Right, I’m off then …

View onto the Zambezi river

Holiday season. A couple of weeks ago, we had a nice team coffee, and among other things we were discussing our accessibility during vacation … not if but how everybody would be available during vacation.

Honestly spoken, I was completely shocked. It was very clear for me that having a frequent look at my mails or being available for being called would never allow me truly enjoying my vacation and achieving the core objective of any vacation to – believe it or not – intentionally disconnect from work and recharge. For good reason more and more companies today even ban the use of corporate mail if not smartphone during recreational holiday.

Vice versa, I produced incredulous amazement by stating that I was going to spend my vacation without my company smartphone or any other connection to business communication channels. As I am doing for many years and many vacations now.

 

But how do I smartly manage being off for 2-3 weeks without caring for business email and phone?

Those are the rules I am following with each single vacation for many years now …

  1. Accept your replaceability
  2. Have substitutes
  3. Pre-notify about your coming absence
  4. Have a significant OOO notification
  5. Have your OOO notification one day earlier and one additional day after
  6. No meetings scheduled on last and first day
  7. Have a private phone
  8. Enjoy your return

 

No one is irreplaceable

The first step is a simple but difficult lesson. Some colleagues seem to think that the world would stop turning without them, at least that business would completely break down. I am afraid to say: this actually is a fatal illusion! No one is really irreplaceable. Or in other words, having your business depending on the availability of single individuals would be extremely bad management. What do you think would happen if you would have to undergo a major surgery including being placed in an artificial coma for 2-3 weeks? Would your team stop working and the business crash? I don’t really think so. And if this situation can be managed, why can’t an ordinary vacation absence be equally? Or are you really missing this competence?

Accept that you are factually replaceable, and enjoy the pleasure of this knowledge.

 

Have substitutes

I mean, shouldn’t you generally have clearly assigned substitutes in place? You as a team member as well as you as a team leader. Sorry for my frankness, but wouldn’t not having substitutes for your function and responsibilities intentionally jeopardize business continuity and be completely irresponsible? So, you anyhow should have a clear and communicated set of substitution rules in place. This makes everybody’s life easier, not only in vacation times.

 

Pre-notify about your coming absence

Dropping a kind of “forewarning” 1.5-2 weeks before a longer leave has been proven highly effective in taking pressure out of the situation. I started this measure many years ago as an independent entrepreneur, early informing all clients, team members, project contributors, collaborators and external agencies. So, basically anyone who might depend on me or may have urgent need for support. This prenotification is not only telling about my absence, but also that in case anything urgent should be done or would be needed before, one can drop me a note up to 3 days before my leave, giving me some time to care for late things. This approach always was highly appreciated and resulted in extremely positive feedback, esp. by clients.

My learning has been, that not the absence or unavailability is the issue, but missing information and the perception of being left alone. So, proactively show that you care.

 

Have a significant OOO notification

Amongst us, “I am OOO.” is not really a very significant out-of-office notification. OK, it is very clear, simple, and provides at least the key message. But joking apart, I personally prefer to provide few additional information, which support the receiver with what he can expect when and by who. Still short, clear and simple. So, I typically provide the earliest day people an expect me to come back to them again, my substitution rules, and a nice wording to not accidentally leave people being peeved off when realizing that I am enjoying my vacation while they need to work hard.

 

Have your OOO notification one day earlier and one additional day after

OK, it might be a mistake disclosing this ‘secret’ now. At least this might show me who of my appreciated colleagues is actually reading this blog attentively. So, just between ourselves: I generally have my out-of-office notification activated on my last day before my leave already and also on the first day I am back in office. This takes a lot of pressure from the last and first working days surrounding my vacation. I keep control which things are urgent enough to additionally put on my pile on the last day, and I keep control over the first day of my return, esp. creating a buffer for coping with piled up emails. And for my team mates I am anyhow available in the office for late urgent stuff.

 

No meetings scheduled on last and first day

Same as before. A very simple and efficient measure allowing you to smoothly fade out – fade in. It is in your hands.

 

Have a private phone

It is about reducing temptation and opportunities. I never take my corporate phone nor my laptop along me for vacation. Clear rule, easy to follow. Taking your laptop with you gives you the illusion of being fully productive everywhere … but you are not. And all the things you actually can do … typically can wait if you are honest to yourself. Certainly I want to be reachable (by my family and friends) and read my (private) mails, so I have a private smartphone and do not mix up things.

 

Enjoy your return

After your return, enjoy that not everything might have worked as smoothly as people are used to, that they are happy that you are back, and that you have been missed. I mean, come on, this is perfect … you can look forward coming back to office. Could really be worse.

 

Finally, I would like to share a personal piece of experience with you. In more than 20 years of working life, about ten of those running my own business with being the key contact for all clients, there has not been a single situation where my short-term action was really needed. A proactive absence management assumed.

Honestly spoken, for many years I was fatally wrong in thinking that my general availability would be vital. And it took me some time to learn that (at least felt) being approachable and indispensable during vacation with your family and kids is just an unmasking sign of bad (self-)management.

Fortunately, there is always room for development …

The courage to talk

Recently, an esteemed colleague was thanking me for “courageous openness” with a previous email by me.

I have been very happy about this feedback. But I was also asking myself: is it really courageous to address important issues by mail … if there also had been opportunities to speak?

Honestly spoken, talking would have been courageous, face to face, eye in eye, vouching for my words.
Writing email is less.

The smart “no”

You need to cancel something on someone but you do not know how? Well, there are for example the …

 

8 ways of saying “no”

  1. I would like to … but unfortunately I can’t.
  2. This would contradict my personal maxims.
  3. I would like to make an alternative suggestion.
  4. My wife doesn’t want it.
  5. I would gladly pick up later … but currently I am at full capacity.
  6. I appreciate your kind offer … but to my opinion even more is possible.
  7. I need to think about it.
  8. John can do it much better!

(by Darius Götsch in the German Movo magazine, issue 1 2016)

 

The smart “no”

To my personal opinion, the best way in any case is being open, transparent and honest and letting people not wait for your decision longer than necessary.

If something is going beyond your capabilities … clarify it. If you are fully loaded … say it. If you need time to think about … request it. If you have an even better idea … suggest it. If you have an ethical or fundamental issue … put it on the table.

But do not delay your “no” because you are afraid. Fear is a bad advisor. And in case you are concerned about the possibility of negative consequences of a “no”, promptly document your decision and the underlying justification with a brief mail (optionally with CC to your line manager and/or the project manager).

Be clear with your “no” and be clear with your “yes” without dancing around the cake. And most people will appreciate. Those who do not anyhow don’t care about your opinion. But this is a different story.

Why doesn’t anyone tell him …?

post20141107A zur deutschen Versionnew division head is in town. And he (or she) wants to share his vision and plans with the team members in subordinate departments and business units. First of all, a fair approach.

So, the new boss arranges a “townhall”, which is .. how should I say … a mix of collective self-congratulation, motivational speaker show, and blatant puffery. Actually, the intended purpose is to reduce need for the new boss to deal with each subordinate individually but rather polish off all at once.

Making a digression. Back to the topic …

Well, said new division head stands in front of the audience, perhaps something between 300 and 400 subordinates, and talks about his plans. He mentions that in the past quite a few things had been done quite well already, and that he appreciates those efforts and the great expertise of the teams and people … but that there certainly is room for improvement and optimization. He presents his new master plan, laid out for 5-6 years, at last solving all issues of the division, and which will be the ultimate solution for a prospering future of the enterprise. Goes without saying that the plan crucially includes a reorganisation.

There is just one problem: he (or she) is the 3rd new division head in 5 years already. And the majority of colleagues sitting in the audience have repeatedly heard exactly the same speech. This is still very much present, it hasn’t even reached long-term memory yet. And those colleagues sit on their chairs, listen to the presentation, and think: “What a speechifier! In 2 years max you will been gone again. And then the next one jumps in, and retells the same, that he now knows how it really works. And your master plan is going to be history like all the other big master plans before.”

Summary: Actually the new division head just now makes a fool of himself.

Is that really necessary? Why did nobody appropriately prepare and brief him? Who the heck coaches middle managers such amateurishly? It almost appears as would someone simply follow a checklist … a rather goony one by the way.

An honest and down-to-earth announcement gaining respect and appreciation by associates rather would sound like this  …

“Hi everybody! I am the new boss, and I also cannot turn water to wine! We are going to spend the next 2 years together, perhaps even a bit less. Let’s make the best out of it! So that at the end all of us are able to show some smaller or bigger but nice achievements and progresses, without any unneeded collateral damages.”

Knowledge Management is the wrong attitude

Does knowledge need to be properly managed?
Will knowledge be increased or improved by managing it?
When I heard about “knowledge management” the first time in the late 90’s, this phrase was mostly used to describe what in my humble opinion was more related to information management. To collect and save pieces of information. And to have tools for proper data mining, so, to re-find previously collected and stored information. Also a honorable mission … but no true knowledge management. And a mission that is also still not finally accomplished. Sure, things have substantially improved, there are better tools and semantic tagging. But we all still suffer from fighting ourselves through exponentially increasing volumes of information day by day.

Then after a while the term “knowledge management” was occupied, misused and spammed by a wide range of software vendors. Even elevator control systems claimed to manage knowledge. BTW, quite similar to what still happens to “business intelligence”, … or did you observe a BI-software-related increase in intelligence related to business during the last years? If at all? (but this is another story to be continued somewhere down the blog)

Most knowledge management projects simply failed as knowledge obviously is a matter of human brains, not of IT. To avoid any misunderstanding, IT offers a fantastic range of tools and structures than can support knowledge sharing. And I greatly appreciate that as well as gratefully use those tools. But you just cannot limit knowledge management to IT. A while ago I joined an event with a superior manager, who answered a question on the company’s knowledge strategy with “we soon will have a new CIO and then things will improve”. No surprise than there was absolutely no advancement for years.
In contrast, there was this young entrepreneur who founded a knowledge management consulting business. His strategy was to infiltrate client companies with a team composed of an IT expert (for the supporting hardware/software view), a business consultant (for the financial and business process view), and … a psychologist having the mission to identify gaps and bottlenecks in the internal teamwork and related communication culture. Because knowledge can also be a matter of personal advantage and power. Unfortunately,  at that time the world was not ready for this innovative concept.
Now, during the last few years, communication functionality, social media and learning technologies came more and more into play. They finally shifted the understanding of knowledge management towards the more holistic concept. Knowledge is not managed … but created, communicated, shared. Knowledge is something living, something cultural. And – most important – the mission of knowledge is to be used instead of being stored.
After all, honestly spoken, I am not sure that I want anyone to “manage” my or others knowledge. I would prefer to be part of a living knowledge culture, supported and driven by the management.
In even doubt that knowledge can be managed at all.
What do you think?

Geman Post

Let’s talk about Sex

Journalists are mediators. And they are translators. Take me as an example. It is my job as a scientific journalist to translate scientific contents to the public so that people can understand what things like “cloning” and “genetic engineering” are. And, well, I am trying my best and it truly is an advantage for me to be an educated molecular biologist. I do understand scientific subjects as well as the technical terminology of the biosciences.

But what’s about my non-scientific colleagues? If a standard magazine journalists is in duty to write about – let’s say – Dolly the sheep, does he really have a chance to produce something meaningful? It is even hard for him to understand the details … and we expect a founded judgement. This colleague however is a translator to the public. Like a Chinese-English translator who never learned any Asian language and is working with a 1970 edition of a common dictionary (and avoid asking him for the Chinese signs). Taking this into account, can we really be surprised that the public opinion about biotechnology and gene technology is such bad in Europe.

This also had been a major point at the “Biotech in Europe” session of the recent BIOTECHICA BUSINESS FORUM 2002 in Hanover, Germany. Speakers included Crispin Kirkman (BioIndustry Association, UK), Claude Hennion (France Biotech), Christian Suter (BioValley Basel, Switzerland), Rob Janssen (Netherlands’ Biotech Industry Association) and Hugo Schepens (EuropaBio).

During the discussions Christian Suter mentioned that we are missing true science mediators in Europe. He quantified fruitful cooperations between journalists and scientists as lucky exceptions. And others added that there is a completely different communication culture in North America where scientists don’t worry about sitting in a TV shown and propagating their views to the public.

I do agree. We are really missing true translators and mediators of our contents. Where are the colleagues that are able to help journalists to understand? Dear scientists, journalists desperately need you! Help them to translate. Go out, be present and be the bridges crossing the river between scientific knowledge and the society. In my view many American scientists are highly sensitized regarding their role and duty for public understanding that is the base of public opinion. European scientists are much more afraid of being in the limelight of the media. But – honestly spoken – to my opinion it is part of their (publicly financed) job.

Why do so many European scientists avoid the public? Well, they never learned it. Being a public translator for scientific knowledge is not part of scientific education. Many researchers are just not able to translate.

It is a matter of terms … and a matter of relevance. Let me explain what I do mean with the “matter of relevance”. A true scientist talking about the developments in research will never make an absolute statement, like “Newton’s apple will definitely never go upwards”. He is always qualifying and seeing things in relative terms, even when there is just a hypothetical 0.0001% chance for an alternative event. Perhaps, one day, Newton’s apple may go upwards. It does not matter if this is relevant or not, it always will be a possibility. This basic kind of thinking is a result of the scientific knowledge finding process’ structure, that is driven by thesis and antithesis.

But for the average man or woman this “may be” is a sign of uncertainty, in the worst case interpreted as “there is something in it”. The 0.0001%-event has become a true and relevant option. Now, he is awaiting Newton’s apple to shoot up to the stratosphere, exploding there and finally destroying earth’s ozone shield.

As a conclusion, scientists have to learn to reduce, to focus and to rate various options for relevance. People want clear answers, simple explanations and meaningful statements.

Now, let’s talk about the “matter of terms”. Scientists and non-scientists are often using the same words but do speak different languages. Many scientific terms have a different meaning or an additional interpretation for average persons they have not for a scientist. The result is that both are speaking to each other but there is no true communication.

Take the word “sex” as an example. If a scientist is using the word “sex” he usually is thinking about the gender of the organism he is working with – but most non-scientists at first are thinking about something completely different. Another good example would be the word “glauben” that in the German language is used for “to my opinion” as well as for “to believe”. So if biotech managers “glauben” that gene technology is safe, is it their opinion or is it their believe? But let us focus even more towards “genetic engineering” and “gene technology”. For me the German translation “Gentechnik” has no weight. In my understanding the word stands for a scientific method, a lab application. It is not good or bad, it just is. But for an average German citizen “Gentechnik” has an expanded content, it has a negative meaning, it is a bad word, it is used like talking about devil’s kiss. Now imagine a molecular biologist and a politician having a discussion about gene technology. They are talking together … but finally there is no communication. You can observe it on any programme running on an European TV station.

Where are all these communication and public relation agencies serving the Life Science industries? What have they done during the past years? Well, at least they have lost an important battle. They lost the battle for sovereignty over words. And I suppose that they lost because many of them did not really understand the things they were fighting for.

If you want your public relations work being successful within the fields of Life Science and biotechnology it is much more important compared to any other branch of business that you have an in-depth-knowledge about the contents. Biotechnology and gene technology cannot be treated like others. You really have to understand the technologies you are trying to promote. You really have to know the key words and their true meaning as well as their interpretation by interest groups. And never forget that these words and expressions can have various meanings depending on who is using them!

But where is the way out of the dilemma? Very simple: strike back! Use the words in their true meaning. Use them ‘normalized’. And do not use them only on podium discussions but in your daily live. Speak about biotechnology with your family. Speak about biotechnology with your friends. Speak about biotechnology with your colleagues and business partners. Speak about biotechnology with your children and with their teachers. Speak about biotechnology at your breakfast table and at your barber. Speak about biotechnology with your doctor and with his nurse. Speak about biotechnology as it would be the most normal thing in the world. One day it will be. Win back the sovereignty over words! Now!

Revised version of the article “Let’s talk about Sex”, originally published in December 2002 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.