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Not for nothing has Annecy been called 'Little Venice in the Alps'. Its old town is criss-crossed by canals and bridges, and every year it hosts an impressive carnival with Venetian masks. The wonderful thing about it all is that nothing takes place behind closed doors. Instead, the masks roam freely around town, posing for the hundreds of gawping tourists and amateur photographers.
This year there were 270 participants of all ages. They are silent and mysterious for the most part. The costumes are intricate and beautifully made. The participants are not just locals, but come from as far afield as Lyon, Grenoble or the South of France. Somehow, it doesn't seem to be quite as popular for the North of France.
It is said that the Venetian carnival originated in 1162 after a remarkable military victory, but was then largely abandoned in the 18th century. So the Carnival of Venice as we know it nowadays is a modern invention, dating from 1979.
However, France too is no slouch when it comes to carnivals. The most famous carnival processions and celebrations are in Nice and they last up to 15 days. They are big, bold and satirical, very different from the more lyrical Annecy atmosphere.
Against the romantic backdrop of the lake of Annecy, the masks braved the cold, snow and mud to show off their costumes. You have to admire such dedication to beauty and stagecraft.
We woke up this morning to the sound of snow shovels. Our neighbours had taken one look out of the window and decided to get up and start clearing their driveways and most of our little close.
After getting caught out last year and having to slip-slide to school whilst hitting assorted kerbs, we had actually changed to winter tyres in plenty of time this year. Of course, we still had to drive slowly, but most of the roads had been cleared already.
The school parking was particularly impressive. It had been almost completely cleared, and traffic was flowing smoothly, despite the icy patches.
And here is the little machine working such miracles... (Its bigger brother may also have been involved at some point).
Of course it is unfair to compare the Rhone Alpes region of France, with its centuries-long experience of snowy conditions, with the South-East of England. But, as the stories of flooding and snowstorms become annual events (in fact, they now happen more than once a year), surely England needs to start rethinking its priorities.
The ski resorts in the area have announced their opening this weekend. This was the view that greeted us this morning (after days of rain and fog).
And also this view of our favourite local ski area.
Luckily, my winter tyres went on earlier this week. Now all I have to do is find those ski boots in the garage, gloves, hats, thermals, ski suits, make sure they all still fit, rent skis for myself if there are any decent ones left, fit on helmets by hook or by crook, prepare for lots of crying and whingeing about the cold and the slippery qualities of the slope...
...and we're off for another fun-filled winter season!
Revolutions sometimes come in small and cute packages.
So it is with these Ampelmann souvenirs from Berlin. They now represent a booming commercial enterprise: their image appears not just on keyrings, but also on mugs, lamps, stationery, T shirts and even footballs.
Yet it represents something much deeper than the triumph of nostalgia or entrepreneurial astuteness.
It demonstrates the power of the people.
These Ampelmann figures were created as pedestrian traffic lights in East Berlin in 1961 (coincidentally - or maybe not- just after the Wall was put up). After the reunification of Germany, West German authorities criticised so much of the East German way of doing things, including these Ampel-men. There was a concerted effort to replace them hurriedly with the much stiffer, plainer West German (and European) figures. The mayhem of everyday bureacratic insensitivity, in other words.
To everyone's surprise, the former GDR, so quietly accepting of most of the capitalist reforms and changes, did not take kindly to this. A society for the Preservation of the Ampelmann was formed, the media joined in the debate, psychologists discussed the advantages of the larger figures for children and finally politicans had to give in. By 1997 the battle was won: the East German Ampelmann is allowed to reign supreme on secondary roads and in towns in the east of the country. There are a few isolated instances of their use in Western Germany, but this is more a publicity gimmick. Not for one minute was there a debate about replacing the boring Western lights with these ones, despite their clear advantages in terms of visibility.
I thought the moral of the story was: stand up to bullies and you will emerge victorious. But I suppose capitalism triumphed in the end, turning all of the moral gains into a lucrative business. And of course the bully ended up clearly defining the boundaries of the popular triumph.
And yet it enchants generation after generation of consumers and gets them asking: 'So, what was all that controversy about?' As I tried to explain to my children the madness that was a divided Berlin and a country that imprisoned its population, I am pleased that there are some symbols which can mitigate the horror. Symbols and stories which show that nothing is ever black and white.
One thing I often tell workshop participants or the project leaders whom I coach about global virtual teams is 'preparation is everything'. However, as with so many catchphrases, the truth is much more complex than that. Is there such a thing as over-preparation? When do you know you have done enough and that it's time to move on? And, if you have only a limited amount of time (or patience), what are the essentials you must focus on?
In the case of a virtual team web conference, preparation can sometimes feel very time-consuming. It can feel like you’re spending more time preparing for the event than for the event to actually take place. But however tempted we might be to skip certain stages, or to take shortcuts, it's really important to go through everything in a systematic fashion. Especially if it is a team coming together for the first time.
One aspect is, of course, technical preparation: making sure that everyone has access to the same technology and conferencing services. It seems an obvious matter, yet I have seen many cases where the technology let everybody down and there were very frustrated and disengaged participants from the outset.
Additionally, I would suggest that the meeting organiser or team leader should have one-to-one conversations with each of the participants. Admittedly, if it’s a very big team, you might not be able to talk with each one of them; but at least talk with each of the local organisers in the different locations. These are not just buddy-buddy conversations of getting to know each other, although of course they should be friendly, informal and genuinely curious about the other person. However, they also need to clarify expectations about agenda and timing. This might include who’s going to contribute and present something, if there are any formal presentations, but, above all, the purpose of the meeting, what the team is trying to do. Is it about problem solving? Is it about decision making? Is it just a progress update? Is it information sharing? Not all of these are equally suitable for a worldwide call, and not all of them require the presence of all participants.
It really helps if all of the participants know a little bit about each other beforehand. If it’s a team coming together for the first time, it’s quite good to share some photos, something about their location, perhaps a photo of their location, whether it’s the office or the nice view to the beach to make all the others envious; perhaps some information about when they joined the company; and then something non-controversial but quite personal. It’s quite difficult to find a suitable topic for this last one sometimes. I know of one company who tried, “What do you like doing in your leisure time?” and the Indian and Chinese participants were a bit baffled by this question because they don’t actually have any of hobbies or much time for leisure other than spending time with the family. So perhaps something like “What is your favourite food?” is a better conversation opener. Or “Describe yourself in one or two words,” something like that. And you could perhaps even have this information put up as a slide or a document that everyone can access during the meeting, so that they can remind themselves of who is taking part in the conference call.
Another item of preparation which is often neglected is around time zones and holidays. I have heard of some companies imposing their own holidays on their overseas contractors, but that is not likely to endear you with anyone. If you want to keep your team members motivated nad engaged, it is better to be more creative about the solutions.
There are several ways of working around this issue. One is to get the schedules together well in advance – perhaps a year in advance – and try to plan the meetings well beforehand. The second is to have meetings in sub-groups. Does everybody really need to be present on every single phone call; or can it be handled bit by bit, group by group, nation by nation? Finally, if it is an important decision, then could you have somebody on standby in a particular location that is on holiday at that time? Yet another option is to compromise. You could have some kind of formal or informal agreement on common holidays; and agree that perhaps a small group of people will be present if it is an important meeting that can’t possibly be rescheduled, even though their country’s on holiday. And the reason why I say “group of people” is because it usually works a bit better if you have a cluster of at least two people from the same location, otherwise they really do feel singled out and lonely having to come into work when everybody else is on holiday.
However, I like to think of this is an opportunity rather than a problem, because if everybody has got different holidays, it means that there’s always going to be somebody in the office regardless of the calendar. So, by turning it into a positive, it becomes less of a 'challenge' and will inspire team members perhaps to hand over tasks from one to the other.
What are your best tips for preparing for a teleconference or video conference? And what are your success stories of working in virtual global team? Please do share with us!
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