Orientation – For better or worse

boardYou may hope I didn’t really mean Bored Orientation. For better or worse many of us who sit on volunteer boards have experienced an orientation session recently. There are some things I really like about the process — and some that I would prefer were handled differently.

A changeover in volunteer personnel can be exciting and there are many ways to accomplish integrating new and continuing members of boards. One way that happened last year was to be taken to a posh club’s private dining room for breakfast and to get the lowdown on how everything works. The more recent session was more conventional. It went somewhat better than I anticipated. At least this actual one was not as bizarre as the one depicted in BBC’s wonderful spoof, W1A.

The first plus on entering the room was the setup. The meetings regularly take place in a large room to accommodate the more than forty participants. Usually the room configuration looks something like this:

People can neither see each other nor much on the screen above the heads of the chairman. So perhaps a good start for any orientation meeting would respond to this preference:

Does the room setup work relate to the meeting’s purpose? Can the participants all see and hear one another?

But instead, this time the room looked something like this:

There were actually two large tables to seat four people on both sides of the room with a large aisle in the middle. Welcome back to high school. We were in a classroom with the teacher up front — to be instructed as newcomers — even though some of us had been actively involved in the organization for two to four years; fewer than a third were coming for the first time. But there was little likelihood that there would be an attempt to find out what anyone already knew. My preference :

Does this meeting require my presence and what is my role? Am I a new learner or a mentor? What do people know already?

The introductions at least rated an A. The facilitator asked us to rise from our chairs. We then learned about the geographic areas we represented by walking along a continuum or treating the room’s four corners like a map — moving around based on the color of our socks, or where we lived, or where we were born, or where we lived the longest, and what we saw as our highest priority for the organization. This gave us a quick orientation to the diversity. It met my preference:

For introductions, do something to see the range and diversity of participants that makes a visual impression. Just saying names won’t work for most of us.

Another introduction trick I like for a smaller group is to ask people to state two lies and one truth about themselves and let others guess which is correct.

My own would be:

a) I jumped out of an airplane.

b) A Zulu chief spilled coffee on my living room carpet.

c) I sang a solo on the stage of a national arts centre.

(if you read to the end you can find out the real answers!).

The next time you meet the person introduced in this way, it will be easier to remember their true fact than their first and last names.Therefore my preference:

Whether you have a large or small group, make introductions entertaining and fun.

But then things went downhill as we started what is known in a orientation as a “read-along” — rather like a sing-along but without the noise. There was text on the screen with a heading like “Significant Decisions”. Knowing the history of any organization is vital. But we don’t agree to serve on volunteer boards just to make significant decisions. We serve to change the world for the better. My preference:

In an orientation session a passionate story of changed lives encourages us to dream of a better future. Text headings or summaries combined with reading aloud assumes participants are illiterate. If the text is too dense or too small, perhaps we are.

There was a good exception to this format when a lawyer introduced us to the organization’s statutes. The wording was on the screen in a typeface actually large enough to read. She commented on the content very briefly and told us where to look for it later if we needed to: My preference:

Keep the focus on the big picture that you want people to take away and provide the detailed references in a handout. And don’t let the handout compete for attention in the session iteself.

Then we received a diagram explaining the organizational structure. Here is its shape with the titles slightly amended.

I found this very puzzling. The organization’s members seem to have some ability to push up — or back. Top down is probably accurate. It’s the slanted line that I don’t understand. But no one questioned what the diagram meant — including me. The next slide contained a suggestion that both the two should work collaboratively. But this diagram has a line that divides the two and it looks as though we are on a teeter-totter. My preference:

Test a diagram in advance to see if it conveys the meaning you intend.

Next came the expected org charts. The images on one of them didn’t match the handout and it must have been a last minute inspiration to do something graphic — it was the only thing vaguely ressembling a picture all day. Parts of the chart were colored and they flew in on the screen but the words were too small to read. So was the text on the handout without a high powered magnifying glass. My preference.

Check anything mounted on a big screen or handout for readability. And forget special effects, which distract from your message.

Next — Departmental presentations. What we saw on the big screen were personnel names — and telephone extensions. I didn’t need to phone anyone right then and I was not likely to use the handout in the future as a telephone book. My preference:

Avoid cutting and pasting something from a staff directory and calling it a presentation.

Here was another opportunity missed for the directors to speak passionately about the importance of the work they do — and to tell their stories. It’s the classic case of sharing features when what we need to hear about is benefits.And how about a quick online visit to Facebook and Twitter rather than being told that the organization has these sites ? My preference:

Show — instead of tell — whenever possible.

The last section before lunch dealt with our role as members of the board. That seemed promising. Were we going to hear from a continuing member about the satisfaction and opportunities in this kind of volunteer work? But no. Instead we had another read-along about current organizational mission, vision and values.

The topic might have been the most important reason for the day — so its agenda placement was puzzling. The graphics assigned roles of leadership, implementation and governance — in that order — to leader, staff and board members respectively.

While a leader has a role to play — presumably leading those who are already keen to follow because they have a stake in the outome — it raises the question of what governance really is. Are board members simply keepers of the flame or do they have a larger role to play in determining the organization’s future? My preference:

Explore what organizational leadership really involves. It’s something for a leaders, board members and staff to determine collaboratively. The orientation meeting could begin that conversation. Every meeting that follows needs to have it on the agenda.

I have served on volunteer boards of various sizes for more than twenty years. Sorting out these three issues is the most important thing we do — working on the business as opposed to working in the business. But we were moved onward to more mundane suggestions about how we were to behave — “show up, read the background materials, vote”. We then saw the meeting schedule for the year. My preference:

If the right people get elected or appointed — and that does mean “if “— these expectations are so basic to the process that we should assume they are there already. We need to leave commited and inspired!

Time for lunch. . . .

(a) FALSE I didn’t jump out of an airplane — but one of my sons did. b) TRUE. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu Chief, isited Canada in 1963 for an international conference and was also photographed by the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh; the coffee spill was totally accidental. b) FALSE. I sang in a massed choir.)

Death by PowerPoint -Yet Again!

Template

I’m approaching a coming all-day orientation session with a sense of foreboding.  I’ve seen the agenda which is reasonably appropriate.  But what is appended is a presentation document. You can guess – it’s death by PowerPoint again -in spite of the fact that it is 2016.  So for the benefit of all participants – those who design presentations and those who have to sit through them, I am sharing a generic template for your mutual use. It needs to be inserted on page 2 just after the title page.

If a handout were simply a take-away of the main facts, it might be vaguely useful – if rather boring.  But I fear that forty or more of us have been invited to a “read-along”.   The organization concerned had a recent review and the conclusion was that its operation was dysfunctional, that participants were passive and unengaged, that they were inundated with background materials that were excessive and sometimes unreadable and that the real role of the body was to rubber stamp decisions.  This year was to be a new start with real effort to effect change.  It doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen any time soon.

One of the challenges of institutions of any kind – and this one has a long and venerable history – is that they live in a bubble.  The idea of using slides isn’t new.  My children used to love visits to their grandparents in the seventies, when a grandfather showed them pictures of themselves on a big screen.  Some of us will even remember carousel projectors.  The idea of linking laptops and screens changed everything and the Mighty Microsoft is credited with inventing presentation software – though it didn’t. Forethought Inc. originally even called the original program Presenter. But PowerPoint made it easy and first came out in 1990 as part of Windows 3.0.  All one had to do was to fill in the headings and the bullet points.

I travelled to Durban South Africa in 1999 to make a presentation to the conference of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association.  Why a sole practitioner from Toronto would be invited to do so is another story –  I was nervous about the right media interface and different plugs so I brought along clear transparency sheets – and felt more than vindicated when the jazzy PowerPoint opening presentation crashed before an audience of more than a thousand.  But soon like everybody else, I was using PowerPoint. Something from the beginning told me that templates were all wrong for presentations though everybody was using them. A son suggested that I read Presentation Zen and its author, Garr Reynolds, agreed that templates were not a good thing.  That led me later to Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate.  If anybody out there is using PowerPoint for anything at all, please, please acquire these books and take them to heart.

The heart of the matter is this. If you want to engage and inspire people, text on a big screen doesn’t work the way you think it does.  Duarte makes this clear when she distinguishes between reports, presentations and stories.  Reports summarize facts.  Stories provide drama.  Presentations fall in the middle and need to move back and forth between the two. The template has to be more like a film and less like a document. We don’t curl up in the evening in front of the big screen to watch a page of text.

The orientation summary sent out in advance of the coming meeting in is a report.  I’m going to take my Ipad and Iphone along.  Both contain a wealth of good stories to pass the time when I need to. Don’t get me wrong.  PowerPoint is handy for a presentation if you start from a blank screen and use high quality images and as few words as possible.  I have modelled my own designs on those of an excellent presenter that I first saw nearly 20 years ago when she showed colorful images, cartoons, and word art with a different voice-over of her own at breakneck speed.  What she did in that presentation activated our feelings and we were inspired.  Presentations require artistry.  My own presentations are laughably modest compared to what real artists can do.  But at very least we need to recognize, as Nancy Duarte observes that presenters are not mentors.  The role of heroes presentations rightly belongs to the audience.

Let’s back up a bit.  It used to be that a presentation was a social event.  You would have to go out to attend one and you joined with other people in the room. You would only get to experience it once.  You couldn’t take any of its content home unless you made your own notes. It was something that delighted you, inspired you, annoyed you, puzzled you, confronted you.   The coming presentation for the weekend has been sent out in advance as a product, a digital commodity, something that can be read, saved – or more than likely trashed.  The bright side might be that all of this is being given away for free – and I don’t even have to attend.  The dark side is that the presenters have diminished the coming session as a chance to interact, to envision, to inspire and to make us change.

 

 

 

 

Geeky Grandmother Reflections

fc

It’s 1995.  I’m in the airport of Canada’s Capital, Ottawa, waiting to take a short flight back to Toronto and I’m filling in time browsing the magazines in the airport shop.  Something new catches my eye – a magazine cover that says “The New Rules of Business – Work is Personal -Computing is Social – Knowledge is Power – Break the Rules”.  It’s called Fast Company. I buy it and read it from cover to cover and it explains the new world in a way that makes sense,

It’s 2016 and Fast Company has come of age.  So have I in a somewhat different way.  As a geeky grandmother, I now read Fast Company’s anniversary issue on an Ipad using a Zenio app.  And I realize that I have lived through the same wild ride that the magazine has.  Everyone over 21 should read the article.  But with apologies to Fast Company I’m just going to list some of the things it names for the time challenged – and let you ponder what we’ve come across in the last twenty years – and often left behind

  • Netscape
  • Palm Pilot
  • Travelocity
  • Fox News
  • Craigslist
  • WiFi
  • Prius
  • 3G
  • HDTV
  • PayPal
  • TiVo
  • Napster
  • Amazon
  • Zipcar
  • GPS
  • MapQuest
  • Skype
  • Wikipedia
  • TED
  • Whole Foods
  • Creative Class
  • Human Genome
  • My Space
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Al Jazeera
  • Iphone
  • Chrome
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Etsy
  • Kickstarter
  • Warby Parker
  • Netflix
  • Square
  • Uber
  • Airbnb
  • Apple Watch

Thanks, Fast Company – often I met these things for the first time through you!  What will we learn about in the next 20 years?

Spoiler Alert

Just in case anyvody notices – re software.  My son Michael Bolton  – yes he is Michael Bolton but not that Michael Bolton – teaches software testing.  One of the clients giving a positive testamonial is from Microsoft.  Maybe it will all be better soon.  You can explore the world of software testing here.

Software for Health – or Not!

MS

News today from the the Consumer Electronics Show was all about Healthy Apps.  A more personal news stream told me about a friend’s crash of Windows 10.  I could sympathize because I had the same problem with the new version of MS Office

The automatic download of the latest upgrade meant that none of my icons would bring me to the connected programs, which Windows 10 now insists are Apps..  So I couldn’t access any file.  A Google search indicated that I was not alone and a few proposed solutions appeared – not, of course from Microsoft.  I tried several without success and finally signed on to Microsoft’s live chat.  After 10 minutes of announcements that someone would be with me instantaneously, a Chatter appeared and asked what the problem was – no actually she asked “How can I help you?”.  I told her and the Chatter took me through the same steps that I had already tried three or four times. Her solution?  “It appears that you have a problem”.  I chatted back, “Well duh”. This chat was going nowhere. She tried to connect me with tech support to no avail.  In desperation I logged off, went to the program file and decided to uninstall the program  There was also a last minute fix option.  It worked.  The proper icons for the upgrade appeared for the first time. This little escapade took about ninety minutes and it was not the reason for logging on in the first place.

I wonder what would happen if the millions of PC users tracked the hours that they spent trying to fix things.  Yes I know, I could switch to a Mac to join my Ipad and Iphone which work pretty well most of the time.  But what would happen if software releases were properly tested in the first place and saved us hours of time?  We might actually be productive instead of joining the MS volunteer tech support department sans wagers or benefits.  We might even make use of those new healthy apps instead of becoming sick of technology.

Changes

changes

Today marks the end of a long business association that I have enjoyed for 18 years.  I have every respect for the company but they are regrouping in terms of how they work and my own life and needs are going in a different direction.  It will seem strange to let it go.  At the same time it makes space for something completely different and new.  It’s interesting and somewhat scary not to even know what it is.

Was it a good Christmas?

Rowan

People that I haven’t seen for a while keep asking me this.  Another responded today by showing  groujp of us a video. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke to that question in an address in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London UK earlier this past December.  Williams started by talking about the words of the Christmas carols we sing so enthusiastically – especially the second and third verses which are full of quite amazing ideas that pass most of us by.  You can watch the address and the questions that he answered following the lecture here.

In closing, Williams gave a really important reminder.  Who have we ignored in the past year – and how could we make that better – with a phone call, a letter, letting something from the past go?  That’s a simple way to get the season to end well.