Finding handholds when you don’t understand the conversation

Here's my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book -- with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions!  (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)
Here’s my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book — with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions! (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)

People are saying things.  They seem to be words.  They seem to be in some type of sentence structure.  But what are they saying?  Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you. 

And it’s too much.  It’s too much.  It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café.  Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?

Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant.  So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.

One of the most challenging things in an unfamiliar language is that you can’t filter.  You hear a combination of sounds and you cannot tell where one word ends and the next begins, let alone which is a noun or a verb or the name of a place.  (This is probably why many people don’t bother reading the standard privacy policy written in legalese.)

My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.

What does this mean in understanding a language?  That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?”  And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.”  Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.

Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:

  • Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins.  (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
  • Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible.  As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields.  However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
  • Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order.  So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question.  Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”!  A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets.  The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick.  So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
  • Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how.  This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English.  However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
  • Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold.  When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language.  Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform.  However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
  • This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know.  A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up.  Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
  • Then build connections back to what you know.  Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future.  For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with.  Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them.  This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.

While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you!  Please share any other tips.

*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you.  That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan).  Otherwise, my job is not done yet!  So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.

Knowing when it’s time to move on

Recently, someone asked me how you know when it’s time to move on from an organization (although this could also be from a particular role or type of work).  Of course, this is not the type of thing anyone else can tell you.  Only you can know.  But perhaps it is helpful to read some examples and the questions asked when others have been at this crossroads.

You're in a park, with trees and shade and benches, standing on a path that forks off into two different directions
You’re in a park, with trees and shade and benches, standing on a path that forks off into two different directions

Here are some times when I knew it was time for me to move on:

  • I had grown as much as I could within the organization, and I was interested in growth. 
  • I wasn’t interested in the pathways that existed in my current organization or field (e.g., that’s cool, but I don’t have any interest in becoming a Director of Development or moving into prospect development or digital engagement).
  • I gave that type of work a sincere try, but continuing to do that work would have required me to be something I’m not (e.g., I enjoy helping people learn, but classroom instruction is really draining as an introvert and that’s not sustainable as a majority of my job).
  • I was no longer interested in learning new things in the field—even if I was still interested in learning other things, whether about a new field or in general.
  • I wanted to learn or do things that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in my current role (e.g., strategically plan for the organization’s technology use) or at that organization (e.g., work on product development as part of an in-house team).
  • The leadership was toxic and not changing any time soon.
  • The way the organization operated created a constant clash with my values.
  • I was consistently undervalued and disrespected and/or my ability to do the work effectively was systemically undermined.

The last situation is an and/or because sometimes this is how I have been treated as an individual professional, and sometimes this is because the work I do is being systematically under-resourced, overlooked (until there’s a problem and then it’s all my or my team’s fault), and de-prioritized.  Often, these two situations tend to overlap, and they are both extremely demoralizing.

While some of those situations could apply to anyone, some of those reasons stem from what’s important to me at work: constant learning, autonomy to accomplish a goal as I see fit, balance of peopling and solo work, etc.   You may be looking for different things (e.g., the ability to focus on research, more people interaction than behind a desk time, flexibility as a caregiver, etc.).  And of course, what we we’re seeking evolves over time as our lives evolve.

Some of the situations for moving on are downright unhealthy.  But others might be things that could be adjusted.  Perhaps you work to craft your job a bit differently or discuss growth opportunities with your manager.  Maybe you spend some time exploring a different niche within your field of work and how that might enrich your current work.  Maybe some things you seek outside of your day job – through a side gig, a volunteer role, or something just for fun.  Maybe you realize that it’s not only that you have lost interest in your line of work, but you’ve lost interest in everything and it’s time to find a therapist.  (Hopefully that’s not the case, though please get help if you need it!  Note that burnout can be caused by lack of control and that can be due to the context of your work.)

The person who asked me was feeling a bit guilty about leaving their teammates behind.  That’s natural!  It’s a big change for everyone.  But on a healthy team, we want what’s best for each other.  I trust that if you’re the type of person to worry about that, you’ll do what you can to be a good teammate throughout your departure as well.

So here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself during those times:

  • Am I running towards something or away from something?*
  • Is moving on the only way to meet my objectives?  Or even if it’s not the only way, is it the best way for me?
  • If I’m concerned about the impact of my leaving, what can I do to handle that transition in way that I feel good about?  Including, how might this open up opportunities for others?
  • And if it is indeed time to move on: What will I choose to let go of in order to make space for the things I want next?

Yes, even if you are seeking to leave a negative situation in your current job, moving on still can be about what you are running towards.  Maybe you are running towards an organization that puts people first as evidenced by their operational practices.  Maybe you’re running towards working with leaders you are excited to learn from.  Maybe you’re running towards being able to be authentic at work.  Whatever the situation may be, it helps to be clear on what you’re seeking to move on towards so that you can select a next step with that intention.  

Does any of this resonate for you?  Have you used other approaches to think through the decision to move on or to stay in a job or in a line of work?  Drop me a line and let me know!

*This is a question I use often when thinking about big decisions, and it is inspired by the poem, “we are running,” by Lucille Clifton.

What I did on my summer (not a) vacation

Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes
There was considerably less cat-like lounging this summer than one might have hoped for… (Description: Brown and black tabby asleep on a white comforter with her ears alert and her paw covering her eyes)

I have been meaning to write a blog post about giving oneself grace.  It has been one of those lessons I’ve been trying to learn over and over again.  And I’ve been struggling with the post – I started it and then I got kind of stuck, because I’m still in the middle of relearning it.  Not that there is a “done” state for this type of thing – but perhaps because I’m still actively struggling with it, I need to step away for a bit.  I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes you need to set that piece of writing aside for a time and come back to it later.  Like when you’re having an argument with someone and you decide that it would be more productive to give each other some space and revisit the topic when you’re able to have a productive conversation.  And what is struggling with life lessons if not having an internal argument with yourself?

So instead, this is perhaps a bit more of an update than a post.  These past few months, I’ve been busy with moving to Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and our cat.  (And yes, I did add it to my LinkedIn profile because this has been like full-time job, even if I did have some client work in the mix as well!)  Busy selling our house back in Baltimore, finding an apartment, and now getting ready to move and set up a new apartment when we didn’t bring much furniture or any appliances with us!  Then of course, there’s the whole part about moving to a new country where I don’t speak or read the language (at least not beyond an elementary level)—yet. 

Lots of things have been rolling around in my head over the last few months.  That is, in addition to the endless to-do lists, constantly shifting timelines and dependencies, and the myriad dances of who needs and who is supposed to send us which information when…. (Can you tell I’m a project manager?)  But sometimes our greatest insights come from when we’ve brought our experiences and lenses into a wholly new realm—whether that’s a new field, the wild world of international relocation, a new language and culture, or simply learning something new.

Here are few of the topics I’ve been musing on in my head recently:

  • How to know when you’re ready to move on from a role or from an organization or field
  • The power of sharing photos 1:1 (or actually being social)
  • Finding handholds and building bridges when you don’t understand the conversation—and how helpful visual aids can be
  • That I’d probably remember the reading I do for learning better if I wrote about what I’ve read

While I’m not promising anything, if you’d be particularly interested in reading my thoughts on one of those topics, please let me know!

What is service design and how can you use it to create better experiences?

Struggle with the challenge of creating a great experience for your program participants or donors while balancing the needs of staff or volunteers or your organization?  Trying to develop a new program, new event, new campaign, new operational capacity – and feel like you’re constantly discovering another missing piece you didn’t have in place? 

Service design considers the needs of all stakeholders involved in a service or experience, how to create value both for the user and the provider, and all of the supporting infrastructure or processes needed to make that happen. 

In this 30-minute talk from the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I provide an overview of service design and introduce a core method, the service blueprint, as a way to help you think through and plan what’s needed to deliver the experiences or outcomes you’re hoping to achieve for new and for existing programs.

When to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods

While I really enjoy working with qualitative data, and while there are definitely camps of people who argue about the superiority of quantitative vs. qualitative data, what ultimately matters is what type of question you’re trying to answer.   Certain methods are better suited for certain situations or types of information.  Selecting your methods should be not be about what you prefer or are most skilled at (and thus most comfortable with), but about which method will help you answer your question.  Each method has its strengths and its limitations.

Here’s how I think about design research methods:

Image is a chart with 4 quadrants and 2 axes.  Y-axis is a spectrum of Qualitative (Tell me why) to Quantitative (Does this work?).  X-axis is a spectrum of Attitudinal (How do you feel about it?) to Behavioral (What do you do?).  Clockwise from the top left: Attitudinal & Qualitative includes Interviews; Behavioral & Qualitative includes Contextual Inquiry, Usability Testing, Service Safari; Behavioral & Quantitative includes A/B Testing, Web Analytics, Unmoderated Testing; and Attitudinal & Quantitative includes Surveys.

On one axis: qualitative to quantitative. 

Quantitative methods are for when you want to know, does this work or not?  Surveys, website analytics, A/B testing – for these, you’re looking for patterns across a large sample size, or group of people (or interactions/transactions).  Note: If you’ve only got 10 people to see data from, this is probably not going to be your best course because even 1 extreme case (10%!) is going to skew your results. 

Qualitative methods are when you want to understand why.  Why someone does things in a certain order, or why certain functions or features are important.  If someone makes a frowny face when presented with something, what is it they were expecting instead?

On the other axis: attitudinal to behavioral.

Attitudinal methods are for when you want to know how someone feels about something.  What’s their opinion?  Even if you are surveying or interviewing someone about their past behavior, this is based on recall—which will be colored by how they felt about it. 

In contrast, behavioral methods allow you to observe what the person is actually doing.  Quantitative behavioral methods like analyzing website visitor behavior can tell you that 30% of website visitors did in fact click on the “Donate” button from the home page.  It can’t tell you why, though.  A usability test* allows you to observe behavior while people are trying to use your design to complete a task—so you can see the behavior directly without it being filtered by what the person thinks is relevant to tell you (or remembers), but you also have the ability to ask them questions.  Like, “I noticed you moved your mouse back and forth between the Donate button and the Join Us button a couple times before clicking on the Donate button—can you tell me more?”

*A usability test is a test of how usable your design is—it is not a test of the user!  For a usability test, you typically create some realistic tasks and have an idea of how you might expect them to go about the tasks, then you give them to someone who is representative of your audience of focus.  What you’re looking for is whether your design and your expectations for how someone would do that task match up to a real person’s expectations of how things should work.   

Let’s walk through an example.

Say that I’m doing advocacy work and I’m trying to get people to contact their government officials about how much we would in fact like a taco truck on every corner.

  • If I want to increase how many people open our emails and then sign our petitions, I’ll probably use A/B testing and look at the email analytics.
  • If I want to know whether people who supported our taco truck on every corner initiative are interested in our other initiatives, I’d use a survey.
  • If I want to understand what would motivate someone to recruit others to take action and how we could make it easy for them to form their own street team – I’d use interviews.

Typically, I will layer methods.  For example, I might use web analytics or a survey to inform what questions I ask in interviews or what tasks I focus on during a usability test. 

Just as the best tacos have multiple fillings with a mix of different flavors and textures – the same goes for when you’re gathering data to make for the most enjoyable eating experience!

My heart is full of food for thought from 22NTC

Looking at a desk from the point of view of person sitting at it: There is a laptop positioned below an external monitor; both have things on the screen.  There is a mic to the left and some printed papers between photographer and laptop.  There is another large monitor to the right, off.  And a tabby cat is standing to the right looking towards the left.
This year I volunteered backstage (assisted by my cat, Amelia) in addition to presenting.

Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.

These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!).  So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.

Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.

We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.

There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome.  This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally. 

Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it?  Sure.  However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them.  These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly.  And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.  

In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language.  The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language.  (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.

“Normal is a scam.”

– Alice Wong

The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name).  There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam. 

I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself.  To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us.  Who gains from that? 

What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are?  I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:

There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.

One of the things I really appreciate about the NTEN community and the Nonprofit Technology is that we a.) keep it real, and b.) thinking critically about technology and the role it plays in creating a more equitable world.

Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice.  So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:

Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive.  But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient.  However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.

And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:

Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t.  Are we learning about the struggles of others?  How will they know they are safe with us?  This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.

Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:

They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first.  Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly.  Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?

Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.

One really powerful story we often tell is about failure.  Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures?  Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things?  Is it a pathway to confidence?

(One of these days they’ll allow you to edit tweets, but “earning” is a typo that was supposed to be “learning.”)

There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:

Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible.  Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?

Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay.  (Judging again!)  People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable.  (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse.  There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)

Who gets to see themselves and be seen?  Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?

And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.

And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.

Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift.  (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)

An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.

That’s me paraphrasing something said by Saeed Jones in the closing keynote conversation with Amy Sample Ward.  There were a lot of gems and I finally managed to gather myself enough to draw sketchnotes for this one! 

On that note, I’ll let these roll around my brain some more, but drop a line if any of these gems resonated with you as well.

The best way to get everyone on the same page

When I was a kid, I drew all the time.  On anything.  (Just ask my parents to move their couch—there is still crayon on that wall behind it!)  While I have no plans to become a professional artist or graphic designer, I’ve carried drawing and sketching into adulthood, and into my work

How, you wonder?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, perhaps multiple people in a meeting, and then realized halfway through there were actually multiple conversations going on?  As in, none of you were talking about the same thing, even if you were using the same words and convinced that you were?

The best way to get everyone on the same page is to take it literally.

Drawing a picture is the best way to get everyone on the same page.  The challenge of discussing things that aren’t tangible, like a process or where all our data lives, is that everyone is working off of how they think things are related in their brain.  Which is not to say that each person’s version isn’t each true, but it’s hard to tell if they line up with everyone else’s or not.  Without anything tangible, we often assume that everyone else has access to the same information we do and that they’re seeing the same image of the thing in their head that we are. 

Putting it down on paper (or a whiteboard, or an online canvas) for everyone to see at the same time, however, allows people to see where things don’t match up, fill in some gaps, and make corrections.  Most importantly, it’s a prop that helps us make sure we’re all having a conversation about the same thing and know that everyone else is looking at the same thing.

Wait, but I can’t draw!

You doth protest too much.  If you can draw a box and a line, you can draw a diagram.  When you’re using visual communication, it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as people understand it.  You’re not creating a pretty picture; you’re creating clarity.

Interested in learning more?  Here’s a talk I gave, along with Adrienne Figus and Brianna Collins, at the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference with on how you can draw a map to clarity:

Meetings are better with collaborative notes

It now feels like ages ago when someone at an organization I was volunteering with introduced me to collaborative notes: an openly shared Google Document that could be edited by any of us at the meeting and accessed by us all afterwards.

It was a revelation.

Now, I had always been a huge proponent of taking notes—I even once had a job where part of my role was taking board meeting minutes.  I had also been an advocate for sharing those notes with everyone who was at the meeting. 


Collaborative notes are next level.

Let me tell you why.

Meeting notes, when done well, serve as documentation of what was discussed, decisions made, and who is responsible for which follow-up items.

To be fair, not all meeting notes are created equally, but they should all contain some key information: when the meeting occurred, who participated, what was discussed, decisions that were made, and any action items that resulted (hopefully also with who is responsible for completing them and by when).

When you have documented this key information in the meeting notes, then meeting notes can serve a few key functions.

Meeting notes can serve as a decision log, documenting decisions that were made, alongside with notes about the discussion leading to them, or why those decisions were made.  This makes it easier to go back and look, when circumstances change, to see whether a decision should be adjusted.  Listing the participants also allows you to see who was or was not part of making that decision.

Meeting notes can also act as a way to track who said they would do what, so that you can follow up with the appropriate person after the meeting.  Even for things I’ve signed up to do, action items in meeting notes serve as a reminder that I can then check off (I do like to check things off!).  In turn, my checking things off can tell anyone else looking at the meeting notes that this task has been completed.

And of course, meeting notes can serve as a bit of a historical record for a team, a program, or a project.  How are we progressing?  What changed along the way?  Perhaps, what did we learn?

Shared meeting notes give everyone access to one central source of key information from the meeting.

In general, it’s a good practice to share meeting notes because so that people who were not there (or who joined late or had to leave early) can access at least some of the key information from that meeting.  It’s also good because no one remembers everything anyway.  Even if people take their own notes, then there is a different set of notes per every participant and without shared meeting notes, there is no one source of truth about what was discussed, what was decided, or who needs to do what afterwards. 

And this is critical: Shared meeting notes help create shared meaning. 

Imagine what happens when one person writes down that Keisha from marketing will share the microsite mockups by the end of the week, and another person writes down that Marketing will share the website mockups by Monday. 

Disputes can abound when everybody has their own version of what happened at the meeting.  But having a central source of shared meeting notes means that there is one version to dispute rather than 8 conflicting ones. 

Collaborative notes, when everyone in the meeting contributes to them, give participants more agency in shaping the meaning of the meeting.

Speaking of shared meaning, creating the record of what happened during the meeting together also gives participants more agency in shaping this meaning—not only during the meeting, but what gets documented afterwards.  People are usually more engaged when they both have more agency and can see how their inputs make a difference.  People will have their own interpretations and their own ways to make sense of what happened regardless—better that all those different interpretations come together in meeting notes visible to everyone so that everyone can get on the same page.

There can be power in who gets to write the meeting notes and thus synthesize and determine the meaning of what occurred during the meeting.  On the flipside, it is also easy to dismiss the official notes when you think they’ve missed a lot or misunderstood a lot of what was said.

And collaborative meeting notes that everyone can see in real time allow for people to clarify and correct things during the meeting.

When people co-create the notes during the meeting—as opposed to adding their individual notes to a shared document afterwards (which, let’s be real, will likely be mainly the notes of whoever cares the most)—this gives others in the meeting the opportunity to clarify and correct things that may have been noted incorrectly or that are unclear.  Yes, sharing out meeting notes after the meeting still allows for this but sometimes people don’t, or they do raise it, but it gets lost in the email inbox swamp.  Being able to see and respond and raise the question during the meeting, while everyone is still there, means it’s more likely to be resolved and resolved more quickly than the devolving reply-all email chain.  Who needs that endless back and forth when everybody has already checked out of the meeting?

Simply put, collaborative meeting notes are more efficient and they help you facilitate more engaging and effective meetings.  Make your meeting notes collaborative by default.

How to prioritize which data to collect and keep

One of the things that can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, whether you’re beginning to collect data for the first time or you’re trying to clean up a decade’s worth of data, is how to prioritize which data you need.

Of course, there’s data you’re required to collect and keep due to regulations, taxes, grant contracts.

And then there’s the data that you will need in the course of your operations—like where to send donation thank you letters, volunteer contact information, client names, budget totals, event attendees, etc.

But of that second category, which data do you need to keep?

And, if you’re starting out, what data should you collect that would be helpful?

Here’s how I like to answer that question:

A question you can answer using dataWhat action can the organization take based on this data?What data do you have (or can you get) that would be needed to answer this?
Example: Which social media channel generates the most conversions?Example: We can change how much time we spend on various channelsExample: Click through rate
Table to use for prioritizing data to collect

By filling in this table, I can get a lot of clarity on which data is worth keeping or collecting.

First, identify some questions you’d like to be able to answer using data.

These are typically things that might help you make a decision.  For example, is our current marketing strategy working as we’d hoped?  Is our program achieving the intended goal?  Did we budget appropriately for our technology needs? 

Next, determine what actions you could take based on answering that question.

Perhaps you’ll spend more time on your TikTok content than YouTube if that’s what the data proves to be more effective.  Maybe you’ll be able to (combined with demographic data) notice that your program is more effective for certain age groups than for others.  Or you can budget more realistically for your technology needs in the future.

Last but not least, determine what data is needed to answer that question and evaluate whether you can actually obtain that data or whether it would be ethical to collect or keep it.

Of course, there are plenty of things we’d love to be able to answer.  For example, we’d be interested to know what drives those seemingly random donations from new donors.  But maybe it’s really not feasible to obtain that data beyond how they got to our donation page (e.g., from an email vs. social media vs. something else).  Or perhaps we’d like to know how long the effect of our program lasts, but we work with a population that moves frequently. 

Then again, there’s data that is highly sensitive in nature.  Like someone’s undocumented status or the fact that an individual has contacted your organization about services related to intimate partner violence. 

If you are dealing with data that puts your constituents at risk should it end up in the wrong hands, consider whether you actually need this data to fulfill your mission and if so, what steps you can take to minimize data collected, secure it, and carefully discard it as soon as possible. 

NTEN’s Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology is a great resource to check out for more considerations for your data collection and data management practices.

Tips for starting a new job remotely

Since many organizations went remote in 2020, many people have been starting new jobs remotely.  As a freelancer and independent consultant, I started my first remote gig in 2016.  And even before that, as someone who worked at an organization with partners nationwide, I frequently worked with colleagues who spent 50% of their time on the road as well as with people scattered across the country and whom I still haven’t met in person.

However, many people are still starting new jobs remotely for the first time – as I was reminded when a friend recently asked for advice before their first day. 

Consider the organizational and team context.

Has the team always worked fully remotely, or have some of the team members worked together in person?  Or, is the organization working in a hybrid form – you’re fully remote, but not everyone is? 

Teams that have been remote from the start tend to have designed all of their internal processes around being a distributed team.  While organizations that made their digital transformations as a result of the pandemic have figured out a lot of things by now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team you’ll be working with isn’t still relying heavily on relationships that had been built when the team worked together in person.  And depending on how a hybrid environment is set up, people who are in office may forget that things still need to be done differently for teammates who are remote.  For example, that the team is no longer all within one time zone.

Also consider that, at a large organization hiring lots of people, they’ve had more opportunities to iron out the remote onboarding process.  Smaller organizations that may only hire 1-2 new people a year may still be figuring things out.

Be more proactive and intentional in building relationships.

It used to be that your manager could simply walk you around the office on your first day and you’d meet most of the people you needed to meet that way. Then maybe you’d have some meetings set up with the key people you’d be working with over the next couple weeks.

Like all of the tips I’m mentioning, relationship building is something you want to do regardless of whether you’re starting your new job in person or remotely.  However, you’ll want to be even more intentional in both meeting people (and asking them whom you should meet with) and in building relationships with those folks.  On the other hand, it may also be easier to meet with people who normally would have been located in different offices or who traveled a lot.

Here’s a thread that shares a great approach to meet and greets:

If you find it hard to remember to circle back with people, and especially if your organization is large and dispersed, consider taking notes on any suggestions they made (e.g., to talk with such and such person) or insights they shared, and put a reminder on your calendar for a couple months later to let them know how that suggestion worked or how that insight was helpful.

Learn the time zones—and that these are not the same as working hours.

One major mental adjustment for people who are not accustomed to remote work or working with people who are not collocated is remembering that people may be in different time zones and/or may have different working hours.  And for those of who have the flexibility, we may be trying out new structures, like only having meetings during certain hours and reserving other time for heads down work.

Perhaps everyone in your organization lives in the same region and is simply working remotely during the pandemic.  But even if they are, this doesn’t mean they didn’t decide to take a couple weeks to visit family and work from a different part of the country.  And it doesn’t mean that their hours are the same as if they would be commuting to and from the office.  I know someone who starts his workday at 5 so that he can be done when his kids come home from school.

It is always a good idea to ask about general working hours or about preferences for scheduling meetings.  For example, although I start working earlier, I usually try not to schedule meetings before 10 a.m. so I can get some focused time in first.

Figure out how to make use of existing tools and practices to communicate about your time zone and work schedule.  Some people include their time zone next to their phone numbers in their email signatures (if phone numbers are shared).  Shared calendars are useful for conveying working hours and availability for meetings—however, different teams and people have different norms around this and in how shared calendars are used (if at all).  Often, it’s best to explicitly discuss this with the people you’ll be working with most closely.

Find out how the team shares information.

Speaking of how teams use shared calendars, if they do, it will be helpful to understand how teams share various types of information.  Some teams are better at explicitly articulating this and cover it during onboarding, but in general there are usually things that tend to be things that people take for granted because they’re simply used to it.

  • How is information shared differently at the team and organizational levels? 
  • Do they use a chat or messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams?  If so, what gets shared publicly or within team channels vs. via private message?
  • How does the team use shared calendars?  Are there calendars for work deadlines, editorial calendars, when team members are out, etc.?
  • What gets shared in team meetings vs. email?  Are there shared meeting notes?
  • Are people expected to share back with the rest of the team after attending a webinar or a conference?
  • Where are files stored and shared, and what are practices around that?
  • Is work often done in public or collaboratively, or do people typically work on their own before sharing the final product?

Ask about communication preferences—and share yours.

And of course, it’s helpful to ask your colleagues about their individual communication preferences.  I’ve worked with people who loved a quick Slack chat, others who preferred the phone for something that required back and forth discussion, and some who preferred email or scheduled meetings, and still others who were okay with a spontaneous video call.

It’s also important to communicate your preferences, both towards the beginning and per individual instances – such as asking if you could hop on a call after the 5th email in as many minutes.  Some questions to help you get started:

  • Are you okay with sharing your phone number?  (This may depend on other factors like whether your employer gives everyone a work phone/phone number, whether colleagues are good at understanding time zones, etc.)
  • If you’re okay with sharing your phone number, is this for certain instances (e.g., a quick text to tell me your Internet went down before our meeting) or can folks treat this like a work phone number and call any time during business hours?
  • Are you okay with spontaneous phone or video calls?  Would you like a quick message to ask if now’s a good time?  Or would you prefer to get a request and schedule a time?
  • Are there platforms that work better for you?  (For example, you have a hearing impairment and prefer video calls so that you can use captioning.  Or you just went to the dentist and can only type until the novocaine wears off.)
  • How will you communicate times when you are working but need to focus?  (The office equivalent would be closing your door, if you normally keep it open.)

It should go without saying, but since people still seem to do this: If you’re a manager and want to quickly chat with a direct report, please please please mention the topic so that the other person doesn’t have a panic attack.  There’s a vast difference between, “Do you have a few minutes to discuss how the presentation went?” and “We need to talk.”  (Also a good idea even if you’re not the other person’s manager.)

What else?

Is there anything else you would advise for someone starting a new job remotely for the first time?  Drop a line and let me know.