Posts

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

A corporate trainer, I’ll call him Edwin, was complaining about having to update his middle-management training curriculum. “I have to do another Team Training,” he said, “and the bosses want me to include games and activities and other kinds of “fluff stuff”. Seriously? It’s a joke. Teams don’t work like that.”

I agreed that the word “team” is probably over-used, usually with a little bit of a halo on it. Some managers refer to “my team” or “our team” instead of saying “my staff” or “our department” – just because it sounds better. Sort of like the way people say “leader” because it sounds better than saying “manager”.

We talked about his old Team Training programs to see how to keep what he thought was valuable, and what he could do to improve them. “There are 3 basics I emphasize in those programs,” he said.

  1. A Team has a stated “team purpose” – a goal, a commitment, something that gives the group a reason for collaborating and coordinating internally as well as working with others.
  2. Team members work together to create a structure for coordination:
    1. Clarify who is the Team Leader, and which team members have primary responsibility for sub-goals or projects.
    2. Determine how decisions will be made. Which things does the Team Leader decide? Who else gets to make other kinds of decisions? How will those decisions be communicated to the rest of the team?
    3. Design a framework for how and when team members will communicate with one another. Weekly meetings, with an agenda? Regular consultations among subsets of team members? Or some other reliable pattern?
  3. Team members review and revise this structure of agreements as needed. If things get bogged down with internal or external problems, it’s time to get together and refresh the framework – as a team.

“Teams are not built on a foundation of focusing on individuals,” Edwin explained. “That is the biggest pitfall. Americans are especially fixed on being individuals first, and having their individuality be the centerpiece of their attention.

“Teams need a focus on the group: they need a reason for working together, and to agree on a structure of responsibilities, decisions, and communications.

“The purpose of a team is not to resolve conflicts, boost morale, or fix someone’s personality traits that are aggravating other team members. Team members might need to learn how to collaborate more effectively, or improve skills in communicating directly and honestly. But really, a team is a team for a reason: to make something happen, or to move something forward. It is not a family or an exercise in social studies.”

Thanks, Edwin. Now I realize there are many fewer “teams” than I thought. Not every group is willing or able to do those 3 things to become a team. The attraction to focusing on people, personalities, and interpersonal drama is compelling – and more familiar to us than defining a group purpose or creating a framework for interacting productively.

Hmmm. Maybe he could add a couple of games or exercises that help people practice doing those 3 things? Just a thought.

Supervisors: Neglected Knights of the Organization?

Pity the poor Supervisor. They don’t get invited to meetings of the Management Team. But they aren’t seen as completely trustworthy by the people they supervise, either – even if they had worked together with them for many years before moving up the hierarchy.

When someone leaves the “front-line” level of employees and moves up to the Supervisor level, they may also cross a line of confidence. From below, the Supervisor is perceived as having moved up to “management”, and presumed to be in cahoots with that “enemy of labor”. From above, the Supervisor is like a Medieval Knight – someone responsible for keeping the rowdy masses in line and paying attention to their jobs.

One client – Shirley – has found what I suspect will prove to be a good support structure for her Supervisors. She is setting up a monthly Supervisor’s Round Table to discuss the issues they learned about from the Organization Analyst’s Assessment she sponsored for her organization a few months ago. These Supervisors oversee the Front-Line staff, and this version of the communication assessment lets them see which issues are unique to that group. The “Big Three” communication issues for their Front-Line staff were:

  1. Equipment or systems are outdated, and/or some materials and supplies are insufficient.
  2. Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.
  3. There are significant differences in the quality of work people do.

Since they got those Workplace Communication Assessment results, Shirley arranged for a half-day session where the Supervisors and Front-Line employees together reviewed the results and discussed the issues that were their biggest barriers. They also learned about which of the four conversations would help them address those issues. Interestingly, each of those issues calls for getting more practice in using “Closure Conversations” more effectively.

The plan for the first meeting of the Supervisors Round Table is to review the list of issues that were reported most often, and see if they are still big problems in their departments, or whether some of them have shrunk a bit. Shirley will facilitate the meeting, bringing copies of the Issues List and supporting the discussion. Subsequent meetings will have the Supervisors review their issues – and solutions – as a group, and develop ideas for solving whatever remaining issues they see. They also may host a follow-up Workplace Communication Assessment after a few more months to see what issues have moved up to take over the “Big Three” positions.

The biggest payoff for these meetings is not solving problems, but doing it together as a group of people who hold similar positions in their organization. They each have somewhat different responsibilities, due to the different circumstances and personnel in their areas. But being able to talk about their challenges is definitely the best benefit from their regular get-togethers to share and compare. Imagine: what if Supervisors weren’t the “neglected middle” employees, and had their own group to meet with? They could become a force to be reckoned with!

That Difficult Client Talk – Part II. What does “Discussion” Mean?

Dear Reggie,

First the good news, this time. Two of your staff members reported to me that they are excited about having clearer agreements for their work. I have reason to believe there are other people noticing a difference in the way you are giving assignments now. That’s great!

Now, for Step 2 on your path to being a better manager: After your staff meeting this morning, several people stayed behind to give me a suggestion. They want you and me to “have more discussion about having discussions”. I suspect there are things they want to say to you that they don’t know how to say, or perhaps they don’t know whether you will want to hear.

Discussion – dialogue – is at the heart of what we call an “understanding conversation”. That doesn’t mean you will have them understand something. It also means they will want to have you understand a few things too. So, a few more points:

  • Your staff members – technicians, programmers, and customer service people – often have a closer and more direct knowledge of what is happening in the details of their daily work than you do. When you tell them you want them to change the way they are doing a particular task, like the way they test a new system on a customer’s site, they expect to have a voice. They want to tell you about the situation they face with that customer when they are on their site. And they deserve to have you include their perspective in any new task definition.
  • Have a discussion about How & Why: How can we do this – and why does it matter? How will the changes affect our current tasks and responsibilities? How can we anticipate any new demands on our resources and skill sets?
  • Then have a discussion about Who & What: Who else is likely to be involved in reaching our objective – and what do they want? Who will talk with them about this – and what will they say? (Note: you may have to assist your people by making introductions to some higher-ups they need to contact).
  • Have a discussion about Where & When: Where will the resources come from – and when do we need them? Where will the benefits show up – and when will we see them? Where and when should we try this first, in order to develop our skills with the least risk?

The idea is that both sides have something to say. But even more important, both sides also have to listen, and to update their thinking and speaking as needed. That way, everyone’s opinion is respected for the knowledge, experience, and commitment they bring to the table; and everyone gets a good “understanding” of what is involved in accomplishing the objective.

Bottom line: it means you would be willing to learn something every time you meet with them – even when you’d really rather just tell them what to do.

Three “Brexit” Lessons for Getting YOUR Goal

Did you notice that the “Remain” leaders in the United Kingdom – the ones who wanted to stay with the European Union – made some costly mistakes? It seems they had some lazy assumptions, and failed to deliver the well-designed conversations that could have painted a different picture for UK voters.

Mistake #1: Too few dialogues to create new understandings. It is foolish to think that people already understand the facts of a choice. A good leader will sustain dialogues to clarify the facts of the matter – so people can see them, ask questions, and create a positive relationship to what’s actually true.

UK voters did not know much about their country’s EU membership. Regular understanding conversations – those dialogues on Who does What, Where, and How – could have spelled out the roles and responsibilities of all EU members and clarified the facts in the arguments, from both sides, about what EU membership really entails – and what it doesn’t.

Alas, voters were energized by dramatic talk of “regaining sovereignty” and “immigrants stealing jobs”. They didn’t know that the UK’s sovereignty was not in question, and the UK was responsible for its own immigration policy.

Mistake #2. Too few communications on the value of what we have. A leader also cannot assume that voters will grasp the true costs and benefits of making a decision to stop doing something. They are so accustomed to the benefits of “the way things are” that they don’t see those things at risk. Spelling out the value of any particular decision is necessary – and must be done many times in many ways.

The “Remain” leaders forgot to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. Frequent “closure conversations” about what EU membership provides to the UK were missing: What good things did UK membership in the EU do for us this week? How did we profit from it this month? What have we gained from it this past year?

If the “Remain” leaders had done that, perhaps thousands of people wouldn’t have been Googling “What is the EU?” on the day after the vote.

Mistake #3: Giving away the initiative. Initiative conversations launch an idea by proposing something of value for the future: What do we want? When do we want it? Why does it matter? But those conversations can’t be a one-time thing. Leaders need to keep the mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) present every day. Find a way to talk about it, and make good slogans and visual reminders. Make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do that will create value for themselves.

The “Remain” leaders surrendered the game with their initiative. They failed to object to the referendum being called the “Brexit” (short for Britain exits the EU). If they had insisted on using the term “Bremain” in all media interactions, it would have given people a shorthand way to think of the value proposition for remaining in the EU. Instead, “Brexit” carried the day.

Note that what ultimately made the difference was leaders speaking, media talking, and people having conversations. Both sides communicating in many ways, all the time. One side won, and now almost nobody is happy about the uncertainty and costs of the whole mess.

Productive conversations matter, so let’s practice getting better at using them, shall we?

Understanding Conversation – Clarifying Ideas and Roles

I took my ideas about an online conversation for “Management is Missing” into several meetings over coffee and lunch in the past 10 days. I had lunch with a man who develops websites: he liked the Performance Circle idea, and we sketched out some thoughts on how to have the kind of interactive discussion I’m looking for. Then coffee a few days later with another man who does photography, videos, and video editing for YouTube and other websites.

Then I talked with several people about learning management systems and how they are used for online learning. One of them creates and manages several online learning sites, another has used online learning systems, and a third has built a business around them. All this was useful to help me see the kind of design work and planning that I need to do, and who I could link up with to get some of the results I want to have.

The last conversation was with a manager, call her Lynne, who is in a really bad situation. Lynne was hired as an “account manager”, to provide services to a large customer organization. The job included some compliance duties (making sure that products and equipment were updated on time and with appropriate vendor support) and collaborating with several other organizations in industry, service, and government. The bad situation started when she pointed out some serious compliance issues to her boss – she noticed several places where the relevant laws were being broken and gave the boss a memo about it. Nothing happened.

The situation soon spiraled downward: Lynne grew impatient with a boss who didn’t seem to care about illegal situations, and she began noticing other places where internal policies were not followed or agreements with partner organizations and clients were unmanaged. She began speaking up at meetings about these things even though it was clear that nobody wanted to hear it. Now she is stuck in an increasingly negative relationship with many of the people above her in the organization. Even some of her peers are hesitant to work too closely with her for fear that the management reaction to being accused of mistakes will taint them too.

Could an “understanding conversation” – a dialogue about what players are involved in the problems, who should be involved in creating solutions, and how to go about putting things right – have made a difference? Maybe, if it was held early and privately with the boss. But maybe not. If Lynne is determined to set things right without building a performance circle and having the dialogues for clarifying roles and responsibilities, she is creating a hard road ahead for herself and others.

All of these conversations were exploratory – they were “understanding conversations” to learn more about where my ideas fit into a possible new future. But this last conversation reinforced the importance of having a place where people – both managers and the people they manage – can look at different ways to talk about management problems they are having. And perhaps we can even create a place where people can create solutions that will be relatively quick and painless.

When I finish these understanding conversations, I’ll move on to the performance conversations. Back soon.