When Sitting in the Front Row Isn’t Great

I have always loved sitting in the front row in a classroom, church service, conference presentation, and especially an airplane. Sitting in the front row allows unfiltered access to the speaker, with the distractions emanating from other people removed from sight. At university, it was the bored and don’t-want-to-be-here students who preferred the back row, but I did want to be there (except for Auditing and a few other classes) so could usually be found at the front. The front row of an airplane is a sanctuary of quiet and concentration, which is wonderful for recharging, thinking, debriefing, and getting ready for the next engagement. Visual distractions are removed, engendering focus.

But sitting in the front row is not universally a good thing – nor always symbolic of a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago I had to sit in almost the front row at a funeral. In reserved for family seating. For a niece who died at 15 – the youngest of three sisters of my sister-in-law and her husband. Sitting in the back row at such an event would be much preferred – “we knew the deceased from a distance” – but when you are required by right of kinship to sit in the front row the usual beauty and magic of being there is replaced with the picture-perfect clarity of deep loss.

  • Grief wearing its grooves on her mother, father and two sisters. All of whom spoke. And for the parents especially, both excellent public speakers with hard won storytelling abilities and skills in encouraging others, having to use those abilities for such a soul-wrenching occasion was heartbreakingly hard.
  • Grief expressed with clarity in the words and actions of school friends who paid tear-stained and tear-interrupted tributes to a good friend, of visions now unattainable, of future mid-school visits to McDonalds for Chicken McNuggets which would now never happen.
  • Grief rendered painfully (but beautifully) from the young woman who had to carry the load of opening the Maori Tangi, and her great struggle to deliver on the script while coping with a broken heart and a flood of tears.
  • Grief etched on the soul of grandparents, leaving them diminished, while dealing with questions of how to support children and grandchildren through this process while also trying to cope with the raw and deep sense of loss. Along with the other older folks at the funeral, perhaps more than one grandparent wondered “why her at the beginning of life instead of me who has lived a long and fruitful life already?
  • Grief from the many cousins – most of them my children – who were not ready for Emily’s final farewell, and would have much preferred to be playing one of Emily’s favourite games with her instead of sitting only metres away from her coffin.
  • Grief at being one of the six to have the right to carry the heavy coffin out of the service and load it into the waiting hearse.

And still, sitting in the front row also gave picture-perfect testimony of Hope, of God’s Goodness in the midst of deep tragedy, of Faith that there is more to this life than what we experience (and sometimes have to endure). While grief will wear its course, forever changing those it touches, yet there is the ever-present future expectation of meeting Emily again.

This was my attempt at capturing the grief and hope on the day after Emily died:

Dark clouds tarnish my soul,
Overcasting your vibrancy and joy for life
With the debilitating weight of grief.
And sorrow. And tears beyond count.
My eyes are bruised from weeping.

Too soon – so young – were you ripped from this world.
While death could not keep our Lord,
Life could not keep hold of you.
And you are snatched far beyond our grasp.

All those years yet to be,
Now unfounded and undermined.
The future promises of life and health and happiness – and joy,
Insufficient for our always-brave girl.

Dearest Emily, while we stood around your empty body,
You were already dancing elsewhere with Nana and Gran.
And then one foot on a scooter, the other on a skateboard,
The heavenly skate park your new favourite place to be.

Our grief will intensify, but eventually ease
As we learn a new rhythm of life without you.
But on that day when life loses its grip on us too,
And those dark clouds are peeled back to reveal the heavenly brilliance
We will meet again.
With no tears. No pain. No grief.

Cognitive Meetings with Ricoh and IBM

Meetings consume a significant portion of the modern worker’s “schedule space” and perhaps more worryingly an even greater proportion of their “mental space.” In his book from last millennium (both literally and figuratively), Peter Drucker wrote that an executive should be worried if more than 25% of his or her time was spent in meetings. Imagine Dr Drucker’s disquiet if he were still alive today and heard the number from a 2011 research study in Italy: 85% of a CEOs time is spent in meetings. Perhaps CEOs are an anomaly in respect of this quantum, their time in meetings reflective of a greater need for gathering information from the troops for setting strategy. While precise macro-level figures are difficult to source on the amount of time managers and employees spend in meetings, the fact remains that too many people spend too much of their work time in meetings, and by implication not enough time doing their core work.

With such a large proportion of work time spent in meetings, it is hardly surprising that improving meeting effectiveness is a common topic of discussion, research, and advisory services. And new technology. Some technology—such as audio conferencing and online meetings—have become commonplace, and have improved the efficiency of meetings but generally degraded their effectiveness

IBM and Ricoh announced a joint technology agreement earlier this year focused firmly on the effectiveness challenge. Ricoh sells interactive whiteboards for meeting rooms, and the new partnership sees addition of the cognitive capabilities courtesy of IBM Watson. The one line intent is to make Watson “an active meeting participant, using real-time analytics to help guide discussions so teams can make faster, better and more informed decisions.”

From the press release (February 2017), the solution enables:

  • Simple, global voice control of meetings: once a meeting begins, any employee, whether in-person or located remotely in another country, can easily control what’s on the screen, including advancing slides, all through simple voice commands using Watson’s Natural Language API.
  • Translation of the meeting into another language: the Intelligent Workplace Solution can translate speakers’ words into several other languages and display them on screen or in transcript.
  • Easy-to-join meetings: with the swipe of a badge the Intelligent Workplace Solution can log attendance and track key agenda items to ensure all key topics are discussed.
  • Ability to capture side discussions: during a meeting, team members can also hold side conversations that are displayed on the same whiteboard.

Ricoh’s positioning of this whiteboard as “cognitive-enabled” is tied directly to cognition (defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses). Cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are currently all hot topics for investment and product development in the technology sector, and are easily oversold by zealous technology evangelists. We need to be careful to ensure the use of the term is fully captured in the reality of the product, not just its marketing brochure.

While a good first step – and I applaud the development – much more is needed to truly warrant the use of the “cognitive” label. It would be more accurate to use the term “voice activated” for most of the features listed above, and while that is indeed an admirable forward step, it falls far short of “cognitive.” For example, how about if the meeting leader or another participant was able to ask these questions of Watson:

“Watson, we’ve been discussing this for an hour now, and going around in circles. What are we missing?”
“Watson, out of the people at this meeting, who should not be coming?
“Watson, from what you know about the other people at our firm, who should be here?” 
“Watson, you’ve listened to our last ten meetings. How do we improve our meeting performance?”
“Watson, was this meeting necessary, or was there a better way of trying to achieve these outcomes.”

If Watson could answer those questions about a meeting or series thereof, the “cognitive” label would be well-earned, and if the answers were accurate, would be a great boon to eradicating ineffectual meeting cultures the world over.

And yet these are the very questions that every meeting leader should be asking all the time of the meetings he or she calls, with no Watson required:

How are we going?
What do we need to do to improve?
Who is not making enough of a contribution (perhaps by being lost in their mobile phone rather than engaged and attentive in the meeting)?
Who else should be here?
Is there a better way of achieving these outcomes?

Leaving these questions unasked and unanswered only reinforces the problems with meetings today, and creates an opportunity for the automation of the analysis. Perhaps we need greater near-term human performance rather than near-future technological innovation.

The future, in my view, doesn’t have to wait for Watson to improve. The future can be grasped now by asking and answering the core questions of meeting effectiveness—using human cognitive intelligence and insight. 

The Power of Outsiders

A recent Art of Manliness podcast Doing More With Less, with guest Scott Sonenshein, talked about the difference between chasing and stretching. It’s a good discussion, with some great ideas throughout the 43 minutes. I’ve listened to it three times.

At 20m55s into the podcast, there’s an insightful exchange about outsiders. Some notes:

An outsider doesn’t know a lot about the problem domain in which they are asked to work in.
We assume that we should have the people who know the most on our team.
The research shows that the more someone knows in a given scientific domain, the less likely they are to be able to solve a problem.
e.g., a biologist is more likely to be able to solve a chemistry problem than a chemist, and vice versa.
When we have deep knowledge in an area, we focus and try to solve problems in traditional ways.
When we have less information, we tend to import different perspectives and not be blinded by expertise.
Breadth of experience is more important for complex problems.

Brett (the host) and Scott go on to talk about some of the approaches that can be used to get an outsider’s perspective.

This perspective is very similar to what Greg talked about in his recent Inc. article, We’re Entering a New Era of Mass Collaboration (emphasis added):

When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.

By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who could come up with an answer.

The program, called InnoCentive, was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted on Innocentive — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.

The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others working in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.

Outsiders. Different perspectives. Better together. Complex problems. That’s a huge part of the why of collaboration.

When Death Rushes Up

This is not a good way to greet the morning. Some words of tribute from afar …

When death rushes up,
We meet it as we are.
For some it comes swiftly, from the metal of a car.
For others the knife wounds, from the assailant himself.
For others death is stayed by the new bridge leap repertoire.

When death rushes up,
The trained run straight into the fray.
The soldier turned MP, suit sacrificed quickly for the sake of they.
The helicopter pilot, swooping in to extract the fallen.
The hands-on head doctor, applying skill to death allay.

When death rushes up,
The world stands in dismay.
Perplexed as to why, horrified as to death’s pathway.
What’s with our fellow humans,
That inflicting death on others is their own death’s preferred way?

When death rushes up,
Life often is shredded and torn.
For those who bid farewell in the morn,
And left for a “just another day” at work,
Don’t return home as evening’s born.

When death rushes up,
As it will for all of us one day.
Though perhaps not sprayed across the news in such a way,
Yet on this day, we must stand united,
To do life again, to bring life afresh, to live life valiantly, yea.

No Laptop Onboard. Now What?

Almost a decade ago I wrote about my mobile office using an iPAQ 212 and foldable Bluetooth keyboard. With new requirements out of the US (and now the UK) around no laptops on board under specific conditions, if you still need to get work done while enroute or once you’ve landed, the modern equivalent of the above is still one of your options.

A couple of things that I’d pursue if the new “no laptop in cabin” ruling applies to you:

1. Foldable Keyboard. Since the devices allowed onboard can be “no larger than a mobile phone,” I’d be looking for a foldable Bluetooth keyboard that works with your devices. Microsoft sells the Universal Foldable Keyboard that supports multiple types of devices, and there are other alternatives too. You’ll have to ensure it’s foldable though, otherwise it will be bigger than a mobile phone. And then you’ll just have to ensure you have access to any files, documents and communications you need while disconnected from the network, but there are ways of doing that.

2. Get a Larger Mobile Phone. Get the largest mobile phone you are allowed, in order to maximum screen space. Something like the Apple iPhone 6/7 Plus, the Nokia 950XL (with Windows Continuum for docking to a larger screen and keyboard), or the largest non-exploding Samsung device you can find. I would previously have said the Galaxy Note, but anything with a 5.0″ or larger screen will suffice.

3. Google Chromebook. If your organisation is using Google G Suite, perhaps the answer is to travel without a laptop at all, and basically embrace the “disposable device” idea of the Chromebook. Have all of your data in Google’s cloud, and when you arrive in the United States, buy a Chromebook, login (and two-factor authentication is always a good idea), and get back to work. It doesn’t help with productivity in the air, but it does eliminate the risk of device loss or theft if it’s in your checked in luggage. You can take it back out of the US when you leave too.

4. Cheap Windows Laptop. If your organisation is using Office 365, and most of your data is there, take the same approach with a cheap Windows laptop on arriving States-side.

5. Cheap Apple Laptop. Ah sorry, that doesn’t exist. Would one of the new “cheap” iPad 9.7’s work?

6. Hardened Case. If you do want to carry your laptop in your checked-in luggage, now’s the time to protect it from as much physical damage as possible. If you have a Surface Pro 4, try the UAG composite case (UAG also has a range of similar options for Apple devices). Or if you don’t want a hard shell cover for the laptop itself, pack your laptop first into an SKB iSeries or Pelican Protector or Storm case.

Thoughts?

Enterprise Collaboration TechFest – Melbourne (June 2017)

The Eventful Group is hosting the second Enterprise Collaboration TechFest in Australia in June. It has recently published the research document that summarises the key themes from its research roundtable discussions:

2017 Themes
Starting with the Why – Delivering Business Value
Charting a Technology Strategy that Aligns with Changing Business and Organisational Realities
Enterprise Social (Not Just Cat Pictures)
Cultivating Systemic Business Change
Creating a Business Culture Embracing Collaboration
Creating a Governance Approach
Sustaining the Momentum of Collaboration

These topics form the basis for designing the conference schedule/agenda. Which ones stand out to you?

Laptops in Checked-In Luggage

It’s a common question: Can I pack my laptop in checked-in luggage?

The general consensus is “no.”

To wit:

There’s nothing saying you can’t, however, I definitely wouldn’t pack my laptop in my checked luggage (especially if it was a decently nice or really nice one). Have you seen how the baggage handlers throw bags into the plane? I usually bring my laptop in a carry-on bag. Chelsea, Quora

It is OK to do so, but probably not recommended. The reality is that you have no control over your checked luggage once you turn it in. There are so many cases of people stealing items of value from checked luggage that it is no longer a surprise. I personally wouldn’t check anything of great value…hand carry the laptop and you can be assured it will arrive at your destination. David, Quora

I would never put anything of value in a checked bag. Aside from the risk of theft I don’t have great luck with misdirected luggage. P_M, Fodors Travel

Take it from the TSA. A representative from the agency offered this advice for flyers: “Electronics … should be packed in carry-on luggage because they are typically fragile, expensive, and more prone to breaking if transported in checked baggage.” The threat to your electronics is two-fold: you need to protect your devices from burglary (see above) as well as breakage. No matter how many beach towels you’ve wrapped around your laptop, it’s still at the mercy of baggage handlers and bumpy flights while in transit. The TSA, Smarter Travel

While it’s not illegal to pack a laptop in your checked baggage, the Transportation Security Administration advises against doing so. Your sensitive electronic devices weren’t made to withstand the abuse that checked bags often endure. This means that if you plan to fly with a laptop, you should carry it on the plane with you – and there are a few simple rules for doing so. The TSA, USA Today

Avoid placing electronic devices in checked baggage
There is a very simple way to avoid this problem-just don’t ever put your computer, tablet, mobile device, other electronics, or your electronic data in checked baggage. There is the obvious risk of a lost, damage, or stolen checked luggage, and airlines will not compensate you for lost or damaged computers, other electronic devices, or electronic data. Also, airlines often load bags on top of one another in the cargo hold of your flight. Hundreds of pounds of pressure in conjunction with the low temperatures in unheated cargo compartments may lead to cracks or damage to electronic devices.
AirSafe.com

[FlyerTalk] is chockablock with people who’ve lost valuable stuff from checked luggage and are out of luck because the airline points the finger at security services and vice versa. Anything you check is completely vulnerable to crooks in various uniforms. End of story. BearX220, FlyerTalk

… why shouldn’t you pack your notebook in a checked suitcase when you travel by plane? Here are three excellent reasons. James, PCWorld

Set against that litany of experiences and concerns, there are new restrictions for anything larger than a mobile phone on direct international flights into the United States from specific countries:

Airlines that fly from certain countries in the Middle East and Africa to the U.S. must soon require passengers to check in almost all electronic devices rather than carry them into the cabin, a U.S. official said.

The official said this will impact some airlines flying into the United States. Another U.S. administration official says this covers devices larger than a cellphone.

An aviation official told CNN that there is a security concern regarding passengers boarding nonstop flights to the U.S. from specific countries. This relates to the “screening in [some] countries” for nonstop flights to the U.S.

They added that they believe a threat to the U.S. would be negated if a passenger transferred through a secondary city with additional and more trustworthy screening procedures. The directive is to ensure enhanced security measures at select airports for a limited duration.

Ouch.

Net-net: the device is still carried on board, and almost everyone is inconvenienced while in flight and runs the risk of damage or theft of said devices.

Flow-on effects? Fewer visits to the United States? The purchase of new hardened checked-in luggage? The acquisition of new hardened laptop cases to go inside checked-in luggage? More insurance claims for damaged or lost devices?

Logitech Spotlight

As a frequent presenter of workshops and other meetings involving slides, the Logitech Professional Presenter R700 has been my traveling companion on many, many trips. It is one of the “must have” devices in my travel bag, almost regardless of whether I’m scheduled to give a presentation or not. I’m on my third at this time, the second breaking during a trip to Europe in 2013.

But I have wondered what Logitech would do next with its wireless presenter range, and have visited the Logitech site multiple times over the past couple of years to see what “next” looked like.

Well, “next” is here with the Logitech Spotlight. It takes a new approach to a wireless presenter, de-emphasising the static red or green laser dot, and replacing it with a spotlight option that “highlights areas of focus or magnifies them in pixel-perfect detail.” This and other functions are controlled through the companion app.

Chaim writing on The Verge calls Spotlight an “expensive solution to a super boring problem,” but does note the following about the device:

Logitech’s new Spotlight presentation remote is an attempt to remedy this by bringing presentations to the present day with a new, modern design. It’s an elegant-looking device, made of machined aluminum and a dramatically simplified interface. Spotlight cuts down on buttons to make it easier to use without looking at the remote, offering only a single oversized forward button, a back button placed below it, and a media button on top. And it’s compatible with most major presentation software, including PowerPoint, Google Slides, Keynote, and Prezi.

I look forward to trying one out.

Highlights Reel

Earlier this decade I met a friend for breakfast, and he proceeded to tell me an idea for an ambitious project. I had some doubts about the efficacy of the idea, but he lined up the support required and pushed go. And started working. And working. And struggling. And wrestling. And facing a string of disappointments, annoyances, and very difficult situations. But he persevered – with great tenacity in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds and apparent gross incompetence on the behalf of others involved in the project.

His ambitious project was finally completed this week, and he gets to tick the box on the formalities. But more importantly, he has become the type of person the project was designed to make him – not in a tick box way, but in the depths of his core and professional work.

I’m still smiling for him, hours after hearing the good news of his achievement.

San Francisco

Last month I flew to San Francisco for a week of meetings. My new colleagues at Silverside were coming across for a conference the week of February 20, so we split the distance and met half way. We held three days of planning meetings for 2017 and then did the conference thing; me for one day, and the others for the full three days.

Some comments about San Francisco and the time there:

1. Mixed Remote and In-Person Meetings. While we can sometimes get everyone in the same physical room for a meeting, it’s more usual in organisational life to have some people together and some not present. That was true for our three days of meetings in San Francisco too. We made good use of the collaboration and communication tools available to us to bridge the geographical divide, including a Surface Hub at Silverside HQ in Rotterdam, a couple of Surface Pro 4’s in San Francisco, and Skype for Business. We had some teething problems over the days, mostly due to poor WiFi in the hotel, but on the whole it did actually work. And regardless of the technology issues, it was good to renew relationships with the Silverside colleagues I had met before, and to begin that process with those I had not.

2. Regus Was Fantastic. On the first day we needed a good meeting room just for a day, and after looking at the options, we booked an office at Regus Mid-Market. Good clean facilities, quiet working environment, good network speeds, etc. Highly recommended.

3. Swimming Pool. The hotel didn’t have a swimming pool, but Active Sports Club Union Square was a 10-minute walk up the road. If you’ve read any of my books, you might have seen the line in my bio that says “Michael enjoys running and cycling, and swimming any time he can find a pool.” The closest pool to where I live in New Zealand is a 30-minute drive, so with a pool 10-minutes walk away in San Francisco, I made good use of it. I went six of the seven days I was in town, swam 585 lengths, or just over 13km. That was just fantastic for dealing with jet lag, getting good exercise, and doing something out of the ordinary while away from home. Of course, swimming that much is what the swimming super stars do every single day. The facilities at Active Sports Club Union Square were top rate, and I’ll be back whenever I’m in town.

4. Heart Rate. In January I purchased a FitBit Charge 2, with the heart rate monitor built it. So I’d worn it in New Zealand for 2-3 weeks before leaving for the United States, and knew what my general stats were. What I found most interesting was that being away from home and in SF saw an immediate increase of 15% in my resting heart rate. I slept as best I could. I exercised 6 out of 7 days – slightly more than at home. But I ate different food, was away from home, and the ambient noise in downtime SF was significantly higher than at home – all through the day and night. It took 14 days after getting back home for my resting heart to return to its pre-trip level. I plan to monitor this on future trips; it was quite a surprise for me.

Net-net: a good trip, with some positive outcomes and a strong plan for 2017.