Friday, April 29, 2016

Email and spam

Email is always a difficult balance for me. Email provides a method for communicating issues and needs, and for collaborating on projects and work efforts.

But email can also be a distraction. I get a lot of emails, and I rely on my inbox to keep me up-to-date on the goings-on at work. When I get off-topic emails, or spam, I look for ways to get rid of it.

I used to try to do the "right" thing and redirect these vendor solicitation emails to the right person in my organization, or email the vendor back to point them in the right direction. I figured I was doing myself a favor by letting vendors know that I wasn't the right person, so they could be more effective in their marketing.

But I eventually realized that I'm just making the problem worse for myself. I'm encouraging these vendors to send me "blind" emails to reach out to me on random topics, with the hope that I'll buy something. And when I reply, my standard email footer includes my contact information, so eventually these vendors start "cold calling" my phone. Now I have two problems: email I don't want, and phone calls I don't want.

And I've decided to be very judicious in marking email as spam. My rule is simple: if a message is a vendor "cold call" email, and I didn't ask for it, the message is spam. This rule has saved me so much time.

There's a neat feature in most email systems to mark a message as spam. Over time, your email system learns from you, and gets better at categorizing emails as spam and moving them out of your primary inbox so you can stay focused on your work—and deal with the spam at a later time. Or in my case, to delete at a later time.

Don't let email become a burden. Give yourself permission to delete the emails you don't need, and to take yourself off mailing lists you don't participate in. Let your email system mark messages as spam so they don't clutter your inbox.
photo: Kim Love/Flickr (cc by-sa)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Avoiding decision fatigue and preserving creative energy

Here's something you may not know about me: Every weekend, as I do laundry, I "pre-load" my closet: I hang my shirts with the suits I'm going to wear that week, in order by day.

I do this because I learned that making these decisions in advance helps me to avoid decision fatigue. I'm involved in a lot of decisions every day, and the last decision I want to spend any time on is "what am I going to wear to work?" So I make that decision in advance. Every morning, I just grab the next shirt and suit on the rack, and put it on.

I'm not the only person to simplify my wardrobe for this reason. President Barack Obama says he wears pretty much the same two suits, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously wore only a black mock turtleneck and jeans, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does the same with his grey hoodie and jeans.

It helps that all of my suits are variations of "charcoal grey" so pretty much everything I have goes with everything else. My concessions to avoid monotony include wearing a different tie and cufflinks to work. But do I really want to make that creative decision in the morning—even a small creative decision? I want to preserve my creative energy for the things that matter.

So that's why over the weekend, I spend a little time as I hang each clean shirt to put in the right set of cufflinks and hang an appropriately matching tie on the hanger. Do I have a board meeting this week? I'll queue up a white shirt and red tie for that day. Do I have a governance meeting coming up? I'll make sure to put a blue tie and appropriate shirt into the rotation.

For each day, I also match a set of cufflinks suitable for the meetings I'll have. If I have meetings with the board or the County Manager, I'll choose something with a classic and professional look. No meetings? I'll add some whimsical cufflinks, like the ones that light up or the ones with little penguins.

By "pre-loading" my closet for the week, and by making these "little decisions" in advance, I find I can direct my energy to the important decisions. As I "gear up" for my workday each morning, I maintain my work focus on the things I need to get done. I don't have to "change gears" to make a decision about this or that tie, these or those cufflinks. I just reach for the next shirt and suit in the closet, put them on, and go to work.

I realize this may be something of an extreme. You don't have to go this far. You might simply pair up shirts and pants for the week, or define a personal "uniform" so you can grab anything of that type from your closet. If you're like me, you may find you preserve your creative energy for making the larger decisions later in the day. Avoid making the little decisions that, though small, do wear away at decision fatigue.
photo: Matthew Yohe/Wikimedia (cc-by)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Why executives use Powerpoint

I sometime repeat this joke, stolen from a friend of mine:
What's the difference between an introvert and an extrovert? The introvert thinks before he speaks.

(I pause, and let the audience "get" it. They assume the extrovert thinks afterwards. But that's not true, I say. The extrovert thinks as she speaks.)
I'm just over three months into my new CIO role, and I've noticed something interesting about how I work. I rarely have time to write documents anymore.

When I worked as the campus CIO in higher ed, we were a small campus, and I had a small IT team. So it wasn't very difficult to carve out time from my day to write a strategy document, or a framing document, or an organizational document. I wrote a lot of documents as campus CIO.

In my new CIO role, I'm in a much larger organization. I'm always meeting with people. That in-person contact is very important to me; I like to build relationships with those I work with, as a way to get things done. When I'm not in a one-on-one meeting, I'm usually in a committee meeting or a steering committee meeting or a governance meeting. These are important meetings too; they are the mechanics of projects.

But the side-effect of all those meetings is that I rarely have time to write documents. So instead of writing documents, I prepare a Powerpoint slide deck, and I speak to those issues when I'm making my presentation.

That's when I realized why so many executives rely on Powerpoint. If you're like me, and you're short on time but you can compose well while speaking, it takes less time to create a few Powerpoint slides and talk about your topic than it does to write a document and edit it.

So if you're at the contributor level or manager level and you wonder why the executives always seem to be using Powerpoint, that might be the reason.

But even though I use Powerpoint more frequently now, I always follow my own advice about presentations:

If you don't have to use Powerpoint, don't use Powerpoint.
Not all presentations require slides. Sometimes, you only need to reference something that already exists. In these cases, you may not even need Powerpoint. Don't use Powerpoint as a crutch. Because if you can avoid using Powerpoint, you should.
Think about the questions you can ask your audience to help them get down the road.
What questions will engage your audience, to start them thinking more deeply about the topic? What will "hook" them?
Leverage polling or some other technique to disarm the audience.
In my meetings, I have used affinity exercises and "dot" voting to great effect. Anonymous polling allows the group to quickly reach a consensus, and they are more likely to ask follow up questions.
Don't make Powerpoint the star of the show.
If you must use Powerpoint, at least don't make your slides distracting, or you risk losing your audience. Focus on your content. Use slides that are visual, not wordy. Leave room to talk around the bullet points.
Tell a story.
The best presentations don't rely on slides; they leverage a "story" to engage the audience. A great speaker doesn't need much in the way of slides or materials to convey a message. Instead, find ways to tell a story around your presentation. Use examples drawn from real life to make your presentation more concrete.
image: Wikimedia/Onlysee (cc by-sa)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The right to delete your own data

After I left higher ed in December to work in government, I suddenly became aware of all my online accounts that were tied to my University email address. While I am an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, so my email won't go away until I stop using it, I realized I should delete some of my accounts that only relate to working in higher ed.

So I have been going through my list of accounts, every week logging into the old account and finding the "Delete my account" function. I'm pleased to report that most websites allow you to remove your own account when you are done using it. Even if there isn't a self-service method to delete your account, most websites will remove your account upon request if you ask via their "Contact Us" form.

However, not all websites let you leave their network, or even to delete your account data. It's like an online Hotel California where "You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave."

It's disturbing to me that some websites make it impossible to remove my account. While I can understand that some systems are just not set up to accommodate deleted accounts (Wikia tracks edits by account, for example) at least most websites don't actually store personal information.

But some websites do keep personal information about you, and they don't let you delete your account or remove (or edit) your own personal data after it's in the system. This should be a large concern for anyone these days. Data breaches are (unfortunately) too common.

Data breaches have become such an issue that you can find other websites such as Have I Been Pwned? to discover if you have an account that has been compromised in a data breach. Enter your email address (like you'd use to login to a website) and haveibeenpwned will tell you when and where your data was accessed by hackers.

Do you want your personal data out there if that website is breached? If you can delete your own account when you stop using it, then you can minimize your risk if the website is attacked. If you can't delete your own data, you can only hope the website doesn't get breached.

The website that's causing me the biggest headache is Educational Testing Service (ETS), the people who run the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) when you apply to graduate school. They also manage other exams. I took the GRE in late 2011 before I entered my Master's program in Spring 2012. As far as I know, I haven't accessed my account since then—until now, anyway. After finding no option to remove my own account, I contacted ETS last week (March 2016) to request they delete my account for me. I received this reply:
Thanks for your message! Unfortunately the MY GRE Account can not be deleted. Please note, it will drop out of the system as long as there is no access with the account.
It's unsettling to have an account out there that I cannot remove. Especially one like ETS, which by its nature needs to know several personally identifying details about you so they can verify your identity for any exams you take through them. If the ETS website is ever hacked, my personal information is out there. As will be thousands of other users who have taken the GRE or other exams.

We need to have the right to delete your own data. If it's your data, you should have the right to have it removed from a website's systems after you stop using their service.

I know some this is technically impossible, for some websites and for specific types of data. For example, Facebook stores some of your data (such as photos) on BluRay discs. And BluRay is a write-only medium. But there's a middle ground, a best-case scenario. Sure, maybe Facebook can't delete the data on the BluRays, but if I stop using their service, they should be able to delete my account and all my metadata that refers to data on BluRay.

I consider the right to delete your own data an emerging issue. The right to delete your online accounts reduces our risks to data breaches.

I also see this benefiting future generations. When I was growing up, the Internet didn't exist. We didn't have Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or the plethora of social media websites we enjoys today. When we took a photo of ourselves doing something stupid (as all teens do) the record of that act didn't proliferate. The only photos might get tossed out, and the negatives eventually lost. By the time we got our first jobs, employers couldn't see the embarrassing things we did in our wonder years of middle school, high school, and college.

But today's generation takes photos of everything they do. And they post those photos online. And if you cannot delete your own account, those photos continue to be available for others to see.

We need the right to manage and protect our personal information. We need the right to delete our own data when we stop using a website.

I'm planning to reach out to US Senator Franken (my Senator) on this issue. I think it's something worth fighting for. I hope you'll support me!
If you live in Minnesota, please contact Senator Franken's office (phone or email) and ask him to support the right to delete your own data. You can also tweet to him via @alfranken.

If you live elsewhere, I encourage you to reach out to your own Senator and ask that they support the right to delete your own data. Feel free to use the reasons I've shared here.
image: Sammynetbook (cc-by)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy bunny day!

Just wanted to wish you all a happy bunny day! Here's a nice Easter egg for you:
At my house, we're celebrating with a nice dinner tonight, and butter pats shaped like Han Solo in carbonite. Because that's how we roll.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Running a 30 minute meeting

How many meetings seem to just drag on forever? I can't tell you how many meetings I've attended that could have just been an email. Please just send me your updates. Only get us together if it requires discussion towards a decision.

The art of a good meeting is keeping everything on topic, with a productive discussion. It's all about maintaining focus. And that's the point of this February article from, about six steps to running the perfect 30 minute meeting. Although I would condense this list down to five elements, combining their "referee" item with their "remember why you're there" item.

Here's my simplified list, based on the article:

1. Test any technology items beforehand
Are you planning to use a smartboard in your meeting? Or are you going to bring a laptop to connect to the projector? I recommend you test the setup well before the meeting to make sure you know how to use it, and to ensure that you can leverage it in the meeting the way you hope to. Your meeting time shouldn't be spent debugging the technology, or getting your wireless connection to work in an unfamiliar space.
2. Limit the meeting to just those who need to be there
Start with this question: What is your meeting topic? Based on that, take a careful look at the attendee list. Who really needs to be there, and who are you inviting just to keep them in the loop? You aren't doing anyone any favors by burning their time in a meeting. Consider trimming the invite list to just those people who have a stake in the discussion and decision. Everyone else can get an email afterwards to let them know of the outcome.
3. Be clear on meeting outcomes
What is the purpose of the meeting? Do you want to build understanding around a difficult topic? Or are you looking for a decision at the end of a discussion? When building your agenda, I find it helps to clearly state the intended outcome of each topic.
4. Avoid presentations
The first rule of using Powerpoint is don't use Powerpoint. If you must use Powerpoint, at least don't make your slides distracting, or you risk losing your audience. You may one day need to give a presentation for others. Remember the general rules to give a truly outstanding presentation: Avoid distractions. Use slides that are visual, not wordy. Share your enthusiasm. Leave room to talk around the bullet points.
5. Keep the topics moving along
As the convener of the meeting, it's your job to keep the meeting focused on the agenda topics. Be cautious if the meeting discussion goes astray, exploring tangents to topics, then tangents to those tangents. If you aren't careful, a meeting can quickly devolve to a discussion about esoteric topics. It's okay to explore an issue to move depth, but be ready to pull back the discussion to the topic at hand. Side topics can wait for another day, taken "off line," or perhaps shared as an email update.
image: PortoBay Hotels & Resorts/Flickr (cc-by)

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Facebook challenge

A few years ago, I realized I spent too much time on Facebook. At work, I was always opening Facebook to share some little thing I was doing, or to see what others had written in the last hour or so. Facebook began to drive my day, rather than the other way around.

I intended to use Facebook as a way to stay connected with friends, especially those who I don't see all the time. Instead, I found Facebook generated too much noise. And in return, I created too much babble of my own.

So I created my own Facebook challenge: only post to Facebook once a day. It is an interesting limitation. Is this article I want to share really important enough to make my one-a-day quota? Is this cute photo really worth it? Or the funny video? Every time I think about sharing an item to Facebook, I consider if this really rises to my one-a-day self-limit.

My cat Fanir (orange) and Zoƫ (grey). I still share cat photos on Facebook, but now I do so less often.

Since taking on this challenge, I have become more thoughtful of what I share on social media. Looking back on my Facebook timeline, I don't post inane items, and rarely do I write about the news of the day. Instead, I choose to share significant life events, accomplishments, and other things that are important to me.

My other cat Nyssa. Even though she is very cute, I don't post photos of her on Facebook all the time.

I also noticed another, more subtle change in my social media behavior. While I post only one item a day (sometimes two updates, if it's a very interesting day) I still comment on others' posts. But since taking on the one-a-day quota for myself, I find my comments on my friends posts have become more mindful. I reflect on what they share with me, and I try to comment positively and constructively on their life events. But when my Facebook usage was "me posting about me," I think I rarely did this.

Today, I extend this Facebook challenge to you. Think about what you share to social media, and try to limit your Facebook posts to one or two items a day. Posting a photo? That's one item. Sharing a news article? That's one item. Writing about a life event? That's one item. Find that one item that you think merits your one-a-day limitation, and avoid the senseless noise that most people broadcast on their Facebook walls.