Does anyone else in a formal leadership position feel a little overwhelmed these days by the torrents of communication / information, time wasting meetings, and increased uncertainty for decision making? I certainly do. It can be paralyzing if you don’t rise above it. Technology was supposed to make life easier, wasn’t it? Unfortunately, our tools which are designed to improve our work flow often have the opposite effect.
Take email for instance, it can replace a lot of paper-based writing like memos, reports, and letters, and help with giving direction, sharing information, etc. But, so many people misuse or overuse it. You have probably crafted elegant emails with say three or four questions and then find that people respond to only one or two, or worse none or completely different questions. This probably happened (I can’t remember) in the old days of paper memos but the speed of communication then was in days or weeks, not seconds. Poor email use results in email storms with back and forth clarifying, defending, re-communicating, etc. Also, why is that we sometimes feel compelled to respond to an email as soon as it arrives? Worse yet, it’s after hours and one simple email before heading to bed might generate a half dozen back and forth within minutes, when it could easily wait until the morning.
Just to complicate things, we now have texting, tweeting, Facebooking, Blogging, LinkedIning, Youtubing, Preziing, Slidesharing, Diigoing, Google Plusing, Pinteresting, and countless other communicating means where we can provide feedback and interact. Technology, while it adds new channels and dimensions to our ability to share, communicate, and coordinate, it also makes life rather complicated and exhausting.
I have been working with District staff to reimagine our communications methods in digital ways. As we moved from paper based methods to digital, we often carried across the old methods and practices into the new tools. I believe it’s important to redesign the formats, purposes, and practices in the context of new tools: do new things in new ways. For example, why would we continue to create “heavy” memos in a Word document with the rather large routing information used on multi-part paper memos and email that as an attachment to share information? Why would we continue to ask people to print, sign, and mail something back without questioning whether there is a better way or if signing is even necessary? There are better ways and tools for these tasks and leaders need to be aware and willing to help their people make the shift.
Changing channels a bit, what about business meetings? Aren’t they generally a treat hey!? Actually a well designed and run meeting is a treat (advice here). I’ve experience amazing meetings (I know sounds oxymoronic). I have experienced meetings designed by gifted facilitators. But, more often it’s the other kind I get to “enjoy”. Full disclosure, I’ve run poorly designed meetings and too many of them. I used to pull my team (about 35 people) together every school month for an all staff meeting. It was hard to create meaningful experiences for us and I think too often it was a waste of all of our time. I did the math: 35 x $35/h x 2.5 hours + 2 more hours for either end (travel, socializing), call it 5 hours + lunch = $6425 x 10 meeting to get to $64,250 / year!!! I’m embarrassed to disclose this actually. One of my managers pressed me to reduce to quarterly meetings which has been far more manageable, useful, and economically appropriate. We have to find better ways to share information and engage our people, using effective technology and making face time more effective. I think we can effectively use email, document collaboration, wikis, discussion boards, and surveys to accomplish a lot of what we do in meetings now. Then our meetings could be “flipped”. When we do meet face-to-face, we could use cooperative learning group techniques or designs from Bruce Wellman’s Groups at Work to have our people deeply engaged in social learning and work. I tried this all last year with my quarterly staff meetings with a focus on the future and work design (eg: Considering the Future and Personal Vision to the Future). I shared out information, readings (blog posts, online articles, presentations, business updates) etc. in advance for them to prepare. I would say I had mixed results. My staff weren’t used to working that hard in meetings and I think I actually exhausted them! Also, I found that some people just couldn’t work well this way. Some people ate it up, others were disengaged and frustrated. I think I need to figure out how to design differentiated cooperative work meetings to accommodate different working and learning styles.
Uncertainty: The lack of certainty, A state of having limited knowledge where it is impossible to exactly describe the existing state, a future outcome, or more than one possible outcome (WikiPedia Oct 6, 2012)
Anyone feel uncertainty is on the rampage? I certainly do. Decision making used to be easier. The pace of change, the number of unknowns about the future, the variables that are co-dependent, etc. make our jobs as leaders uncomfortable and very challenging. We can survey the “market”, read the research, talk to colleagues and still miss big on important decisions. How do you predict the effect of new tools that aren’t yet invented? Look at how quickly tablets like the iPad have replaced a lot of what we needed a laptop for. It was only a few years ago that the laptop took the world stage by storm, now some people are seriously questioning the need. Sidebar… many leaders have got their iPads and many don’t use them beyond email, they still use their binders, notepads, and other traditional tools. We need to get better at purposefully acquiring new tools and shifting our work practices accordingly.
In a school setting, decision making about technology choices are very difficult given the (very limited) funding context. We can not afford to miss trends or head in a direction that is a dead end a few years later. I do think that reading, surveying, networking, listening, observing are still our best tools currently for trying to reduce the uncertainty. But we need to add patience to this as we’re often pressured to make snap decisions and the implications of not being careful can be significant. For example, the pressure to use cloud services such as DropBox, Google Drive/Docs, Edmodo, iCloud, or endless others has increased dramatically in school systems. These are fabulous tools that do support our learning agenda but, we have to follow good process, adhere to relevant laws, etc. How does an organization manage and leverage disparate information sources, control their risks, etc. when they lose control of the tools? Often those who want these tools don’t understand the requirements or restrictions, or don’t care. As leaders we need be wise, stand strong, do the right thing, communicate well, be patient but don’t procrastinate, and ensure good process is in place.
As leaders I believe we need to question everything in this rapidly changing world. We need to Love Learning, embrace the unknown, unlearn old ways, and thoughtfully, purposefully, and bravely walk our way into the future while preparing and carefully bringing our organizations along with us.