From My Diary Of Bad Business Practices (Or Good Practices Implemented Badly)

Updated: April 16, 2010

Bad Business Practice #1: The Ever-Growing Virtual Team

For whatever reason, over the years I found myself "volunteered" to lead special Task Forces, SWAT teams, Special Project teams and all kinds of other serious-sounding teams of cross-functional representatives, brought together to accomplish a strategic deliverable.

In the beginning of my career, I did what any good corporate citizen would do. I'd reach out to all organizations who were likely to have a vested interest in the project, and I'd ask for their best and brightest to participate on my virtual team. 25 participants later, and an additional 2-3 new participants or tag-alongs being added every week, the foundation of dysfunction was solidly in place. Too many unnecessary discussions and disagreements about minutia, too many people who felt the need to express an opinion (even if they didn't have one), too many points of potential interference from too many peripheral players.

Do yourself a favor, no matter how many potential stakeholders there may be in the company, prioritize all stakeholders, pick the 5-6 most influential ones and cap it as tight as you can right there. As long as you have the primary stakeholders on board everyone else will fall in line with the recommendations at the end of the process.

Bad Business Practice #2: Meetings of The Multi-Taskers

In corporate environments, where meetings tend to be a viewed as a necessary evil, you probably find yourself (a did I) in meetings or conference calls at least 50%-70% of your day depending on your function. Being part of that environment for many years, I didn't question it for a while. it's was part of the experience and part of the way we work, so I didn't want to disrupt the operating model (nor did I think that I could). Given that other work activities and expectations never took a break, I found myself oftentimes trying to catch up on email while trying to stay in tune with the main essence of what was being discussed. And ofcourse most of the time, everyone was doing the same thing, except the person doing the talking. I remember looking around the room sometimes and I wouldn't even be able to see a face.....only the backs of laptop screens.....and on the phone I'd constantly hear the IM "bing" which everyone eventually tuned out as background noise. I even saw (and sadly participated once), in IM chatter with people in the same boring meeting!

After a while I drew the line and only attend meetings where I knew for a fact the value derived from the meeting was actually higher than the value derived from catching up with aging emails. After I applied that simple logic prior to accepting a meeting invitation, I ended up shaving at least 50% of my meetings out of my workday. I got back some valuable desk-time, I focused 100% on what was being discussed at the fewer meetings I did attend (I even stopped taking my laptop along , although I was guilty of sneaking a peak at me iPhone if I was waiting on an important email), and amazingly I got very little push-back for declining meetings!

Bad Business Practice #3: The "Reply All" Disease

Ever since we discovered email, which undoubtedly had a profound positive effect in productivity, compared to the typed "memoranda" people used to send around, we also figured out a way to clutter everyone's email by unnecessarily replying to all recipients, causing a snowball of mostly unwanted email chatter.

What started as innocent misuse of a great business application, morphed into an instrument for practitioners of CYA and people who decided to use email to show everyone in the organization how busy they are by the volume of emails they generate. And of course you have the simple, misguided souls that reply to all and say "great job Dave", and "I agree with everything that was said below". Just do yourself a favor and reply only to the person asking a question or looking for feedback, and reserve the reply-all for those moments in your career when you discover a million-dollar product enhancement, or the next Enron-like coverup. Everyone, including your mailbox administrator, will thank you for it.

Bad Business Practice #4: Death By Powerpoint

I fell in love with Powerpoint early in my career. I could take a complex concept or proposal, develop a few good looking charts and flow diagrams, sprinkle a few key words in there and let the deck be a visual companion of the words I used to tell the story. The love affair lasted for most of my career, but over the years I noticed that the powerpoint decks (including mine) were getting longer and more cluttered with irrelevant information, and the key messages within them became harder to find, obscured by clouds of nothingness and phrases that seemed to get recycled from presentation to presentation over the years.

People started using powerpoint as a replacement of the human voice. Some people feel that putting the powerpoint slides up on the wall, or on the go-to-Meeting screen, relieves them of the responsibility to make a single intelligent point. So, they robotically read point after point, paragraph after long paragraph and then wonder why people start thumbing around for their iPhones and Blackberries.

So, if you have any control over the meeting, do everyone a favor and enforce the "5" rule: Limit all slide presentations to 5 slides, 5 bullets per slide and 5 words per bullet. You'd be amazed how quickly the essence of the presentation gets pushed out in the open for a healthy dialogue, and how many "empty suits" you'll uncover who really feel naked without 75 slides of irrelevant factoids and unreadable, badly formatted worksheets to hide their lack of knowledge.


Bad Business Practice #5: Offsites That Run Beyond 2 Days

After almost two decades in F500 companies I can't even begin to estimate how many man-hours I've spent in cold, window-less hotel conference rooms or over-priced golf resorts pontificating away with groups of other pontificators from around the world (who flew first class and spent an average of $5K in total t&e to waste time collectively). Add to that the cost of the outside "facilitators", evening fire-breather or magician for entertainment, embroidered golf shirts and unnecessary overnight "WorkBook" packages to the hotel and you get the idea.

Not that all time spent on such large planning exercises was a waste of time. Just about 50% of it was. And why is that?

What happens is that the VP organizing the love-fest feels the need to ask all the direct reports on his team to present for an hour each, about the brillant things their group did last quarter and the brilliant things they'll do next quarter, then you add the guest speakers from other functions that are deemed "vital to the success of the group", then you invite the head huncho (or two) to bless the team, a few local sales people to tell us how things are in the real world, and a couple of customers to tell us how great our salespeople and product are. And of course, you add the customary full-day "working session" where you ask people from different functions who are relatively clueless about each-other's business to come up with each others' critical priorities for the upcoming year. And for good measure you also add a whole day of team-building activities, complete with having to let yourself fall backwards in your teammates arms and making a fool of yourself in egg-tossing....and you have yourself a 4-day boondoggle like most of them.

I found the following to work a lot better: 2 day maximum on planning meetings, taking place in a conference room in your own facility vs a hotel (the overhead projectors actually work and you control the room temperature). You start early (7:30a), to maximize the time you have the team together, you give only 15 min breaks and a working lunch. You work late the first day and grab a team dinner for socializing and building relationships. Then, start again on the second day at 7:30a, go through about 3p and then do something social for the rest of the day - totally casual and fun.

After that, the out-of-towners take flights early the next morning and the rest of the team is back at the salt mines the next morning. Limit guest presenters and give no-one more than 30 minutes to present their stuff (and 5 slides to do it with). Facilitate the meeting yourself and involve the team in realistic, short exercises that take advantage of their specific areas of expertise.

No planning meeting is perfect, but you can make them a heck of a lot more productive than they usually are!

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