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)