On this week’s episode, Greg speaks the couple of words of French he learned on vacation.

Marlene talks about mentor/mentee relationships and Sheryl Sandberg’s discussion on how the #MeToo era places an external strain on promoting these relationships. Marlene touches on the three founders of Black Women Talk Tech, Esosa Ighodaro, Regina Gwynn, and Lauren Washington, as well as Sophia Amouruso and others on the importance of mentoring.

Continue Reading Podcast Episode 6 – Law Librarian Helps Streamline a Texas Court


I don’t like meetings. I feel like meetings often fail to accomplish much beyond getting project team members into the same room once a week. We talk about the work we did the previous week, and we talk about the work we hope to do during the next week, but there are better ways to communicate that information.  I was thinking about this recently and became convinced there must be a better way to structure projects.

Just as Robert’s Rules of Order are intended to facilitate debate and deliberation among a large group of participants, Ryan’s Rules for Projects are intended to keep team projects moving quickly and  efficiently, and to give them the greatest chance for success.

Rule #1 – No more than 5 team members on any given project.

Too often we load up team members on projects in the mistaken belief that having more people involved will allow the team easy access to more information and allow more work to get done faster.  It doesn’t work that way.  Think about it in terms of team sports. (Sports Metaphors: The last refuge of lazy writers.) In team sports, the speed of the action is negatively correlated to the size of the team.  American football can move quickly in short bursts, but the 11 players have to huddle, regroup, choose a new plan and start over in a new spot after every play.  The most surprising event in football is when a team actually marches down the field quickly to score.  European football or Soccer, also 11 players per team, is only slightly better.  They don’t stop play every few seconds, but let’s face it, 90 minutes of play and you’re lucky if either team was able to score at all. Baseball, with 9 players (my personal favorite), has been described as “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”  Contrast hockey (6), basketball (5), and tennis (2) and you begin to see a pattern emerge.  Smaller teams can communicate easier, move more quickly, reorganize, and change priorities on the fly, while larger teams lumber on slowly toward a goal.

Rule #2 – Team members devote 20% of working time to this one project.

Ideally you should have 4 team members who are able to devote at least 20 percent of their working time to the project.  The fifth member should be an interested senior manager who keeps an eye on the progress of the team, but only gets involved in the event that the team has a 50/50 split on a decision and needs a tie breaker.  The 20 percent minimum ensures that no person is on more than a few projects at once, leaving the rest of their time available for miscellaneous working activities, like the rest of their job.

A smaller team devoting the same total number of man-hours to a project, will always outperform a larger team.

Rule #3 – Team members must collaborate regularly.

Collaboration time differs from “meeting time”, in so far as it is time spent actually working together on a project.  Two or more team members may schedule time to collaborate, or they may spontaneously meet up, or call each other.  They may have a goal for their collaboration time, or a particular problem they wish to tackle, but they should never have an agenda of multiple items to be covered during a particular period.  Collaboration is directed, focused work, but it should be spontaneous, and never managed. During collaboration time, team members may work closely together on the same problem, or they may choose to tackle different problems in silence, together.  Being in proximity and thinking about the same project at the same time gives rise to serendipitous discoveries, and creative solutions, but it also ensures that team members stay focused on the project rather than being pulled away by other concerns.

Rule #4 – Meetings should be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Okay, I’ll admit it, meetings are sometimes a necessary evil.  However, meetings should not be opportunities for the project team to communicate with each other, they are opportunities for the team to communicate with their fifth member, or with other senior management.  The team may call a meeting to get direction or a clarification of goals from management, to report progress, or to present new solutions and confirm they are on the right path.  Management may call a meeting to check in on the project, or to establish new goals or directives.   Meetings should be short, typically 15 minutes, and never more than 30.  They should be ad hoc, called only when necessary.  With fewer members devoting more time to the project, and meetings of shorter duration, ad hoc meetings should become fairly easy to schedule.  If you insist on holding regular meetings, they should be held at predetermined intervals along the project timeline, or when particular project milestones are achieved.

Why nasty and brutish? 

I really like the Hobbes quote, but it’s also relevant. While office interactions should always be professional and genial, good people can, and often do, disagree, especially in the midst of collaboration.  Disagreement can be very healthy and creative. In my experience, many people hold back in meetings, afraid to express opinions for fear of looking foolish or damaging another team member’s pride. Whether we enter meetings as C-level officers, plebeian peons, or something in between, we need to leave our egos, our job titles, and our inhibitions at the door.  For 15 minutes the meeting should be a free flow of brutally honest ideas and opinions. At the end of the meeting, managers give directions, team members return to their project, and, like Vegas, what happened in the meeting, stays in the meeting.

Rule #5 – Fail small, fail quickly, and fail often.

Back in February, I wrote an post titled “In Praise of Failure” where this final rule was the punchline.  As I said in that post, “Quick failures… are merely steps on the way to success.”   Part of the reason we continue with  pointless meetings, accomplishing little, is because even though they bring us no closer to success, they also move us no closer to failure.  Meetings, as we currently practice them, are the equivalent of treading water.  We’re not going anywhere, but we’re not drowning either, and that’s considered good enough.

Projects are inherently collaborative.  Collaboration is always messy.  Messy often leads to failure.  Failure with a little self-awareness gives rise to learning.  Learning creates new knowledge.  New knowledge is fed back into the project, and the process begins again.  Occasionally, “messy” takes a sharp left turn and leads to success, but only after several iterations of the process, and therefore, several failures.  Sadly, we are more afraid of failing, than we are driven to succeed, and we should be most afraid of standing still.

I have never had an opportunity to practice Ryan’s Rules for Projects.  I have attempted to implement some of the rules into existing projects and I’ve been overruled or outvoted each time.  Maybe these rules are a recipe for failure, or maybe they’re keys to success, but if you’re tired of treading water, you could do a lot worse than trying it my way.

UPDATE: 
Jeffrey Brandt at PinHawk suggests a few more rules and I wholeheartedly agree.  My list was never intended to be definitive or comprehensive.  If you have further suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Brandt’s Addenda:  

Rule #6 – All team meetings must have an agenda. (ed. meetings not collaboration time)
Rule #7 – All projects must have a written definition of success.
Rule #8 – All projects must have links to one (or more) strategic business initiatives.

I seem to be encountering a lot of information about teams lately. Last week, I sat in on a webinar put on by Patrick Lencioni, the author of many books on teamwork, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Then, in reviewing the April 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, I read two articles on teams – Teamwork on the Fly and The New Science of Building Great Teams. (These links will take you to an abstract of each article, but you will need to purchase them or log in as a Harvard Business Review subscriber to get the full text.)
Patrick’s talk was actually focused more on his soon to be published book called Organizational Health – A Powerful Advantage, which focuses on the organization, but one of the essential building blocks that has to be in place for an organization to be healthy is a healthy, functional, cohesive team.  In order to do this, leaders and their teams need to master these five behaviors: Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability and Results.  It all starts with trust and team members wiling to be vulnerable with the group.  With this kind of trust in place, the team can engage in conflict without fear.  The team also needs to be able to disagree and then commit. Each team member also needs to hold other team members accountable and call them on their behaviors without having to go to their leaders all the time – the need the “…courage to enter the danger.”  Finally, the team has to have attention to results – not their own individual results based on their department, status or ego, but rather those of the team and the organization.
The two HBR articles focused on different, but complimentary, ideas.  In the “Teamwork on the Fly” article, the author makes the case that in this fast paced and constantly changing world, teams as we have traditionally known them are not as effective as the concept of teaming, or flexible teamwork.  What teaming really amounts to is teamwork on the fly and teams that are made up of members across departments, disciplines and geographies.  The issue that often bogs these kinds of teams down is that they do not have the opportunity to develop trust and build psychological safety over time – this must be accomplished much quicker and, essentially, as the team is doing its work.  The author provides ways to get teams to embrace the concept of teaming and use it to allow participants to become nimbler, more innovative and achieve amazing short-term results.

In the article titled “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” the author studied physical characteristics of team members and suggests that building great teams is a science.  We can’t all go out and buy wearable electronic sensor for our team members to capture their tone of voice and body language, so the biggest takeaway for me from this article was that the ideal team player is one that the author calls a “charismatic connector.”  These are the people that circulate within the team and engage in meaningful conversations, listen as much if not more than they talk, and connect their fellow team members with each other to facilitate the sharing of ideas.  (I don’t know about you, but this reminds me a little bit of the “Connector” that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in The Tipping Point, no?)

What if we were able to bring some of these concepts and tools and apply them to our teams, both the teams we lead and the teams we are members of?  Law firms are still asking us to work more efficiently and be innovative and having the “best team on the field” would certainly allow us a much better chance at success in these areas.  I suspect that many of us are already embracing the concept of teaming without knowing to call it that, but we are also probably encountering many of the pitfalls of teaming.  Maybe we all need to spend some time thinking about what we can do to be a better team member and make the teams that we are a part of and that we lead the best teams they can be.

Have you ever worked for a manager who never seemed to have a consistent story, need, question, or approach to a situation, fix, problem or goal?  One day you are told to approach a problem in one fashion and the next day you are told to approach the problem in an opposite way. This type of manager can be extremely frustrating to work for and this approach will waste a lot of time and energy as the organization tries to align with a strategy that is neither well thought out or well communicated.  This is what I mean by Etch a Sketch Management!

I remember one such manager.  I used to joke that this manager didn’t just change the rules during the game, but changed games in the middle of the game.  And, to top it off, the manager’s way of dealing with employees who felt as though they didn’t understand what was being asked, was to stop communicating with them, as if that would make the problem go away.  What went away was the employee’s desire to help.  You see, Etch a Sketch management sends a clear message, the leader has no clue what they are doing.  How else can you explain such a reversal in direction?

A great leader needs:

Vision – A leader must have a clear compass on direction and goals (vision), and she needs to share that vision with those individuals charged with accomplishing the vision.  She needs to take the time to make sure all charged with accomplishing a vision understand the vision.  Not just what the vision is, but why it is important to the company.  Visions change from time to time as do priorities and those changes in vision and priority need to be clearly communicated or the message received will be one of lack of vision.

Passion – Without passion, how will a leader make it through the challenging portions of her position?  It is passion that fuels the leader through those challenging times. Passion becomes infectious and employees want it;  they will do amazing work for a passionate leader.

Decisiveness – Leaders need to be able move quickly and be committed to their decisions.  A great leader will seek and value input from those around him, be able to understand and analyze the information and then act upon it with confidence.  If the leader needs to keep going back to his team to further discuss or analyze the decision point, he is communicating a lack of knowledge and understanding.

Team Builder – Without a solid team, even the best laid plans will most likely fail.  It takes a great deal of time to build a cohesive team of people who enjoy working together, help one another, leave their egos at the door and work for the common good.  It takes little time for an Etch a Sketch manager to tear all that down.

Character – This is perhaps the most important of all these traits.  A great leader is selfless to the organization.  She understands the greater good of the organization and operates to better the organization rather than putting herself first.  A great leader also thinks about the well-being of her employees and shows respect to her employees.  If you do not show respect, how do you expect to gain respect?  

Etch a Sketch’s have their place and time.  They are fun tools for creating pictures, but they are not good at saving or sharing designs.  Like an Etch a Sketch, Etch a Sketch managers are not good at preserving or sharing ideas and goals.  They are not good at communicating and they are ineffective at inspiring others to perform at their best.  Don’t be an Etch a Sketch manager.  Engage with your people and enjoy the experience.