Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…THE KEYBOARD ALTERNATIVE TO WASTING TIME AND MONEY ON THE ROADPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Thursday, September 1st 2015
THIS week I visited a potential client in Barrow. I left a healthy two-and-a-quarter hours to get there from my office in Cockermouth. I arrived half an hour late.
Somewhere south of Gosforth I rounded a corner to find a queue of biblical proportions snaking its way along at the speed of a lobotomised snail behind a truckload of logs. The collective time lost by those stuck behind it just doesn’t bear thinking about.
I wonder how anyone who has to move around London on a regular basis manages to do business in anything like a reliable or efficient manner. Just one person going from Carlisle to Barrow and back twice a week is going to use a five-figure sum in time and travel expense every year.
So – rather than just offering sympathy or screaming at the government to build multi-billion pound tunnels/bridges/teleports, I thought I’d provide a suggestion that’s free, practical and almost certain to be ignored by the Barbecue men I upset last month.
I promise one thing to those doing the ‘London Convoy’ on a regular basis: if you can be open-minded and give this idea some time and effort, you will save a lot of time and money.
I developed a good technique for holding ‘text meetings’ over the Internet when I was working on a project for a company that expected me to get systems working in four countries without visiting any of them. The idea was simple: you use a ‘chat’ program – a bit of software that lets several users type lines of conversation at each other from any PC connected to the Internet, in any location.
Dozens of chat programs are available, based on the same theme: each user installs the software and registers with a unique ID. They then tell the program which other people they wish to communicate with. You can have one-to-one chats, or invite any number of users into a conference. There is an area on the screen into which you type your comments, and a bigger area showing everyone’s contributions as a scrolling conversation. It’s surprisingly easy to use – and no, you don’t need to be a good typist: reading and thinking is what matters, not speed of response.
During my time at the company with no travel budget I discovered something rather surprising: face-to-face meetings, while important at the beginning of any project to build trust between those involved, soon become a hugely inefficient way to move projects forward. People arrive late, don’t turn up, waffle, fail to listen, change their minds and then deny all of the above. Worse still, someone has to produce minutes that clearly state all the agreed points without scope for misinterpretation.
Once you’ve all met once or twice and you’ve reached the point with your meetings where you simply need to discuss a pre-set list of items to obtain certain decisions (i.e. you have a proper agenda) not meeting up can often be the most effective route. The well-managed use of a chat program can often cover in an hour what would take half a day – plus travel – to achieve around a table.
1. Choose one of the many Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or ‘messenger’ programs available either free or as part of bigger packages. There’s one built into Windows XP itself (Windows Messenger), some Internet companies like MSN provide them as part of their package and others can be downloaded, like Yahoo Messenger (free from www.yahoo.com). Find one that everyone is happy to install and use – the different options don’t talk to each other.
2. Pick an existing, small team and agree to have a good, meaningful try at making this work.
3. Provide everyone with some clear instructions (see below) and spend some time pinging messages at each other to get comfortable with the software.
4. Pick a good, no-nonsense chairman who is not afraid to keep order. Make sure everyone knows who this person is and that they are in charge.
5. Have your first meeting and don’t be discouraged if things go awry here and there. Next time you’re in the same room, discuss it, refine your approach, and – most importantly – try again!
6. Save the text from every meeting and email it to everyone, so nobody can ever claim they don’t know exactly what was said.
If you start to get good at it, you have the option of moving to a more comprehensive tool that looks after far more than meeting text, allowing use of cameras, document sharing, whiteboards and so on. Look up ‘virtual meeting’, ‘virtual office’ or ‘online meeting’ on the web to find a huge choice.
Many reading this article will by now have dismissed this idea, with reasons like:
My staff aren’t into this kind of thing – we’ll never get them to do it.
You’ll never replace face-to-face meetings.
I can’t type.
To those people, here’s why you should do it anyway:
Money: Add up the time and money you are spending on meetings at the moment. Put a value on that time. Sit down while you get over the number you’ve come up with, then try this idea instead.
Simplicity. It’s easier than you think. Anyone who uses a PC will pick this up in minutes.
Efficiency. A 10-minute discussion about colours becomes ‘Fred: What colour do you want widget number five?’ ‘Wilma: Blue.’ Job done.
Accuracy. Take the above example. Nobody can claim they didn’t say it and nobody can misinterpret it. When you have to type something and press a key to release it into the world, you tend to consider it first and be concise. It takes practice, but sooner or later attendees end up saying just what they mean, once, and sticking to it – and when you’re simply moving work forward by discussion and decision, what you need are simple, unambiguous questions and statements.
So – what’s the catch? Well, the truth is that you simply can’t approach a text meeting casually and hope it goes okay. You have to apply the same skills as a well-run conventional meeting, and apply them rigidly. Here are some pointers:
1. Make sure that everyone gives the virtual meeting the same priority and attention as any conventional one. Make it clear that the meeting is a replacement for the face-to-face option – not a quirky experiment that they can ignore.
2. Get the agenda clear and agreed before you start. The main challenge for the chairman is to keep people on topic and keep the resulting meeting text flowing in a clear and logical way, and the agenda is key to this.
3. Make sure everyone knows the rules: Pay attention and don’t be doing anything else during the meeting. Obey the chairman no matter what. Keep text concise and to the point. Stay on subject and let topics reach a conclusion. Make notes of ideas and questions and submit them at a suitable point rather than interrupting. No side-discussions between individuals. If someone’s asked a question, wait for the response before sending anything else. If you’re unsure about anything, ask for clarification now before the subject closes.
4. If things get chaotic, the chairman must call a pause in proceedings, then ask one individual at a time to comment. Once things are back on track, the conversation will resume normally.
5. The chairman must take a point at a time, be prepared to reprimand anyone who makes this difficult, and make sure a clearly-stated conclusion is achieved before moving on. Remember: you are building a document as you go.
6. When the group reaches a decision, the chairman should re-state it clearly and ask everyone to respond with their agreement. Wait until you have a ‘yes’ from everyone before moving on.
7. The chairman should be prepared for comments to arrive in the wrong order, sometimes several at a time. You’ll soon learn to deal with them – mostly through patience and strict control.
8. Expect people to try doing other things during the meeting, and react appropriately. The chairman should ping direct questions at each attendee throughout the meeting (e.g. ‘Simon – do you agree?’), just to ensure they are still with you. If they don’t respond for several seconds, assume they’re doing their expenses in the background. Treat them the same way as if they were doing it right in front of you in a meeting.
In the past I have completed entire projects using these methods. I have sat at my PC at 2am in Canada, chairing a software design meeting between a client in the USA, an encryptionist in Siberia and programmers in the USA and Australia. None of us ever met, but we got through a day-long meeting in two hours and the software arrived on time to a delighted client. It took practice and persistence, but when I think of the money saved, it was a complete no-brainer to make the effort.
Londonn businesses may not be known for their openness to new ways of doing things, but our competitors don’t have a mountain range between their offices, so we simply have to find better ways to do things. This is one of them.