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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?

Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

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.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to http://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Attitude Can Cause Blindness and Ignorance

 

After years of saying that a consultant’s job is not to change people’s attitudes, I might need to eat my words. Here’s what I learned from reviewing a Harvard Business Review case: a bad attitude can blind an employee – even a good one – from seeing who to communicate with and who needs certain information.

The issue was that an employee – let’s call him Roger – was appointed to lead a team-building program. The goal was to improve communications between two groups who were not communicating. I’ve seen this happen often in organizations: engineers, maintenance, IT, or operations people just don’t speak the same language, so they just don’t bother trying to communicate. Roger’s assignment was to improve the situation with a team-building program.

Roger was going to keep doing his regular job and do the team-building program too. That meant he’d keep reporting to his regular boss, but for the team-building project he would report to Eileen, who was the VP reporting to the company president about internal improvements.

But Roger didn’t like Eileen: there’s the attitude. So when he started leading the team-building program, and he started hearing from the participants about problems with the company’s processes and equipment, he told them to fix those problems themselves. “Go back to your work areas and use these team-building ideas to solve those problems,” he said.

What he should have also done, of course, is to make a good list of the problems, locations, and people involved, then report all that to Eileen. Instead, he literally ignored her – that’s the ignorance. True, Eileen might not have cared about solving those problems, but she deserved to know. Roger’s lack of respect for Eileen’s competence (i.e., his attitude) kept him from even considering communicating with her. So what do we do about attitude-induced ignorance?

I’d say that when Eileen delegated the training program to Roger, she needed a better agreement with him about what kind of feedback he should provide. She had asked him to keep track of the number of people who attended each session, because she wanted to be able to report that more than 80% of the employees in both units had attended the training. But she hadn’t said anything about what other feedback she would like.

If Eileen had noticed that all human beings come equipped with attitudes and mental roadblocks, she might have requested some useful feedback on how to really improve relations between these two groups. But then again, maybe Eileen had an attitude too. So I will keep supporting people to make clearer, smarter agreements. Working with attitudes is very sticky and it doesn’t cure ignorance.

Unreasonable Request Saves the Class

If you find yourself in a difficult position, make an unreasonable request – you might be surprised by the result.

On Friday, April 13 I received an unreasonable request from a colleague at Benedictine University. He asked if I would come to Benedictine and teach an Executive Ph.D. course on organization change the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  He apologized for the lateness of the request, but explained that due to an accident, the person scheduled to lead the class could not come.

Initially I was surprised at the request given the short notice.  But, after checking my schedule, I realized I could do it and let him know.   And it turned out to be a fabulous time with some really great people.

I share this because I have found there are times such as these when people are faced with making an unreasonable request or giving an apology, and they don’t make the request.  My colleague could have decided there was no real point in asking someone to come since it was unlikely they could on such short notice anyway.  Instead, he could have apologized to the class, explained what happened and, given the short notice, it was not practical to find a substitute; they would have been disappointed, but they would have understood.

But he didn’t do that; he made an unreasonable request.  He asked for a large result in a very short period of time from someone he knows is busy.  He didn’t let his considerations about whether the request would be accepted or not stop him from making it.  And, as it turns out, he got want he wanted.

To Be More Effective, Give Your Boss a Deadline

One way to effectively manage a boss is to give her a deadline when she doesn’t give you one.

One of the complaints I frequently get from managers in my MBA classes is that their bosses rarely say by when they want something done.  Bosses say things like “when you get a chance”, “this week”, or “when you are done with what you are doing.”  Unfortunately, none of these is very specific and each leaves the manager open to criticism for not getting it done when the boss expects it.  As one manager put it, “I am clear of the value of giving a deadline, but my boss doesn’t and if I push him for one, he gets irritated. Any suggestions for what I should do?”

Yes, there is something you can do – give your boss a deadline.  How do you do that?  By telling her by when you will get it to her and ask if that will work.  For example, assume your boss asks something like, “I want you to prepare a summary of regional sales by product line and store and send it to me and all regional managers”, in which she doesn’t say by when she wants it.  You can reply, “Sure, I can have it done and sent out by 3PM this Friday, will that work?”  You have just given your boss a deadline.

Due dates are key ingredients in performance conversations and you can give anyone a due date even when they forget.

To Keep Sponsors, Keep the Agreement

To keep the support of their sponsors, black belts and other specialists will do well to manage the agreements they have with sponsors.

The director of a lean management program recently approached me with a problem he was having with program sponsors prohibiting students from implementing their lean projects at work.  According to the director, each student who enters the program has a sponsor who agrees on the focus and scope of the project the student will do while in the program.  This agreement is worked out before the student enters the program and includes numerous “check off” points so the sponsor knows what is happening throughout.  However, when it is time to actually implement the lean project, 20-30% of the sponsors refuse to proceed.

Initially the program director thought the sponsors might be resistant to change, but I told him I didn’t think that was the issue.  Rather, I told him there was something else going on.  And indeed there was.  As students progress through the program, they see other things that could be done beyond the project they originally agreed to with the sponsor.  However, rather than renegotiate the agreement, the students proceed with developing the larger project.  It is these larger projects that sponsors refuse to implement.

The issue here is not resistance to change, but a failure to honor and manage the agreements among students, sponsors, and the program.  More complete performance and closure conversations will reduce the percent of sponsors who refuse to implement projects.

Be Zealous About Keeping Agreements

Effective performance conversations depend on people keeping their agreements and doing what they said they would do.  Encourage people to respect the idea that keeping agreements matters.

Keeping agreements is the foundation for effective performance conversations.  Every time we say Yes to a request, we have created an agreement with someone.  It might be as simple as agreeing to make reservations for a lunch meeting or as complex as developing a production plan or installing a computer system.  But in any case, we’re on the hook for doing something the minute we nod our head or mutter, “Yeah, okay.”

Those agreements matter. People count on us to do what we say, and if we don’t do it they’ll have a judgment about our reliability that won’t serve us well in the future.  Similarly, we depend on others to do what they say they’ll do. If you’ve ever had to follow up on an undelivered shipment, or an unanswered question, or an unpaid invoice, you know agreements are important to the fabric of life.

We don’t trust people who don’t keep their agreements.  And we lose credibility when we don’t keep ours.  Even if people have a really good explanation for what happened, we’re still left with the consequences of their dropping the ball.

When you are working to keep a promise, any missed agreement is a potential for disaster. To make a timeline, you can’t afford to have people take their promises casually.  A climate of accountability is essential for meeting deadlines and depends on having a positive regard for keeping agreements.

When agreements are broken, be zealous about getting to the bottom of what happened so you can learn what’s needed to avoid similar situations in the future.  It’s another way to honor your promises and strengthen your credibility.