Category Archives: People

I wish I’d thought of that…

Today when I was asked a question about organizational change I found myself repeating a story from a few years ago. There’s a lesson in it for all of us who make our living with ideas. The lesson is this. As a change agent, you are constantly making a choice. Take credit. Or make a difference.

The trick is that many people don’t know that this is a choice they have to make. Witness the following real story:

A consultant in my practice was reporting back to me on a big meeting he’d had with senior execs. He was very proud to have the CEO there.

“They loved us. I can’t count how many times I heard the consultant’s plan is great. ”

My response. “We are dead. We are soooooo dead.”

The consultant was dismayed. There was always a little bit of tension between us. He’d wanted my job. I got it instead. That much is fact.

But personal relationships are not about facts. They are about perception. I know his perception was that I was more critical of his work than I should be. Like so many times when we attribute motives to people, he was simply wrong. I wasn’t trying to undermine his “victory”. We really were in trouble.

Sometimes a question is the best way to explain. “When they say the consultant’s plan who is accountable for delivering that plan?

His answer was quick, “Their team has to deliver. We’ve done our job.”

My reply was also quick. “So how can they be accountable if it’s our plan?”

Silence.

By the way. I took no joy in it, but I was right. Despite all the great words, that project did not move forward. Somewhere in a backroom, a casual conversation, or just in the general stuff that happens it got buried, lost, derailed or just forgotten. We lost a big potential sale and a lot of revenue.

It was our plan. It had no champion. No-one at that company would be willing to put it forward, to believe in it and to make sure it was not forgotten.

If only someone on the client’s team had taken ownership. But why should they? It already had an owner. It was the consultant’s idea. In fact, if they had tried to take ownership they would have looked like they were taking credit for someone else’s idea. Admittedly, for some — that’s not a problem. But there’s another corporate issue. Why take the risk? No new idea is without risk. So let the consultant float the trial balloon and see if it goes anywhere. If it does, there’s lots of time to get on board.

In fact, I have often proposed that this is a great use for consultants. We can raise subjects that nobody else will touch. We are — or should be — regarded as intelligent and objective. Some of these ideas are true game changers for the companies we serve. At those times we provide a very useful service. We help make lasting and measurable change.

As I pondered this consultant’s problem, wondering why he didn’t get it, a light went on for me. It was something I knew internally, but had never really articulated fully. In the art of being a consultant, you have to have wisdom to know when – and when not to take on initial ownership of an idea. That is, if your real goal is to make change.

That’s where I had to take my own medicine. Instead of worrying about this other consultant’s problem, what I should be asking myself is, what can I learn from this. You cannot change others if you can’t change yourself.

Here’s my reflection. I don’t know why everyone gets into consulting. I can only tell my story and see if it resonates. I like to help people, I like to solve problems and — but deep in my heart, I’m still a bit of an entertainer. My friend Ian Tamblyn (one of Canada’s great songwriters and a great entertainer) captures this so well in his song, Campfire Light. “I like to sing, I love to dance, I will play the fool if I have the chance…”

The danger for me is that I do like to the be the one who comes up with a great line, a joke — or an idea. I like to win debates. And I like recognition for my work. It’s a part of what drives me to be a consultant and facilitator. I have to say it is also a factor in any successes I’ve had. I’ve been able to get my ideas across because I present well and I can grab an audience.

But I’m also driven by the need to make real change. Life is precious. You spend a lot of that time working. I can’t simply sell that much of my life for money. What I do has to have purpose.

What I didn’t really realize is that sometimes I might have to choose between the two.

In these little moments when life sends you a message, you have to decide what you are going to do. I decided that it was time to wrestle with my ego. I wanted results more than I wanted the applause.

So I started to try to let others come up with the great ideas. They need to discover the answer for themselves. And like any major change of unconscious behaviour, I embarked on a long journey of becoming aware of a multitude of tiny things and changing them — one by one.

I’m still on the journey. But believe it or not, I’m a lot further than I was when I had this conversation with the other consultant. I’ve changed a lot about how I tackled problems. I worry less and less about presentation to the audience and more and more about engagement. I get groups on their feet. I get them doing things. I get them thinking. I listen more. I take more chances.

It’s not easy. Especially when I know the answer. And often I do — before the group does. Don’t get me wrong, this is not ego. As my partner Darrel Berry says, “we’re not smarter (than our clients) we just do this every day.” To quote another famous musician, Brownee McGee, “If you do something for 30 years and you don’t get good at it, shame on you!”

So I sit there, looking externally calm (I hope) while inside me, the “keener” kid from grade 6 shakes his arm frantically, trying to get the teacher to see him. Oh! Oh! I have the answer! When that seizes me, I try to take a deep breath and restore my patience. I wait for calm. I bite my tongue. I wait for someone else to discover the answer.

If they don’t, I realize its my challenge as a facilitator to try to create the conditions that will help them discover it. I do everything short of discovering it for them. They have to do that.

the bottom line is this. Aristotle said “the understanding changes nothing.” As someone who values logic, that phrase has troubled me for years. I think I finally understand. Even if you logically understand the issues, it does not give you the inspiration and the drive to make real change. Real change involves risk and sometimes sacrifice. And before people are going to go on that journey, they need to engage on a visceral level. They don’t need a fact handed to them, they need a realization from within them. They need to come to an insight – that flash, that aha! moment. And from that insight, they need another step. They need to take ownership of the problem.

If they discover the solution, they’ll own it. If they own it, they’ll be driven to solve it. If they solve it successfully, they’ll learn to be successful. It’s a virtuous circle.

If the consultant takes ownership, or solves it — it breaks the circle. They learn. But it’s a different lesson.

Not as easy as it sounds. But every time I start to doubt this, or if I get lazy, or if my ego gets in the way, I replay that story of me and the consultant. I think of how different it would have been if instead of it being the consultant’s plan or report, if we had one champion among the client’s own employees — coached by us — but having their own solution. If they had made the case. If they had offered to be accountable for the results — what would have been different at that meeting?

If.

I’ve tried to build this into everything I do. Everything is about the client and their team — learning, experiencing and engaging with that solution.

Was it Harry Truman who said that great things are possible if you don’t worry about who gets the credit? I wish I’d thought of that!

On second thought…

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Filed under Organization, People, Process, Strategy

Excuse my interuption? Actually – I’d rather not.

“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.”

I wish I’d said that. I forget who did. But it knocked me for a loop. Because it is so true.

The speaker at the time was making a point about how we take one concept and use it as a metaphor to explore another new concept. We do this all the time. Because it works. Especially when we are talking about things that are unfamiliar to us. Or if we want to see something we already know in a new way.

We are working on new deal that merges several companies. We use the “marriage” metaphor a lot. It helps us a lot. Or you’ll hear the line “fences make good neighbours” — you get my drift. We’d be lost without metaphors.

Where metaphors become dangerous is where we start to think of them beyond their ability to illustrate. We confuse the two. A business partnership is LIKE a marriage in many ways. It is NOT a marriage. I have had many successful and long term business partnerships with people I didn’t even like. I can’t imagine I would have been married for 27 years in similar circumstances. It would have been laughable if our marriage prep would have talked about the rules under which we could invest in other companies. In the metaphor that is relationships, my wife didn’t want me buying shares in any other company — if you get my drift.

Sometime ago, everyone got on the genetics bandwagon. We talked about DNA of everything. We had “organizational DNA” as a metaphor for corporate culture. It works to illustrate, but it can easily lead you to some bad decisions.

Wisely used, metaphors are valuable to explain or illustrate. Badly used, they promote logical fallacies and lead to some very, very bad conclusions. This is so frequent that logicians even have a term for it. It’s called “faulty analogy.”

A case in point — multi-tasking.

Somebody the other day brought out that old chestnut — I’m more efficient when I’m multi-tasking. The truth is, no, you are not. Full stop.

The faulty analogy in this case? Everyone likes to think that multi-tasking is like parallel processing. We can somehow split our attention between many different things and do a number of things simultaneously, paying enough attention to each and thus getting many things done at the same time.

When this helps someone juggle several quick task like doing work while riding on the subway it’s useful. When you think that you can translate that into doing your email while “listening” at a meeting – no. The human brain can do several things at once, but only when operating on a subconscious level. You are enough like a computer that you can do batch and online at the same time. But two online processes — doesn’t really work well.

The fact that it feels good only reinforces the fallacy. I won’t debate the causes (others have done it) but I don’t think anyone has seriously argued that attention spans are getting longer. So staying on one thought or task from beginning to end is hard. It takes a lot of discipline for some people. In those cases, we have a perfect storm – faulty analogy meets the shortened attention span.

How do I know this? I’ve spent a lot of time adapting LEAN principles to white collar environments. For anyone who doesn’t know LEAN it’s the gold standard in process transformation. It’s the reason why Toyota overtook General Motors well before the auto meltdown.

LEAN has a concept of uninterrupted flow. A task that moves from beginning to end without interruption is more efficient. It uses less resources and time for the amount of end benefit it generates. Someone out there is madly saying — no, batch processing is faster, better, cheaper. Great. Only the true facts get in the way. Even in this down economy, who’s shares would you rather have bought 6 months ago – Toyota or GM?

If you are still resistant, don’t worry. It took me a long time to figure it out. I try to find exercises to illustrate what is a simple point:

Whenever you interupt a process you pay a penalty for setup. Setup means that
you have to stop what you are doing, put it away somewhere and then when you come back to it, you have to reorient yourself, get back up to speed and then — and only then — do you get back to performance.

How much setup time depends on the person, the task and a lot of factors. The reason why I write my blog at 3 in the morning? There are no interruptions. I can go from start to finish.

But we still claim that multi-tasking works. My son tells me he can watch TV and do homework and be on Facebook. So why did his grades improve so radically when he fell behind and we cut off his computer and TV privileges until he caught up? Coincidence?

I thought about this last night when we were in a meeting and I watched someone “listening” while they did their email. If I’d have called them on it, they would have said they were multi-tasking.

That’s the problem with the faulty analogy. You see, a computer can have several threaded processes running at once — though even on a computer there is a bottleneck where the tasks are sequentially organized in stops and starts. The big difference with a computer? The setup costs can be minimized because it can recreate the exact state that it was in before an interruption and get back up to speed in milliseconds. Even then, run enough of these interruptions and you will swamp even a big processor as we all have experienced from time to time. That “not enough system resources” message is the setup charge catching up with you.

When analogies become mythologized, they are even harder to deal with. We all think – Henry Ford, mass production, batch process … good. Even though it’s not true. So I look for examples like Toyota. I’ve found others and I keep searching for them. Why? Because most people don’t let the facts get in the way of a strongly held belief.

I find most of them by luck. For example I was trying to explain LEAN to the head of a refinery in Acton, near London U.K. I was worried because a lot of refining is batch by design. I explained the batch “myth” and waited for the usual counter argument. He didn’t make one. Instead, he took me to another area of the plant and showed me his pet project – a continuous flow refining process – one that that was many times more efficient than the old batch process. I thanked him profusely. I wanted to see a mechanical process prove that uninterrupted flow was superior — if only so I could use it to dispel the myths and faulty analogy.

But people are not machines or mechanical creations. Our setup costs are much larger. When interupted, we need time to be reoriented. The amount depends on the person and the complexity of the task. How many times have you been at a meeting and paid the “setup cost” for someone else whose attention was distracted? Or how many times have you come back to a task and had to get back “up to speed”?

We’ve cut days, literally days out of business processes by moving to an uninterrupted flow. Even IT has caught up. No one seriously does batch processes for systems anymore unless you have a legacy or you absolutely have to. And my son’s marks improved. How much more proof do you need?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to tell everyone what they have to do. I do resist when I or my team have to pay the setup cost for someone else.

It’s a modern world. The shortened attention span is real. The addiction to busy work versus thought and planning is real. Proof in point? I ask people this all the time. If you saw someone on the phone talking would you interrupt them? Hardly. But if you saw them sitting quietly at their desk, staring into space, would you interrupt them? For most people it’s a no-brainer. And yet, why would we assume that the phone was work and thinking wasn’t? It says something profound about our culture.

People will wax profoundly about how they are more effective when multi-tasking. So would you like it if the pilot of your plane was doing his taxes? Or if your surgeon was doing a crossword during the operation? I don’t even even like it when other people are talking on their cell phone while driving. It’s okay for me, however — I can multi-task.

Or can I? So why is that when I get to the end of a day and I felt like I hadn’t gotten anything done I would explain it as having fallen victim to the dreaded “got a minute?”

We aren’t going to stop the interrupt driven nature of our lives because I write a blog about it or even if I’ve held a workshop. But I can help reduce it, even a little, it’s worth it. if we could improve by 10 percent – what would that do? The results would be significant. LEAN thinking puts cycle efficiency (the amount of real value in a process) at between 5 and 25 percent. Increase it by a small factor and you get amazing results.

But the first step is admitting there is a problem. I have my own private 12 step program for low attention spans. Because I suffer from it too. That might be the REAL reason I write this at 3 in the morning. Maybe I paid so much setup cost this week that I have to work harder than I want to.

But if I can break this faulty analogy and make more of my tasks into uninterrupted flows, I could gain back some of that efficiency. If I did it enough times it might become a habit. Heck, it could even become part of our organizational DNA.

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Filed under Lean, People, Process, Strategy

Is this a relationship?

My sister Chris is on Facebook. No, it’s not the sign of the Apocalypse. It’s a sign that social media is moving to a new phase.

I’m sure Seinfeld had a show about this — how to tell when something was no longer cool. I’m sure Jerry and the gang had some secret sign that told them when something had left the edge and simply become mainstream.

I remember when I knew that email had reached that point. It was when my parents got an email address. That was it — it was over. The rollout was complete. Global domination was achieved. Sure there might be a few left over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. Heck I’m sure there’s somebody out there with a black and white tv. But outside of a few hold-outs, the job was done.

I wrote a column once called the “dot customer” that predicted when consumer oriented e-commerce would reach that bellwether of success. It was when my wife started shopping on-line.

What I was amazed at then was the acceleration. For those of us who used it in its early primitive form, primarily as a business communication tool and occasionally as a way of keeping in touch with folks around the world — the rise of email took a long time. Years.

The move to e-commerce took a noticeably shorter period of time.

But social networking — wow. It seems like months ago that Facebook hit the scene and now — everyone is on the bandwagon. Even my sister Chris. The last Luddite. She sent me a “friend request” the other day.

Somebody told me in conversation that the biggest growth in Facebook ranks was now, as he so delicately put it, “people in your age range.”

Now on one hand, this is the triumph of Metcalfe’s Law. For those of you who don’t know Metcalfe’s Law, it’s a way of calculating the value of a network. For those who think this way, a network’s value is the square of it’s nodes.

For those who can’t quite grasp that, let me explain it the way it was explained to me. What is the value of one fax machine? Nothing. There’s nobody to send a fax to. Add one more and what is the value? It just went up — because there is someone to send and receive your fax. And there might be mutual value for them. Start adding people and the value of the network grows by doubling and redoubling — until it starts to grow at exponential rates, gathering speed like a snowball rolling down hill.

A guy named Metcalfe predicted that. Smart guy.

What I don’t think he anticipated that was that this growth of network value would itself increase in speed each time. Hence the rapid rise of social networking from uber-cool to ubiquitous.

But here’s the point where I want to ask the question. Has the network really grown in value? This isn’t me being simply a contrarian. In fact, I don’t have an answer. I simply raise the question.

Not everything that gets mass acceptance increases in value. Fads burn out, trends die. And when they die — or crash, the seeds of that destruction are hidden by the initial success. Think back to our Seinfeld model and think of a restaurant that had amazing popularity, but was on it’s way downhill while still drawing record crowds. As Yogi Berra was reputed to say, “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.”

Or if you are astute, think of the dot-com crash. Or the recent financial meltdown. From “top of game” to “down in flames.”

Now this isn’t a big deal for my sister Chris. She might not even notice the bubble bursting — if it does. It might be a problem for a corporate sponsor who invested heavily in social networking only to see it go down in flames — if it does.

The good news is that rarely are these permanent crashes. Many times the sequence is that something hits a success track, gets over hyped, crashes and burns — and then resurfaces months or even years later under a different name. Yesterday’s Application Service Providers were replaced by today’s Software as a Service. I’m sure you can think of a few more.

But the life of some companies, people’s investments and a few careers can take some hard knocks — and they have.

So what are you to do? If you don’t get on board, then you miss the boat. If you jump in, you could go down in flames or waste your money and efforts on something that won’t pay off.

I don’t have all the answers on this one. I can offer a couple of observations. First, there are some worrying items in social networking as we see it. One thing that bothers me is that it appears to be built on a house of cards. Everyone is trying to be the new Facebook, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Facebook grew out of the student market and tapped into a phenomenon associated with a younger demographic. From the time when you saw how many kids you could put in a Volkswagen, to sit ins and marches — there has always been an attraction to trying to draw the largest crowd of friends together.

It’s not that this has no attraction to an older segment — but it has it’s roots and it’s big appeal to the younger demographic. Indeed, I would maintain that when this phenomenon hits an older demographic, there has to be more than simply the joy of attendance. Crowds require causes or some additional value.

I haven’t really seen that in the social networking arena yet. Not that I’ve given up. I’m a twitterer, I’m Linked-In, I “Plaxo” and — although I use it less and less, I’m on Facebook. I have contacts. I have seen some value in tracking people I haven’t seen for some time. But I work at it. I can’t afford to invest hours upon hours with no value coming from it.

Much of what happens isn’t relationships. Relationships are about mutual exchanges of value My friend Ray Mackenzie and his co-authors made that point in the book The Relationship Based Enterprise. It’s that word mutual that holds my attention. I’m struggling to see that in this new explosion of social networking.

I don’t poke very much. I tweet a little. I never throw a sheep. And if you find me on a friend finder, and I don’t know you, I probably won’t respond to your invite to become a friend. In fact, I joined Plaxo as an experiment because they seemed to be aiming at those who wanted more exclusive — and more valuable networks.

And if I said I wasn’t worried about the “Hotel California” syndrome I’d be lying. For those of you who don’t follow the reference, Hotel California was a song by the Eagles with the famous line, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” When I see Linked-In’s top end price of $499 per month (that’s right – per month) I wonder what the end of this game looks like.

But I don’t know where this is really going. I’m watching carefully. I’m building my network based on value and I’m finding ways to use these tools. But I’m not betting the store on them. Not without a clear indication of value. Because investing in value — whether it be stocks or technology — has a way of paying off in the long run. I’m looking for things that enhance that mutual exchange of value that defines a relationship.

How about you? I’m really interested in your comments.

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Filed under People, Social Networking, Strategy, Technology

Immigrants on the Internet

I heard a quote the day that people of my generation would always be immigrants on the internet. No matter how well we adapted, we would always be “strangers in a strange land”. Our children would be citizens.

Coming from a city that has truly blossomed as a multi-cultural mecca, I am familiar with immigrants. I’ve just never been one.

The observation started me thinking. I do a lot of work on high performance team building and one of the things that I stress is our need to embrace diversity. In order to do that, we have to examine our own behaviours. I’ve learned a lot by doing this.

One example I use all the time is the way we tend to treat people who don’t speak English well as less intelligent. How did I learn about this? I did observe others, certainly. But I also observed myself — what I thought and how I acted.

I’ve been a bid proponent of being self aware — even when the picture isn’t flattering. And I like to have honest discussions about it. And I know that’s not the norm. I know that confronting these things openly makes some people uncomfortable.

I wonder sometimes if this has cost me in terms of consulting work. I remember one interview where I was shortlisted on a strategy job for a major university. When we didn’t get the job, I replayed the final interview in my head, searching for moments where we might have done a better job.

One area where I remembered a shocking reaction from the potential client was when I mentioned this example of how so many of us regard people who don’t speak English as less intelligent. I clearly stated that almost everyone that I had ever talked to struggled with that reaction, even those (like myself) who had overcome it. The reaction from one of the people was immediate, visceral and I suspect — politically correct. “I’ve never felt that way,” he said. I did the only thing I could do. I congratulated him on being a better person than me and much of the rest of that group that was once referred to as WASPs.

I hoped that the fact that I didn’t believe him didn’t come through in my voice. Perhaps it did. Because I think that almost everyone struggles with this more than we want to admit (and a wee bit of psychological research supports me on this one).

There is a study that I read recently that said that we tend to attribute motives to behaviours. Moreover, we were always more unkind to others in our attribution than we were to ourselves.

When we are late, there’s good reason. Traffic. Subway. Whatever.

But when someone ELSE is late? Don’t you think (even for a second) that they didn’t plan well? Or that maybe they don’t think your time is as important? Or a host of other negative thoughts? Doesn’t it cross your mind for a second? If it doesn’t, you really are out of the norm.

I know. Not just because of the studies, but from the reaction I get from audiences I speak to. I tell the story of “that person” in the checkout line. You know the one? They always catch you when you are in a hurry. Then they have to question the bill or be picky about some minor flaw in the product or just be annoying by talking too much — whatever. You know what I mean? Doesn’t it drive you crazy too?

Then I ask who that person is. And I tell the audience. That person is me and you. But when we are up there, it’s important. We demand our time. Those b**ds in line can wait.

I haven’t seen an audience yet that wasn’t with me totally on the first description. Nor have I seen one that didn’t react with surprise and realization when I mentioned that we were the person.

So I know this “attribution” thing is real. Again if you, denial is only a river in Egypt, stop reading now. But if you are with the rest of the human race, read on — I’ll get to the point.

The point is that as immigrants to the internet, we come with a lot of baggage. This attribution thing fills our lives. We take our dark side with us. The road rage that we exhibit on our highways becomes the flame wars over comments and emails.

I’ve taken these behaviours as examples because they are so common and extreme enough to make good examples. There are a raft of others that you can become aware of if you just pay attention to them. Time lags in instant messaging are another one. I always wonder what the other person is doing — until I caught on that sometimes the send and receive isn’t instantaneous. I found this out by accident. There’s more. Watch for them. Better still — add them as a comment or send me a note. I’d like to hear your favourite.

My point is that these get in the way. In particular, this happens on the internet because we don’t have any context to work with. No smiling face. Or sad face. No body language. Nothing. Just an font on a screen. An pale echo of reality.

The good news is that in many of these things, our kids can be citizens. My eldest (at age eighteen) is one of the founders of one of the largest wikis around today. I remember asking her — who is in charge of this thing? I got a blank stare. So I repeated the question with a little more explanation. “Like, when you disagree?”

Her answer was, “we talk it out”.

“But,” I said, frustratedly, “when push comes to shove. When you HAVE to decide. Who make the call?”

More blank stares. Then she repeated herself slowly — “we just work it out…”

And she gave me that look. Like she was looking at an immigrant. And I didn’t speak the language that well.

It’s a learning lesson for all of us — of that generation that Pete Townsend called, “My Generation”. With knowledge work, virtual work, collaboration and social networking becoming the norm, we are always playing catch up. Someone told me yesterday that the biggest group moving into Facebook were people of my age (over 50). The citizens (our children) have been there for years. Now, the boomers are in. And a massive immigration is in place.

We come to this new world with all our baggage. I hope we will realize that this time we are the immigrants. And I hope that the citizens of this new land are much more forgiving than we have been.

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Going virtual for competitive advantage

For me, necessity was the mother of invention. But it wasn’t an easy birth.

I took over a global consulting practice at the same time as somebody in our company discovered cost controls. Where my predecessors had smaller areas, they also had larger budgets. That was a real challenge that was imposed on me. Another wound was self-inflicted. Even though I had taken this job to head up a global practice, I’m insane enough to have thought that I didn’t want to totally give up on being a working consultant. I knew I would have to scale back radically, but I couldn’t totally give it up.

When I became a consultant I knew what it was like to sit on the other side of the desk. I could put myself in the client’s shoes. I swore when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’d give it up. I felt the same way as I went into the “executive ranks”. When I could no longer keep in touch with the real day to day realities of serving our clients, I’d give that up too (but that’s another story).

So I had big area. A small budget. Did I mention that we were in a real crisis? It was a time when we were losing our focus — sometimes even our value proposition.

I knew I couldn’t turn this thing around. I needed a team. And that team had to come from all around the world. It had to bring in the best we had. We had to be able to share what we knew and leverage that effectively. We had to bring in new ideas from everywhere. We had to work more cohesively than we had done for years.

So we needed to work together more effectively than ever before. And to be fair to our CFO, even when we had money, flying in people in was always tough. Days in the air. Jet lag. Leaving the office for a week at a time. Getting calendars in synch? To plan a meeting of 12 representatives from around the world could take 3 months of negotiations and planning. And I’m not sure we always got the results that matched the investment of time or money.

At that time we had was email, Lotus Notes and conference calls. We also had some emerging web enabled tools – primarily the early web conferencing tools. Placeware was the tool (later Live Meeting) and it was primitive, but better than nothing.

I picked up the phone — and I began to learn. Boy did I learn. I got bruised and battered. I made a lot of mistakes. That’s what I did. WE — the team. That’s another story. WE did amazing things. WE proved that large virtual teams could deliver incredible results effectively, quickly and at an enormous cost/time savings.

Years later, when we founded this new company, I took all of that learning with me. I was determined to take it to the next level. Even though I’d gone from big firm to boutique — we were truly a global firm very rapidly. I negotiated deals, set up alliances, conferred with my network, all in a virtual space.

Tools were developing. The idea of virtual teams was no longer such a radical idea. HBR had published a study which claimed that virtual teams were MORE productive than collocated teams. It claimed gains of 25% in productivity, 90% reductions in absenteeism — delivery times that we 1/10th of the time that a traditional team would take. It claimed budgets that were 1/8th of those of a traditional collocated team. Incredibly, it also laid claim to improved results.

I didn’t have any trouble with believing this. I knew that it was possible. Today, we live and breath it. Our clients and consultants come literally from around the world.

But that’s not the most interesting thing. The thing is in how its changed for us. I have people working for me that I have hired, worked with, gotten to know, struggle through challenges with — and whom I have never seen or physically met. I interact with them every day. I’ve facilitated meetings of people across the country through difficulties, through crisis, through incredible achievements — and never seen some of them.

Last year, I closed the downtown office. There was just no need for it. I guess there is somebody who might need to see bricks and mortar to work with us — I had a sales rep who felt this was essential. But you know, I’ve met a lot of people in our offices that have given us zero in the way of business. Besides, I did the math. When we stopped paying rent on a downtown office, if we really wanted to impress people, we could take them out for lunch or dinner at the best restaurant in the city — and we’d still be saving money.

It has it’s challenges. We’ve had to learn – we are continually learning. But I’m absolutely amazed as I look at it about how far we’ve come from the days when I heard that to have a team, you had to be able to “shake their hands and look them in the eyes.”

It’s not that I don’t meet with people. But I don’t need to do it. I know that this is still disconcerting to some. Even when people live near me, I have found that their need to have physical meetings is — curious. I can hear it in their voice when I propose that the day is too packed to meet them for coffee, but we can have coffee in our offices while we talk. I still remember one of our consultants saying to me as he was about to start an assignment — “don’t you think we should meet?”

I thought we had. I had checked references. I had tested, prodded and probed. I had reviewed prior work. If anything, someone I hire virtually may get a better vetting than some hires I’ve made in my career. But I’ve learned. I met him in person. It was pleasant. It didn’t change anything for me.

Woody Allen may have been right when he said that “90% of life is just showing up.” If he was, I can tell you that the last 10% may be the most valuable. The HBR study proved what my experience had taught me.

And the world is catching up. I read an article in July that said that 10 percent of Canada’s labour force — 2.5 million people — work outside the office at least one day a week. (Robert Fox, Canadian Telework Association) Teletrips, a Vancouver based company, claims a company can save $6,000 to $9,000 per flexible worker. They go on to say that a worker can save 160 hours in commute time each year — four working weeks! Plus you save 3,000 kilos of carbon dioxide.

The same article by Michelle MacLeod goes on to list other benefits. Reduced attrition. Ability to attract great people who wouldn’t face the commute to get to your office. It goes on. And that HBR article keeps coming back to me. Faster delivery. Better results.

Virtual aren’t second best anymore. And I have a feeling that we are just scratching the surface. We have build the tools and the processes. We know how to live, work, network and even facilitate in this space. More and more of our consulting finds its way into tools. processes, strategy and ongoing coaching and development of virtual teams.

When the internet was just starting up, Ayelet Baron (now at Cisco) and I collaborated on building one of the first websites. Years later it would seem so primitive that it would be embarrassing to show now. Then, it was leading edge and won some international acclaim for our firm. That was good, because although we’d begged some investment from partners in our firm, if we hadn’t printed the pages they would have never seen what we had done.

The other day I heard a radio host say that “no matter how comfortable we had become with the new virtual world, people of my generation would always be immigrants on the internet.” Our children were citizens. So no matter how far I’ve come, I realize that this has a long way to go yet.

I hate hype. I don’t want to say — if your company isn’t doing this then you are losing money. But I’m not sure its hype anymore. What was leading edge is now every day. And if you’re not maximizing the benefits from virtual teams, I’d love to know why not.

Gotta go. I have that 30 second commute.

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