Monday, October 26, 2009

Science called - it asked for better communication

I read a cool article in the Autumn 2009 strategy+business magazine about what recent neuroscience research tells us about the social nature of high-performing workplaces. Communicating better and reducing uncertainty is a necessity for increasing productivity and retaining staff.

One of the studies, that unfortunately applies to too many work environments, discusses how uncertainty has the ability to block work from getting done and encourages bad decisions. When something is certain, or familiar, "neural connections in our basal ganglia have 'hardwired' the situation and the responses to it. This makes it easy to do what someone knows how to do, even to focus on more than one thing. Like driving and talking on the phone."

Enter uncertainty ... Will we get funding? Are we hiring/firing? What is everyone else working on? Will the new project need me? Uncertainty registers in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, as an error, a gap or tension - something that must be corrected. Just a wee bit of uncertainty can be exciting. It can produce adrenaline and make us be more creative, prod us to think outside of the box and deliver more. Tip the scale a bit and get too much uncertainty and you have some real problems. "Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present. When perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions."

Doing poor work is one thing. But disengaging is another thing altogether. It's frightening to think your star performers are looking to 'correct' uncertainty by looking for new jobs that seem to be more stable.

I think in the vast majority of situations, people can handle more complexity than they are given credit for. They can handle knowing the problems and the variables behind them. Good leaders understand the importance of communicating regularly and meaningfully. Creating the perception of certainty builds confident and dedicated teams.

For example, sharing business plans, breaking down complex projects into discrete steps, sharing rationales for change, maps/plans of an organization’s structure, specifics about restructuring, and articulating how decisions are made help people feel more confident and build trust. 'Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests.'

There you go. If you want your team effectively multi-tasking, concentrating, and not looking for other jobs, doesn't it make sense to communicate more?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Recruiting Interns

A friend of mine has a cool start-up that is really gaining traction. She wrote:
"I thought of you yesterday, Matt. I'm dealing with hiring interns (it's been a nightmare so far!). I hired an intern who worked one day and then asked me if he could use me as a reference on his resume. Ugh. Remind me again why you love this process so much! : ). You're freaky!"

Here were some of my thoughts:

  • Don't sacrifice on quality, but give on everything else. Look for an impressive, creative, or a cool past job experience. Compromise on work assignments, hours, days they work, tools you can get them, exposure to cool projects, whatever .... Give them free reign, a "professional playground." Make sure you give a real resume building experience and make that appealing to applicants. This will likely mean that you can't rely on them to deliver for your next deadline (or format that boring report) but they'll bring value.
  • Pay something. If you can avoid making the internship unpaid, do it. Pay $5/hour stipend, train fair, buy lunch... Anything you offer makes a big difference over the other completely unpaid opportunities out there.
  • Write a fun, creative, different, but realistic posting - this is a lengthy topic by itself, but spend some time. Explain your company, what you are looking for, the perks, and make it fun! Free posting spots should be able to give you what you want. I like (its free). Another good place to start an intern search is, of course,
  • Add fun screening questions that applicants must answer in order to get a response. This helps cut through the spam-of-crap applicants and can give a real glimpse of personality, drive, and quality. For example, Tell me a joke? Which of our current clients do you like most and why? What was a favorite viral video in the last year and why? Simple questions relating to the work are good too! What resource would you use for arranging travel from SF to NY? What are some common tasks of a PR company? State you are busy and will only respond to applicants that answer all of your questions. Very few candidates will respond to individual questions and the ones that do will really want the job.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I've found these steps helpful. What are good recruiting tips you have used? How have your internship experiences worked out?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Dark Phase

I recently wrote about Mark Jung's presentation about the phases of a start-up. While not technically a part of the '5 phases' and referring more to an individual (i.e. the founder), Mark also talked about a 'Dark Phase'.

During the Dark Phase you ask yourself if you still believe in yourself and the company? What does failure mean? How are you coping with failure? You wonder how the carnage could have been prevented? (I love that Mark used the word carnage). You reflect on the amount of responsibility or blame you should take? What do you do now?

There are no answers. They are tests.

I think 'Dark Phase' is a great term. It's comforting. Everyone has setbacks and failures. Everyone hits entire periods of darkness. Knowing that it's normal and expected helps. It's how you respond that matters.