Nov 232009

Powerpointless

Powerpointless

We tried an experiment last week at a Return Path Board meeting — and not just a regular Board meeting, but our once-a-year, full-day (~9 hour) annual planning session attended in person by all Board members, observers, and executives.  First, a little background.

We have been driving two important trends over the years at our Board meetings:

1. Focusing on the future, not the past.  In the early years of the business, our Board meetings were probably 75% “looking backwards” and 25% “looking forwards.”  They were reporting meetings — reports which were largely in the hands of Board members before the meetings anyway.  They were dull as all get out.  This past meeting was probably 10% “looking backwards” and 90% “looking forwards” and much more interesting as a result.

2. Focusing on creating a more engaging dialog during the meeting by separating out “background reading” vs. “presentation materials.”  We used to do a huge Powerpoint deck as both a handout the week before the meeting and as the in-meeting deck.  Then we separated the two things so people weren’t bored by the Powerpoint.  Then we started making the decks more fun and engaging and “zen.”  This meeting took the trend to its logical conclusion, which was that we sent out a great set of comprehensive reading materials and reports ahead of the meeting, and then…

…we didn’t have a single Powerpoint slide to run the meeting.  We thought that the best way to foster two-way dialog in the meeting was to change the paradigm away from a presentation — the whole concept of “management presenting to the Board” was what we were trying to change, not just what was on the wall.  The result was fantastic.  We had a very long meeting, but one where everyone — management and Board alike — was highly engaged.  No blackberries or iPhones.  Not too many yawns or walkabouts.  It was literally the best Board meeting we’ve had in almost 10 years of existence, out of probably 75 or 80 total.

I’m not sure this would work for all companies at all stages at all times, and we had a handful of graphics “ready to go” in case we wanted to shoot something up on the wall, as we likely will always have.  But I can’t say enough about how this evolution in meeting setup and execution changed the dynamic.

Nov 162009

Book Short: Sloppy Sequel

Book Short:  Sloppy Sequel

SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the original Freakonomics, either.  I always find the results of “naturally controlled experiments” and taking a data-driven view of the world to be very refreshing.  And as much as I like the social scientist versions of these kinds of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink (book; blog post), there’s usually something about reading something data driven written by a professional quant jock that’s more reassuring.

That’s where SuperFreakonomics fell down a bit for me.  Paul Krugman has described the book in a couple different places as “snarky and contrarian.”  I typically enjoy books that carry those descriptors, but this one seemed a bit over the top for economists — like a series of theories looking for data more than raw data adding up to theories.Nowhere is this more true than the chapter on climate change.  It’s a shame that that chapter seems to be swallowing up all the public discussion about the book, because there are some good points in that chapter, and the rest of the book is better than that particular chapter, but such is life.

As with all things related to the environment, I turned to my friend Andrew Winston’s blog, where he has a good post about how the authors kind of miss the point about climate change…and he also has a series of links to other blog posts debunking this one chapter.  If you’re into the topic, or if you read the book, follow the chain here for good reading.  My conclusion about this chapter, being at least somewhat informed about the climate change debate, is that the book seems to have sloppy writing and editing at best, possibly deliberately misleading at worst.  (Incidentally, the reaction in the blogosphere seems highly emotional, other than Andrew’s, which probably doesn’t serve the reactors well.)

But I’ll assume the best of intentions.  Some of the points made aren’t bad – there is no debate about the problem or the need to solve it, the authors express legitimate concern that current solutions, especially those requiring behavioral change, will be too little too late, and most interestingly, they show an interest in alternative approaches like geo-engineering.  I hadn’t been familiar with that topic at all, but I’m now much more interested in it, not because it’s a “silver bullet” approach to dealing with climate change, but because it’s a different approach, and complex problems like climate change deserve to have a wide range of people working on multiple types of solutions.  I met Nathan Myhrvold once (I almost threw up on him during a job interview, which is another story for another day), and it makes me very happy that his brilliance is being applied to this problem as a general principle.

As I said, though, beyond this one chapter, the book is good-not-great.  But it certainly is chock full of cocktail party nuggets!

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Nov 052009

Book Short: Chip Off the Old Block

Book Short: Chip Off the Old Block

I have to admit, I was more than a little skeptical when Craig Spiezle handed me a copy of The Speed of Trust, by Stephen M. R. Covey, at the OTA summit last week. The author is the son of THE Stephen Covey, author of the world famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as well as The Eighth Habit (book, post). Would the book have substance and merit or be drafting off the dad’s good name?

I dog-ear pages of books as I read them, noting the pages that are most interesting if I ever want to go back and take a quick pass through the book to remind me about it (and yes, Ezra, I can do this on the Kindle as well via the bookmark feature). If dog-ear quantity is a mark of how impactful a book is, The Speed of Trust is towards the top of the list for me.

The book builds nicely on Seven Habits and The Eighth Habit and almost reads like the work of Stephen the father. The meat of the book is divided into two sections: one on developing what Covey calls “self trust,” a concept not unlike what I blogged about a few months ago, that if you make and keep commitments to yourself, you build a level of self-confidence and discipline that translates directly into better work and a better mental state. The other core section is one on building trust in relationships, where Covey lists out 13 behaviors that all lead to the development of trust.

In fact, we just had a medium-size trust breach a couple weeks ago with one of our key clients. Reading the book just as we are struggling to “right the wrong” was particularly impactful to me and gave me a number of good ideas for how to move past the issue without simply relying on self-flagellation and blunt apologies. This is a book full of practical applications.

It’s not a perfect book (no book is), and in particular its notion of societal trust through contribution is a bit weak relative to the rest of the book, but The Speed of Trust is an excellent read for anyone who wants to understand the fastest way to build — and destroy — a winning culture. It reads like a sequel of Covey senior’s books, but that’s a good thing.

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