My Secret to Being Out of Office

Using Social Business Practices to Focus on the Important

April 22, 2013 – It was going to be my wife and I’s 35th wedding anniversary. Discussing our options for celebration, I was told that if I wanted a 36th anniversary, I should plan for a week off.

I serve in a worldwide capacity and have conversations and demands from a large number of individuals. These usually come in the form of emails, instant messages or phone calls…but most often emails. If you are like me, the thought of being gone for a week just caused visions of a swollen in-box that I’d have to suffer through on my return. That is when I decided to leverage our internal social business network.

At IBM we use Notes for email, so I crafted the following “Out of Office” notification:

“I’m out of the office from April 22-26. If you are an IBMer and reading this message, please be aware that I am not going to read your email…not while I’m gone or when I return. If your message was important, please post it on my profile page and I will address it on my return. If you are a customer, please note I will read and respond to your email.”

Then I went on a week’s vacation, totally “off the grid”. I didn’t take my PC or smartphone with me to triage emails. I didn’t sneak off to the corner somewhere to check in during the week. I didn’t care. I spent the week focusing on my family.


On my return, I sorted all the unread emails to locate those from IBMers. There were about 5 screens full, so somewhere around 300. I selected the top one, held the shift key, scrolled down and selected the last one. Then I hit “Delete”. I never looked at the titles, senders names, or topics. If they sent me an email, they saw my “out of office” message and knew what to expect.

I then went to my profile in our Social Business system (called IBM Connections). Of the 300 emails, only 29 turned into posts. And of those, 20 were already answered by people in my network. That is two thirds of my work being done for me. Like the following:


So after a week of vacation, I had only 9 issues from IBMers that needed my personal attention. That allowed me to focus on my customers.

And more importantly, if you look at the example above. The request for help came on April 23rd, the 2nd day of my vacation. And it was answered on April 23rd, the 2nd day of my vacation. For the requestor, they got their response without me. In fact, the responder knew more about the subject than I did anyway. So by asking “out loud” he was able to get a quicker response and better qualified answer.

But what if one of those emails was important? I’ve been taking this same approach every year and I’ve yet to delete an “important” email or be called out for not responding. Important things tend to come back around.

If you think you couldn’t possibly get away with doing something like this, then I would encourage you to ask “Why not?” Your fear of missing the 1 important thing out of 1000 emails is causing you to spend unrecoverable precious time going through the 999 worthless emails..which probably impacts your ability to properly address the important. And if you don’t have a social business solution in your organization, let me know by comment below or reach out to me at and I’d love to share with you how you too can truly learn to be “out of office”.

If you’re interested in what’s next, at IBM we’re combining IBM Watson Cognitive services to communications (like email) to help you identify the important from the trivial. And it’s not based on some filter you create, but rather on the way you work. Who do you interact with? Who are you quick to respond to? What is the tone of the message? Is there a request for some deliverable? All these factors can be applied to help you prioritize your time and attention. For more on this subject, contact me or check out

Play and Get To Work


I remember as a kid spending several summer days digging a large pit in the field behind our home. It was about 6 feet deep, 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. Laying tin sheets across the opening and covering them with dirt we made our first “man cave”. Now if my math is right, that’s 300 cubic feet of soil my cousin and I dug up to make our hideout. Were we hard at work? No. We were hard at play. During our play we learned a lot about the fickle nature of south Georgia sandy soil and how to “shore up” the sides. We learned about load bearing structures and how being below ground made for a cooler place to play in the Savannah summer heat. We also learned about how the underground water table will rise after a long rain and turn you fort into a shallow muddy swimming pool.

As a teenager, if my father had asked me to dig a burn pit the same size, I would have considered it quite a bit of work. It would have been the same effort, but in one case it was hard play and the other it was hard work. Side note: Our fort eventually became a burn pit for leaves and was covered up before winter.

Earlier this week I came across the video below from Stephen Johnson. Several years ago, his TED talk and associated book on “Where Good Ideas Come From” caused me to reconsider the environment for innovation. Likewise this more recent video proposes a link between play and innovation. Take a few minutes, view this video and then read on.

For several months now I’ve been playing with a Cognitoy Dino. For anyone unfamiliar with this marvelous toy, check out their video:

Last year I purchased a couple of the first toys produced. I gave one to my 5 year old grandson and I kept the other for myself. The Dino is connected to the Elemental Path and IBM’s Watson. I’ve playfully experimented with how this toy reacts to questions and commands. Through play, I’ve pondered a number of issues and ideas around the possibilities. Earlier this week I was giving a keynote speech at a large insurance provider. I used my Dino to show how Watson was helping kids be more curious and creative in their own educational journey and asked the audience to imagine what how Watson might help their workforce and customers be more curious and innovative. Some in the audience were experts in the areas of risk and security. So it was no surprise that one attendee approached me after the session to ask, “What happens when the kid asks the Dino, ‘Can you keep a secret?'” Great question, so I simply asked the Dino. His response was, “I suggest telling a secret to an adult you trust.” That is one example of an answer handled by Elemental Path’s experience in helping kids in a learning environment. Another case of this is the question “Where do babies come from?” Now the information is available to answer that question but the response from the Dino is “Dinosaur Eggs. At least that is what I’ve been told. You should speak to an adult.”

The Cognitoy Dino can challenge the child with questions, help them be creative by making up stories and challenge them in math. Considered out of context, this quizing could be considered “hard work”, but instead it’s playful and fun. We seem to recognize openly that kids learn through play. Perhaps we should consider Steven Johnson’s insights and encourage ourselves and those around us to “play and get to work”.

And for anyone wishing to purchase their own Cognitoy Dino, they are available at ToysRUs and as well as If you use the Cognitoys site, feel free to use promotion code “IBM10” to receive an additional $10 discount on your purchase.

Note: I am not associated with Elemental Path or Cognitoys and do not receive any consideration or benefits for promoting their products.

Slices of Genius

Capturing every precious minute

Today I remembered a line from Linda Hill’s TED talk on “How to Manage for Collective Creativity”. She mentioned “slices of genius”. It’s those short quick insights that so quickly get overlooked or lost in the chaos of the day.

For me, today started like many, heading to the Atlanta airport for a flight scheduled to leave at 11:30. In the car, Delta kindly alerted me the flight was delayed. Upon arrival at the airport I find it’s going to be 2+ hours before I’m to depart. Being a frequent Delta flyer, I make my way to the SkyTeam lounge where I set up my office.


I had the need to develop a new presentation. So out comes my Mac, but more importantly, my pad of PostIt notes. I always keep at least one pad in my bag.

Using a technique introduced to me by Garr Reynolds (author of Presentation Zen), I always start analog and then move to digital. For years, this has been a life changer for me as to how I organize and refine my presentation…long before I begin to commit anything to a presentation tool.

But there can be a problem. Analog (physical sticky notes) can be challenging for a mobile person. Shortly after I finish this post, I need to pack all this up and head for the gate.

Here is where PostIt has an answer. It’s an iPad app called “PostIt Plus”. I think it’s available for the iPhone as well, but the small form factor is difficult for me.shot2

I simply take my iPad, launch the app and start a “new board”. This activates the camera on my iPad.

It focuses in on what it detects as sticky notes and activates the shutter.

It then captures those images and places them into the PostIt Plus application.

shot3This results in a mobile ready, editable, moveable board from which I can further work to refine my presentation…like I’ll likely do on the flight.

There is a free version of the app that performs all the items I just mentioned. And I think in the free version you can edit the text, by replacing the image with text you type. That way you can change the notes. And you can add new ones in the app as well. But if you’re a sticky note fiend, once you get a feel for this, you’ll want to shell out the few bucks to get the full app that allows you to assign colors, etc.

Let me know if/when you use this app. I believe for road warriors, it’s a great tool.


Adopt or Adapt

Thoughts on the future work culture

adaptFor the past several years I’ve been involved in many discussions, training session and workshops regarding the adoption of social smarter work. And this is serious business. Companies around the world are spending large amounts of time and resources trying to get their organizations to work in a more productive, transparent and effective way.

But there’s a problem. In most cases we’re trying to address this as if it were just another in a series of technological advances. We install corporate social networks, new collaboration solutions and advanced messaging and meeting software. After installation we provide training into what and how these technologies operate. Then we begin to measure the extent to which our employees are using the new tools. And all of this we call adoption.

But maybe we should reconsider this. Let’s look at a couple of definitions.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” ― Mark Twain

Adopt – to make one’s own by selection or assent

Adopt, that pretty much sums up our efforts. We strive to get people to choose to use the new way of working versus their old way.

Adapt – to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.

I believe that today’s workplace and certainly the future workplace is full of different conditions and a new environment in which to do business. This isn’t about retooling technology, it’s about rethinking work cultures.

Now don’t get me wrong, technology is certainly an enabler of the adaptation, but using the technology is not the goal. The real value comes when we adjust ourselves to a new way of working; to evolve from the ineffective and overused habits of email, meetings and reporting into the new way of working using mobile, social and cognitive practices designed to free us to do what we were meant to do.

I just read an interesting article on the National Geographic website regarding adaptation. It states:

An adaptation can be structural, meaning it is a physical part of the organism. An adaptation can also be behavioral, affecting the way an organism acts.

I believe our future way of working will constitute both the physical adaptation (new tools, work hours, reporting structures, etc) as well as the behavioral adaptation (how we fit work into life, the revival of creativity, curiosity and risk in the workplace, etc.).

Get to Work – The Immobile – Earth SOL 53

June 2

I’m not sure it’s fair to title this “The Immobile” any longer. In the past 53 days I’ve progressed to walking, carefully taking stairs and automobile travel. I’ve abandoned my walker (after being asked by an elderly woman outside a grocery store if she “could help me”) and leg braces. I’m using a pair of canes and getting around nicely. I’ve been told I should be back to normal (able to handle air travel) in early July. So thanks to everyone, especially my manager, Ron Denham and my VP, Pam Chandor for their support during this time.

immobile ipadBut for this posting, I’ve reflected on how my work has changed since I’ve been unable to “get around” like I used to. Other than lacking the personal face-to-face, it really hasn’t. My role as Storyteller usually requires in-person visits and speaking engagements, which I have missed. But the ability to work, communicate and interact with customers and sales teams has been awesome. And I have to give full credit to IBM for their support and development of outstanding collaboration solutions.

When I was bed ridden, I had my laptop, iPad and iPhone all available to me and with them I was able to participate and contribute to our business efforts. Our social networking, IBM Connections has kept me in touch with what is going on. The use of IBM Verse and IBM Sametime keeps the communication channel always open. And our Smart Cloud platform of these components, including web meetings, desktop sharing and fully collaborative document editing, has made me truly be “at work” anywhere and anytime.

I’m anxious to get back on the road and visiting our clients and sales teams, but I have to admit that being “immobile” has not meant being “out of touch”. Quite the contrary.

So if you are a corporate employee and reading this, imagine for a moment what it would be like if you were “immobile” for an extended period of time. Would it just be an endless stream of email and phone calls? What about the interruptions of the day for therapy and doctor visits? Would your connection to work suffer because you don’t have social tools that allow you to contribute at your convenience? Would you be getting emails on your phone and having to get back to your PC before you could actually do any work?

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Contact me or check out this link for more information on how you can maintain your creativity and connectedness, regardless of the circumstances.

Get to Work – The Immobile – Earth SOL 11

April 21


Can you decipher the line above?

At one point in my career I worked at Lockheed Georgia where they build C-5 and C-130 aircraft. I worked in the Engineering group producing technical manuals for these airplanes. What I learned quickly was that every aircraft differed from the previous ones. Most of the differences were minor, such as an improved avionics component, while others were more significant. In both cases the differences required unique documentation and instructions for the specific tail number.

We kept copies of documentation on all the aircraft. If you know these airframes you know they have an extremely long lifetime. And these planes were very complex. Jus the documentation required to be physically on the aircraft weighed around 300 pounds. If at any time, one of our planes had an “incident”, we would often be called on to recreate the documentation on board to assist in the investigation.

I remember times when a high profile event would occur and we would gather not only the documentation but also those individuals involved in the design, construction and manufacture of the plane.

During “the Martian” story, there were a couple of instances that required a look at historic technologies and techniques.

IMG_4874-768x576The first was the use of hexadecimal encoding to represent ASCII characters. The rudimentary communication method required something simpler than a 26-character alphabet.

As for the opening line in this post, it’s HEX and you can convert it at this web site.

The next instance of old knowledge becoming new knowledge came when Watney dug up the old Pathfinder vehicle. Upon discovering his intentions, the NASA team immediately converged on the Johnson Space Center where they still had a working Pathfinder in storage. But more than that, they called together all of the remaining Pathfinder original team members. It’s that old knowledge that could not be easily replicated.

The great thing about knowledge is that it always remains knowledge. It may become less relevant or seemingly outdated, but it’s still knowledge. And in some cases, as we face new challenges, that old knowledge may be extremely helpful in providing a perspective that is unknown to those attempting to address the challenge at hand.

Promoting a social business culture not only assists in finding new knowledge, it can also be instrumental in uncovering and revisiting much needed old knowledge.

I believe future IBMer’s using our social system will be able to investigate the decisions we made, the process we went through and the discoveries we encountered. This old knowledge will be instrumental in helping our successors face the challenges of their day.

Or maybe I’m just being an old guy.

Get to Work – The Immobile – Earth SOL 6

April 16

immobile-social-crap-300x200When you’re working with other people, communication is key. As we work today, most of us have a variety of available options. And when I’ve asked people why they prefer one method to the other, the response is usually around fit or function. But I think there’s more to it.

In The Martian the original team on the planet would radio back and forth with Earth. Based on the speed of light, this causes a time delay of 12 minutes. So an answer would appear 24 minutes after the asking.

I can imagine this results in taking some time in framing your conversation.

I think email is like that. It gives you a sense of completeness, a form that can be reviewed, stored in draft, mulled over until you’re finally satisfied to send it. The turn around time can be lengthy, obviously not because of speed of light, but more affected by complexity of day. But we accept this delay knowing the email conversation is a structured, well-accepted means of collaboration.

After being left behind, Mark Watney had to figure out some way to communicate his existence. There was NO communication channel. Through creativity and clever problem solving on both planets, Mark was able restore to service the Mar’s Pathfinder that had a camera and ability to send images. At first it was a matter of posting a binary question on a sign with “yes” and “no” signs on either side. When the Pathfinder relayed the picture of the question, Johnson Space Center personnel would remotely direct the rover camera to the left or right…giving Mark the answer. The binary interface was awful and time delay was huge, but it was communication.

In today’s world I would guess an instant message, use of emoticons (single character to represent a larger message), chat or maybe even a tweet would be comparable. It gets the job done but it’s difficult to be the container for an expansive conversation…or so we think.

Mark Twain once said, “Sorry for such a long letter. I didn’t have the time to write a short one.” When communicating, it’s imperative to not lose the message in the medium. You have to think a lot about shortening a message to its bare essentials.

Some of my first communications with my team after the accident came by way of chat message. Attempting to relate a complex story in a few phrases was challenging. I spent a lot of time reading back what I had written to make sure it was meeting my intention.

Get to Work – The Immobile – Earth SOL 3

April 14

immobile-300x279Recently I saw the movie “The Martian” starring Matt Damon. If you haven’t seen the film, I don’t think what I have to say will spoil much, but it also won’t make much sense. So I encourage you, even if you don’t want to follow this series of posts, check out the movie. It’s worth the time to watch.

The premise of the movie is a Martian storm causes an emergency evacuation of a team of astronauts on the planet. During the exit, Astronaut Mark Watney, is injured, lost and assumed dead. To save the rest of the team, the remaining astronauts blast off to the awaiting Hermes command ship for the return to Earth.

But Watney is alive and the remainder of the movie is about the challenges that arise and Mark’s creative response to each situation.

Last week I had a home accident that resulted in the tearing of the quadriceps tendons on both knees. I couldn’t stand or walk. On Friday, repair surgery was done. Because both knees are out at the same time, recovery and therapy can take from 10-12 weeks. That’s no travel and only in the later weeks will I be able to get around on anything other than a walker.

My role in IBM involves a lot of travel, customer meetings and speaking engagements. All of that has changed for the next 84 Earth SOLS (The term sol is used by planetary astronomers to refer to the duration of a solar day on Mars).

Since I will not be able to function like the rest of the IBM Worldwide team, I will have to learn how to “Get to Work” for the next 3 months using the tools I have.

In the slightly altered words of Mark Watney, “In the face of overwhelming odds I only have one option. I’m going to have to (social) the (crap) out of this.”

During the coming weeks, I will be posting my observations, challenges and experiences to this situation. I am extremely excited about how this is shaking up my viewpoint and how these new perspectives are going to generate new work experiments and ideas that can assist each of us work smarter.

As always, let me know your thoughts.

Have you figured out what your audience’s “chairs” are?

In 1996, the movie Phenomenon was released. It starred John Travolta and Robert Duvall. I have to admit to not being a big Travolta fan, but I’ve really enjoyed Robert Duvall over the years.

The main theme is about an individual, George (Travolta) who is strcken by something “unknown” and develops an bizarre abilities.

Early in the movie George (Travolta) is trying to win the affection of a new lady in town. She happens to be an artisan creator of wicker chairs, which are said to be pretty uncomfortable. So George offers to let her sell them at his store. And they sell out almost immediately. She’s thrilled and continues to create more and drops them off at his store. Unknown to her, George is buying all her chairs

The scene that struck me was not as relevant to the main story line as it was about relationships. It’s in a bar and some locals are discussing George’s situation. Doc (Duvall) is present and offers some advice:

chairsBaines: That’s all. It’s not like he really knew stuff. Just studied hard at chess and made us think he was changing but he never really changed at all. Ain’t that right Doc? He never really got any smarter. Doc?

Doc: Baines (pause) How’s your lady love?

Baines: We uh, we broke up.

Doc: Really? That’s too bad. Now George, he’s got a love at his side and she’s sticking with him. You know why? Because he bought her chairs. Pretty smart to me. Did you ever buy Lisa’s chairs?

Baines: (laughing) Gosh, Doc’s really drunk tonight.

Doc: Every woman has her chairs. Something she needs to put herself into, Baines. Ever figure out what Lisa’s chairs were and buy em? (pause) Nope. But you’re right about one thing, George hasn’t changed.

This is great relationship advice. Both personal and professional. And as a someone who has a chance to share a message with an audience, it’s essential.

If you ask successful speakers about the audiences with whom they connected and why it went so well, I would wager most will state “an understanding of the audience” would be one of their responses. Yes, you can spout facts and figures that are impressive and insightful, but unless they are relevant to the audience, it’s a waste of time.

Remember…every audience has “chairs”, something they care deeply about. And most likely, they’ve given you the honor of speaking because they believe you have something interesting and relevant to say about their “chairs”. Don’t disappoint them. Show you know and care about their “chairs”.

And as someone who has been honored to be married to the same lovely woman for 38 years, it’s good relationship advice as well.

Find your inner squirrel

I have a lot of trees around my home and have a great time watching the wildlife. Throughout the year I observe squirrels either hiding or seeking the food stuffs they depend on to survive. I had heard they aren’t as good as one might expect in storing and retrieving, so I did a little research and was amazed.

According to an study done at Berkley, a squirrel can remember 300-400 triangulations to locate the food they’ve hidden. In contrast, a human can only use 4 or 5 points to locate something they’ve tucked away. Maybe that’s why they say our digital folder structures should never go below 3 or 4 levels deep.

And with all of that, the average squirrel only locates 25% of what it’s hidden. What does that say about the human’s potential to find the stuff we’ve hoarded away?

So in respect to my inner squirrel, I created this presentation and post:

Enjoy…and happy hunting!