what really pushes your feedback right to the peak?

Examples

Nothing says …

I care enough about your continued growth that I can literally cite moments, meetings, deliverables, or conversations in which you really [excelled/failed] while working with me

…like an example of when / why / where / how / with whom something happened.

It proves you were paying attention and valuing the contributions of the individual. Remember we’re being timely with our submissions here – so the success/failure (however small) recently happened. It also acts as an additional support to the contextually relevant stuff you provided in step two!

Clean up after yourself would ya?

When you’ve finished all the work leading up to now, you’re just about ready to put this thing out there. Last order of business is, at the same time, the easiest as well as the most important. Now is when you need to go through all the content you have, add in your own flavor, and start to massage the language (not the message) to up the likelihood that the receiver believes that you believe in their growth and will respond positively to your feedback.

It’s really crucial to practice, practice, practice till you get better at this last step. Forget what you know about the sandwich method, everyone who’s been on the receiving end of it knows that its not genuine anyway (especially if you can’t think of a good top or bottom “bun”). Forget about softening the blow; I’m not suggesting you behave rudely or degrading to anyone. In fact, quite the opposite. What we’re looking for here it a genuine, truthful, and honest write up that recognizes someone’s strengths, challenges their areas for growth, and proves to them that you care enough to spend some time thinking about their abilities and potential for even greater successes.4

I have been told that his approach is a complete game-changer when it comes to writing feedback. It’s been nothing but a huge success working with my clients and co-workers leveraging this method. It’s so incredible and empowering to see someone go from frustrated to immensely proud after working through a particularity challenging write up. Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t some degree of difficulty in working with this. Following the steps is easy enough with a facilitator, learning to facilitate is a bit more challenging (but as I said above, hugely rewarding).

Shoot me an email if you get a chance to try this method in either role, or leave a comment if you’ve previously tried it and can vouch for its effectiveness!

Happy writing!

Bad Habits

Four Bad Email Habits We Need to Break

One of the benefits of working for Online is that every single Onliner is empowered and encouraged to generate ideas, and/or affect positive change in our organization wherever and whenever they feel inspired to do so. One of the things I’ve been trying to impact is around this whole [air quote]email[end air quote] thing. As a result, I’ve been doing this inbox zero training thing for a while now internally (and for clients), but it’s been an absolute rush to have the opportunity to also do it in a more public / recognized way.

Having eaten, breathed, and slept all kinds of email problems and questions for the last little while has given me a pretty decent perspective on some of the biggest problems plaguing most people. It’s also given me a decent perspective into some of the things we inflict upon ourselves as a result of our own bad habits! Writing my last post got me thinking  back over the years about some these habits that are really entrenched in the business / tech world. It’s funny, you’d think for as nerdy as most of us are these days you’d think we’d have a better grip on some of the tools we use with on a daily basis. When it comes to email, it feels even more ridiculous considering we use it as frequently as hourly or more. In order to do my (very small) part to assist in breaking some of our bad email habits, let’s talk about the few top contenders for worst email faux-pas!

Four

To != CC

We all let ourselves slide now and again when it comes to email etiquette, but we gotta reel it back in when it comes to abusing the To and CC fields in our editor of choice.  How often do we all get emails that are directly asking us a question or requesting a response, but our names are squarely placed in the CC field? How many times have people emailed you back saying… “Hey, why didn’t you respond to my message?” when you weren’t included in the To line at all? Have you ever wondered who was supposed to take point on a particular action because all the recipients were put in the To field?We have to get back on the wagon when it comes to indicating who the message is TO, and who is simply being copied (CC’d – Carbon Copy’d).

Calendar Responses … Send ’em

Every time I’m booking a room or ordering food I have that moment where I think to myself:

Aaron, you’re ordering food, but can you really count on the number of people coming that responded to the invite?

After many instances of trial and error I’ve learned the answer is unequivocally “No, I can’t”, but I still hold on to the foolish belief that I should be able to! So lets all just agree that from now on we will all accept meetings and “send a response NOW” when prompted to do so from our mail client of choice. Accepting the meeting and failing to do so will result in the organizer receiving NO indication of whether or not you’re coming. If you’re using iCal or Outlook or anything else, take a second and make sure that replies are turned on right now… you might just save someone a headache or two down the road.

One at a Time … Please!

So often, there are times when I get a message from someone and they’ll say something like:

Aaron, can you please check problem a, b, or c?
Also, how was your weekend? Mine was great! I had a blast doing yadda yadda yadda

So when I send back my reply, do I include my weekend plans in the email first? Last? What happens when I go on and on about my amazing (or not so amazing) weekend and my response to the A, B, C question gets lost in the shuffle? Keep It Simple Stupid has never been more important than right here; when responding to messages like this put each of your answers in a separate email.

Save Your Questions for the End

We all work on projects of varying complexity. Sometimes we can describe the whole thing in a 1-pager. Sometimes we’re talking about multi-hundred-page documents containing use cases, business workflows, process diagrams, etc. Regardless of the problem at hand, leverage this technique to make sure your recipients are following your train of thought all the way through to the end (which really should be where your point resides, no?).

When you’re describing something, looking for information, requesting confirmation, or need some kind of validation, provide your context in the body of the email and then place all your questions at the bottom. There is nothing more challenging (to me) than having to sift through a (sometimes non-HTML / un-formatted) wall of text to try and extract the questions being asked of me by the sender. Placing your questions at the end lets the reader focus on what your saying until you’ve provided enough relevant context. Armed with a (presumably) better understanding of your situation, they can then read through your itemized set of questions or bullets and provide a clear response to each of them. This also keeps the Q&A in a tight little package at the bottom of your email that’s easier to extract at a later time if ever you think its necessary (for forwards, reports, documentation, etc.)

Final Thoughts

Focusing on changing any one of these is going to be a win for you in terms of keeping your communications clear, concise, and in some cases, respectful (I’m looking at you unsent Calendar Invites). David Allen’s team has a great article up here on their email best practices (I recommend checking it out). If you don’t know who David Allen is, he wrote this little ditty a while ago (a few people have read it … and when I say a few … I mean literally millions). Lastly, if you’re interested in reading more about email strategies in general, check out this Harvard Business Review article from last week (featuring IB0 – of course :)). Lastly, thanks to Elena from Cross Border Communications for sharing the link w/ me.

Let me know what email habits you have tried to break and can’t or which ones get you most heated in the comments below.

You tweetin’ at me?

So, anyone that spends more than a few days working or hanging out with me is eventually going to hear about Inbox Zero (IB0). It’s something that I talk a lot about, but this whole [massive double quote]IB0[end massive double quote] literally unlocked a ton of hidden potential (for me) so I can’t help it. Going from someone who had a lot of good intentions to someone who was able to tackle nearly any initiative thrown at him was not something that happened by accident. This transformation is the primary reason I’m so passionate about my current process and why I feel it solves so many different problems in one fell swoop.

When I say passionate what I actually mean is… I’m a little bit obsessed with it. 

Whether it’s organization, task management, scheduling, reminders, or any other number of business related tasks, you go from exerting a huge amount of mental energy on the minutia daily activity (or dealing with the never-ending barrage of emails) to automating those parts of your life and investing more time in doing the things you love.Or, as Merlin Mann initially described his process:

It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.

That ‘zero’, It’s not how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox, especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

– Merlin Mann

Now I’ve never claimed to be an expert on anything social, so when I was pointed at a particular tweet from a user (@DerailleurAgile) who said: 

To those chasing “Inbox Zero” – y’all are aware you’re adapting your behaviours toward a piece of software, right?

or even

By being concerned with having a software interface show zero items in it. The very act of being concerned is an adapted behaviour

I felt compelled to point out how wrong … how thoroughly and deeply he misunderstood the whole POINT!!
– I’ve since been corrected that probably wasn’t the way to go.

Adapting to software? GASP!!
Concern over the quantity (instead of the location) of emails?!? SCOFF!!
Why, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do!?

So with that quote as inspiration, lets talk a little about why IB0 doesn’t need special tools or software, why the specific set of folders I’ve been working with, and about understanding how a (very) small shift in behavior (towards a process not software, natch) can unlock your potential too:

Requires no tools or special software

Every time I’ve introduced someone to Inbox Zero I’ve opened with this fact. and I do that, because it’s true. I’ve worked in GMail, Spark, Inbox, Mailbox, Outlook, OWA, and a bajillion other IMAP clients and the best thing about my current approach is no special software required. You just:

  1. Setup some (good) folders
  2. Arm yourself with some knowledge
  3. Baseline your existing inbox
  4. Profit (or succeed)

Search

I’ve gone on (and on, and on, and on …) about how the folders I’ve been working with are really the only ones you need due to a few main factors, one of them being just how damn good search is in nearly every client or service. With search being considered a solved problem (especially if you’re using a Google or Microsoft hosted email provider) You could technically have all your items in one folder and just look for stuff as you needed it. That might work for some, but it would completely annihilate another benefit … visibility.

Visibility

Here’s a few things to think about: Not sure if you’ve got time to do one more thing today / this week? Wondering where that proposal Angie was supposed to get back to you is? Is it a good time to book some Vacation? If you can’t answer those questions within a second or two then straight up, you’re doing it wrong. Who the heck has time to worry about your own capacity planning, work load, future dated tasks, or even things other people are supposed to do for you? I definitely don’t, or at least I choose not to. By embracing IB0 I also don’t have to. I get an at-a-glace view of my tasks:

  • due today
  • due this week
  • due from other people (or due further out from me)

What more could I really want? Well ok … we can give you more, how about …

Accessibility

If you knew that something you were already doing 10 or more times a day could leapfrog your productivity to the next level, would you do it? Hellz yeah you would! Notice we aren’t talking about adjusting your behavior to software here, we’re talking about an existing behavior in whatever software you choose no matter the platform or client. *cough* Ok sorry.

Implementing a process-based IB0 strategy basically jacks you to in to your own internal scheduling and workflow data center connected over a hard line. It immediately integrates with your existing calendar or client and shows you a unified and straight forward view of what’s what no matter where you look at it.

Got your phone? Swipe between your folders!

Got your PC / Mac? No problem, just open your folder list in your mail client!

Working on someone else’s machine (i.e. you haven’t configured anything there)? No problem, log into your IMAP account and you’ve got the same unified view into your own workflow. Its incredibly freeing not needing to think about what’s on your plate or what you need to accomplish today / in the near future. It’s … it’s actually amazing that anyone does email any other way … isn’t it?

Alright, I’m getting off the soap box … I’ll throw a few basic mail strategies at you next time and then we’ll move on to something else.