Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Running Diary: The Engineering Summit, Part 3

Part 1 of this Running Diary on The Engineering Summit, covered the purpose of this meeting and discussed how to overcome large meeting logistical problems. Part 2 described the beginning of the meeting, including a sweat attack and an introduction game that set a good tone for the 3 days. Here in the final part of the series, key successes from the meeting are rehashed and the importance of setting up a feedback loop is covered.

Highlights

To enumerate all of the presentations here would be boring, but a few aspects are worth noting. As much as I hate to admit it since I spent 9 years telecommuting, people really do need to see each other face to face every once in awhile. There's just too much non-verbal communication that goes on when you are in the same room with someone else, and a teleconference with NetMeeting just can't capture that. I had more than one person come up to me and tell me how nice it was to finally meet so-and-so in person after talking on the phone with them for 3 years. There's an almost tactile-ness to live interaction that is important to establish and continue.

The other thing I'm glad I did was plan one, and only one, dinner together. When you spend 8-9 hours locked in a room with a set of people in all day meetings, the last thing you want to do is go have dinner with those exact same people. This was an especially nice group of people, but when you spend that much time together you start to get sick of each other. It's nothing personal, it's just that you start to run out of things to talk about and need something different.

Still, you need some of that team-building, and a good way to do it is by taking everybody to dinner. We had a semi-mandatory dinner the second night only, which let people get a sense of freedom on that first day to do what they wanted, but not feel ripped off at not getting a good meal with the group. A word to the wise: If you become nauseated easily, don't sit next to the guys from Southeast Asia when they start talking about street vendor selections at their local open air market. I feel queasy all over again just typing that.

By far the most popular presentations were the Q&A's set up with upper management. We have these by phone all the time, but this was another instance where the body language played a big part in a lot of ways. When you hear the booming voice of an important manager over a teleconference, it can be an oddly Orwellian (or Ozian) experience no matter how friendly he or she is trying to come across. Seeing subtle cues like a smile or a facial expression that showed the upper manager formulating a response to a question as it was being asked made a big difference in how these people were perceived by the folks several layers of hierarchy below them. The more intimate setting freed people to make more direct comments to these managers which can be difficult to pose in a phone call with 150 other people. Despite suggestions to move the Engineering Summit to other locations in the future, it was these kinds of positive interactions that would lead me to choose company headquarters just about every time.

Conclusions

After the sessions were over, I set up an anonymous online survey so that I could get feedback on how the time was spent. Fundamentally, I wanted to see if people felt like the time away from their regular jobs and their families was worth it. I started it with a simple true/false "The Engineering Summit was worth my time" and had a couple of open comment fields for people to write whatever they wanted. Then, I had them score each individual presentation on a scale of 1 (lousy) to 5 (great).

I'm really glad I set up this feedback loop because it gave me some good ideas to improve future sessions and provided a glance at the kinds of things people found most interesting. If you ever put on something like this yourself that involves a lot of time and money, I highly recommend gathering these kind of responses.

Overall, 95% of the people in attendance took the survey and all of those who did said it was worth their time. The average score of all the individual presentations was a 4.25, with the highest two being the Q&A's with the highest ranking managers I could talk into coming to meet with us (4.75 and 4.63, respectfully). My non-technical skills topics averaged a 4.32, slightly higher than the overall average and this helped inspire me to take this work to other forums.

I wouldn't do this kind of gathering every quarter, but every year seems about right. Around the time where financial planning has just concluded seems to be the best timing because by then you all know what you are going to work on for the next year. I'd definitely do it again and hope to make the experience even better the next time (starting with wearing a darker shirt).

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 2:24 PM   0 comments links to this post

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