Category Archives: Social & Political

Productive meetings vs. the cluster-call: New collaboration thoughts

A couple weeks ago, I asked via LinkedIn and Twitter, what makes a meeting productive. The question has led me to conclude that a new type of collaborative activity, the cluster-call, is an opportunity for greater productivity, but also can be a barrier to innovation because it is not managed differently than a meeting.

For several years, a new kind of collaboration activity has been developing on the foundation of telecommunications, the cluster-call, a continuous use of partial attention via conference call. These are virtual gatherings, typically scheduled so that all the participants can be available if — and that’s the key condition — if something comes up for which they have responsibility. Cluster-calls typically involve 30 to 60 people, all of whom are splitting their attention between the call, listening of hot button issues, and some form of work or diversion. One hears of these calls as “a meeting that is getting a lot of momentum.” I often suspect that these calls are the source of the hours of social media use, or Solitaire play, that managers fear to count on their activity reports. Cluster-calls are, however, a viable form of collaboration at the right scale.

Cluster-calls work when they are not substitutes for meetings with an agenda that requires a decision. They are excellent collaboration environments in the right size and with the right scope. Teams, rather than cross-team collaboration, are best served by the constant connectivity of a cluster-call. As people continue to work, they can tap anyone in their team, or reach out individually to bring someone from another team onto the call, to address questions, discover information and brainstorm. But try to turn a cluster-call into a daily meeting, treating it like a scrum or stand-up meeting, where people use the immediacy of the agenda to get work done, and the call will degenerate into a protracted distraction from productive work.

So, how do you have a productive meeting? Or a productive cluster-call? A meeting, whether physical or virtual, is defined by its goals. A cluster-call is a setting for outcomes, but without an agenda, it becomes primarily a regulator of change. On large cluster-calls, people tend to focus on what can stop or interrupt normal business activity. They flag concerns without being obligated to provide solutions, so these kinds of gatherings are hotbeds of change prevention.

“[It] depends on the sort of meeting, but generally, when clear goals have been defined & everyone knows what they’re supposed to do,” replied Phillip Mueller, a German entrepreneur living in The Netherlands. This describes a productive use of time, it could apply to any kind of gathering.

Robert Reddick, a Charlotte, N.C. entrepreneur, offers that a productive meeting is “a place to pre-flight and execute decisions,” also a result that could come from a meeting or a cluster-call. But without an agenda, the framework for decision-making is typically absent.

A cluster-call, which is simply a way of describing being simultaneously connected to a virtual space, works great for small groups who are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. In this age of demanding competition, where people come and go from small projects, cluster-calls let people learn quickly in small groups. A scrum meeting, for instance, can be extremely productive, because people share information as the need for sharing becomes apparent. People talk about things and when someone on the call doesn’t know about the project or subject of conversation, they can ask. Often the instructions come offline, away from the cluster-call, but the group determines when that is necessary.

Small groups constantly connected can thrive. Bring 30 or 60 people together, a common practice these days in larger companies, and the productivity becomes the explorations of limits. The limits of the group’s knowledge, the limit of the group’s tolerance for new ideas, for change and the limits of the organization’s flexibility become apparent. The outcome is that everyone is quiet unless they see the need to raise a flag. It’s easier to play along and be quiet in these large meetings.

There is a breed of participation in cluster-calls: Grand-standing. It becomes a regular occurrence that a small, consistent group dominates the calls, exercising their expertise without actually intending to share that expertise. Knowledge is a crowded cluster-call is like the knowledge that drives crowds: The noisiest people keep things moving in one direction.

Meetings should be recognized as events with agendas. If the agenda isn’t addressed, that is not a productive meeting. On the other hand, a small cluster-call can work effectively  without an agenda, though it must not become routine or it will descend into unproductive activity. A regularly scheduled call of 40 to 60 people (I’ve been on these calls with up to 90 participants on several occasions), even with an agenda, becomes an exercise that reinforces the flow of information, downward due to the likelihood that any newcomer, any controversial idea will be squelched by the people most likely to grandstand.

Leadership based on the intimidating presence of a crowd that will agree quietly destroys the organization. Which is why the road from democracy to tyranny is always paved by populists, as well.

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Dr. Lakra Exhibits Tattoo-Inspired Drawings in New York – NYTimes.com

I do not consider tattoo a form of art, it is a form of annotation or embellishment, but not a statement of enduring difference with the prevailing ethos or representativeness in tattoo art. Wearing a tattoo is like wearing a brand label, it passes because of its temporary quality.

Dr. Lakra Exhibits Tattoo-Inspired Drawings in New York – NYTimes.com.

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Geraldine A. Ferraro – Obituary – NYTimes.com

I remember seeing Ms. Ferraro speak at the Tacoma Dome in 1984. I was a Hart delegate that year to the state convention. She shouldered the responsibility of being the first woman nominated for the Vice Presidency with aplomb.

Geraldine A. Ferraro – Obituary – NYTimes.com.

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Rationale for a nightmare

“This notion that the economy is self-stabilising is usually right but it is wrong a few times a century. And this is one of those times….” Lawrence Summers, Obama economic advisor in today’s Financial Times.

This is the wrong argument, one that supports unregulated markets most of the time. Rather, we’ve learned that the balance of market and regulatory power is something that cannot remain static over time, that constant retooling is needed. IF we want to think differently, it’s time to acknowledge that mixed markets are the healthiest and that, once this crisis is over, there is no “going back,” because the unregulated economy has demonstrated it is a ruinous economy.

Warren Buffett agrees: “We want to err on the side next time of not allowing big institutions to get as unchecked on leverage as we have allowed them to do.”

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Where is conservative “country first?”

The American Spectator derides conservatives who met with President-elect Barack Obama in a headline and short posting yesterday: Obama Meets With Ex-Conservatives.

Talking to Obama apparently confirms the failure of these commentators, including George Will and William Kristol, in their conservative orthodoxy. In other words, they are “talking to the enemy.”

Whether The American Spectator likes it or not, Obama won the election. Rather than proclaiming, as one Vice President Dick Cheney did, that winning an election gives the party in power the right to collect “our due,” Obama is talking to everyone.

That’s what democracy is, leading rather than commanding.

But our co-countrymen on the right seem to think that, if they do it, refusing to talk to or cooperate with the President, is not disloyal or traitorous. Country after party is their motto. Unlike them, I will not ask them to leave the country that they clearly love less than the power that country occasionally grants them.

In related news, the Republican Senators who now claim they won’t give a “blank check” to the incoming president, the same blank check handed to their man when he was in office, are playing politics with TARP money. All the problems with Washington politics conservatives decry when become standard operating procedure when they are out of power.

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Happy democracy, America

Now, let’s get to work. McCain’s was his best speech of the entire campaign, that tone throughout the campaign would have made it closer.

President-Elect Obama (feels good to write that) gave a speech that underscores the serious challenges before us. It’s bracing to hear he is beginning transition immediately. It will be important that every step is measured and deliberated and, while that represents a refreshing change from the past eight years, only the election night parties are over. The real work begins now.

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What if we just declare “jubilee”?

I’ve been thinking about something a realtor friend told me last night. Yesterday, three homeowners called a banker she knows and said that, if the banks were going to be bailed out, they weren’t going to pay their mortgage. These were regular mortgage payers with no history of credit problems. They have simply given up on the relationship between the economy and themselves that they’ve believed all their lives.

So, I looked into the total US debt, the total of debt owed by low-income countries, the total mortgage debt in the United States and other factors, such as total consumer debt, in the clusterf*^%$k we call the economy.

The United States has $10.2 trillion dollars of national debt as of today. Only $5.9 trillion of that is held by the public, the rest is intragovernmental debt, held by various government entities as part of borrowing conducted to keep things going.

As of August, there was $2.5 trillion in U.S. consumer revolving and nonrevolving debt. Low-income nations owe about $523 billion to rich countries, including the United States.

What if we call it all even? Just erase all debts, including all debts owed by developing nations, except those U.S. Treasury notes held by the public

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