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Reading

Hi, I'd like to have a really boring meeting with you today.

Can you imagine seeing this invitation in your inbox?

Subject: Hi, I’d like to have a really boring meeting with you today.

When: First thing in the morning (before you have a chance to think).

Duration: 10 minutes longer than I say it will last.

Notes: I’d like to get everyone together because I think I should. Or do you think I should? I can’t remember. In any case, we’ll half-heartedly shift through a variety of topics and try to make progress on passing the time, which is the only item we’ll actually be able to measure. Towards the end someone may bring up something vaguely controversial but we’ll all feel awkward and so it won’t get discussed. The great news is that the content will be so boring that even banal humor will sound hilarious, so bring a feeble joke and you’ll feel like you’re moderately interesting. Wish I wouldn’t be meeting you but I’ll see you there regardless.

If you got this invitation it would take you all of two seconds to press DELETE and move on. But the reality is that every day, most of us sit in meetings basically identical to this. And the harsher reality for me is that I actually run some of them! Ack.

I’ve read two things in the last day that have me thinking about my meetings, my work, and how to make both more effective. The first is Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. In this insightful, concise book, Pittamapalli basically asserts two things: 1) we’re all run by our meeting schedule, and 2) most meetings are shockingly ineffective, so much so that they risk paralyzing our work culture. Check and check.

His advice basically boils down to “Don’t point out a problem without proposing a solution.” He contends that most meetings can be dispensed with. In his model, the central purpose of an effective meeting should not be to “decide something,” which only leads to circular discussion, delay, and lack of accountability. Rather, a meeting should be used to present a decision to a problem in order to solicit criticisms of the proposed solution and input on how to implement it.

Pittampalli acknowledges that this approach requires the willingness to write memos (and the willingness to read them). And he spares “work sessions,” brainstorming discussions, and one-on-one conversations, which are at the center of his approach. But everything else — weekly status meetings, management meetings, team meetings, project meetings — gets the axe.

I like it, and I feel like I’ve read similar advice before. What really caught my eye in Pittampalli’s text was not his critique of meetings per se, but his emphasis on recapturing alone time to increase productivity. That second idea is core to a short article by Susan Cain in Friday’s New York Times passed on to me by my friend and colleague Jono Smith. (As always, you can find the link to Cain’s article — and Pittampalli’s book — in the “References” section at the top of this post.)

Writing of “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Cain contends that the modern push towards collaboration is killing creativity and effectiveness, both of which require solitude to flourish. Unlike Pittampalli, Cain doesn’t spare brainstorming sessions, which she describes as “one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity.”

I absolutely loved Cain’s piece. It completely resonated with me and described something I’ve always had a hard time explaining about myself: Why that, for a moderately social person, I need quite a bit of down time to regenerate. My best work, whether it be strategic positioning, analytics, writing, composition, or anything else, always happens through long periods of solitary time punctuated by interesting conversations with people I trust and admire. And the meetings I do value are more like bull sessions than anything else. (I also share Cain’s disdain for brainstorming meetings. Put me in a room of more than a few people to “talk something through” or “come up with great ideas” and I start nodding off.)

Further, Cain puts her finger on a seeming contraction I’ve noticed in our firm. At first I thought it was an outgrowth of a distributed work environment, but now I see it as a larger dynamic in the modern workplace: Many of us simultaneously yearn for more collaboration and at the same time loudly complain about being shuffled into too many meetings. The two are obviously not the same, Cain points out — tight schedules are not the same as increased connectedness.

Taken together, I’ve found a powerful 2012 professional charter in the two articles: Reduce meaningless “group time” designed to either hem & haw about this & that or magically inspire camaraderie; and instead create more productive stretches of solitude for my team and myself.

I’m not sure that I can do it, but given that I’m trying to swear off skepticism, it’s worth a shot. Plus, I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about how they “have so many meetings they can’t get anything done.” That’s really one of the most idiotic things any of us could say about our work, and yet almost everyone I know says it all the time.

Enough’s enough! Never mind the boring meeting — it’s cancelled.

Getting Started with Analytics: Some Reading

Since returning home from last week’s 2011 NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference, I’ve been asked about a half-dozen times for reading suggestions for fundraisers looking to learn more about statistics, and in particular, segmentation. 

I have a couple of suggestions to get you started, but I want to say that the best way to start to learn segmentation is to export some data from your database — say, the results of your most recent initiative — open it in Excel, and just look at what you see. Sort the list by donation size. How many large gifts are there? How many small gifts? Do you notice clumping around certain numbers? Look at the addresses of the donors — are more from certain places than others? These are basic questions, but they are the first step towards viewing your donors as individuals rather than as one anonymous whole. I’ll write more on that in coming weeks, but the message is: Don’t be afraid to play with your data! You won’t break anything, I promise.

Now, as for the recommendations, I always start with two books. The first is the reassuringly titled Statistics Without Tears by Derek Rowntree. You’ll like this book immediately just by its size — unlike most statistics texts, you can carry it with one hand. It looks at you non-threateningly, as a small puppy might. It is a classic book, first published years ago, and there’s something comforting about the type and the graphs. It reminds me of cookies and tea at Grandma’s. More than the appearance, though, is the content. You may sweat a bit in places, but there will be no crying, and you’ll come out the other side knowing a bit more about the things you know you should know (what is a median, and why does it matter; what does the standard deviation measure, and why shouldn’t you be afraid of the word “deviation”) but don’t. 

The second is the much more recent but excellent Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy by Joshua Birkholz. Unlike Rowntree’s book, this book was written after the secret consortium of business publishers decreed that all business books much contain a colon in their title. (Have you noticed this? The same rule applies to movie sequels.) But more importantly, this is a very recent and much-needed addition to the vast number of fundraising books on the market, most of which lack any real specificity when it comes to collecting data and understanding it, and a few of which are patently banal. Birkholz walks through a number of basic and more advanced analytics issues, including a treatment of RFM analysis and an introduction to regression. It won’t make you a statistics hero, but it will go a long ways towards improving your knowledge, particularly if you read it with an eye not only towards specific techniques, but towards how he approaches data and analysis more generally. High recommended.

Neither book is a cheap ticket, but both are worth it, and should get you started. Happy reading!

Zeitoun

Yesterday I traveled home from a fairly long trip to Washington, DC for the 2011 NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference. The conference itself was three days, but we added on several days of team meetings and so when it was all said and done, it made for a six-day trip. That’s a long time to be gone in any person’s book, or at least, a long time to be gone for a trip that doesn’t involve a beach. 

In any case, the conference was fantastic, but by Saturday night the Event 360 folks and I were feeling a bit punchy and spent the better part of the evening shuffling around Dupont Circle. There are far worse places to spend a Saturday evening, particularly an evening involving a Supermoon, and we had a lot of fun stopping in various places around the neighborhood and trying to decide if the moon was larger after all. 

One highlight was the fabulous Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill, which I’d heard about but never set foot in. It took all of ten minutes for me to be juggling a pile of six books — I’m not so much a reader as a book acquirer; I seem to have far more books than time to read, and since my recent disavowal of the Kindle (a post for another time), I’m piling up pages quickly. Luckily one of my Event 360 Voices of Reason talked me down to three books, one of which was Zeiton by Dave Eggers. 

For years I’ve had a copy of  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which has been recommended to me by so many people that a while ago I began actively resisting suggestions to read it. Not that I don’t trust all the recommendations; I suppose I just have enough of an anti-establishment streak that the more I hear the less I want to go along. (Or am I just stubborn?) Plus, I understand the theme involves the death of parents, and I’ve had enough of that for the last several years, thank you very much.

In any case, I know of Eggers and the book looked interesting. A true story, it involves two of my many hot buttons: Hurricaine Katrina and civil liberties, or the lack thereof; and more broadly, the reason you might want to adopt a healthy anti-establishment streak yourself. So yesterday afternoon, tired from the week and with thoughts of nonprofits, technology, and making a difference mulling around my head, I boarded my plane home and turned to page one.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Harrowing, haunting, and ultimately hopeful, the book in simple but heroic, subtle but compelling turns tells a vast story on a small canvas, like a faded postcard from a distant trip you might frame and hang in your guest bedroom, a tiny reminder of a much larger experience you can’t fully explain. You will find yourself wondering how and why this could happen here, in America, only a few years ago, and then — if there’s any hope for us — find yourself angry and troubled that you haven’t heard more about it. 

The absurdity of bureaucracy, the mechanized degradation of personality, and the progressive devaluation of individuality are all important themes in the story. But unlike me, Eggers is a powerful writer, and doesn’t need to specifically call out those themes at all. They tap themselves on the head and step forward for you. 

It is a story of vast consequence told with almost no pretense. It will leave you with many questions, and yet also with a reminder of the power we each carry within us. Worth reading.