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Productive Communication Works!

My first email to Kelly began, “You sat in the back row of the program I led in your hospital last week, and I wondered if you have used any of “The Four Conversations” to solve your budget problem.”

It had been a day-long training, reserved for only manager-level people because the VPs probably wanted their underlings to speak freely about their work lives. We used the last part of the day to talk about “special problems”, where some participants revealed their biggest workplace challenge and the rest of us suggested which conversation(s) might help improve the situation.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the most interesting problem was Kelly’s. She wanted to get her team’s portion of a Departmental budget transferred to her direct control. As soon as she said that, about half the room gasped and turned to look at her. Then they burst into applause!

It was so great that she saw the program as an opportunity to take charge of this issue for her team, and not wait passively for someone else to handle it. She gave very few details, but she didn’t need to – the whole room (except for me) knew who the key players were and how risky it seemed to talk to the VP involved. I didn’t even ask her which Department, or why her team needed this. But Kelly was obviously sincere about giving her team members a greater role in implementing decisions they saw as important to fulfill the hospital’s mission: health and wellness service quality, affordability, and compassionate care.

“I’d love an update on what you learned, and who you talked with about this,” I wrote, “plus, of course, whether you’re succeeding in getting the budget authority transferred to you.”

Kelly responded promptly, saying, “The day after the program, I scripted out a Closure Conversation and made a request to set up a new agreement. Here’s the 3 things I said”:

  1. “Adam, you were going to transfer my team budget to me by the end of last month, but I don’t see it on my system yet.” (Kelly acknowledging the factual status of the matter)
  2. “I know you are busy with a million things, and I need your expertise in getting this done properly.” (Kelly appreciating the man who is responsible for making budget transfers)
  3. “Please let me know if you can make the transfer before next Wednesday, and whether you need any other information from me or my team members on our plans for implementing the AXIS system.” (Kelly requesting a new timeline for the transfer)

She concluded her email with, “Adam has already created a cost center and will transfer the budget tomorrow morning!”

A week later, she emailed, “I actually have a quite a few other places where I am practicing the use of these conversations. My team is heading into a strategic planning process and yesterday we had a huddle. I started by restating the invitation (my Initiative conversation), then we spent 20 minutes in an Understanding conversation about the steps we needed and how long each one would take. I closed with a Performance conversation, asking them if they will be attending and participating in all three strategic planning sessions we scheduled. Everyone agreed to be in the game. Thanks for your support on all this!”

Thank you, Kelly, for making things happen in your workplace. It’s so much more powerful than being resigned to waiting, or complaining about “other people” who didn’t do what they said. Productive communication doesn’t require authority, influence, or motivation. Amazing what you can accomplish with straight talk, isn’t it?

Is Resistance a Useful Response to Change? Yes and No.

There’s a rumor that people don’t like change, and they resist it. Know anybody who’s resisting something? I just scrolled through Facebook, and there’s a lot of resisting going on there – mostly about some aspect of our political situation. I’m not sure if the solution I used in my management consulting practice is applicable here, but I’ll give it a shot.

When people were resisting an organizational change, I used the Understanding Conversation/Dialogue approach. Mostly it was organized to have people say what their problem was with the change, and to offer solutions or ideas that might remedy that problem. The only rule was that you had to get specific: exactly what does not work for you, why not, and a more workable option for solving your problem. This has been effective in some very difficult mergers, down-sizings, and other complex changes in corporations and government agencies.

I remember the time the Maintenance guys were pushing back against the installation of a new IT system. Their resistance was choking off any hope of getting an upgrade installed that was badly needed in other departments. The Maintenance people got specific.

“That new system is going to restrict how we purchase our equipment for repairing trucks,” one of the Supervisors said.

“Seriously?” the CEO asked me later that morning. “Those guys barely finished high school. They don’t know what an IT system is, much less have the know-how for seeing how it affects their equipment purchases.”

The next day, I brought the IT people in to meet with the Maintenance supervisors and they solved the problem. “We never saw that,” an IT team member said. “I’m glad those guys noticed it, because it would have limited their options for getting what they need to do their jobs.”

The CEO apologized for underestimating the knowledge of his Maintenance team.

But that discussion wasn’t just a bunch of complaints. The participants all got specific, and talked about the details of their problem and what needed attention. If you look at the comments from Facebook, however, you’ll see accusations (he’s an imbecile, they are lying, etc.) and complaints (they don’t care about people) – all generalities with no specifics and no reasonable ideas for solutions.

Maybe I’m just tired of the wasted energy in so many interactions. But could a grownup conversation, sharing different perspectives about what might work, just possibly be effective? For sure, getting stubborn and refusing to cooperate is getting us nowhere. But then, politics isn’t always about making things work, is it? I should know that – we have been watching Season 3 of House of Cards, i.e., a story that focuses on on individual success and relationships with very little integrity.

I’ll go back to ignoring politics and focusing on something I can have an impact on.

 

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

Start 2017 with an enhanced ability to produce results by taking The Four Conversations online course. Specially priced in January for just $29.99 (usually $79.99). Purchase it today.

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part III.  Too Many Goals?

Dear Reggie,

The “discussions” are working. Your people said that you are listening to them in a new way, and that should raise their performance. That was your original goal, wasn’t it?

So here’s the next place to put your attention: your Step 3. I am hearing some confusion among your staff people – it’s different depending on their roles and responsibilities, but I’m drawing a general idea of their concerns. They like the idea of having their assignments paired with clear goals, but I think there may now be now too many goals. My biggest clue was when one of them said, in a joking voice, “Which goal? Pick a goal – we have dozens.”

So now it’s time to take a bigger picture of your whole department, a context for all those goals. Here are two ways I have tried for going about that, and perhaps they could merit another discussion or two with your people:

  • MVP – Mission, Vision, Purpose. Mission is about what your department delivers or provides to others: think missile or, more kindly, missive – what you send out into the world beyond your department borders. Vision is about seeing ahead and having a stated future for your department to move toward. Purpose is about your intention, as in “What’s the point?” Your department has a purpose for existing, an intention to fulfill. There is no magic in these 3 terms, other than their power to get people thinking about what each of their goals contributes to the department’s MVP. If you can draft a statement of the MVP that you and your staff agree is “right on” or even “pretty good”, it can begin give everyone a lift and a sense of operating with more cohesion.
  • GPS – Goals, Performance measures, Schedules. Goals can then be connected to your MVP: each goal should contribute to the big picture. Performance measures can be created for the big-picture MVP as well as for the goals – and the goals can be restated or combined in ways that add up to something worth pursuing. Schedules too can be associated with goals and aligned with the MVP to support departmental and staff planning, changes, and assignments.

The idea here is to integrate the various types of work people are doing under their own individual or team “umbrellas” of Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – and then to have those GPS-umbrellas connect upward to the Mission-Vision-Purpose for the department as a whole.

If a goal doesn’t fit, or is stretching the bounds of your mission or vision, perhaps it’s time to revise it. Conversely, if the MVP needs a little clarification or expansion, talk with people about that too. Your staff wants their work to make sense, maybe even see that it contributes to something greater than the tasks they do. Everyone’s work can be about more than just “getting things done”.

That said, your work on upgrading your management practices is making a difference, Reggie. It is visible in the participation of your staff, and it is audible in the conversations they are having with each other these days. I’m betting performance is improving here.

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.

The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part II 

This is a tale of “hard thinking”. I had a professor in graduate school who sorted his work into two categories. First there was the kind that was interesting and easy, the kind that would “flow” and keep you engaged in doing it. Then there was the kind that took “hard thinking”.

I’ve been faced with some of the hard-thinking sort of work lately. Jeffrey is working on a paper on leadership (can you see my eyes rolling?) and I’m the “second author”, which means that I have to be sure the article makes sense – and maybe even yanks the halo off the leadershi# nonsense that constitutes much of the literature today.

A former client explained to me why making a good request also requires hard thinking. She works in a government department for social services.  “I wanted my team to produce a report”, she explained, “on the pro’s and con’s of investing our time and money to design a system for our Department to communicate with other health and human service agencies and non-government groups in the city.”

The team met her deadline, but the report was useless, she told me. Instead of summarizing the pro’s and con’s on whether to create a better integrated communication network, the team wrote up their assessments of how poorly each agency and group in the city communicated. “Agency X never contacts us when they get a family case involving health issues”, one comment said. The report totally missed the intention of assessing the costs and benefits of better inter-agency communication.

We talked it over until I was able to understand exactly what she wanted – and it took some hard thinking for us both. She realized that her request for the kind of report she wanted was not well understood by the team. The solution? Make a better request. She took my notes with her back to the team, and they are working on clarifying what needs to be in that new report.

Requests can take more time and attention than we think they should – mostly because we don’t want to do the hard work of getting really clear about what we want. She trusted her team’s talent and experience, but without spelling out a clear idea of what is to be produced, talent doesn’t help. I see now why so many managers (and parents?) don’t take the time and trouble to think through what they really want from their employees (and family members): it requires Paying Attention.

We’re so accustomed to doing three things at once that focusing on just one thing seems like an unreasonable demand. But without making good requests, we get whatever the people around us decide to deliver. I’m working on Paying Attention.

The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part I

This is a tale of two mottoes. The motto I used when I worked as a management consultant was “Make it easy for people to do the right thing.” I still remember the day I invented it, after a meeting with a manager who was’t getting what he wanted from his people.

“They don’t know who they need to talk to, either in this department or in other departments,” he complained. “And they turn things in late – sometimes very late.”

I met with three of his Supervisors later that day and asked them about their jobs. I didn’t tell them their boss was dissatisfied with them, just that I wanted to know more about their responsibilities. There was a whiteboard in the room, so I drew a line down the center of it, and labeled one side “What Works” and the other one “What Doesn’t Work” about our jobs.

After they were assured that I wasn’t going to “rat them out”, as one of them said, we filled up those boards pretty quickly. I also got some solution ideas from them about what it would take to solve those “What Doesn’t Work” items.

Sure enough, the two complaints from the boss were part of the supervisors’ problems too. On the list of what didn’t work was (1) We don’t always know who to talk to about our assignments, and (2) There are no clear deadlines for most stuff. They knew the boss was unhappy about them, but didn’t know how to get the information to solve the problem.

OK, boss, tell me why you don’t include the “who to talk to” and the “due dates” in your instructions to Supervisors?

“Because they should know their jobs,” he said. “They’ve been around long enough, and should know who to talk to. And when I assign something, they should turn it around right away.” I heard his motto: “They should know what to do.” It didn’t get him what he wanted, but he seemed stuck with it.

I made up a template for job assignments – a simple form titled “Assignments” – with spaces to write What result was wanted, When it was due, Why it mattered, Who else should be consulted or included in some way, Where those people and other resources were located, and, an extra space in case there were any special instructions on How it should be done. Nothing complicated – ½ page, mostly blank.

I didn’t give it to the boss, I gave it to the Supervisors. Now, every time they get an assignment, they take the template out and ask the boss questions to fill in the blanks. The boss rolls his eyes, but at least now he’s getting what he wants. Plus, the Supervisors are actually learning who to talk to about different projects. And one of the Supervisors got a promotion to management about 5 months later. He said it was because he was good at getting things done.

Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

The Power of Promising: Listener + Do + Due 

There’s this Ugly Chore that has been lingering in my life for way too long now: the 6 boxes of files left from my management consulting career. When you retire from your own business, what do you do with all that stuff? I had a plan: write it up in a bunch of “how-to” articles and make those ideas available to others who might want to put the ideas to use. Now, a year later, everybody I know – family, friends, and neighbors – has surely tired of hearing about this genius plan of mine.

Last week, I thought up a new way to go through those boxes, quickly get rid of what I don’t want, and make little files of a few ideas worth saving for potential articles. I tested it out, and it worked – now I have 1 bag of paper to recycle, 1 empty box, and a few skinny files with article names on them. Yay!

Looking at the other 5 boxes, I had the same old feeling of “I don’t want to”. But I have a work-around to bypass that particular voice in my head. I make a promise to somebody who will want to hear that I was successful. So I told Ray, a former partner in managing a conference, that I would have the remaining 3 client file boxes emptied by the end of this week, and the 2 reference file boxes gone by the end of the week after that. A promise to Ray is nothing to take lightly – he’s a guy who pays attention when someone gives their word. So now I have boxed myself in to finishing the Boxes Project.

Not everybody has a guy like that in their lives, but everybody has someone – a Listener – who will hear to a Do + Due promise. That’s when you make a promise to someone (“Listener”) that you will take an action (“Do), and then also promise a date by when you’ll report back to them on your results (“Due”). For me, it’s a good way to practice honoring my word and exercise my integrity muscle. It’s also a way to get myself into action on something I’ve been putting off.

By February 12th, all 6 of those boxes will be empty, and the recycle truck will get everything that’s just taking up space. Completion is a wonderful thing! So is the power of a promise for action and results with a self-imposed deadline to report on what happened. Even the nastiest tasks will have to bow to that!

Test it out: maybe pick one thing you don’t want to do. Find your Listener, promise what you’ll Do, and promise a Due-date for your follow-through. If you take me up on this, it would be fun it you’d let me know what you learn.