Ever since the earliest days of laptops, computer manufacturers have produced idyllic images of business people working in beautiful outdoor locations, thanks to the freedom of battery power. Even their marketing people, and I know because I used to be one of them, did not believe their own hype; we were all confined to our airless office from nine to five (or usually longer), where we slaved like androids over hot laptops.
Ridiculous, isn’t it! However, disciplined we all are as individuals, nobody produces their best work in this kind of environment. It is like being in a straight jacket. Some corporates do provide their workforce with womb-like dens to relax in, or gym membership, and they treat their clients to glamorous days out. All this helps, but it costs thousands, and in the end it us, their customers, who foot the bill.
This is where meaning really scores highly in my book. It is one of the most hard-working, creative, yet relaxed companies I have ever known. Meaning does not spend thousands creating the right environment or the right impression, it just does it by treating people nicely. Simple!
This means that, in my case as a meaning associate, I am nearly always around to take my children to school and pick them up, plus I often fit in a run or a bike ride during normal working hours. As I am busy doing other things during part of the daytime, it does mean that I often work at very non-traditional hours, like in the evenings or weekends. This is my choice. Sometimes this way of working is inconvenient to meaning, however it is often a huge benefit – I have on many occasions worked late into the evening to meet a deadline, or simply to communicate with customers in their own time zone.
In my corporate days I can remember occasionally sneaking out of the office to walk around the local park to try to free my mind enough to solve a problem. I still do this kind of thing now, I just don’t have to do it secretly any more. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for this website on the train home. Later, the weather was so perfect that I went on a bike ride, and while I was pedalling, and breathing in the beautiful summer air, a new and better way to write the piece just entered my mind, as if by magic (although, of course it’s not magic, as any sports scientist would tell you, the better oxygenated brain works better!). As soon as I got home, I scribbled down all my ideas and, even though I say it myself, I did a rather good job, and I did it promptly.
Just because you are a bit different, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get to the end goal. In fact, it might even be the case that you get there more quickly or produce a better result. Meaning, long may you be open to and accepting of different ways of doing things. And please always remain so kind and considerate.
I was at the Royal Statistical Society’s Annual Awards last night, and found myself talking with a colleague – a client’s supplier – perhaps ‘work cousin’ would be a good description. I was managing a project that her business partner was actively involved with. As usual at meaning, we had been using 37signal’s Basecamp, a project collaboration tool, to manage the project, and she had some interesting observations to make.
A strong feature of Basecamp is the threaded discussions it allows you to set up, in which you can explore a topic or a question and invite comments. She had been watching the stream of emails coming out of the project, and had noticed that the discussions tended to range far and wide around the subject, and often everyone seemed to have something to say. She had also noticed that, it often required no more than a gentle nudge from me to get the topic back into focus, which might be to ask another question, or to sum up and provide a consensus. We realised that what was actually going on with each of these was a meeting, but a meeting that unfolded over a day or several days.
In fact, the dicussions often bear a lot of resemblance to meeting conversations and meeting behaviour. But we agreed that there were several significant advantages over using meeting time to cover the same ground. First, she had noticed that it was a method which really did allow everyone to have their say, and within reason, no limits. It is also extremely time efficient. While someone may attack a particular subject with relish and in exhaustive detail, others who don’t share the interest or for whom it is irrelevant can scan the message in seconds and pass on to what does matter to them. And as moderator, I have the advantage, when trying to reach a consenusal position, of being able to go back to precisely what was said, hours or days later, with perfect recall.
Basecamp works because it does not try to do too much. It’s simple to use and provides a space for collaboration to take place. Anyone on the project can raise a topic, and anyone can add their comment. It is not prescriptive, and if you follow the same approach – as I hope I do – then it is amazing to see the extent to which people will engage with subjects and contribute to the discussion in ways that transcend what is possible in round-the-table meetings. Not that I am an advocate of going virtual all the time. Real meetings have a place, and are important for other reasons – especially in the early stages of a project, while people establish their roles, and at other key stages. But using a project discussion thread as an alternative to taking some items to meetings often seems to get the item worked through and resolved quickly, openly and inclusively with very little impact on people’s time.
The real test is, are the real meetings shorter as a result? From my experience, I’d be inclined to say “yes”.
A nice piece of synergy dropped into place today. I was at the MRS to talk with the research magazine team including Marc Brenner, who is editor on research. We are working on something jointly between research and meaning, which we will be announcing in a month or so’s time, I hope. As it happens, research has embarked on a major redesign and relaunch of the research-live website, with a lot of web-specific content and new Web CMS at the back of it(not WordPress – something rather more elaborate and expensive). One element of the new site will five featured blogs – and Marc has asked to syndicate my blog as one of the featured blogs when the research site relaunches mid-June. Well, at least that will ensure that I do it with some regularity…
So to the rationale behind the blog and the site redesign. Our aim is to make the experience of visiting the meaning website more dynamic and more of a two-way communication. The blog is central to that. We will add the news stories we have been doing for some time into the blog stream, and allow visitor to comment on them. And of course, I am keen to get feedback on the pieces that I write too. All you need to do is register on the site, and we will take it from there.
You will have observed that the blog does not not start with this article, or its precedessor. What we have done is republished previous news stories from the old site into the blog stream here, and I have also added in some of the more recent think-pieces I had written which are also quite blog-like. I hope you like the approach, and I also hope you will feel free to make a comment if you have anything you think we at meaning or other readers might find interesting.