Saturday, February 12, 2022

How I like to run my Meetings

Meetings have two purposes, disseminate information (knowledge leveling so that we get everyone on the same page) and make a decision (with all of the stakeholders present). Before people say meetings are pointless, if a meeting doesn't fulfill one or both of those purposes, you don't need to have it. Often things can happen one on one to keep the organization running, but sometimes you need a larger group of people. 

In my current role most of the meetings I run are typically to share information, but we do make some decisions in the meetings. Last year for eight months I led a daily standup meeting for 5-10 minutes each day to talk about the shop priorities. I thought it went well, we made a lot of progress completing the high priority items. Now my meetings are milestone based for individual products, kind of like a pre-flight checklist for a pilot. In all of these cases, 98% of my meetings are with engineers and technicians so I can't speak to how business, sales, and marketing people do meetings.

Before the meeting even begins when I am planning it, I aim for 30 minutes or less. The first meeting I ever led in industry was in 2011 to present FEA results and it took only 8 minutes, including questions. I have always seen that first meeting as the benchmark. Don't plan for an hour or 90 minutes unless you really have a lot to cover. And if it's over two hours, you definitely need to plan breaks every 60-90 minutes. 

For starters, since every meeting now involves logging into a computer and setting up a video call, I like to log in ahead of time so that we're ready to go on time. Since people often filter into the meeting early I like to then have a few minutes of small talk, such as what people did on the weekend or any life events that people are having, like a coworker is buying a house and it's always fun to ask how it's going. I do this to build trust. When we talk about our personal lives, as simple as saying "I skied at Winter Park on Saturday." We show our coworkers that we are humans. Probably 5-10% of the time small talk at the start of a meeting has prompted someone to say something like, "Hey I didn't know you live in Longmont too, we should get dinner sometime." Every day you're either building relationships, or letting them wither, and spending 1-2 minutes once or twice a day purposefully on small talk helps build relationships. For example, typically I ask person A a question, and then persons B, C and D now knows more about person A, and potentially have something in common, like loving or hating a new movie.

Possible small talk questions and items to use at the start of a meeting:

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • Did you see that new (insert franchise here) movie?
  • Did you see that (sporting event)?
  • Do you have any vacations planned in the next few months?
  • You can always poke fun at yourself, like saying how much your back hurts after shoveling snow.
  • You can ask about people's commutes when there is bad weather.
  • If people have plants, gardens, pets, or kids those are typically something to ask about. 
  • You can talk about how tired you are of Covid, because we all are.
  • You can ask about music, from new albums to recent or upcoming concerts.

I usually start the actual technical content 1-2 minutes late, and the reason is people, for a wide variety of reasons, show up late. Maybe the notification popped up on their computer right at the start of the meeting and it takes 1-2 minutes to log in. Maybe they were coming from another meeting. If you plan to give the most important information in the first minute of the meeting, starting exactly to the second on time is a recipe to have to repeat yourself. And if people aren't very comfortable with you (because for example you're three layers above them in the hierarchy), they won't ask you what they missed, they will ask someone else what happened in the first two minutes. That's another reason, instead of sitting there in silence a minute past the start of the meeting, having small talk is a good way to ease people into the conversation and get at least one person ready to talk. The one disclaimer to this is when the number of people in the meeting gets above 20, most people that aren't the presenter don't want a room of 20+ people to know all about their personal life. 

During the meeting the goal is to be clear. That doesn't always happen. And often what is clear to one group of people (like manufacturing) is not clear to another (like testing). It's okay to repeat things in a meeting. In fact, I kind of like it. If the information is very important, you better say it twice. Of course saying everything twice will sound patronizing, and I'm not a fan of trying to rehash ten minutes of a meeting if someone showed up late. You can always bring that person up to speed later one on one instead of wasting everyone else's time.

In decision making meetings I try to get everyone to add at least one question or comment in the meeting. Often that means redirecting a question targeted at me for someone who hasn't said anything. For example, "Interesting question John, Sara, what do you think about that?" In engineering there can definitely be people afraid to speak up, in particular women get talked over, and shy engineers often won't speak unless spoken to. So one goal as a meeting leader is to be inclusive and get everyone's perspective.

When the meeting is over it's good to ask if there are any major questions, and the pause will often feel awkward, especially with a large number of people calling into a meeting and needing to unmute themselves to ask a question. Just wait to make sure it's awkward, it only takes about six seconds. I've only waited three seconds before and hung up as someone was asking a question... and then I had to call back in to answer it.

Try to end early. Everyone has individual work to do, and giving them even one minute back will help. Some of them most likely have another meeting scheduled back to back. 

Finally, for meetings where a decision was made, it's good to send out notes to the attendees after the meeting confirming the decision. The same can go for meetings where information was shared, but often in those cases that information can actually be sent out ahead of time, so that people can bring questions to the information sharing meeting. A great example is a design review, the presentation and assembly number can be shared ahead of time so that people can prepare and ask better questions. 

That's about it. I hope it helps in your meetings, and if you've ever felt like my meetings were a little different this might have explained why.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

What is the Future of Fire and Water in Colorado?

The Marshall Fire that swept through Boulder County on December 30th, 2021 was pretty unexpected. The Cameron Peak Fire and Calwood Fires that affected Boulder and Larimer counties, were unexpected, but more typical for the forests around Colorado. Recently, I read an article recently that snow free winters were coming to Colorado before 2100. In other words, Colorado was going to be closer to New Mexico and Arizona in terms of weather. At the same time, the Colorado River basin is experiencing drought, and that affects a huge amount of agriculture and cities starting in western Colorado and all the way to California. 

Both issues, drought and fires are related and have some similar actions that can mitigate their damage. A decade ago beetles killed millions of trees in Colorado and across the mountain west and into Canada, and they all have a similar mitigating factor, thinning out the forests. It's not complicated, and it's not necessarily easy, but it's an excellent solution.

A crowded forest does a few things:

  • A dense forest soaks up all of the water that falls as rain and snow, leaving none to travel down to streams and rivers.
  • A dense forest grows rapidly in the weeks after heavy rain, and dries out faster in weeks of no rain, leading to being very dry and more likely to burn when exposed to fire. In other words, the forest grows rapidly in May and June, dries out in July and August, and burns in September and October.
  • A dense forest is more likely to spread bark pine beetles, and kill more trees. 
  • A dense forest constrains trees from flourishing because there is more competition for sunlight and water.
  • It's really hard to ski through a dense forest.
  • When a dense forest is wet it does product more oxygen and absorb up more carbon dioxide than a sparse forest, but that is largely wiped out when it burns, and the fact that the trees are competing for water and sunlight means that a forest with 20% of the trees will make more than 20% of the oxygen.
Before I go any farther, to be clear, I'm a huge fan of protecting old growth forests. I've never been to Olympic National Park, but I hear that's the premier old growth forest in the USA. I do know that Colorado has very little old growth forests, between logging and mining activities in the late 1800s and fires throughout history, we just don't have many 200 year old trees in this state. 

I'm a big fan of active forest management. This started back in 2002 when I did a Roving Outdoor Conservation School three week backpacking trek in New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch and learned all about forest fire mitigation, which was especially important because that year the northern portion of Philmont burned in a forest fire. In 2006 while a staff member at Philmont I actually carried a 4 foot long cross cut saw for nearly two weeks of backpacking to help maintain trails and thin out the forest. 

At it's core, thinning out the forest is simple, just cut down a portion of the trees, preferably the younger ones, less healthy ones (like already infected with beetles) or dead ones, simulating a fire with flames that are less than 10 feet above the ground. A way to accomplish that would simply be let people loose to cut down any tree less than 4 inches in diameter (which is plenty big for any camp fire or Christmas tree). In practice it's a little more complicated. First, people are efficient, and so the 1/4 mile next to roads would easily be cut down, but the areas 1+ mile away from roads would be left essentially untouched because it takes a lot of effort to walk in and cut down those trees and drag them out. To get those areas of forests thinned there has to be a business case. The business of lumber is such that larger diameter trees are worth more, and it's easier to cut all trees down in an area than 50% of the trees. So what do we do?

Individually, starting in 2022 I plan to thin the forests out just a bit in the areas that I use them where it's legally allowed. I have a small folding saw, less than a half pound that I intend to take hiking and backpacking. Many of the trails that I use are badly in need of maintenance and trimming some branches as I hike will help maintain the trail as well as reduce the water consumption in those area. Similarly at many of the places I camp a $20 permit allows the collection of up to 2.5 cords of dead wood, or cutting live trees and branches under 2" in diameter. While I don't have any specific plans for campfires, the forest fires the last two years have scared me into thinking that this might be every summer for the next 15+ years. I realize that my tiny impact will be imperceptible to everyone except professional foresters, but I have to do something. 

Collectively, we can support forest thinning operations on national forests. Here is a picture I took January 23, 2022 north east of Monarch Pass showing an area of forest that has been thinned, into utterly amazing looking backcountry ski lines. I bet tens of thousands of people see that section of forest from the north side of Monarch Pass and don't realize it's been thinned, especially in the summer. 
Monarch Pass January 23, 2022

We can't eliminate droughts or forest fires. We have to figure out how to live with them. We need clean air, you can only go a few minutes without it, and forest fire emissions put a lot of unhealthy particulate matter into the air. Similarly, without water we humans can only last a few days. Thinning out our forests in the years to come is one method that can help both increase the water supply and reduce the intensity of forest fires. It's not the be all end all solution to drought or wildfires, and it's impact on climate change is beyond my understanding at this time, except that it takes decades for a completely burnt forest to return to it's previous state, which of course doesn't help absorb as much carbon dioxide much during those rebuilding years. 

Of course, if we all use less resources that will help reduce our impact, and there are other options to reduce the impacts of droughts and fires that professionals are working on, and the way knowledge goes I could be proven wrong tomorrow, yet it's been 20 years since I first learned about overcrowded forests and unfortunately the problem only seems to have gotten worse in those two decades.