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.

Time Management – No Excuses

I just finished reading Brian Tracy’s “No Excuses” book about self-discipline in lots of areas of life. Actually I read it twice, marking the margins for points that applied to my current situation of Do-Due-Overwhelm, then going back to pick a place to start making changes. I liked one exercise in particular – “The Law of Three”.

The first instruction: Make a list of all the things you do in a week or a month – write everything, large and small.

Wow – it was way easier than I expected. I just took my calendar for a month and made a list of the number and type of appointments, lunch meetings, social occasions, and other things I’ve scheduled. Then I looked at my Do-Due List (actually lists: I confess to using post-its for added clutter), groaned a minute, and added those items to the list too.

It was a mess, so I started to clean it up. Some things were duplicates, just using different words. Some things were never going to get done until other things were finished, so I lumped those together into one group and sequenced them. Best of all was when I separated one item into two: my category of “Well-being appointments” included Pilates, yoga classes, haircuts, and facials. Hmmm. Maybe the workout items don’t really belong in the same category as beauty treatments?

I probably spent an hour scraping the barnacles off my “What I Do Every Month” list, then shifted over to scheduling tasks and playing around to see how they might fit into my life. Result: I’m not overwhelmed. I just needed to get clear on what matters to me, then figure out the best time to do those things in the course of a week or a month. This morning I went downstairs to spend some time on the treadmill (which beats walking in the snow, by the way). It’s the first time I’ve used that treadmill in over a year!

I never did get to the Rule of Three, where you pick the things that contribute 90% of value to you or your business. The setup was the value – seeing what I really do, and saying it more clearly changed my conversation about several things. Especially about workouts: they work to create energy, which you can’t really say for a haircut or facial.

Reading a self-help book now and then is a great way to get some new vocabulary and perspective on both daily humdrum and overwhelm. Changing your conversation also changes perspective, which changes circumstances and relationships. Oh the power of talk!

PS: If you want to read Brian Tracy’s book, you’d better hurry. It’s on the Sale shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Want Something in 2016? Get Specific.

I remember many years ago telling my boss that I was frustrated with my work, and that what I really wanted to do with my life was to travel and to write. He had the perfect response.

“You already do that,” he said. “You commute almost 20 miles each way to work every day, and you write up analyses and reports on client problems and solutions. Congratulations! You have reached your goal!”

That’s the first time I realized that I would need to be more specific about what I wanted. General categories like “travel”, or clichés like “be successful” simply do not create a path to a desirable future – and they can be fulfilled by commuting to a job or getting a pat on the back.

I thought of that again a little while ago, when I remembered saying that I was going to create a “Writing Life”. I was frustrated with the stack of “distractions” on my desktop and in my email in-box: PowerPoints to be written up for a presentation I’m giving; a promotion to write up for one of our online products; a request to write a reference letter for a friend; notes to friends who sent me holiday cards; revising a section of my husband’s academic paper on leadership – etc. etc. etc.

It’s all writing, right? Is this what the Writing Life looks like? It isn’t what I had hoped.

We think it’s easy to make promises to do or deliver something, or to make requests for resources or support. But when we are not specific about exactly what we want, when we want it, and why it matters, we can’t have a Performance Conversation. When we are not specific about who to communicate with, where we are going, or how we want to get there, we can’t have an Understanding Conversation.  What we have is a wish.

I was not creating a clear destination, nor committing to a path and process for the Writing Life. I was wishing.

So now I’m going to spend some time getting clearer about what I mean by a “Writing Life”. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I would add that the unintentional life isn’t worth much either. Serendipity is fine, but it’s not a substitute for aiming, steering, or directing – those things require specifics.

I would rather “lead” my life than to drift with the current, so it’s time to get specific about the future I intend to create. Many thanks to that boss for his wise words that have lasted so many years!

Give Your 2016 Goals a Little “Infrastructure” for Success

Happy New Year! Looking at some examples of New Year resolutions on the internet, I see a lot of good ideas for how to have a terrific year. Some of them focus on only one topic: health, or money, or relationships, for example. Others focus on combinations of those, or on less personal goals for accomplishing something in an organization or a community. They’re all good.

But most of those ideas for 2016 goals will not include one thing that will increase the probability of success. If you can get even a little bit more specific about the communications that can support your success, you just might give yourself a win. Take the example of the three types of resolutions the internet tells us are the most popular:

  1. Lose ten (or more) pounds;
  2. Make more money; and/or
  3. Improve my relationship with a family member.

#1. In order to lose weight, I’ll probably have to alter my diet and exercise habits. So who do I need to talk with in order to make those changes? Will my spouse or roommate(s) be affected in any way? If so, what do I need to ask of them, or do for them, to make my diet and exercise changes work in my real life?

#2. To make more money, I’ll need to get a raise, or a new job or additional work responsibilities. What are the conversations that will make this happen, and with whom? My boss? An employment service? Marketing and sales support?

#3. What’s missing in that family relationship, and what conversations need to be stopped, changed, or started? What do I want them to say or do differently, and what could I say or do that would help that happen?

Whatever your goal(s), give some thought to the productive conversations that could give you a boost in reality instead of hoping your “resolution” will do all the work. The quick recipe for implementing your resolutions is sketching out your “effectiveness plan” for productive communication:

  • What is the current situation in this matter? How are things happening right now? What works well the way it is now, and what needs to change to work better for accomplishing my goals?
  • Who else plays a role in this? Who is – or might be – affected or influenced in the process of me getting what I want?
  • Who could help me or hinder me? What do I want from them that would increase the likelihood of my success? What might they want from me?

Then, the communications:

Initiative Conversation: Share your goal – what it is, by when you want it, and why it is important to you.

Understanding Conversation: Tell them how it relates to them, and ask for their feedback. Listen to their input, ideas, and critiques – this is likely to be useful information to help you adjust your game.

Performance Conversation: Make the requests for whatever will support you in reaching the goal. Make the promises you think might be useful to them and to you in moving ahead. Create an agreement – including specific times – to stay in touch and continue developing your progress into the future.

Closure Conversation: Report back on how things are going. Be honest about successes and failures and be appreciative about their participation in this dialogue. Refresh your agreements or cancel some of them when appropriate.

Giving thought to the communication aspect of achieving your goals is a way to recognize that goals are not achieved by one individual alone. Similarly, a change in one aspect of your life will likely impact other parts of your life. You can prepare to reach your goal(s) by looking at what connects your life’s many dimensions: communication. Then design your communications to give structure and support to your success.

Big Change, Part III: Em-Powerment

Matthew, the CEO of the company that is closing a regional office and laying off 11 staff members, talked with the HR manager. Her name was Emmeline, and everyone called her Em. She is tall, smart, and lovely, and she knows her business.

When I told her I wished she had been at the first Executive Team meeting, she rolled her eyes. “I know,” Em said. “They don’t think about HR until it’s sometimes too late. I’m glad Matt came right back here and brought me into the picture.”

She looked accustomed to being left out of the Big Cheese discussions, but didn’t appear unsettled about it. She showed me her list of tasks and timelines: Contact the attorney; Plan the agenda for the regional office announcements; Review the employment longevity for each person who would be laid off; etc. She knew what to do.

I saw Em in her first meeting with the Executive Team. She mostly stayed quiet, occasionally reminding someone of a legal requirement or a way to support people in transitioning from one situation to another. Afterward, we talked about her one new role: educating the other executives. She could not assume they would know – or remember – what to do in a transition like this. She would strengthen her productive communication as a way to be heard above the stress of the situation over the next few months:

  • Initiative conversations: Remind people that one key purpose is to support the whole workforce of people who are in a difficult situation, including considering security, privacy, and respect. And mention this at every Executive Team meeting – even Big Cheeses can lose sight of the big picture.
  • Understanding conversations: For every problem that Em will observe, anywhere in the workforce, she will either solve it on the spot, get help from her partners on the Executive Team, or bring it to the weekly meeting and ask for ideas. She’s not going to be the Lone Ranger here – everybody needs to contribute their best.
  • Performance conversations: Em will make requests for assistance, and will press for agreements from her Executive peers, and from workforce supervisors and staff, for what they will do and by when it will be done. She’s going for impeccability on agreements throughout the transition.
  • Closure conversations: She will have lots of these, including: (1) Bring a report to every weekly meeting, updating the facts of what’s happening in the workplace regarding the transition; (2) Say “thank you” easily and often, to everyone, and be appreciative of every conversation and contribution of support. (3) Take responsibility wherever possible, never blaming “other people” for their decisions or actions. (4) Update agreements as needed with other executives, and with workforce personnel as appropriate in every conversation.

Em is taking on deepening her own personal and professional power in this matter. As an HR manager, she is going to be an important engine to have this transition go well. They are lucky to have her.

Big Change, Part II: Expanding the Executive Team

Four weary senior executives came home from their 2-day “huddle” with a decision to close a regional office and eliminate 11 jobs in their company – the only solution they could find to solve the problems identified by a recent financial audit. The decision to decision to “outsource” the company’s marketing and communications responsibilities was daunting on several fronts.

“It’s worse than just restructuring,” Matthew, the CEO, said. “We will be losing people who are good people, good workers, good talent. It’s sad, and we will have to learn how to manage contracted firms to get the work done. It will be cheaper, but I wish we didn’t have to take this road.”

All 4 executive decision-makers were apprehensive about how to bring the company’s other 7 managers on board with their plan. One of those managers would lose all 11 of the staff members, but all of them would face changes in their job responsibilities. And all of them would feel bad about bringing this kind of news to a team that had worked together for many years.

What pattern of conversations is going to have everyone move forward? The newly defined “Executive Team” went to work (with a bit of facilitation assistance).

  • Closure conversation: A summary of the financial audit was presented to give everyone the facts of the situation. There was very little discussion about this, as they all knew that expenses had been greater than revenue for quite a while.
  • Initiative conversation: Matthew announced the decision to close the Dayton office, eliminate the jobs of 11 marketing and communication personnel, and bring in a private firm specializing in those functions. There was silence for a bit, then questions, then a break for lunch. Not everyone was interested in eating.
  • Understanding conversation: How can we make this announcement about the office closing, tell staff they’re being laid off, support new employment opportunities for 11 people, solicit bids for marketing firms to take over the necessary functions, terminate the employees, and bring on a new firm? The discussion took all afternoon and the next morning. It produced a list of tasks, results, and timelines for what was needed over the next 6 months.
  • Performance conversation: Who will do what, and when? Each task needed an owner or “point person” as well as a partner or two on the Executive Team. This increased the “reality factor”, as one participant said, and the specifics about each task, result, and timeline were adjusted accordingly.
  • Closure conversation: We have decided what to do. We will keep this confidential until we make the announcement to the staff in Dayton and the other staff being terminated. We each have our own tasks and timelines, and we will have Executive Team meetings once a week to stay on the same page and update our progress.

The Operations executive noticed something as everyone was packing their briefcases to leave for the day. “You know,” he said, “I have been so focused on the logistics of this change that I forgot to invite one person to attend these meetings. I didn’t ask the HR person to be here. I’ll bring her on board tomorrow when we’re back in the office.”

Uh oh. More on that later.

Big Change, Part I: Conversations for Possibility

A client organization has received a daunting financial audit: they’re losing money and must act quickly to save the company. I met with Matthew, the CEO, to discuss the way forward. He said, “My top 3 executives and I went into a 2-day “huddle” to review the audit report and talk about what we should do. On day 1, we had lots of ideas, threw some out, and kept some for later. On day 2, we reviewed what was left and made a big decision.”

That 2-day discussion is called a “conversation for possibility”, and in this case, it was completed by making an agreement for action. The conversation for possibility looked like this:

  • Initiative conversation: Let’s restructure the organization. We could combine these two departments, change those job titles, and update the responsibilities for all the mid-level employees.
  • Understanding conversation:
    • That would require relocating Chuck’s people in the Dayton office, and we don’t have room for them here.
    • I have space in the Rogers Road facility. But I’m pretty sure the department manager wouldn’t want to relocate: His kids are in school in Dayton.
    • So we could keep Chuck in Dayton, and have that part of his staff move to Rogers Road, then give Chuck the HR section along with his communications staff responsibilities.
    • Yes, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of our money-drain.

This is what it sounded like at the beginning of those two days – aren’t you glad you weren’t there?

At the end of the Initiative and Understanding conversations, they came to a decision: they would close the Dayton office altogether, “outsource” the marketing and communications functions in all offices, and redefine remaining jobs as needed. A tough call.

Conversations for possibility are made up of Initiative and Understanding conversations, and are intended to explore both what is possible, and the effects or impacts of each option proposed. They don’t always end in a decision or agreement, but in this case, they did.

“There were a few tears shed,” Matthew told me. “But we have to be responsible for the organization as a whole, and help people with the adjustments. And we have to get the other top managers in the company on board with this decision.”

That’s when they called for help with implementation. More on that later.

Accountability is Not Authority

 

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”. “They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem.

Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. When I asked him how he would know if his people were “accountable for their results”, he said, “They would report results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. Howard didn’t specify exactly what results he thinks they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does he expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires both Performance and Closure Conversations. With no clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. With no clear management request for a schedule to report on those results, there is no accountability. With no employee reports – feedback to the manager on what was actually produced – there is no accountability. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report.

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, which is only a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. That will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted “They should know their jobs”, and refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting, or have employees update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.” Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

Agreements for Change

Last night was the final class on “Leadership and Implementing Change”, and graduate students reported the most valuable things they learned. Their #1 tip – Make agreements, track agreements, and follow up on agreements.

Each student had done a semester-long project to define and implement a change in their workplace, applying the latest class lessons to the project every week. Their reports showed some changes were successful and some were not, what worked best, and what they needed to get better at doing.

The most popular idea was about agreements. If you don’t make agreements, they said, then you don’t have any clarity or certainty about what will happen or when it will be done. If you don’t track those agreements, you will forget about them and fail to follow up. And if you don’t follow up, you will “lose credibility”, as one student said. “People will think you don’t really care about whether anyone actually does what they promised to do,” she explained.

They also noticed they were not very skilled at creating agreements. One person said, “I am usually too casual about asking people to do things. I say “if you want to do this” or “maybe you could get that for me”, which isn’t a good request. And it doesn’t set up a good agreement.”

No clear agreements create unreliable results. “Without agreements, it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” another student said. “If you don’t care about making a change, don’t bother talking about it.”

Their recommendations: Start with a clear intention. Refine it in conversations with people who can assist you. Make solid agreements for people to take actions. Keep track and follow up on all promises. A useful recipe for implementing change.

Productive Communication: Your Best Goal-Getting Tool

I just looked up “management communication” to see how it is described in the world today. I’m a woman with an undergrad degree in Psychology, and two grad degrees in Engineering, and I admit to being horrified.

The American Management Association has a communication training on “Getting Results Without Authority”, subtitled “How do you influence other people who don’t work for you to get the results you need?” It covers:

  1. Personal power: Your source of influence and authority over others, independent of the position you hold (based on theories from psychology and sociology);
  2. Reciprocity: Your ability to behave in a friendly manner to build positive relationships that will encourage others to do things for you (from social psychology);
  3. Personal style in relationships: Your responses to psychology quizzes about whether you are secure, anxious, dismissive, fearful, dependent, etc.;
  4. Persuasion: Your ability to change other people’s attitudes or behaviors by sharing information, feelings, and/or reasoning with them.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your ability to bring about a peaceful ending to a conflict (negative and non-productive interaction) between other individuals or groups;
  6. Negotiation: Your ability to facilitate dialogues that craft outcomes satisfying various interests.
  7. Action plans: Your ability to outline the actions needed to reach a specified goal.

Interesting. I might want to Google some of those things and take the quizzes just for the fun of it. And certainly a few skills in building positive relationships and making good plans are valuable in every area of life.

But, as the authors of “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, we’re really simple. We see four productive conversations to have at work – and we have tested them with people who are managers as well as people who have no authority whatsoever. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Talk about your goal(s) – what you want, when you want it, and why it matters – with other people who could be involved in accomplishing it. Have those conversations frequently.
  2. Have dialogues with others to find and clarify ideas about how you could achieve the goals, who else could be involved, and where you could make connections for resources and results.
  3. Get people in action (yourself included). Make clear requests for what you want, and when and why. Make good promises to deliver results to others so they can support your objectives. Create agreements with people for making things happen on time and on budget.
  4. Clean things up regularly. Update the facts about progress toward the goal and revise plans accordingly. Thank people when they’re great, or even just for showing up, and don’t be shy about holding them to account. That means reminding people to deliver what they promised or to revoke their promise so you can stop waiting for them. Apologize when other people are inconvenienced, or when you see either a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding that could slow down progress toward the goal.

That’s it. Have each of those 4 conversations on a regular basis, in whatever sequence is needed to keep things moving toward goal success. Productive communication is simple talk to propose specific goals, engage people in planning, and boost them into action with good agreements for What-When-Why something will happen. Then you have a regularly scheduled “status check” to get everyone updated, appreciated, and refreshed for the next steps toward the goal.

So if I want to reliably get results – including with people over whom I have no authority – I could learn to propose ideas, discuss them with others, make requests, and track progress. That’s my plan: I’ll keep practicing The Four Conversations.