Pushing the Envelope

I did a joint presentation today with a colleague who used the phrase “pushing the envelope”. I was surprised, to me the phrase is very American and she’s not. It stuck with me, it’s an expression I always meant to “look up” and I was curious about its origins.

The commonly understood meaning is going beyond usually accepted limits, and that’s the sense in which my colleague used it.

All the space that was ever under the ladder = the envelope

All the space that was ever under the ladder = the envelope

Searching around the internet for its origins I found a lot of references to aeronautics, where it refers to the combinations of parameters, such as altitude and velocity, at which flying is safe. This meaning of it was derived from a mathematical meaning ‘the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves’. If that doesn’t make it immediately clear imagine a ladder sliding down a wall, all the space that it ever occupied is, mathematically speaking, the envelope.

So in aeronautical terms “pushing the envelope” was flying in a way that pushed the aircraft beyond the limits generally accepted by mathematicians and engineers.

The term was used by technicians and pilots from 1940s onwards (at least), but it wasn’t until Tom Wolfe picked it up and used it in his book “The Right Stuff” in 1979 that it entered general use.  I suspect that most people don’t realise where it originated, and couldn’t explain it if someone asked what it really meant. Did you? Is it a term you use? I’m curious.

A Funny Take on the Crisis

The cost of a private jet vs a JetBlue flight

The cost of a private jet vs a JetBlue flight

It was only a matter of time before someone had the guts to do a funny take on the crisis, and JetBlue has, and they’ve done an excellent j0b.

They’ve  created a website targeting CEOs who have fallen from favour and perhaps lost their rights to use a private jet. It’s called the “CEO’s Guide to Jetting”, at www.welcomebigwigs.com.

The concept is simple, it’s a site exclusively for CEOs and aims to assure the that the service on JetBlue will satisfy them. Of course bigwig CEOs are an easy target right now, but the very clever part of the execution of this is that they’re not afraid to poke a little fun at themselves.

Music from Technology

You can now play your iPhone as if it were an ocarina. The ocarina dates back more than 12,000 years, it’s a vessel flute, and has a rounder sound than the transverse flute. You can hear an Ocarina on this website related to Mexican culture. I love that something so ancient is getting a new lease of life on something so modern.

Here’s a video of the ocarina iPhone version.

Earth Hour

So that was earth hour.
picture-9An hour where millions of people turned off one light, photographed the sky, video, blogged and twittered about it.

The total savings in electricity won’t have that big an impact on our total use of energy, but that’s not the point.

The point is that millions of people around the world voted for the planet, actively signed up their support for the planet in the face of an environmental crisis.

This comes as I finish reading Seth Godin’s book Tribe, and the Earth Hour is a great example of someone with little power building a tribe. A tribe with a purpose who are prepared to take action.

Meeting Tips: Let’s (Not) Meet

Too many meetings. I sometimes feel that I don’t get to do any real work done because I’m in meetings all day. My survival tips;

  1. block time in your agenda for the “real work”, not only are you planning the work, you’re blocking off time for anyone else to schedule a meeting (people will find other ways to get the info they need and solve their problems)
  2. schedule short meetings – if people think the meeting can last an hour it will
  3. keep meetings small, inevitably everyone will want to speak, so more people will inevitably take longer.
  4. have a purpose and an agenda
  5. start on time – with whoever is there on time
  6. announce the meeting’s purpose it at the beginning of the meeting, remind people of it
  7. stick to time
  8. ‘park’ items that don’t relate to the agenda – that’s not what you’re here for.
  9. write up the meeting – decisions taken and actions committed to, and send the notes out directly after the meeting

It’s not rocket science – I got most of these from Manager Tools – the world’s most useful site for new managers.

set an agenda, with times

They also recommend working through ground rules at the beginning of meetings, I did this with my team – they generated a similar list (I said it wasn’t rocket science!). However there are a couple of interesting additions, coffee is a requirement and our team meetings should be held outside the office occasionally. It works well – and the meetings are usually half an hour.

This week Seth Godin weighed in with his meeting rules, lots of the same concepts, but a  couple of things struck me.

He also questions why meetings are always set at a default one hour length – and suggests scheduling meetings in increments of five minutes. I like this, high potential for confusion if you’ve used default one hour meetings for a long time.

He suggests removing the chairs, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this, I can’t find a reference now but I think Queen Elizabeth II keeps her advisors standing (the origin of a “standing committee” perhaps).

I like his last suggestion; “If you’re not adding value to a meeting, leave.” I’ve been tempted many times, next time I’ve got a meeting scheduled where my value may be limited I’ll make sure I’m sitting next to the door.

Apprentice 1: Start a Cleaning Company

The first task for the candidates was to start their own cleaning company – just what they were dressed for.

It’s a simple task; strategy = decide what service you want to provide, buy your tools, find your clients, deliver. As always watch your costs.

Empire, the guys team, won and got themselves a cocktail party.

Apprentice1 resultsIgnite lost, despite earning more revenue, because they spent almost all the money they were allowed to spend, coming in just under the 200 pounds allowed. Anita Shah congratulated the team “well done, we’ve come in under budget”. Not an attitude that would work in a start up company – and not an attitude that will work with Sir Alan.

Mona chose the co-leader Debra Barr and Anita Shah to go into the board room with her. Mona damned Debra for not taking responsibility but then pulled Anita into the boardroom based on Debra’s word, something wrong with the story there.

Sir Alan Sugar commented that they’re either very smart or very stupid, to which Margaret Montford commented that they had no commercial sense whatsoever. She’s right.

Sir Alan’s judgement was that Anita, who had put herself forward as “one of the best business brains of Britain” showed no business acumen.

“Anita, you’re fired”.

In my view; none of the women really performed. Usually that gets laid at the feet of the project manager but Anita Shah made the fatal mistake of celebrating being under budget – when they’d actually spent too much.

Twitter Business

Many companies have already put thought into the use of social media by employees. There’s been an interesting demonstration of different approaches to Twitter – from the world of sport.

I discussed the same subject recently with a group of friends working in different companies. Almost everyone had some kind of limit on what type of sites they could see; youtube, web email sites, blogs, flickr, facebook/myspace, chat tools and wiki all got a mention. The company logic seems to be on the basis of what is a distraction while you’re at work.

Interestingly some companies allow access to facebook seeing it as an important networking tool, and for some sites such as wiki were visible, but it wasn’t possible to contribute.

I’ve been playing with twitter in the last week, and it is work-related (really). I’ve found lots of information via Twitter and uncovered a range of blogs relevant to my job (really). I’ve used wikis, blogs and discussion forums (yes, really) to help with work issues or projects for years. And checked job applicants on networking sites. For me all these sites are tools, and becoming more essential by the day.

So which is it? Will the companies with the conservative policies prove to be more efficient and more profitable? Or will the more open companies prove to acquire more knowledge and be more profitable?

My suspicion is the more open companies will win, not only will they be able to acquire more knowledge but they’ll find it easier to attract talent, particularly young talent.

The Logic of Life

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 14.12.56The Logic of Life

Tim Harford

Explaining the logic of life for all time seems daunting, but Tim Harford tackles it with characteristic simplicity and shows that we’re more rational, in more situations than we realise.

He begins with gambling and addiction, both of which have elements that can be explained by the economist’s favourite; gaming theory. He tackles the world of dating, and finds we’re rational even when we’re romantic. The fields of work is also examined, including the very rational reasons for your boss earning so very much more than you do.

He dares to discuss racism, and depressingly finds that there is also a rational component to some racism as he discusses Thomas Schellings model of segregation. The model suggests that if even a slight preference for one’s own race exists across a population then segregation is inevitable. Sounds implausible? It’s demonstrated in the video below.

Where the book is weaker, and he admits that the evidence here is thinner, is in the last chapter where he looks at the broad sweep of history.

All in all it’s a good book, with plenty of information to help you astonish your friends. “Did you know that cities are less polluting rural areas?” ought to get the debate rolling.

Alltop: an online magazine rack

Alltop is a content aggregator bringing together the best content on a range of subjects from AOL to masonry to zoology. It’s a simple concept and they provide a relatively simple tool. They bill themselves as;

Alltop is an “online magazine rack” of popular topics. We update the stories every hour. Pick a topic by searching, news category, or name, and we’ll deliver it to you 24 x 7. All the topics, all the time.

There’s a new development, you can now create your own Alltop, creating an account allows you to create your own Alltop selecting from the available feeds. I created my alltop; collecting feeds from leadership, technology and writing, it’s listed in the blogroll for future reference. There is also an option to republish it on Facebook, or to indulge in a bit of self promotion by going directly to twitter. Alltop’s founder Guy Kawasaki is shameless in his self-promotion on twitter, so it’s no surprise this option features.

For people unfamiliar with RSS feeds it’s great, they can create a sort of “portal” of content they like, they do end up with the magazine rack online as promised.

Also the plus side I did find some sites/blogs via Alltop that are useful, that I hadn’t seen before. But once it’s set up there’s no further use of it. It doesn’t seem to do anything. You can share it – but it’s just your selection of someone else’s recommendations.

I had fun setting it up, but rather than use Alltop I’ve added the useful feeds to netvibes where I can sort them by subject to different tabs and can customise what I see (number of items and add text etc).

I wonder what the next steps for Alltop will be – will I get more tabs? Will I be able to recommend content? We’ll see.

Powerpoint: Extreme Makeover

Powerpoint is alive and well but it’s undergoing a makeover, an extreme one. Which should be welcome news, except that something’s missing; content.

By now most of us have learnt what not to do, either by experiencing it ourselves or via the mockery of our colleagues. But just in case you’re one of the 3 people on the planet who has a computer and hasn’t heard the phrase “death by powerpoint” here’s what not to do.

There’s plenty of information out there on what you should do as well;

And apparently people are listening. I’ve noticed a much greater use of clever images in presentations, and while the text slide is not dead, it’s certainly playing more of a “supporting” role in presentations.

However what many presenters seem to have heard is “use more images, use videos – your audience will love you”. With the result that I’ve seen old videos, an image of a mossy tree used to demonstrate “embrace”, and worst of all listened to a presenter explain why he chose particular images to represent certain concepts. If you have to explain your choice of image then I’d say you have the wrong image.

What was missing was a story, a red thread, a concept behind the presentation.  What was missing was content.

In fact the best presentation I’ve seen all week was a rather old fashioned one, fairly ugly template, fairly text heavy. But there was content. There was a concept. There was a point of view. The presenter knew his content, and talked to the audience, looked at us, engaged us.

I suspect by racing to fill our presentations with the great, dramatic images that will deliver the high impact we’ve forgotten that old old golden rule. Content is King. And we’ve certainly forgotten the original purpose of our presentation – engaging our audience.