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Schedule that Appointment? OK, But First Check Three Things…

After I wrote about putting a promise – an agreement for an appointment, a delivery, etc. – in your schedule, I got an email from my dear friend Josh. He reminded me that scheduling a promise is the same thing as “creating an occasion” for something, and that any promise often involves creating more than just one calendar entry. He said:

Meet Bob at Chipotle at 10:30, is quite simple to think. (Or even forget.) But to actually fulfill it will likely require many actions – each of which will take some duration of time. Working backwards from the actual appointment: Get settled at the table in Chipotle; Walk in the door; Get a place to park; Travel amidst traffic; Pack my papers for the meeting; Shower and dress; Etc. It’s not quite the simple “10:30” to fulfill, but rather many other minutes, nay, hours, to make that “10:30” happen.

He’s right. Even though a lot of those things are already built into to our day – shower and dress, for example – we often forget to identify the specific time required to do the preparatory work associated with a successful promise.

I had an example of this the other day when I met with a former client to discuss the fallout from a project we had done last year to improve communication in her small company. As I left for the meeting, I grabbed the folder from the project, but it never occurred to me to bring copies of all the feedback I had received from her managers over the course of that project. My bad – she wanted to discuss a particular manager and I did not have the specifics on that person’s assessment about his role in the company. I kept my promise to be at the meeting, but generic information was insufficient for a deeper conversation on next steps. We completed the discussion on the phone the next day.

When we make promises, we usually create a good understanding of What we are going to do (go somewhere, do something, or deliver a product or service), When we will do it (before Friday at 3:00, on Tuesday at noon, or by the end of the work week) and Why it matters (to gather ideas about Topic X, get in a golf game before leaving town, or propose a new project for a profitable business deal). NOTE: If you drop out any of these What-When-Why pieces, you have a “hope”, not a promise. Now I can see I was pretty weak on understanding why she wanted the meeting!

But scheduling a promise also requires a good look at the other three “journalist questions”:

  1. Who else has a role in this matter, either before, during, or after the completion of the promise? Does someone else have useful or necessary information, or need to be included in communications? This was the step I omitted – I thought it was an informal meeting, and was too occupied with my own relocation project (we moved!) to consider that she might want to discuss future work with me.
  2. Where will you look to get any resources you need? Where will any resulting products or decisions be delivered? Are there other locations relevant to the occasion? I should have brought all my resources, no matter how bulky.
  3. How will the promise be fulfilled? Think through the steps, the players, and the information to be sure you see all the tasks and actions necessary for successful completion of the promise. I wasn’t looking at fulfilling anything but being there to talk with her.

Scheduling the fulfillment of a promise requires getting clear on what “fulfillment” means. That includes identifying the players, resources and results, and an action plan. If the promise is simple – meet Bob at Chipotle at 10:30 – and that’s all there is too it, then put it on the calendar. But if there is something to be fulfilled at that meeting, then a little more thinking is needed to be responsible for all the other actions that will support a successful outcome.

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.

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.

Integrity and Reliability – They’re Related

A local college teacher called last night and asked if I had another recommendation for a technical support person to help with his Public Speaking class, because the first guy I recommended wasn’t working out. Here’s how that dialogue went…

Me: “What happened to Ed? I thought he was your guy for that?”

Teacher: “Ed is great, but he’s not reliable. I have classes starting again this week, and he was supposed to come to campus yesterday morning to help with the computer setups for the classroom. I have 23 students who will be here tomorrow morning, and I spent all day yesterday – and far into the evening too – trying to get everything ready. He bailed out on me – and asked to reschedule – at the last minute. He doesn’t understand my scheduling situation with classes.”

Me: “I don’t get it. You told me Ed was a high-integrity guy. This is news to me.”

Teacher: “He is high-integrity. I would trust him with my bank account, and with almost anything. He’s totally honest, and does good work. But this is the third time he’s pulled the plug less than an hour before he’s scheduled to be here. His “emergencies” always leave me with a problem, because by the time he notifies me, I’ve already made arrangements that box me in to our agreed schedule, then he goes and changes it!”

The two of us solved the problem – we each looked through our contacts and found a backup person who could come on short notice for future “emergency” help to get computers ready for a class demonstration, in case Ed had to cancel again. But it left me thinking about integrity and reliability. Are they really two different things? An “Integrity Seminar” I took suggests they’re not.

Integrity is not only about being an ethical and good person – it’s about my relationship to my word. If I say I’ll make a pizza for you, or that I’ll be at your place by 5:15, then you can count on me to do that. And if, for any reason, I’m not going to keep one of those “promises”, you can count on me to let you know in advance, and/or to clean up any problems it creates for you when I break my word. It sounds like Ed didn’t realize he was causing the teacher a problem.

I’m sorry that Ed wasn’t reliable enough to gain my teacher friend’s confidence, but at least he called his client to reschedule. I suspect that my friend was partly reacting to how upset his wife was when he didn’t come home for dinner because he was setting up for his class. Still, reliability matters for Ed’s reputation, and he could possibly lose a client. Fortunately, the students didn’t notice any problem: their computers were good to go for the class this morning.

Good Promises Convert Expectations into Agreements

Don’t risk being held to account for things you don’t know about. Take the time to find out what people really expect you to do, and what they expect you to deliver.  If they don’t tell you, ask.  It’s part of getting and giving a good promise and is key to effective performance conversations.

I recently had a conversation with a manager who was disturbed by her inability to meet the expectations of those “higher up” (her term).  They would give her assignments and then, when she would complete them, they would point out something that was missing they expected to be included. Has this ever happened to you? Although it is easy for this manager to blame the “higher ups” for not being clear, she shares some of the responsibility for not finding out what they wanted.  Even when you aren’t given a good request, you can have a performance conversation to convert hidden expectations into clear agreements.

If you look at each of your current assignments, are you confident you are 100% clear about what is expected of you in every case?  Is everyone else involved in the assignment also 100% clear about what you expect of them?  Or are you assuming you’ll figure it out, or they already know?

Assumptions and expectations are “silent standards”. We take a big risk when we assume that everyone knows what to do. If creativity is desirable, it’s fine to give a general direction. But if there are specific creative requirements that matter, you’ll want to get them spelled out.

Take the time to spell things out. What should the final product look like? What are the components? When do they need to be ready? Are there other people who should be involved and if so, who?  Is there a particular method or process that should be used or avoided? What restrictions and specifications apply? Don’t take a chance: assume nothing is obvious.

Remember: everyone associated with an assignment has expectations and assumptions.  Some people expect you to ask for their advice, others want to be kept informed, and some only want to be involved in an emergency.  And, they expect you to operate according to these expectations even if you don’t know them!  Ask people to take time with you to spell out their expectations.  Yes, you have to ask.

Sometimes people are afraid to ask because it might make them look less competent or capable, or they don’t want to deal with an unpleasant reaction.  One way around this is to say something like “I want to be sure you get exactly what you want and in order to do that, I want to be sure I understand the assignment clearly.  I don’t want to complete it only to find out there is something missing that you wanted included.  Could we take a few more minutes to clarify some things?” It is better to risk some potential discomfort upfront than it is to risk damaging your reputation by not delivering what people expect.

Getting clear creates a common ground in that both of you know what is expected.  This has the effect of turning an expectation into an agreement and gives you (and them) the opportunity to say whether you can or cannot do what they ask – a key for any good promise. If something new comes up later, you can always say, “I didn’t agree to that, but I’m willing to consider it.”  What you want to avoid is having to say, “I didn’t know you needed that,” or, “I thought this is what you wanted”.

Reduce your risk by taking time to unspoken expectations into clear agreements that everyone can see and understand.  Move ambiguous requests into good promises by clarifying expectations.