Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Keys to Effective Internal Communication

Take a moment to browse online job postings, and you will see the same item listed recurrently under “Qualifications”: namely, effective communication skills. As important as this capacity is for
prospective employees, it is even more vital for businesses of every size. This obtains both for interactions with external stakeholders, and within an organization. No team, regardless of the talent and expertise of its personnel, can expect to achieve its potential unless information transfers seamlessly and comprehensibly among its members.

Although many of the requirements of functional internal communication are common sense, you may find the following guidelines useful:

  Invoke the KISS principle.
When you initiate communication, take a moment to consider whether the information you intend to convey is presented in the simplest, most concise, most unambiguous form possible. Is there any room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation? “Keep it simple and specific” is a useful guideline here. Concision is also advantageous in most situations.

  Accuracy is indispensable.

Double-check e-mails and other documents before you distribute them. If you have doubts about any aspect of the material, seek confirmation either by doing research on your own, or by consulting a colleague. Accuracy is paramount for effectiveness in communication, for two reasons: first, because inaccuracy can compound into missteps and delays that cost time and money; and second, because repeated errors on your part may erode the trust that others place in you. It is generally worthwhile to take a bit of time to ensure accuracy now, rather than spend a lot of time trying to correct mistakes (and repair any damage to your reputation) later.

  Maintain records of important instructions and agreements. Communicate in both verbal and written form.

Even if you’re confident that you understand what you’ve been told, or believe you’ve made yourself perfectly clear, it is important to make use of documentation rather than simply rely on memory. If, as an employer, you have to convey complex instructions to an employee that involve multiple steps, write them down in clear, succinct language. (Recall the “KISS” principle.) The same advice applies to employees who need to communicate information up the chain of command.

  Keep communications relevant to the recipient.

The human brain has a remarkable capacity to “zone out”, discounting intelligence it deems irrelevant. This is an adaptive evolutionary trait; for our distant ancestors, the ability to identify crucial facts, and save mental energy by omitting unimportant or superfluous ones, was a prerequisite for survival. However, in our modern civilization, this immanent skill can occasionally backfire; by skimming a lengthy document in order to save time, for instance, we risk overlooking information that is relevant to us.

One of the ways for managers to avoid this pitfall is by tailoring communications to each recipient, with specific details or instructions. This practice also sends a tacit signal that employers acknowledge and appreciate the unique contribution of every individual.

  Who reports to whom?

All staff should know exactly to whom they are accountable, and for whom they are responsible. As the scale of a company or organization increases, this factor becomes all the more necessary. It is axiomatic that communication should occur through the proper channels, but what are the proper channels? Aim to ensure that everyone who works in your business can answer that question without a moment’s doubt or hesitation.

  Details matter. But never lose sight of the big picture.

Every business should have a mission statement, which is not only clear and accessible, but understood by all staff at the organization. Once every member of a team buys into a common goal, you will have laid the groundwork for collective success.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Simple Cyber-security Practices

Cyber-security has been a topical issue of late in the wake of headline-grabbing incidents, like the Sony hack, the theft of compromising photos of celebrities from an online cloud (“celebgate”), and the revelation of a security vulnerability dubbed “heartbleed”. Unfortunately, as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so do the techniques used by tech-savvy miscreants to infiltrate computer systems. Further, in this era of Big Data, the amount of sensitive information potentially vulnerable to criminal activity is vaster than ever before.

Few (if any) computer systems can claim to be the digital equivalent of Fort Knox. But there are some simple steps you can and should take to help improve the safety of your data.

  Keep software up to date, including anti-virus applications.

Out-of-date web browsers are susceptible to cyber-infiltration, malware, and viruses, as are machines that don’t have the latest anti-virus software installed. Do a bit of research, and invest in security software from a reputable company with a solid track record.

  Create backup copies of everything that’s important.

Even ostensibly reliable computers can sometimes crash or malfunction, causing you to lose access to information stored on the hard drive. Pay particular attention to financial and human resources documents (including credit card information and social security numbers), records of transactions and accounts receivable/payable, databases and spreadsheets, and any other files you feel might cause a major headache if it ever went missing. Store these essentials either in a secure cloud, or offsite.

  Set up an internet firewall.

Many computer operating systems have a firewall pre-installed, and you’ll simply need to enable it; alternatively, free firewall software can be downloaded from the internet. Again, make sure the software you use comes from a reputable source.

  Control physical access to computers.

 Set up passwords for each machine, and request that each employee create a unique user name and entry code. Aim to change passwords every few months and in the event of employee turnover. Safely stow and lock up laptops that aren’t being used.

  Secure your wi-fi network.

Your wireless network should have a unique password that’s at least 10 to 15 digits in length, containing upper-case and lower-case letters and numbers. Try to make it not only exceedingly difficult for a person to guess, but inordinately time-consuming for a password-cracking program to break.

  Use extra caution with payment-processing.

When setting up a payment-processing arrangement with a bank or financial institution, ask about the latest security and anti-fraud measures and best practices. Try to isolate your payment system, and avoid using the same computer to handle financial transactions and browse the internet.

  Leave software installation to people you trust, or do it yourself.

Many computer operating systems are outfitted to require password authorization  from a system administrator in order to install new software. Make sure this feature is enabled, so that employees (and unauthorized computer users!) cannot install software without your approval.

  Read up on cyber-security.

With the pace of technological advancement occurring in our world today, experts occasionally stumble upon previously undiscovered vulnerabilities, and new programs that can thwart even the most sophisticated network security systems. Although not everyone can or should aspire to become a cyber-security connoisseur, it is in your interest to keep reasonably abreast of the latest developments in that area.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a page dedicated to cyber security for small businesses, including advice and resources. More useful information is available here, via a campaign called Stop.Think.Connect.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Virtue of Resiliency

There is a scene in the film Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) in which the protagonist, Bruce Wayne, tumbles into a derelict well while attempting to hide from his best friend, Rachel. As he quickly discovers, the well connects to a vast network of caliginous caverns—and the subterranean realm happens to abound with the creatures Bruce fears most. Within seconds, a torrent of bats surrounds him, and the dread of the circumstances causes him to momentarily lose consciousness.

Fortunately, Bruce’s ordeal is short-lived; after Rachel alerts Bruce’s father to his son’s misadventure, Thomas Wayne descends into the well to rescue the youngster. Then, as he carries Bruce back to safety in the Wayne mansion, Thomas poses a rhetorical question:

“Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up again.”

The scene demonstrates two valuable principles: facing one’s fears, and recovering from adversity (i.e. resiliency). In fact, those challenges frequently go hand-in-hand—in order to depart from your comfort zone and take risks, you need to be confident in your ability to recuperate after setbacks. Part of that sense of self-assurance owes to preparedness (like ensuring you have adequate resources and alternatives in case of failure), and part of it is related to psychological and emotional strength.

Here is some advice to help you bounce back from mishaps, and overcome difficulties that may arise in the future:

  When something goes wrong, try to learn from it.

You have undoubtedly heard the aphorism “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Similarly, many misfortunes entail opportunities for self-improvement, personal growth, and learning. When a particular situation in your life doesn’t turn out the way you would have liked, ask yourself how you would handle things differently if a similar experience presented itself again.

  Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.

No one is perfect. By pretending to be an exception to that universal rule, you will only hinder your own personal growth. Instead, be honest with yourself and authentic with the people around you. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and try to make up for it. When you succeed, don’t be afraid to take (a reasonable amount of) pride in your accomplishments.

  Keep your problems in perspective, and be grateful for the good stuff.

We’ve all had bad days and trying experiences. But unless the earth has just been pulverized by a storm of asteroids or consumed by the sun in its fiery death throes, things could surely be worse.

One useful way to think about hard times, is to ask yourself whether the mishap of the moment will still matter in a year, or five years. For the majority of problems we face in our daily lives, the answer is no. In fact, some of today’s debacles may become tomorrow’s humorous anecdotes.

Finally, by appreciating and seeking consolation in the positive aspects of your life—including loved ones, past triumphs, and passions unrelated to your professional career—you will improve your chances of both handling adversity and bouncing back.

  Practice generosity.

Generosity and involvement in charitable causes can increase self-esteem, and provide new and valuable perspective on life. Thus, although charity is often perceived as a sacrifice made by a giver on behalf of a recipient, in reality, the benefits of beneficence can be mutual.

More generally, by helping others in their time of need, we increase the likelihood that they will be willing to do the same for us.
  Failure is not necessarily a step back.

Sometimes it is better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all. If you’ve endured a mishap, it may mean you’ve taken a risk and departed from your comfort zone—a precondition for any significant achievement.

You needn’t view occasional disappointments as the culmination of your efforts; instead, try to think of them as unfortunate but necessary steps along the path to success. If nothing else, adversity offers the opportunity to prove that you can navigate through hard times and come back stronger than before.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

How to Become a Morning Person

We’ve all met people who seem consistently chipper early in the morning, and experience no observable loss of vigour or enthusiasm during the day.

For some, this comes quite naturally. Many habitual early-risers have the built-in ability to get up early and still maintain an adequate energy level without resorting to copious infusions of caffeine. If this description sounds like you, then you’re probably a morning person. Good for you!

Others are less fortunate. If you find you need to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, and feel an urge to whack away at the snooze-bar on your alarm clock (possibly dislodging a few items from your bedside table in the process), then you’re likely not a morning person. Maybe you’re a night owl. Or perhaps you just enjoy getting an ample nightly amount of shut-eye.

To be sure, old habits die hard. If you’re a non-morning person who has recently embarked upon a career path that will require you to get up much earlier than you’re used to, or if you’d just like to increase your productivity early in the day, then you’ll need to adjust your routine. Changes in sleep patterns are not always easy to stomach—but there are some practical steps you can follow to ease the transition.

In any case, the key is to ensure you go to bed early enough to still get a healthy amount of sleep; experts recommend about eight hours for most adults.

  Simplify your morning routine—before you retire for the night.

Lay out your clothes, organize your lunch and snacks for the following day, and pack anything else you need in your luggage/briefcase/backpack. The last thing you want in the morning is to squander precious minutes hunting around for important items, or (even worse) realizing you’ve forgotten something after you’ve left for work.

  To fall asleep sooner, power down and cut the lights.

Several years ago, I spent some time volunteering in a village in rural Costa Rica. In that community, as in many parts of Central America, locals both go to bed and rise quite a bit earlier than I was accustomed to in Canada. This is partly because farmers in pastoral areas are obliged to begin their work early in the day. But it’s also a function of the day-night cycle in regions near the equator, where the duration of daylight hours varies little over the course of a year.

One factor that I believe facilitated my quick transition to the Costa Rican sleep pattern, was that the community where I stayed had little noise at night (apart from a few animal sounds), and was relatively dark after the sun set—just after 8:00 PM. There were no streetlights, and few appliances or television sets.

There is a useful lesson here for those of us who live in cities and industrialized areas: if you’d like to go to sleep and wake up earlier more easily, try to isolate yourself from bright lights and noisy appliances at least half an hour before your intended bedtime. Reading with a nightlight or listening to some gentle music before bed is okay—but watching TV or checking e-mails immediately before you hit the hay might interfere with your ability to fall asleep.

  Find an alarm clock that works for you.

The archetypal alarm clock jars the sleeper into consciousness with a strident “beep, beep, beep”. But that high-pitched hectoring is not for everyone, and it doesn’t exactly launch the day on a pleasant note.

Fortunately, a wide range of alternatives are now available, including daylight simulators that gradually brighten, and high-tech alarms that slowly entice you into a state of wakefulness with gentle tones. There are also various apps available for your smartphone.

  Suppress the urge to hit the snooze bar.

Waking up once is hard enough. Trying to wake up twice in the space of ten minutes (or three times in the space of twenty minutes, as the case may be) can actually disrupt your circadian rhythms, and leave you feeling sluggish and discombobulated. Furthermore, if you stay in bed long enough to allow yourself to slip into a deeper sleep stage, you’ll likely find it even harder to get up on your next attempt.

  Leave yourself plenty of time for a wholesome breakfast—at least twenty minutes.

A balanced breakfast that includes fruits and vegetables, proteins, and complex carbohydrates will allow you to maintain peak performance throughout the day, and help you avoid some of the negative consequences associated with quick (but not necessarily healthy) breakfast options—including heartburn, an upset stomach, or an energy level that wanes by the mid-afternoon.