Other Places to Put Your Promises? Nope. They Go in Your Schedule.

After the last blogpost about putting your promises into your schedule, I got a lot of feedback – mostly about all the other places you can put your promises. Here are the top five:

  1. Use Post-It Notes – on pieces of paper, bulletin boards, or the side of your computer;
  2. Write To-Do Lists;
  3. Send an email or text message to yourself;
  4. Keep physical piles of documents, books, and files in your office as “promise reminders”; and
  5. Ask other people to remind you what you said you would do.

That’s just a sample of the “good ideas” I received. They aren’t bad or wrong – except maybe that “physical piles” one. Plus, asking someone else to remind you is only reliable if you are paying them well to serve as your memory system. It is fine to use Post-Its, lists, emails or texts to yourself as a way to capture the specifics of the promise, i.e., the What, When, and Why – along with the Who, Where, and How as needed.

But all of those ideas for places to “put your promise” are only interim measures: where each promise needs to end up is in your schedule. A large and/or complex promise might even need to appear several times on your schedule: once for the final deadline, and other times to account for the various tasks and communications necessary in order to meet that deadline.

Why so picky about where to put your promises? Because when you tell someone you will do something, or send something, or bring something, you are giving your word – and your reputation depends on it. When you tell someone that you’ll be there at 2:15 and you don’t show up, or you’re really late, you are creating your own reputation. It won’t be a favorable one.

Your word matters. It is a way people know you, and know whether they can count on you. Think of the people you know: some of them are reliable and you can be sure they will do what they say, while others are much less dependable. You don’t want to be That Guy, the one who is sloppy about honoring his word.

Using a schedule makes sure you have a time for your promise, too. You know the people who say, “I’ll call you”, and never specify when that will happen? What if you started to ask them, “Can you call me on Wednesday between 10:00 and 10:30? I’ll make sure to be available then.” That gives you a promise, an agreement to put in your schedule. Of course, if you have never waited for someone to show up, or deliver something, or call you at the time they promised, you probably don’t need a schedule: your world is working beautifully. I do not yet live in that world.

So, I’m sorry to all those who sent in the “good ideas” – I’m going to stick with the idea of a schedule as the best place to put a promise. If it gets there by way of a list or a Post-It, that’s fine. But don’t wait long to get it on the schedule: time flies, you know.

Lack of Integrity – It’s a Loose Connection, Right?

I have a nodding acquaintance – I’ll call her Liza – who says things like, “I’ll get back to you on that this week”; and “I will ask Nate to call you tomorrow;” and “I’ll text you about dinner plans.” Then nothing happens: she doesn’t deliver. Her mouth is not connected to her brain. It’s not connected to her Do-Due List or her Calendar either. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Do-Due List or a Calendar to help keep her brain connected to her word.

Liza is not somebody I interact with – she belongs to a colleague of mine. I wouldn’t put up with it. After the 2nd time she failed to do what she said, I’d have to say, “The last two times you told me you would do something like that, you didn’t deliver. You kept me waiting and expecting, and now I don’t trust that you will remember your promises.” She would be upset, maybe, but at least we could stop pretending that she cares about keeping her word.

I hear about Liza from my colleague, who doesn’t want to cause a conflict, or create bad feelings. So, it’s better to put up with someone whose word is meaningless and just keep letting her get away with it? No thanks.

Connecting my word to my behavior is on my mind because we are moving – downsizing to a smaller home in another state – and there’s a lot to handle. I am using those two tools (a Do-Due List and a Calendar) to manage our transition. The individuals in my ever-changing set of Outlook contacts are of many types and flavors, and I want to say proper Goodbyes, Hellos, and other conversations that honor their value to me. Same with organizations: cancel memberships, stop payments, open new accounts, etc.

I keep my Do-Due List on a journalist’s notepad. When a page gets too messy to read, I copy the still-undone To-Do’s and Due-To’s onto a fresh page and toss the old one. The Calendar is a printout of our 3-month transition schedule; one of those months is now gone. If it gets too messy with blue-inked notes and red-inked stars, I’ll just reprint it.

These documents help me avoid overtaxing my memory, and possibly create chaos or hurt feelings or wasted time and effort. Out integrity is costly – at work, at home, and among friends. If I connect my promises (the agreements I make with others) to my Do-Due List and my Calendar, then people won’t roll their eyes when I tell them I’ll do something. And they won’t say what people say about Liza: her word is worthless.

Ouch! I’m going to review my Do-Due List and Calendar right now to be sure it’s up to date!

Communication Impossible: Preventing Incomplete Conversations

Did you ever see the TV show “Restaurant Impossible”? An hour of interesting communication that saves a restaurant and sometimes saves a family too. But my favorite moment is at the very end, when the show is over, and some guy – while they are turning off the final credits – says “That’s done!” He has a great voice, and now I’ve started saying it too, using the same tone he does. I finish the dishes? “That’s done!” Finish writing a blog? “That’s done!”

It is particularly interesting because I just finished a communication assessment for a client (“That’s done!”), and saw that the top workplace issues in their organization are created by what we call “incomplete conversations”. Those happen when:

  • Somebody does something really good and nobody says, “Thank you!”
  • Or somebody doesn’t keep their promise to get you that information you need when they said they’d have it – and you don’t contact them and say, “Hey, where’s that price schedule you said you’d have on my desk this morning?”
  • Or you change an appointment on your calendar and forget to notify some of the people you were supposed to meet.

The first incomplete conversation is likely to cause a little bit of hurt feelings, when the person wonders if you even noticed the good thing they did. But if you leave out that “Thank you!” on a regular basis, it can turn into a grudge, or worse.

The second one eats away at an organization’s integrity and undermines accountability. If you don’t follow up when people don’t keep their word, they will learn that you don’t really care about what you say you want. If you wonder why you don’t get what you want, read that last sentence again because it’s true. You lose your credibility, and nobody takes you seriously. So when you ask people in another department for something you need right now, well, guess what? You have trained them out of being accountable.

The third one is when you make a change and don’t really consider who will be affected by it. You can’t be surprised when they’re sort of mad at you. Maybe even more than sort of mad – they might gossip about you, say mean things to you, or just not invite you to something you should attend. Payback is a bear, but we bring it on ourselves.

So this organization is going to learn about where the incomplete conversations are. We already know they have something like all 3 of these situations, but I’m betting we will find more of them. When we find out where and when they happen, we can see how to put in the completion. That would reduce some of those negative feelings in a hurry and maybe even boost their accountability scores too: it’s not impossible.

That Difficult Client – Part IV.  Completion

Reggie started with a serious performance problem in his department. He said his staff was “under-performing”, and he was insistent that I find out what the problem was and “fix it”. So I did. The problem was Reggie. He was a technical whiz, but not a very good manager. Here’s what I mean:

  • He was managing people instead of managing their agreements for performance. He could have looked at their agreements to deliver quality products or services, or to produce on-time results, but he didn’t have those spelled out. So he was “coaching”, and focusing on their attitudes instead of working with them to define clear jobs and tasks, and identify relevant ways to know whether they were doing what they agreed to do.
  • He was being a boss, not a manager, by giving orders and instructions without asking for input from the people who would be doing the work. His dialogue was “I talk, you listen”, which isn’t the two-way street he needed to manage a staff of diverse responsibilities.
  • The goals of various individuals and teams were sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected to each other. There was no “big picture” that allowed everyone to see themselves as collaborating in some way for a common purpose.

Here’s what Reggie himself said he learned to do out of this experience, in his own words:

  • “I stopped relying on people’s job descriptions and experience, and my own expectations, to be sure people knew what to do. Talking about what the end results should look like, and agreeing on timelines that worked for me and for my staff – that was a breakthrough. And follow-through was everything for me. I never saw that as my job – I thought it was their job. Now I follow up on every assignment we agree to put on the list. It’s part of my staff meetings. That alone improved people’s performance in a very big way.”
  • “The discussion thing was huge. I learned how much I didn’t know about what’s happening on our customer’s sites. Technology changes, and so do operations, and my staff is on the front lines of those changes. They have been great with educating me! Our customers are pleased too, and one of them told me he wanted the same team to come back for the next project.”
  • “We had gotten pretty good with the “GPS” thing – Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – but when we looked at how it connected into one bigger picture of Mission-Vision-Purpose, we saw where the holes were. I hadn’t updated that stuff since I got this job, so it was way out of date. When I could see the value of having those statements “belong” to our department, we all talked it through and created new statements for our MVP. Re-framing our goals after that was simple, and much easier for everyone to see what our primary game is. And we are winning at last.”

There was one last nice thing he said when he thanked me for helping him learn to manage his department: “I’ve always been a technical guy first, and never learned management. Sometimes we just get promoted, and don’t have the knowledge we need for that next step up. Thanks for the kick in the butt!”

That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.

Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.