What do you do on calls all day? A not so accurate analysis

Following on from yesterday’s post: The 10 Rules of Conference Calls – A Not So Definitive List, and the feedback that I received, I thought I would do a quick, not so accurate, analysis of what I did on calls all day:

A graph showing what I did on calls...
What do you do on calls all day? I think I may have over-estimated some of these.

Did I miss anything?

I think that there may be ways that we can optimise this process?

The 10 Rules of Conference Calls – A Not So Definitive list

The conference call is now ubiquitous in many working environments, but wherever I have worked a number of universal truths seem to apply:

  1. The number of connectivity problems that you experience is directly proportional to the importance of the call. This rule applies in most connectivity situations, but is particularly applicable in situations where connectivity is normally reliable.
  2. The key member of the meeting will join the meeting precisely 2 minutes after you decide to close the meeting down having made numerous attempt to try and contact that key individual. This is a two part rule. The moment that you close the call all other participants will become unavailable making reconvening the meeting impossible.
  3. If a colleague asks you how much longer you’ll be on your call and you say 2 minutes the call will last for at least a further 20 minutes.
  4. If you are on a call while working from home a delivery person will knock on your door at the precise moment when you need to be contributing to the call. Other distractions are available.
  5. If anyone is going to have problems going on mute it will be the person on the call with the most background noise.
  6. You will be speak whilst on mute when you have your best idea. When you repeat your idea once you are off mute it won’t sound quite as good as it did the first time.
  7. If a colleague asks you how much longer you’ll be on your call and you say 20 minutes the call will only last for a further 2 minutes. In these 2 minutes your colleague will have already left or become unavailable.
  8. The delay between the published start time and the actual start time is directly proportional to the number of people expected on the call. This has nothing to do with any technical limitation.
  9. If the conference call has an online Q&A capability your question will be answered by the speaker at the very instant that you post the question.
  10. Any meeting that finishes early will be closed with the words “I’ll give you XXX mins back.” This rule applies to any meeting that closes more than 4 minutes early, but may still be applied to meetings that finish up to 30 seconds early.

I’m sure I’ve missed some?

Heaver Image: This is the beach at Rossall, Lancashire which is a wonderful place to walk and watch the sun set over the Irish sea and across the Cumbrian Mountains.

Concept of the Day: Parkinson’s Law

There are certain phrases in the English lexicon that are almost universally known, but their history is less well known – this is one of those phrases:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson

These words appear at the beginning of an article in The Economist in 1955:

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

Parkinson’s Law, The Economist, 19th November, 1955

Parkinson’s initial observations were made in relation to the volume of civil servants and the amount of work being done. This is an ongoing discussion 64 years later, but not one that I feel in any way qualified to comment on. Parkinson was quite cynical about the reasons for an expanding civil service of his day – but I’ll let you read the original article and draw your own conclusion.

(Personally, in 2019, I find the caricatures of the “elderly lady of leisure” and the “busy man” jarring in their reinforcement of stereotypes.)

Where I can comment is in the business world where I see this law at play every day.

Meetings that are scheduled for an hour generally last an hour. This is remarkable when you consider the lack of preparation that goes in to most meetings. Interestingly enough meetings that are scheduled for 30 minutes generally last 30 minutes. Furthermore, there is, often, little discernible difference between the outcomes of a 30 minute meeting and 60 minute one. This is Parkinson’s Law at play.

Someone given a few hours to prepare material to present to a client will generally finish it in the time allocated and the material will be of a good quality. Given more time they would still produce material of a good quality.

Projects that are planned to deliver something over several months will rarely deliver anything in a few weeks, even when the project plan was highly speculative when created. Interestingly, it’s not unknown for projects that are planned for months to last several years, but I don’t think we can hold Parkinson’s Law wholly responsible for that.

I don’t think we can remove Parkinson’s Law altogether, what we need to do is to recognise it and contain it.

One of the powerful aspects of incremental delivery techniques like Scrum and Kanban is that they reduce the impact of Parkinson’s Law by breaking larger activities down into smaller constrained entities. Each entity is still subject to Parkinson’s Law; the constraint contains the impact within the increment.

The impact of constraints is easy to understand if you think about an 8 hour working day. Imagine within that day that you have 16 different subjects to discuss. Add to that scene 10 people sitting in a room for those 8 hours working their way through the agenda from top to bottom. What is the likelihood that with just 2 hours remaining there are still 8 items to discuss? Now imagine those same 16 different subjects and a schedule split into strictly enforced 25 minute slots that gives people a 5 minute break before the start of the next subject. What’s more this schedule requires conclusions to be reached within 20 minutes. Which of these two approaches will result in each of the 16 items being discussed? But will the conclusions reached be of the same quality as the ones discussed for longer? The impact of time on decision making is a complex one, and probably worth a post another day, but there’s evidence that decisions made quickly (not rushed) are often better than those made over a protracted period of time.

What I’ve outlined above is similar to the Pomodoro Technique. This techniques also utilises a set of time constrained slots, typically 25 minutes, and is often highlighted as a way of overcome procrastination, but I think it works just as well as a mechanism to constrain Parkinson’s Law.

My 25 minutes of writing is nearly up, and I want to read through what I’ve written, so I think I’ll leave it there.

Header Image: This is the view from Kirkstone Pass looking down towards Brothers Water and Glenridding beyond. These are some of my favourite hills partly because, for the most part, they are rarely visited.

When was the last time you were bored? Are you too distracted to be creative?

I recently watched this video by Kyle T. Webster entitled: Make Time for Boredom.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to be bored? We live in a world of constant distraction, spending hours interacting with our screens, mostly doing nothing at all.

We flick from Instagram to Message to Email to Twitter to Facebook to Netflix to YouTube and back again hoping that something there will distract us. Apart from wasting time, have you ever wondered what all of that time-slicing is doing to your brain? Perhaps, if your brain wasn’t doing all of that stuff it would be bored, but perhaps that boredom would help you to be more creative? That’s what the video is about, and I think it’s a message many of us need to hear:

Header Image: a rather dull, yet pleasing seascape across Morecambe Bay from Silverdale. I stood for a while and pondered.

“Time can be an ally or an enemy. What it becomes depends entirely upon… Zig Ziglar

“Time can be an ally or an enemy. What it becomes depends entirely upon you, your goals, and your determination to use every available minute.”

Zig Ziglar

Header Image: This is the water and rocks below Birks Bridge in the Duddon Valley. It’s a great place for a STORIES adventure, particularly for a swim.

I’m reading… “Time and How to Spend It” by James Wallman

I really liked this book, it met so many of the criteria for a good book for me:

I like books with practical advice that is communicated as principles rather than prescriptions.

I like books with stories, we are made to remember stories.

I like books based on evidence, particularly when the author acknowledges that the evidence is indicative rather than definitive.

I’ve spent much of my life with a couple of quotations about time ringing through my head:

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Which I didn’t realise until writing this post was simply an extension of Albert Einstein’s quotation “Time is an illusion”.

“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

C.S. Lewis

These two quotations are, in some regards, contradictory. Time can’t be both an illusion and a constant ticking of minutes and yet, for me, this contradiction speaks volumes. We each have the same number of minutes in a day, that is true, and yet, each of us recognises that how we use those minutes greatly influences how we perceive our day. The spending of minutes is where this book is focused, but not where most of this type of book focus their study, on our work life and how to get ahead, this book is primarily targeted at all that time you have when you aren’t working.

James Wallman begins Time and How To Spend It with a couple of quotations:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Annie Dillard

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

William Penn

How do you spend your time? Yes, you spend a lot of it asleep and, probably, another huge section at that thing you call work, but what about the remaining minutes? Have you ever received any training on how to spend that other time? Do you know what type of activity in your free time would enrich the whole of your life? How do you avoid those times where you feel like you’ve wasted your time? How do you get the best value out of your free time? Can you really call time free?

As I look around my friends, acquaintances and colleagues I see so many different ways that people use the free time that they have. Some people appear to achieve so much and have such amazing experiences while others have little to show for the time that they have spent. What are the things that separate these two extremes? Does it matter? Well it does if we can enrich our whole life and even extend them by investing our time in particular ways.

James Wallman’s hypothesis is precisely that, apply a set of principles to spending our leisure time will greatly enrich our lives.

The reality is, though, that many of us have a very uneasy relationship with the free time that we have. A quotation from the opening chapter of the book:

“The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why are we so uneasy, particularly now? This is a summary of the reasons that James Wallmam gives:

  • We are earning more which makes the cost of time seem higher and feel more scarce.
  • We think that busyness is status.
  • We have too many incoming messages and too many demands on our time.
  • Instead of helping, multitasking creates ‘contaminated time’.
  • We have more opportunities than ever – endlessly scrolling online, more new places to go and events to attend – and end up feeling FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Smartphones and all of our digital devices now eat around 60% of our leisure time.
  • Leisure isn’t taught, and has become trivialised, belittled.

James Wallman likens the different ways that we spend time to the different foods that we eat, some foods being empty-calories, like all of that endless scrolling, and others being super-foods, like a walk with a close friend along a beach. The aim of the book being to teach us how to recognise and consume super-food experiences rather than flopping into an empty-calorie existence.

The structure of the book is based on an acrostic of the word STORIES with each of the letters highlighting a characteristic of great experiences:

  • Story – understanding the hero’s journey and what makes a great story.
  • Transformation – creating personal growth leads to happiness.
  • Outside and Offline – there’s huge power in being outside and away from all of those interruptions.
  • Relationships – loneliness isn’t healthy, we are made to do things together.
  • Intensity – this is about flow, which is a huge subject in its own right.
  • Extraordinary – creating a balance between novel and ordinary experiences.
  • Status and Significance – creating significance by investing in others.

With a combination of stories, evidence and anecdote each of these chapters creates a set of principles that define those super-food experiences.

I normally leave this bit until the end, but it’s appropriate here:

Header Image: Today’s header image was taken on a recent holiday when I was contemplating many of the principles in this book.

The picture was taken at the Low Wood Bay, Windermere, UK – this place has been a special place in Sue and I’s lives for over 30 years, so returning was extending an already significant story in our lives.

We are stood on a jetty from where we left our wedding reception in a speedboat. As with the day of this picture, it had been a lovely day that we would remember for the rest of our lives. There are many parts of that day that I don’t remember the detail of, but I remember the feeling of stepping into a speedboat that had been kindly decorated by the staff with trailing buoys and a Just Married poster. We kept this part of our wedding a secret, so it was a surprise to nearly everyone and the look on their faces as we zoomed off across the lake is etched into my memory.

Having taken a few picture we put out phones away and we stood and remembered, together, outside, in a kind of flow as we thought about our children, the things we had enjoyed together and the blessing of seeing them both in loving relationships of their own. We thought about some of the adventures that we had been on and looked forward to adventures to come, even the very next day. We looked across the lake at the beauty of it all and held hands.

We used STORIES to extend and enrich our story.

For a slightly longer summary of the information in the book the following is a good podcast:

I’m reading… “Nonviolent Communication – A Language for Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg

I’m always on the look out for books that people are reading and finding helpful, interesting, entertaining, etc. Sometimes people recommend something to me, at other times I see a video or a talk by someone and decide to read their book. I found this one via a different route.

One of the subjects that I find interesting is organisational change, particularly in large organisation. The change at Microsoft since Satya Nadella become CEO has been on of the most dramatic organisational changes in recent years. I read his book Hit Refresh a little while ago and was fascinated by the definition of the organisation as a group of warring factions. What I missed from that book and only understood later on was that he had made his entire leadership team read a book as part of changing the warring factions situation – Nonviolent Communication is that book.

This isn’t a new book having been first published in 1999 based on research and experience that dates back to the 1960s. Nor is this a “Business Management” book of the type that you may expect the leader of a large enterprise to be giving out. This book isn’t a business management book at all, really, it would be better to describe it as a “tools for life” book.

As the name suggests this is a book about communication, another subject that has fascinated me for a very long time.

As the introduction to the book says:

“NVC (Nonviolent Communication) is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying conditions. it contains nothing new; all that has been integrated into NVC has been known for centuries. The intent is to remind us about what we already know – about how we humans were meant to relate to one another – and to assist us in living in a way that concretely manifests this knowledge.”

Nonviolent Communications – A Way to Focus Attention

In these posts I normally give a bit of an overview of the book; I’m not going to do that this time because this is a book that deserves to be read and not consumed as a summary.

The other thing I normally do is provide some personal observations; I’m not going to do that either. Many of my personal observations are very personal and require a bit longer to become part of who I am before I write about the. What I will say is that reading through this book has helped me to see a number of things that I do when I communicate that I need to change, it’s also given me some tools to make those changes.

What I will do is to say what this book isn’t. This book isn’t a how-to prescriptive manual for counselling conversation, although much of what is in the book would be helpful for those situations. Neither is it a book of listening skills, although it includes many great insights on how to be a great listener. It’s not even a manual on how to be politically correct, although some of the examples could be read that way if you were so inclined. This book isn’t just about giving good communication, it’s also about receiving it well.

I started reading this book part way through a series of posts that in my head is called “fascinating conversations”. Once I’d started reading this book I felt that I needed to finish it before continuing those posts for fear of simply adding to my catalogue of poor behaviour. I haven’t yet decided whether I will restart those posts, I probably will, but I need to change some of the language.

Having read it I can understand why Satya Nadella made it mandatory reading for his leadership team.