Friday, March 11, 2011

Dialing In and Checking Out

Can you spot the difference in these questions:
  • What is the company’s operating practice when it comes to running a batch job in the shared database environment, Bob?
  • Bob, could you give us a summary of the company’s operating practice relative to running a batch job in the shared database environment?
Does this sound like a trick question? Do you look at these two and say, other than the placement of the name, “Bob”, these questions are about as identical as they could be?

I facilitate a lot of conference call meetings, and a high percentage of them are needed to analyze or resolve architectural issues. Architecture Review meetings can be as much fun as a flat tire, without the novelty of searching for the jack. Now I’ll admit that a good loose coupling debate exhilarates me - but I’m not sure I’m all that sane.

The difference between the two questions is exactly what you thought - in the one case the respondent, Bob, is informed upfront that the question is for him. When conducting a conference call, webex, or even a video conference where several people are “dialed in” it is important to provide audible cues as to the ebb and flow of the conversation.

Now you might say that the responsibility to stay engaged rests with each individual, and you’ll get no argument from me. There is nothing more wasteful than to have assembled all of the pertinent individuals only to learn that a third of them mentally checked out nine seconds after roll call.

So first, why does this issue come up in a blog about architecture? We work in a world where conference calls, geographically dispersed teams, and self-induced attention deficit are common place. I use every trick available when facilitating a virtual meeting to ensure that we arrive at the best answers, clearest direction, and least ambiguity. I don’t mind using a few little “cheats” if it increases the value of everybody’s time.

Secondly, audio bridges and video conferences just don’t, can’t, and won’t provide the same level of conversational immersion as personal contact. A phone call between lovers will never replace a goodnight kiss. If you want to maximize the value of everybody’s time, use audible cues to narrate everything you do. “Let’s now take a look at slide #3.” “That covers the first agenda item, let’s move on to Eric’s project update, .. Eric?” “Bob, can you summarize our batch job policy for Carl?”

If you are facilitating a virtual meeting, think of yourself as a narrator, making sure that you verbally depict the context cues that would normally be obvious if everyone were physically present.

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