Giving Feedback

2016 May CM imagesMy Uncle went off to study at agricultural college as a young man, this was before Facebook and mobile phones so he used to write letters. He sent a long letter to his mother. She corrected the letter, in red ink, and returned it. He never wrote again.

Giving good feedback is much more than knowing what is right or correct. It is understanding what will be useful, and delivering the feedback so that it can be heard and used.

The feedback model proposed by the experts at Manager Tools has some really helpful podcasts, it’s a three step model and it focuses on behaviour. Simplified to a script template it looks like this;

When you [describe behaviour] the outcome is negative [explain how], how will you repair this/change your behaviour next time?

In their podcasts the guys from Manager Tools give several working examples of this and I’ve found it a really simple, workable method. Using this script has kept me focused on the work behaviours that really matter, removed an personal or accusatory tone to the feedback and put the responsibility for the change/improvement squarely in the employee’s hands. Of course I’ve also offered concrete help when needed.

I’ll give an example. One colleague, let’s call him David, who I was coaching, tended to pack too much into meetings meaning that he would be rushing to get through all the content in the last ten minutes,  even though the most senior people would be already preparing to leave. Instead of saying “hey, you should plan your meetings better” I had a conversation that went something like this;

Me Can I give you some feedback about today’s meeting?
David OK, I guess
Me Did you notice at the end of the meeting that the managers were closing their laptops and wanting to leave while you were still talking?
David Yes…
Me They have other meetings to go to and when you plan your meeting to go right to the hour they don’t listen for the last about 10 minutes. What do you think would work better?
David Um… Should I plan to finish at 10 to?
Me Yes, be wrapping up then. So when do you think you need to ask for the decision?
David Quarter to?
Me Yes, or perhaps earlier, to allow for discussion and wrap up. What will you do for the next meeting?
David Put less on the agenda and try to ask for the decision at about half way.
Me Let’s try that, I bet they listen to more of what you have to say that way.

This works best when the feedback is about correcting a behaviour, but it can be extended to bigger changes, either with longer discussions or repeated discussions.

There are a couple of other things to look out for;

  • the person has to be willing to hear the feedback, in the case above David was someone I was already coaching, so we already had an agreement in place that I could give him feedback. However I still asked his permission.
  • the feedback has to be useful, David had been frustrated that people weren’t listening to him, so suggesting something to change that was useful to him.
  • the feedback has to be specific,  David walked away with something to try for next time
  • the change proposed should come from them, you can ask them to think about it and come back to discuss with you or you can seed a few ideas if needed, but the answer should come from them.
  • the person receiving the feedback should feel positive and that you are helping them get better at what they do.

It is as much about usefulness of what you’re saying and delivery as the correctness of what you say.

Back to my Uncle, although he did call his mother after he stopped writing letters, my Grandma later saw her mistake. She’d given feedback that wasn’t really useful, and delivered it in a rather cruel way. She did regret sending that letter of corrections.

Image: alstonfamily  | Instruments of torture  |   CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

 

Security is Like Water

1A pipe in my kitchen broke this week, water leaked everywhere, seeping into everything, through the smallest gap. This got me thinking about other types of leaks. I think there’s a reason we talk about information and security leaks; you can do everything you want to contain information but it will pass through the smallest gap.

The reason is that there is a natural tension between the measures needed to make a company secure, and the activities people have to perform in the line of their work. Every attempt to lock down security across an organisation pushes employees to find alternative routes to perform their work.

Ars Technica reported earlier this year that when Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had requested a secure Blackberry she had been refused. Blackberry is Clinton’s preferred tool for answering emails, and a secure Blackberry had already been provided to Obama (and to Condoleeza Rice, Clinton’s predecessor).  Now this seems a very odd decision to me, Secretary of State is the third highest office in the US, and a role that would obviously involve a lot of email correspondence with the president, presumably of a similar “top secret” nature.

I’ve heard of the same thing playing out in different ways in companies.

  • Generic USB sticks were banned, the company provided USB sticks that had a nasty habit of corrupting movie files, and it was already impossible to email large files. So employees doing presentations outside the company would use a hotmail account to email the video to themselves so that they could play it at a conference or meeting outside the company.
  • When new board members wanted meeting notes electronically. The security advice was to give them company laptops. But these were people who travelled extensively and sat on the boards of several companies. Password protected pdfs were used as an interim measure, but longer term measures involved a secure site.
  • When security teams became aware of the possibility that social engineering techniques were being used on LinkedIn and specifically targetting company employees they blocked LinkedIn from the company network. Ignoring the fact that this just moved the risk to outside work hours, or via personal mobile phones.

In all these cases employees quickly found a work-around. In some cases the risk was reduced in this process, in others not.

As Tom Seo wrote in a recent Tech Crunch article “security is defined as a largely operational function, which in turn leads to reactive, incohesive decision-making”, and I think that security has been seen as an operational function for a long time with a defensive or reactive mentality.

To keep something perfectly secure we lock it away, put it in a safe, behind a wall, or in a fortress. But for companies there is no way to build an effective wall around a company’s digital information, since using that information is an operational necessity. Sure, we use the term “firewall” for a sort of digital approximation of a wall, but we still send information across a firewall, and use technology outside a firewall.

Years ago a security colleague said to me “we can no longer build a completely secure system; we have to choose which risks to remove and which to manage”. It’s a good start, but I look forward to the day when security teams think in terms of solutions rather than rules.

Image: Security Wire  |  Lydia  |  CC BY-2.0

 

 

World Intellectual Property Day

Intellectual Property Day

Today is World Intellectual Property Day, the site commemorating it has film clips from a number of creatives discussing the challenges in intellectual property, and a map of events around the world.

Intellectual property refers to anything created by the intelligence of a person (or group of people), which is then owned by the creators according the law, and which the creators/owners can then sell.  The laws protecting these rights include trademarks, copyright, patents, and industrial design rights.

The fundamental reason for having intellectual property rights is that it allows creators to be paid for their inventions or creations and in that sense it is a good thing.  Musicians, writers, artists and designers get to earn a living. Inventors get to have a temporary monopoly on their invention to earn money from it.

But there are some downsides; defining original work can be challenging, protecting intellectual property rights is difficult, the rights can be inherited and sold like other property, protection is temporary, and the digital world presents its own challenges. I’ll show some examples of these, and point to some ways in which the law is evolving.

Defining Original Work

Richard Prince, a photographer has tested the definition of “original work” in his work, most recently in an exhibition of screen captures taken from Instagram. His contribution to making this into an original work is a single comment. He is currently being challenged in court regarding one of the images. But he’s won similar cases before, notably when he photographed Marlborough ads and edited them.

Protecting Property Rights

It’s up to the holder of the intellectual property to protect their creation, including finding and prosecuting infringers.

Large organisations, or wildly successful artists can afford agencies and lawyers to sort this out for them. For smaller artists it’s more challenging, although one, Matthew Inman – the genius behind The Oatmeal raised the stakes when one content aggregator when after him in a law suit (spoiler alert; he raised 200,000 USD for charity).

When such cases do come to court there tends to be an out of court settlement that includes a non-disclosure  clause so few details are known and the publicity around the case ends. Examples include “The Full Monty”, which was alleged to be an infringement on the New Zealand play “Ladies Night”. I saw the play back in the late 80s when it was newly released and sat through the movie in 1998 with a strong sense of déjà vu – for the storyline, the characters, and the jokes. But the case is now reduced to a couple of lines in a wikipedia entry.

Rights Sold

Intellectual property rights can, like any other property, be licensed, sold or inherited. (Copyright exists for 50 – 100 years after an author dies for example, the exact length of time depends on the country. )

Which means that the rights can end up being fought over in court, as in Disney’s recent battle over Winnie-the-Pooh.

Temporary Rights

Patents, which protect intellectual property that defines and describes an invention last for 20 years under the WTO guidelines. Copyright extends beyond the death of the creator for 50-100 years, or – in the US – for 95 years after first publication.

This means that with age items become copyright free; you can republish all of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen but you’ll need to wait a bit for Barbara Cartland.

It’s also led to a fascinating controversy over the Diary of Anne Frank. According to Dutch law her original diary enters the public domain this year, as it is 70 years since her death in Bergen-Belsen. But under US law, the copyright extends until 2042, and copies are removed from US sources.

(There’s a second controversy around the copyright of the diaries, relating to authorship, in which Frank Otto has been promoted to co-author which means that copyright is extended on the basis of his lifetime. In the meantime versions are being published in Europe to test this decision).

Digital World

The rise and rise of digital comes about because of the incredible inventiveness of thousands of people. Some of the ideas generated are genuinely original and deserve protection, and some of those have been patented. But there’s been a rise of a counter movement – the “open source” programmers who create code and licence it for everyone to work on.

There have also been over-zealous patenters, in the US you can patent a process without ever developing a working tool. For example the process of assessing someone’s knowledge online and assigning courses based on that test is patented. Even though the exact same process has existed off-line since the Knights of the Round Table. Patent offices seem to be more aware of the digital world now and require a little more originality in a patent that “making it work online”.

In fact some jurisdictions have severely limited the patentability of any software, New Zealand being one. The idea being that software itself isn’t patentable, except in limited examples. The debate continues as to whether this enhances innovation by allowing more people to exploit an innovation, or limits it by removing the right to have a monopoly on a new invention.

Copyright vs Rights Free

The digital world makes it incredibly easy to copy and share content, and I regularly seem claims that “copyright is dead”. There’s a sort of myth around content should be free and copyright is dead but I think this stems from the multiple meanings of “free” in English. Yes content should be free – in the sense of freedom of movement – you are free to express your views, you are free to share content

It doesn’t have to be free – in the sense of no payment necessary. It’s someone’s work. I’m all for openness and sharing of content, which is why this blog is published on a creative commons licence; but recognition and payment should follow the creator.

My perspective is that IP is important but the law is still catching up with the reality, and I’m celebrating World Intellectual Property Day by writing about it.

Image: 3D Broken Copyright  |  Chris Potter  |   CC BY 2.0

 

World Book Day

2016 April CM images

I love books, reading is one of my favourite things to do, so I’ll be celebrating World Book and Copyright Day on Saturday installed on my couch doing some serious reading. It’s not surprising that I love books, our house when I was growing up was full of books, they filled a surprising number of boxes when we moved house. When I say surprising I mean that it surprised the moving men who asked my mother “have you read all these”. She has, mostly.

So why are books important?

They’re a source of information, the ultimate in “long form” content. The content can go deeper, offer alternative theories, and expound an argument in a way that a blog post or article never will. A common criticism is that books are “out of date” by they time they’re published, it’s a fair call in some subjects, but there are books I value and return to a decade after they were published. No article has ever had that impact.

Books, particularly fiction, are a source of escape, the cheapest way to travel to new worlds.  It’s a form of escapism that’s legal and (relatively) cheap. It’s also good for your brain, reading fiction improves your brain connectivity and increases empathy. Regular reading reduces stress, and it can be a useful distractor in times of stress.

Books are one of my favourite decorating ideas, and research shows that children from homes with books do better academically. And there’s a long accepted link between literacy and a country’s development, so much so that Mao changed the written form of the language to make it easier to learn.

What about digital?

I was a hold out on the digital front, preferring the reading experience of paper. But I caved and bought a kindle a few years ago, and was converted, and oh the convenience – I can carry the four books I’ll read on a long haul flight, or the 12 books I’m using for research and work anywhere. I usually read more than one book at a time, and now I can carry all with me.

Lots of people love the feel and smell of books and swear they’ll never change and there’s some research out there suggesting that retention from reading paper is higher. But it is possible to love both, it’s the content that’s the magic.

Postscript; it’s the official World Book Day tomorrow, but it is celebrated in March in many countries as it fits better with the school year.

Image: Some of the books on the shelves in my house; the business books section.

Form a SWAT team

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When I first heard this term it was in a movie or a TV programme. I understood from the context that it was a specially trained team, but I didn’t stop to ask what it stood for; according to wikipedia it’s “Special Weapons and Tactics”.

The term seems to have crept into business language, and taken on the meaning of a special project team brought in to solve an urgent problem. They generally have a a single focus to solve the problem and a stronger mandate to get things done. Which does make we wonder; why not just give the existing team the power to solve the problem in the first place – perhaps before it even became a problem.

Often the existing team has no capacity to address a big new issue, or they may lack the knowledge to make a change. Here’s Obama talking at this year’s SXSW about making government more digital, he put in place a “Digital SWAT Team” to make this happen (from about 9.30 to 15.00).

In this case it’s clear that the knowledge brought into the US government services was able to address the problems of legacy systems, and outdated knowledge. They had the mandate to act, supported by the most powerful person in the country – of course they could get stuff done.

Image: The Pre-K SWAT Team  |  Rob Briscoe  | CC BY 2.0

 

 

Learning about Digital

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It’s a digital world. I was reminded recently of just how digital it’s becoming speaking to a retired friend who doesn’t have a computer. It’s going to be almost impossible for her to pay her rent by the end of the year. Because I spend so much time with people who are digital savvy, if not digital natives, I tend to forget just how many levels there are to digital learning.

1 Beginner

Familiar with tools like word and excel, can use the internet, understands the risks and knows what signs to look for to check that a site is safe.

Learning focus = tools.

2 Effective

Can use all the tools, websites and apps in daily life.  Can do basic trouble-shooting when things go wrong.

Learning focus = autonomy

3 Mastered

Can use tools independently and teach themselves how to use new tools, can find new information and tools, can contribute online to social media or discussion groups, understands “netiquette”.  Has strategies to avoid trolls, scams and social engineering. Can work with colleagues online

Learning focus = behaviours

4 Professional

Your role at work is around digital, either in producing content, running digital campaigns, online marketing, digital projects or change management for digital transformation.

Learning focus = delivering value

5 Mentor

Leading digital transformation or development of new ways of working in digital. Expert at using the collaboration techniques including Work-Out-Loud and Results Only Work Environment.

Learning focus = helping others increase their digital knowledge

Do you agree? Are there other levels or things you’d add to these levels?

Let me know in the comments – I feel a series coming on.

Image: Kids these days | Louise McGregor  | CC BY-4.0

Ad Blocking

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We’ve all become very used to having access to a massive amount of content – news, videos, blogs, images – for free via the internet.

The consequence has been that a number of those content providers have lost advertiser revenue, which in the long term jeopardises our access to “free” content. Ad blockers were a recurring topic at the Web Summit last year and as one content provider said “we thought we had a deal”, meaning that we all understood that the free content came with ads.

I should insert a personal disclaimer here; I use an ad blocker. I didn’t for a long time but I got frustrated with the increasingly intrusive ads, particularly fly-over ads, large header ads forcing me to scroll (esp on my tiny laptop) and the video autoplays that make me jump out of my skin if I have the sound on.

Turn off your adblocker – please

Content providers are starting to fight back, asking you to turn off your adblocker.

Forbes now invites you to turn off the adblocker to access their “ad-light” experience, which is for 30 days and still includes a lot of ads.

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The Atlantic is more specific, asking you to disable it or take up a print (with digital options) subscription.

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The Guardian asks you to become a supporter, pushing the case for independent journalism; “your financial contribution will support our independence and our award-winning journalism”.

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TED has come to a somewhat different solution, you’ll still get an ad if you use ad-blocker, but it’ll be for a TED product.

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Other Ways Publishers Fight Back

Whitelisting

Some companies have asked visitors to whitelist their site, but a quick check with the non-technical people in my circle indicates they have no idea how to do this, and there’s some data reported that fewer than 1% of people take this option.

Native advertising 

Native advertising refers to content that matches the website or platform that it’s on, it often has an indication somewhere on it that the content is sponsored. Because this looks so much like content from the site it most often survives the adblocker’s filters.

Acceptable Ads Program

You can “pay to play“, one of the most commonly used adblockers will program their filters to allow non-intrusive ads to survive the adblock filters.

We’re all addicted to free content, subscribing only to the most loved publishers if at all. Since it costs money to create content it’s not unreasonable for those content platforms to look for revenue by subscription or by ads. As long as we retain the expectation of free content we can expect content creators to continue trying to serve us ads, while we – annoyed by the volume of ads – continue trying to block them. The days of free content may soon be over.

Image: Stone Wall  |  Rich  |  CC BY-2.0

Toxic: Lessons from Science

Toxic chemicals, lessons from scienceI’ve seen a number of articles about toxic bosses, or toxic workplaces recently, and I’ve heard some harrowing stories; the boss who creates arbitrary rules and then breaks them, the manager who blames everyone else – every time, the idea thief, the company that expects staff to be flexible but makes no allowances for genuine personal crises. I’m sure you have more examples to add to this list.

So why do we apply the term “toxic” to a workplace?

Merriam-Webster online defines toxic as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”.

In science toxic chemicals are those that cause damage to an organism, organ or cell. In examining the impact of toxins scientists will consider the amount of toxin taken, the length of exposure, and the health of the organism prior to exposure,

If an organism has a long exposure and a high dose the impact will be greater, in fact there are many chemicals that are safe at a low dose by dangerous or even lethal at a high does. Vitamin A is an example, as humans we need small amounts, but cannot process large amounts, if we eat more vitamin A than we need we store the excess in our livers where it accumulates and in extreme cases leads to Hypervitaminosis A.

We also know that toxicity depends on the organism, most toxins are species-specific, and on the health of the organism. Healthy people break down protein they’ve eaten, and their kidney’s work to remove any toxins generated in that process. But for people who have damaged kidneys a high protein diet becomes toxic.

Could a workplace be that bad?

Short answer; yes.

Long answer; yes, poor work conditions, overwork, lack of control at work all contribute to stress at work and stress has a direct impact on your health in a number of ways. Toxic workplaces are a health risk.

What can you do?

If you find yourself in a toxic workplace as employee what can you do? And by toxic I mean more than the mild disfunction of most companies, to a level where your health could be impacted. There are three principles you need to stick to as you move out.

  • Understand that it’s not you, it’s them
  • Stay professional, both in your work ethic and your behaviour
  • Plan to exit with dignity.

You’ll note that I haven’t suggested trying to change the company, these are all coping strategies. The larger the company and the more toxic it is the harder it is to change, it will generally only happen following a crisis when there is a leadership change. My recommendation is to look after yourself first, and find a new role in a happy company.

As a manager or executive your options are greater, you may be able to change the work environment for your part of the organisation.

There’s a TV series called “Undercover Boss“, which has a simple premise of a boss going into the field disguised as a new recruit or someone returning to work after a career break. In the episodes I’ve seen the disguise was rumbled just once – when the company employee noticed the soft hands of a supposed experienced labourer.

In pretty much every episode the CEO learns the same lessons including;

  • when people get to make decisions about their work they flourish
  • head office makes some lousy decisions
  • you need to listen to your employees – and so does your management team.

If you recognise that your workplace is toxic and you’re in a position to change it, get out there and listen to your staff. As you listen, and act on what you hear, you’ll start to rebuild trust.

Trust is an antidote to toxic workplaces, in the same way that we have antidotes against the toxins of poisonous animals. It won’t fix everything immediately, there will still be scars, but the organism will begin to recover.

Image: Psychic Chemistry  |  Stefano Petraz  |  CC BY-NC-ND2.0

 

Book of the Month: Rebels at work

BOTMMarch
This is the first in a new series reviewing one book each month, I’m selecting books on the themes of business, leadership, digital technology and communication.

Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

By Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina, and Debra Cameron

 I wish I’d read Rebels at Work years ago. It’s aimed at all those who have great ideas and struggle against the complexity and inertia of a big company to get them implemented. It’s about leading change from within a company, getting your ideas heard, building support, and how your personal approach can help (or hinder) the process.

I recognised a lot of the concepts in Rebels at Work, but seeing them put into words and in context gave me many “aha” moments, starting with the matrix of past, present and future thinking. True rebels will be future thinkers while large organisations are likely to exhibit the characteristics of “present thinking” – focusing on organising, rules, structure, processes and reaching goals. This contradiction can lead to frustration for rebels, but the book goes on to give you ideas to address it.

One big lesson the book brings up several times; the timing of launching your big idea. Don’t do it in the first moment you think of it; do your research, and build support first. I’ve seen this go wrong for a number of people who have had great ideas but earnt themselves a reputation of not being serious enough to get things done. I don’t think that’s been a failing of mine – but I have definitely underestimated how much people like the status quo and don’t want to change.

There’s some interesting research throughout the book, the report that got me was the 10% tipping point; research shows that if 10% of a group believe in an idea the majority of the people will adopt that believe.

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One of the strengths of the book is the focus on interpersonal skills, there’s a whole chapter on handling disagreement and conflict. They provide strategies and even sample texts to help change the discussion instead of asking why ask “how might we reduce the risk?”, why forces the argument, how brings people onside.

There is a chapter focusing on “rebel self-care” which talks about the signs of burnout and reminds you that you can walk away, an truth that’s hard to remember when you’re in the middle of change and believe you’re making things better.

Even with this chapter I think the authors underplay how hard the rebel’s role can be and how damaging it can be, I suspect their answer might be “walk away before that happens”.

I got the recommendation for this book via twitter sometime last year, I started reading it then – almost crying with recognition! Then life happened and I was busy with other things, and only came back to finish reading it this month. It’s a great guide for those trying to change companies from the inside, so a big thank you to Luis Suarez.

Artificial Intelligence

2016 March CM images“The intelligence exhibited by machines or software”, artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in making machines smarter using tools of natural language processing, reasoning, computational intelligence, robotics etc. The commercial potential includes customer service, self driving cars and personal care.

Microsoft launched an experimental chatbot based on AI last week. On Wednesday Tay was born, an artificially intelligent chatbot with the personality of a 19-year-old female American, with the aim of “conducting research on conversational understanding”.

But it quickly went wrong, within hours Tay’s twitter account was supporting conspiracy theories around 9/11, espousing right wing views to vie with Hitler or Donald Trump. Tay’s life was short, Microsoft took her offline by the evening, and the worst of her tweets started disappearing. (Not before loads of people took screen grabs).

In the same week FastCompany reported on Whisper’s Arbiter software which ensures that nothing untoward is published by the company’s user-base. Whisper is anonymous and combines text with images, a virtual version of PostSecret. Their filter software is build on masses of data, but they still use human moderators to make sure that their user generated content stays on the right side of the company’s policies. This is particular challenging in an environment of anonymous accounts and sneaky attempts to subvert the algorithm.

So why didn’t Microsoft do the same? This “troll” phenomenon is well-known and well documented, and Microsoft has significant experience using social platforms, certainly enough to predict this.  WIRED report that Microsoft advised them in an email “We have taken Tay offline and are making adjustments” so perhaps when Tay comes back online she’ll have learnt from the first experiment.

There’s an oft quoted saying “artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity”, in this case Tay learnt from us, she copied patterns of speech and opinions from the humans who interacted with her. She’s a human creation in more ways than one; to make artificial intelligence better, we need to be better humans.

Image: Artificial Intelligence  | GLAS-8  |  CC BY_NC_ND2.0

 

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