Stand Up for Old-Fashioned Communication!

17 Sep, 2012 By: Robert Green

Swap those endless e-mail trails for brief face-to-face meetings and watch solutions unfold quickly.

Let's face facts: Today's CAD users are deluged with e-mail, text messages, Facebook posts, Linked­In messages, tweets, and the like. We live in the age of digital fatigue, and the fact of the matter is that the e-mail you send about CAD standards is just one of countless digital messages your employees will receive today. Will the message make an impression, or be just another fleeting bit of information the user will forget in a moment's time? Will it be read at all?

To outsmart digital fatigue, I've found myself going back to more direct, person-to-person communication methods. In this edition of "CAD Manager," I'll explain my approach and tell you how it can make you a more effective leader. Here goes.

What's Happening?

The first unpleasant truth I had to face was that just because I send e-mails, create blogs and intranets, and produce training videos doesn't mean users are reading, watching, or listening to them. In the age of digital content delivery, I was spending more time preparing information (which many ignored) and less time actually talking to users face-to-face (which is very difficult to ignore). I've concluded that no matter what my goal is, speaking with people is a more effective management technique than sending messages.

The second thing I had to acknowledge was that having the same conversation with many users individually is inefficient and would quickly exhaust my time and energy. The challenge is to communicate directly — without spending the whole day doing so.

Start the Day Standing Up

My first course of action was to let everyone know that we'd be using less e-mail and more direct communication from this point on. To this end, I called an introductory morning meeting with representative CAD users from the various departments of the company. This way, communication would take place in small groups — intimate, yet much more efficient than a one-on-one session with each user.

The initial meeting (and subsequent sessions) followed these rules:

  • Everybody stands, nobody sits.
  • Meet first thing in the morning.
  • Meet for 10 minutes, maximum.
  • Distribute objectives on a half-sheet of paper.
  • Keep comments very brief and focused, not long and rambling.
  • The next meeting time and objectives should be agreed upon prior to dismissal.
  • Any new procedures, instructions, and other follow-up information should be conveyed by meeting attendees to their respective groups, verbally or via e-mail.

When I held the first morning meeting, I went out of my way to keep the tone bright, fast-paced, and businesslike. I simply told everyone that I thought we were all spending too much time sending e-mails and not enough time making group decisions that would work for everyone. I made the case that more direct contact was the answer, and this meeting was the starting point.

These morning meetings, held as often as required to keep on track, have become the perfect venue for discussing standards, deadlines, customer expectations, or any other crucial project information. They have become the de facto way to get the word out about what we all need to do for the day — very quickly.

Recipe for Success

Now, I'll break down the factors I use for direct communication that I've found to be very effective.

On your feet. No matter what time of day you hold your meetings, the most important rule is that everyone stands for the duration. After all, if people have to stand, they are less likely to waste time on chatter or other nonessential communication during the meeting.

I'm not the only one advocating this approach. The Wall Street Journal covered the trend in a great article, "No More Angling for the Best Seat; More Meetings Are Stand-Up Jobs" (February 2, 2012), and I've noticed some of my clients using the technique as well. Stand-up meetings are ideal for conveying information in a 10-minute session. If you need to share a standards change for a client project, altered parts for a mechanical design, or new families for a building information model, why not try this approach to get the word out? You'll be amazed by how much information you can convey in 10 minutes, and the quick pace will turbocharge your users.

I also like that everybody is in the same position, rather than the speaker standing and attendees sitting. Stand-up meetings help everyone feel like equals and active participants.

Black-and-white objectives. Printing on paper seems outdated, doesn't it? But the fact is, if my meeting objectives are summarized on a half-sheet of paper, the following things are true:

  • Everybody knows what I'm going to cover.
  • I don't have to make a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Nobody has to sit through a Power­Point presentation.

The time I used to spend preparing a bunch of slides is now reduced to typing in a few bullet points and printing them out. My time is now spent with users, rather than PowerPoint. I call that progress!

Keep comments focused. With the stand-up meeting rules in effect, it's easier to keep people on track, but you still have to handle comments and keep the meeting moving. Inspired by Twitter and its 140-character message limit, l encourage users to make very brief, targeted comments and discourage long, disjointed conversations. Very soon attendees learn that if they can't explain themselves briefly and clearly, they probably need to think through the issue more thoroughly before spending the entire group's time on it.

Plan for the next meeting. When a stand-up meeting uncovers a bigger issue, we agree as a group to add it to our next agenda. We appoint one or two people to take responsibility for each issue and report back to the group at the next meeting. In truth, this may be the smartest part of the stand-up meeting, because not only are problems solved quickly, but people are encouraged to take ownership, to make commitments to report back to the group, and to do so now — rather than skirting the issues and procrastinating, as are common in the world of endless strings of e-mail. Once users become familiar with this process, it's amazing how many problems will leave your desk and get solved by others, with the entire CAD group benefiting.

Apply Stand-Up Meeting Methods to CAD Training

I'll state for the record that I really enjoy direct training — but I understand that the time it takes to prepare and deliver the information can be a barrier to actually doing so. To this end, I've implemented a stand-up training methodology I call the Training Circle. This type of training is often used in restaurant and retail environments, and I've found it works for CAD users as well. Here's how to do it:

  • Have each of your CAD group members choose a tip or trick they'd like to share.
  • Use a stand-up meeting session to present ideas.
  • Go around the circle of users to get feedback or amplifying tips, tricks, and techniques in rapid-fire succession.
  • Hold questions until the end of the training circle, so as not to hamper the fast pace and information flow.

Hold training circles right after lunch once a week and watch the "Aha!" moments stack up as users push each other to become more efficient. Requiring users to run a training circle session boosts their motivation and saves you tons of time, since you don't have to prepare every session yourself.

Obviously, you're not going to teach somebody SolidWorks or Revit with this approach, but for quickly enhancing user productivity, you can't beat it.

Follow up with revisions. If any action items from a stand-up meeting require CAD standards updates, project instructions, or other written documentation, those should be e-mailed to the group afterward. This is one area where the digital approach to disseminating information is the more effective option. Note that e-mail is used to support face-to-face communication, not substitute for it.

When Face-to-Face Is Not an Option

I know many of you are thinking, "This sounds great, but I manage remote offices, so this whole stand-up meeting idea won't work for me." Balderdash! Simply use a speakerphone in a conference room, an online meeting platform, or Skype, and you can have any number of small groups attend your stand-up meeting. (Of course, you might not be able to see whether they are actually standing up, but the immediacy of the communication is nearly as compelling as being there.)

I've long used weekly conference calls in lieu of endless e-mails and found that, on average, I save more time by making real-time decisions on phone calls than I ever would by shooting e-mails back and forth. The key is to use exactly the same approach with the phone call as you would in a stand-up meeting.

Summing Up

I may sound like an old-school throwback advocating for direct personal communication in our digital age, but I believe it is a must. We need to cut through the digital clutter we all live in. By keeping in contact with users directly via face-to-face conversations or live phone calls, we can all spend less time typing and more time making good decisions.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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