Time For Improvement

Welcome to 2020! First and foremost, no posts from me involving vision or eyesight or any other optometrist puns for this year. I promise 366 days free of anything having to do with eyeballs. That does mean a whole world of other puns that I’m going to be focusing on!

Now, let’s look back at 2019. The word that I could use to describe it was “hectic”. It felt like everything was in overdrive all year long. There were several times that I got to the end of the week and realized that I didn’t have any kind of post ready to go. I’m the kind of person that likes to write when the inspiration hits me. And instead I found myself scrambling to write up some thoughts. And that was something I told myself that I was going to get away from. So we’re going to call that one a miss and get back to trying to post on a day other than Friday.

That also means that, given all the other content that I’ve been working on with Gestalt IT that I’m going to have to schedule some time actually working on that content instead of hoping that some idea is going to fly out of the blue at 11:30pm the night before I’m supposed to put a post up. The good news is that also means that I’m going to be upping the amount of content that I’m consuming for inspiration. Since I spent a good chunk of they year going on a morning walk it meant that I had a lot more time to consume podcast episodes and wash those ideas around. I’m sure that means that I’m going to find the time and the motivation to keep turning out content.

Part of the reason for that is because of something that Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) told me during a call this past year. He said that I’ve been consistently turning out content for the last 9 years on a weekly basis. I’m proud of that fact. Sure, there’s been a couple of times in the last year or two when I’ve missed and had to publish something on a Saturday or the Monday after. But overall I’m happy with the amount of content that I’ve been writing here. And because you all keep on reading it I’m going to keep writing it. There’s a lot of value in what I do here and I hope you all continue to value it too.

IA Writing

Last January I switched over to using IA Writer for my posts on my iPad. I wrote primarily on that platform all year long. I can say that It’s very handy to be able to grab your mobile device and hammer out a post. Given that I can do split screen and reference my hand-written notes from briefings it’s a huge advantage to keeping my thoughts organized and ready to put down on paper.

Between IA Writer for writing, Notability for taking notes during briefings, and Things to keep me on track for the posts that I need to cover I’ve gotten my workflow down to something that works for me. I’m going to keep tweaking it for sure but I’m happy that I can get information to a place where I can refer to it later and have reminders about what I need to cover. It makes everything seamless and consistent. There are still some things that I need to use Microsoft Word to write, but those are long-form projects. Overall, I’m going to keep refining my process to make it better and more appropriate for me.

Ultimately, that’s a big goal for me in 2020 and something that I’ve finally realized that I do regularly without conscious thought. If you’ve read any books on process or project management you’ve probably heard of kaizen, the Japanese concept of continuous improvement of processes. It’s something that drives companies like Toyota to get better at everything they do and never accept anything as “complete”.

I’ve read about kaizen before but I never really understood that it could mean any improvement before. I had it in my head that the process was about change all the time. It wasn’t until I sat down this year and analyzed what I was doing to find that I’m always trying to optimize what I do. It’s not about finding shortcuts for the sake of saving time. It’s about optimizing what I do to save effort and the investment of time. For me it’s not about spending 8 hours to write a script that will automate a one-time 30-minute task. It’s about breaking down the task and figuring out how many times I’ll do it and how I need to optimize the process to spend less time on it. If the answer is a script or an automation routine then I’m all for it. But the key is recognizing the kaizen process and putting a name to my behavior.


Tom’s Take

2020 is going to be busy. Tech Field Day is going to be busy. I’m going to be at a lot of events checking out what’s going on and how to make new things happen. I’m also going to be writing a lot. And when you factor in my roles outside of work with Wood Badge and a trip to Philmont, NM with my son for a high adventure trip with his scout troop you can see I’m going to be quite occupied even when I’m not writing. But I’m not going to remove anything from my process. As I said above, I’m going to kaizen everything and fit it all in. That might mean having a couple of posts queued up when I’m in the back country or taking some extra time after dinner to write. But 2020 is going to be a big year of optimizing my workflows and improving in every way.

Fast Friday- Keeping Up With The Times

We’re at the end of the 2010s. It’s almost time to start making posts about 2020 and somehow working vision or eyesight into the theme so you can look just like everyone else. But I want to look back for a moment on how much things have changed for networking in the last ten years.

It’s true that networking wasn’t too exciting for most of the 2000s. Things got faster and more complicated. Nothing really got better except the bottom lines of people pushing bigger hardware. And that’s honestly how we liked it. Because the idea that we were all special people that needed to be at the top of our game to get things done resonated with us. We weren’t just mechanics. We were the automobile designers of the future!

But if there’s something that the mobile revolution of the late 2000s taught us, it was that operators don’t need to be programmers to enjoy using technology. Likewise, enterprise users don’t need to be CCIEs or VCDXs to make things work. That’s the real secret behind all the of the advances in networking technology in the 2010s. We’re not making networking harder any more. We’re not adding complexity for the sake of making our lives more important.

The rapid pace of change that we’ve had over the last ten years is the driver for so many technologies that are changing the role of networking engineers. Automation, orchestration, and software-driven networking aren’t just fads. They’re necessities. That’s because of the focus on new features, not in spite of them. I can remember administering CallManager years ago and not realizing what half of the checkboxes on a line appearance did. That’s not helping things.

Complexity Closet

There are those that would say that what we’re doing is just hiding the complexity behind another layer of abstraction, which is a favorite saying of Russ White. I’d argue that we’re not hiding the complexity as much as we’re putting it back where it belongs – out of sight. We don’t need the added complexity for most operations. This flies in the face of what we want networking engineers to know. If you want to be part of the club you have to know every LSA type and how they interact and what happens during an OSPF DR election. That’s the barrier for entry, right?

Except not everyone needs to know that stuff. They need to know what it looks like when routing is down. More likely, they just need to recognize more basic stuff like DNS being down or something being wrong in the service provider. The odds are way better that something else is causing the problem somewhere outside of your control. And that means your skills are good for very little once you’ve figured out that the problem is somewhere you can’t help.

Hiding complexity behind summary screens or simple policy decisions isn’t bad. In fact, it tends to keep people from diving down rabbit holes when fixing the problems. How many times have we tried to figure out some complicated timer issue when it was really a client with a tenuous connection or a DNS issue? We want the problems to be complicated so we can flex our knowledge to others when in fact we should be applying Occam’s Razor much earlier in the process. Instead of trying to find the most complicated solution to the problem so we can justify our learning, we should instead try to make it as simple as possible to conserve that energy for a time when it’s really needed.


Tom’s Take

We need to leverage the tools that have been developed to make our lives easier in the 2020s instead of railing against them because they’re upsetting our view of how things should be. Maybe networking in 2010 needed complexity and syntax and command lines. But networking in 2022 might need automated scripts and telemetry to figure things out faster since there are ten times the moving parts. It’s like memorizing phone numbers. It works well when you only need to know seven or eight with a few digits. But when you need to know several hundred each with ten or more digits it’s impossible. Yet I still hear people complain about contact lists or phone books because “they used to be good at memorizing numbers”. Instead of us focusing on what we used to be good at, let’s try to keep with the times and be good at what we need to be good at now and in the future.

Stop SIS – Self-Inflicted Spam

Last month I ran across a great blog post by Jed Casey (@WaxTrax) about letting go of the digital hoard that he had slowly been collecting over the years. It’s not easy to declare bankruptcy because you’ve hit your limit of things that you can learn and process. Jed’s focus in the article is that whatever he was going to try and come up with was probably out of date or past its prime. But it got me to thinking about a little project that I’ve been working on over the past few months.

Incoming!

One of the easy ways to stay on top of things in the industry is to sign up for updates. A digest email here and a notification there about new posts or conversations is a great way to stay in-the-know about information or the latest, greatest thing. But before you know it you’re going to find yourself swamped with incoming emails and notifications.

I’ve noticed it quite a bit in my inbox this year. What was once a message that I would read to catch up became a message I would scan for content. That then became a message that I skipped past after I read the subject line and eventually settled into something I deleted after seeing the sender. It’s not that the information contained within wasn’t important in some way. Instead, my processing capability for the email or the message was settled into a mode where it took a lot to break me out of the pattern. Before I knew it, I was deleting dozens of messages a day simply because they were updates and digests that I didn’t have the time or mental capacity to process.

That’s when I realized that I had a problem. I needed to reduce the amount of email I was getting. But this wasn’t an issue like normal spam. Unsolicited Bulk Email is a huge issue for the Internet but the systems we have in place now do a good job of stopping it before it lands in my inbox. Instead, my bigger issue was with the tide of email that I had specifically chosen to sign up for. The newsletters and release updates and breaking news that was flooding my email client and competing for my attention on an hourly basis. It was too much.

Geronimo!

So what did I do?

  1. The first thing I did was stop. I stopped signing up for every newsletter and notification that interested me. Instead, I added them all to a list and let them sit for a week. If they still appealed to me after that week than I would sign up for them. Otherwise, then went into the garbage pile before I ever had a chance to start getting inundated by them.
  2. The next thing was to unsubscribe from every email that I got that was deleted without reading. Sure, I could just keep deleting them. But that process still took my attention away from what I needed to be working on. Instead, i wanted to stop that at the source. Keeping it from being sent in the first place might only save two seconds from it being deleted out of my inbox, but those two seconds per email can really add up.
  3. Summaries are your friend. For every email I did actually read, I looked to see if there was a summary or digest option instead of constant updates. Did I really need to know instantly when someone had posted or replied? Nope. But figuring it out on a more set schedule, such as every other day or once a week, was a big improvement in the way that I could process information. I could dedicate time to reading a longer digest instead of scanning an notification that quickly blurred into the background.
  4. I turned off instant updates on my mail client for a time. I didn’t need to jump every time something came in. Instead, I set my client to update every 15 minutes. I knew there would be some kind of lag in my replies in a lot of cases, but it honestly wasn’t that different from before. What changed here is that I could deal with the bulk amount of email all at once instead of trying to process them one at a time as they arrived. And, ironically enough, the amount of time it took to deal with email went down significantly as I reduced the amount of email coming in. Instead, I was able to set my mail client back to instant updates and keep a better pace of getting to the important emails as they came in.

Once I went through this process I was able to reduce the amount of email that I was getting blasted with. And being able to keep my head above water helped me process the stuff that did end up coming in later that I needed to stop. The mailing lists that you get subscribed to out of nowhere. The vendor press release schedules that I needed to categorize and process. Having the ability to catch my breath helped immensely. Once I realized that I was the cause for my spam issues I was able to make headway.


Tom’s Take

Don’t do what I did. Don’t let yourself get to the point where I was. Your inbox isn’t a garbage pile for every random email or update. Don’t sign up for stuff you aren’t planning on reading. Audit your newsletters frequently to see how much you’re reading them. If you find yourself deleting stuff without ever opening it then you know you’ve reached a point where you need to stop and reassess what you’re trying to accomplish. If you aren’t even bothering to open things then you aren’t really staying on top of the game. Instead, focus your attention on making sure you have the attention span left to look at things. And stop inflicting spam on yourself.

Magical Mechanics

If you’re a fan of this blog, you’ve probably read my last post about the new SD-WAN magic quadrant that’s been making the rounds and generating discussion. Some people are smiling that this report places Cisco in an area other than leadership in the SD-WAN space. Others are decrying the report as being unfair and contradictory. I wanted to take another look at it given some new information and some additional thoughts on the results.

Fair and Square

The first thing I wanted to do is make sure that I was completely transparent with the way the Gartner Magic Quadrant (MQ) works. I have a very good idea thanks to a conversation with Andrew Lerner (@Fast_Lerner), who is the Research VP of Networking at Gartner. Andrew was nice enough to clarify my understanding of the MQ and accompanying documentation. I’ll quote him here to make sure I don’t get anything wrong:

In an MQ, we assess the overall vendors’ behavior and offering in the market. Product, service/support sales, marketing, innovation, etc. if a vendor has multiple products in a market and sells them regularly to the enterprise, they are part of the MQ assessment. Viable products are not “excluded”.

As you can see from Andrew’s explanation, the MQ takes into account all the aspects of a company. It’s not just a product. It’s the sales, marketing, and other aspects of the company that give the overall score for a company. So how does Gartner figure out how products and services? That’s where their Critical Capabilities documents come into play. They are focused exclusively on products and services. They don’t take marketing or sales or anything else into account.

According to Andrew, when Gartner did their Critical Capabilities document on Cisco, they looked at Meraki MX and IOS-XE only. Viptela vEdge was not examined. So, the CC documents give us the Gartner overview of technology behind the MQ analysis. While the CC documents are focused solely on the Meraki MX and IOS-XD SD-WAN technology, they are components of the overall analysis in the MQ that was published.

What does that all mean in the long run?

Axis and Allies

In order to break this down a bit further, let’s ignore the actual quadrants in the MQ for the moment. Instead, let’s think about this picture as a graph. One axis of the graph is “Ability to Execute,” or in other words can the company do what they say they’re going to do? The other axis is “Completeness of Vision.” This is a question of how the company has rounded out their understanding of the market forces and direction. I want to use this sample MQ with some labels thrown in to help my readers understand how each axis can affect the ranking a company gets:

So, let’s look at where Cisco was situated on those graphs. They are not in the upper right part of the graph, which is the “good” part according to what most people will tell you when they glance at it. Cisco was ranked almost directly in the middle of the graph. Why would that be?

Let’s look at the Execution axis. Why would Cisco have some issues with execution on SD-WAN? Well, the biggest one is probably the shift to IOS-XE and the issues with code quality. Almost everyone involved deploying IOS-XE has told me that Cisco had significant issues in the early releases. Daniel Dib (@DanielDibSwe) had a great conversation with me about the breakdown between the router code and the controller code a week ago. Here’s the first tweet in the chain:

So, there were issues that have been addressed. But is the code completely stable right now? I can’t say, since I haven’t deployed it. But ask around and see what the common wisdom is. I would be genuinely interested to hear how much better things have gotten in the last six months. But, those code quality issues from months ago are going to be a concern in the report. And you can’t guarantee that every box is going to be running on the latest code. Having issues with stable code is going to impact your ability to execute on your vision.

Now, let’s look at the Completeness of Vision axis. If you reference the above picture you’ll see that the Challengers square represents companies that don’t yet understand the market direction. Given that this was the location that Cisco was placed in (barely), let’s examine why that might be. Let’s start by asking “which Cisco product is best for my SD-WAN solution?” Do you know for sure? Which one are you going to be offered?

In my last post, I said that Cisco had been deemphasizing vEdge deployments in favor of IOS-XE. But I completely forgot about Meraki as an additional offering for SMBs and smaller deployments. Where does Meraki make the most sense? And how big does your network need to be before it outgrows a Meraki deployment? Are you chasing a feature? Or maybe you need a service that isn’t offered natively on the Meraki platform? All of these questions need to be answered when you look at what you’re going to do with SD-WAN.

The other companies that Cisco will tell you are their biggest competitors are probably VMware and Silver Peak. How many SD-WAN platforms do they sell? How about companies ranked closer to Cisco in the MQ like Citrix, CloudGenix, or Versa Networks? How many SD-WAN solutions do they offer? How about HPE, Juniper and Aryaka?

In almost every case, the answer is “one”. Each of these companies have settled on a single solution for SD-WAN or SD-Branch. They don’t split those deployments across different product lines. They may have different sized boxes for things, but they all run the same common software. Can you integrate an IOS-XE SD-WAN appliance into a Meraki deployment? Can you take a Meraki MX and make it work with vEdge?

You may be starting to see that the completeness of Cisco’s vision isn’t lacking in SD-WAN but instead how they’re going to accomplish it. Rather than having one solution that can be scaled to fit all needs, Cisco is choosing to offer two different solutions for SMBs and enterprises. And if you count vEdge as a separate product from IOS-XE, as Cisco has suggested in some of their internal reports, then you have three products! I’m not saying that Cisco doesn’t have a vision. But it really looks like that vision is hazier than it should be.

If Cisco had a unified vision with stable code that was integrated up and down the stack I have no doubts they would have been rated higher. When Cisco was deploying Viptela vEdge as the sole SD-WAN offering they had it was much easier to figure out how everything was going to integrate together. But, just like all transitions, the devil is in the details here as Cisco tries to move to IOS-XE. Code quality is going to be a potential source of problems no matter what. But if you are staking your reputation on moving everyone to a single code base from a different more stable one you had better get it right quickly. Otherwise you’re going to get it counted against you.


Tom’s Take

I really appreciate Andrew Lerner for reaching out regarding my analysis of the MQ. I will admit I wasn’t exactly spot on with the differences between the MQ and the Critical Capabilities documents. But the results are close. The CC analyzes Cisco’s big platforms and tells people how they work. The MQ takes everything as a whole and gives Cisco a ranking of where they stand in the market. Sales numbers aside, do you think Cisco should be a leader in the SD-WAN space? Do you feel that where they are today with IOS-XE and Meraki MX is a complete vision? If you do then you likely won’t care about the MQ either way. But for those that have questions about execution and vision, maybe it’s time to figure out what might have caused Cisco to be right in the middle this time around.

SD-WAN Squares and Perplexing Planes

The latest arcane polygon is out in the SD-WAN space. Normally, my fortune telling skills don’t involve geometry. I like to talk to real people about their concerns and their successes. Yes, I know that the gardening people do that too. It’s just that no one really bothers to read their reports and instead makes all their decisions based on boring wall art.

Speaking of which, I’m going to summarize that particular piece of art here. Note this isn’t the same for copyright reasons but close enough for you to get the point:

4D8DB810-3618-44EA-8AA2-99EB7EAA3E45

So, if you can’t tell by the colors here, the big news is that Cisco has slipped out of the top Good part of the polygon and is now in the bottom Bad part (denoted by the red) and is in danger of going out of business and being the laughing stock of the networking community. Well, no, not so much that last part. But their implementation has slipped into the lower part of the quadrant where first-stage startups and cash-strapped companies live and wish they could build something.

Cisco released a report rebutting those claims and it talks about how Viptela is a huge part of their deployments and that they have mindshare and marketshare. But after talking with some colleagues in the networking industry and looking a bit deeper into the issue, I think Cisco has the same problem that Boeing had this year. Their assurances are inconsistent with reality.

A WANderful World

When you deploy Cisco SD-WAN, what exactly are you deploying? In the past, the answer was IWAN. IWAN was very much an initial attempt to create SD-WAN. It wasn’t perfect and it was soon surpassed by other technologies, many of which were built by IWAN team members that left to found their own startups. But Cisco quickly realized they needed to jump in the fray and get some help. That’s when the bought Viptela.

Here’s where things start getting murky. The integration of Viptela SD-WAN has been problematic. The initial sales model after the acquisition was to continue to sell Viptela vEdge to the customer. The plan was then to integrate the software on a Cisco ISR, then to integrate the Viptela software into IOS-XE. They’ve been selling vEdge boxes for a long while and are supporting them still. But the transition plan to IOS-XE is in full effect. The handwriting on the wall is that soon Cisco will only offer IOS-XE SD-WAN for sale, not vEdge.

Flash forward to 2019. A report is released about the impact and forward outlook for SD-WAN. It has a big analyst name attached to it. In that report, they leave out the references to vEdge and instead grade Cisco on their IOS-XE offering which isn’t as mature as vEdge. Or as deployed as vEdge. Or, as stated by even Cisco, as stable as vEdge, at least at first. That means that Cisco is getting graded on their newest offering. Which, for Cisco, means they can’t talk about how widely deployed and stable vEdge is. Why would this particular analyst firm do that?

Same is Same

The common wisdom is that Gartner graded Cisco on the curve that the sales message is that IOS-XE is the way and the future of SD-WAN at Cisco. Why talk about what came before when the new hot thing is going to be IOS-XE? Don’t buy this old vEdge when this new ISR is the best thing ever.

Don’t believe me? Go call your Cisco account team and try to buy a vEdge. I bet you get “upsold” to an ISR. The path forward is to let vEdge fade away. So it only makes sense that you should be grading Cisco on what their plans are, not on what they’ve already sold. I’ll admit that I don’t put together analyst reports with graphics very often, so maybe my thinking is flawed. But if I call your company and they won’t sell me the product that you want me to grade you on, I’m going to guess I shouldn’t grade you on it.

So Cisco is mad that Gartner isn’t grading them on their old solution and is instead looking at their new solution in a vacuum. And since they can’t draw on the sales numbers or the stability of their existing solution that you aren’t going to be able to buy without a fight, they slipped down in the square to a place that doesn’t show them as the 800-lb gorilla. Where have a heard something like this before?

Plane to See

The situation that immediately sprung to mind was the issue with Boeing’s 737-MAX airliner. In a nutshell, Boeing introduced a new airliner with a different engine and configuration that changed its flight profile. Rather than try to get the airframe recertified, which could take months or years, they claimed it was the same as the old one and just updated training manuals. They also didn’t disclose there was a new software program that tried to override the new flight characteristics and that particular “flaw” caused the tragic crashes of two flights full of people.

I’m not trying to compare analyst reports to tragedies in any way. But I do find it curious that companies want their new stuff to be treated just like their old stuff with regards to approvals and regulation and analysis. They know that the new product is going to have issues and concerns but they don’t want you to count those because remember how awesome our old thing was?

Likewise, they don’t want you to count the old problems against them. Like the Pinto or the Edsel from Ford, they don’t want you to think their old issues should matter. Just look at how far we’ve come! But that’s not how these things work. We can’t take the old product into account when trying to figure out how the new one works. We can’t assume the new solution is the same as the old one without testing, no matter how much people would like us to do that. It’s like claiming the Space Shuttle was as good as the Saturn V rocket because it went into space and came from NASA.

If your platform has bugs in the first version, those count against you too. You have to work it all out and realize people are going to remember that instability when they grade your product going forward. Remember that common wisdom says not to install an operating system update until the first service patch. You have to consider that reputation every time you release a patch or an update.


Tom’s Take

The SD-WAN MQ tells me that Cisco isn’t getting any more favors from the analysts. The marketing message not lining up with the install base is the heart of a transition away from hardware and software that Cisco doesn’t own. The hope that they could just smile and shrug their shoulders and hope that no one caught on has been dashed. Instead, Cisco now has to realize their going to have to earn that spot back through good code releases and consistent support and licensing. No one is going to give them any slack with SD-WAN like they have with switches and unified communications. If Cisco thinks that they’re just going to be able to bluff their way through this product transition, that idea just won’t fly.

Fast Friday- Perry Mason Moments

It’s the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the US which means lots of people discussing things with their relatives. And, as is often the case, lots of arguments. It’s the nature of people to have a point of view and then to want to defend it. And it’s not just politics or other divisive topics. We see it all the time in networking too.

EIGRP vs OSPF. Cisco vs Juniper. ACI vs NSX. You name it and we’ve argued about it. Every viewpoint has a corresponding counterpart. Yes, there are good points for using one versus the other. But there are also times when every piece of factual information doesn’t matter because we “know” the right answer.

It’s those times when we run into what I call the “Perry Mason Problem”. It’s a reminder of the old Perry Mason TV show when the lawyer in the title would win a case with a carefully crafted statement that just ends any arguments. It’s often called a Wham Line or an Armor-Piercing Question. Basically, Mr. Mason would ask a question or make a statement that let all the air out of the argument. And often it would result in him winning the case without any further discussion.

Most people that argue keep searching for that magic Perry Mason moment. They want to win and they want to do it decisively. They want to leave their opponent speechless. They want to drop a microphone and walk away victorious.

And yet, that almost never happens in real life. No one is swayed by a single statement. No one changes their mind because of a question no matter how carefully crafted. Sure, it can add to them deciding to change their mind in the long run. But that process happens in the person. It doesn’t happen because of someone else.

So, if you find yourself in the middle of heated discussion don’t start looking for Perry Mason moments. Instead, you need to think about why you’re trying to change someone’s mind. Instead of trying to win an argument it’s better to consider your position and understand why you’re trying to win. I bet a little introspection will do a lot more good than looking for that wham line. You may not necessarily agree with their perspective but I bet you’ll have an easier time living with that than trying to change the mind of someone that’s set against it.

Five Minutes To Magic Time

Have you ever worked with someone that has the most valuable time in the world? Someone that counts each precious minute in their presence as if you’re keeping them from something very, very important that they could use to solve world hunger or cure cancer? If you haven’t then you’re a very lucky person indeed. Sadly, almost everyone, especially those in IT, has had the misfortune to be involved with someone whose time is more precious than platinum-plated saffron.

That’s not to say that we should be wasting the time of those we work with. Simple things like being late to meetings or not having your materials prepared are easy ways to help reduce the time of meetings or to make things run smoothly. Those items are common courtesies that should be extended to all the people you meet, from the cashier that takes your order at a fast food establishment to the most powerful people on the planet. No, this is about something deeper and more insidious.

No Time For Hugs

I’ve seen the kind of behavior I’ve described very often in the higher echelons of companies. People that live at the CxO level often have very little time to devote to anything that resembles thought. They’re busy strategizing and figuring out ways to keep the company profitable. They don’t have time to listen to people talk. Talking interrupts their brain functions. They need time to think.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, ask yourself how many times you’ve been told to “simplify” something for a CEO when you present to them (if you’re even given the opportunity). I think this strip from Dilbert explains it succinctly:

https://dilbert.com/strip/1998-01-10

The higher up the food chain you go, the simpler it needs to be. But if the CEO is the most important person in the company, how is it that you need to make things easy for them to understand? They aren’t morons, right? They got this job somehow?

The insinuation is that the reason why you need to make it simple for them is because their time is too valuable. Needless talking and discussion takes them away from things that are more important. Like thinking and strategizing. Or something. So, if their time is the most value in the room, what does that say about your time? How does it feel to know that your efforts and research and theorizing are essentially wasted work because your time isn’t as important as the person you’re talking to?

This is even more egregious when you realize that your efforts to summarize something down to the most basic level is often met with a lot of questions about how you determined that conclusion. In essence, all the hard work you did to simplify your statements is undone because someone wants you to justify why you go to that conclusion. You know, the kinds of details you would have given in a presentation if you’d been given the time to explain!

Solution: Five Minute Meetings

Okay, so I know I’m going to get flack for this one. Everyone has the solution the meeting overload problem. Standup meetings, team catch ups, some other kind of crazy treadmill conference calls. But the real way to reduce your meeting stress is to show people how valuable time is for everyone. Not just them.

My solution: All meetings with CxO level people are now five minutes long. Period. End of story. You get to walk in, give your statement, and you walk out. No questions. No long Q&A. Just your conclusions. You say what you have to say and move on.

Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? And that’s kind of the point. When you are forced to boil your premise down to something like the Dilbert smiley face above, you’re doing yourself a disservice. All the detail and nuance goes right out the window. The only way you get to bring it back out is if someone in the room starts asking questions. And if you don’t give enough detail they almost always will. Which defeats the purpose of boiling it down in the first place!

Instead, push it back on the CxOs with the most valuable time. Make them see how hard you work. By refusing to answer any of their follow up questions. You see, if their time is so valuable, you need to show them how much you respect it. If they have follow up questions or require more details, they need to write all those interrogatories down in an email or an action item list and send it to you so you can get it done on your time. Make them wait for the answers. Because then they’ll see that this idea that their time is valuable is just an illusion.

It sounds awfully presumptuous of me to say that we need to waste the time the C-level suite. But a little bit of pushback goes a long way. Imagine how furious they’ll be when you walk out of the meeting after five minutes and don’t answer a single question. How dare this knowledge worker not bend their calendar to my desire to learn more?!? It’s ridiculous!

How about wondering how ridiculous it is for this person to limit your time? Or to not know anything ahead of time about the topic of discussion? Imagine telling someone to wait until you’re ready to talk to them after a meeting starts because you are more important than they are! The nerve!

However, once you stick to your plan a few times the people in the room will understand that meetings about topics should be as long as they need to be. And you should be given enough time to explain up front instead of talking for five minutes and getting interrupted with a thousand questions that you were prepared to answer anyway if they’d just given you the chance to present!

Watch how your meetings transform from interrogation scenes to actual presentations with discussions. Instead of only getting five minutes to talk you’ll be accorded all the time you need to fill in the details. Maybe you only needed ten minutes in the first place. But the idea is that now your time and expertise is just as valuable as everyone else on the team, from the bottom all the way to the top.


Tom’s Take

There needs to be an obligatory “no everyone is like this” disclaimer. I’ve met some very accommodating executives. And I’ve also met some knowledge workers that can’t present their way out of a paper bag. But the way to fix those issues is to make them get better at giving info and at listening to presentations. The way is not to artificially limit time to make yourself seem more important. When you give your people the time they need to get you the info you need, you’ll find that they are going to answer the questions you have a lot quicker than waiting with dread as the CEO takes the time to think about what they were going to be told anyway.