Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Management May Not Be Sexy – But It Really Is Necessary

I went to a conference last weekend and a man asked me what my current #1 project is about. I told I am working on defining what it means to “manage” something and how to do it. I said a little bit more, but then I noticed he was falling asleep. No kidding – he was falling asleep!

OK management isn’t a sexy topic that gets people on the edge of their chairs. But still, it’s everywhere, and when it isn’t done effectively there is a price to pay – sometimes a steep one.

Leadership – now that’s the hot topic in the past several years. Everybody wants to be a leader, and nobody wants to be a manager. I know this only from a sample of MBA students who were asked to choose one of those options. They voted 100% in favor of leadership over management.

Leadership is sexier, because leaders create desirable futures that are attractive and engaging. People are attracted to the positive vision and want to follow the leader toward that future. Who wouldn’t want to be at the head of that parade?

But good management is what gets things done. No vision, however desirable, is realized without management practices like planning, tracking, and reporting. Good management is more than simply being “in charge” of a group of people. It is all about productive communication – like discussing these things:

  • Specifying goals and objectives to create a good road-map to the desired future;
  • Building the calendar for accomplishment, with milestones and celebrations built in as appropriate;
  • Defining the necessary specific results to be produced along the way, complete with tracking systems and due dates;
  • Identifying other key players who will be vital to success; and
  • Agreeing on a meeting schedule and an agenda that will keep things moving forward on schedule, such as (1) refresh the goal commitment; (2) create productive relationships with others who will help produce the intended results; (3) compare the schedule of planned results to the reality of results delivered; and (4) collaborate to resolve problems and barriers along the way.

Management is communication, with an intention to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen by itself. I have heard that there are some people who are not interested in making things happen, so I know they wouldn’t be interested in management. But I never thought a conversation about management would make someone want to take a nap! I think the next time someone asks me what I’m working on, I will tell them that I am the new Director of Communications for the Trump White House. That should keep them awake.

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.

How to Save Time: Make Better Requests to Get Better Promises

Shane, a student in Jeffrey’s management class last semester said he had solved a problem at work: wasted time! He stopped me in the hall at the university yesterday and said, “We reduced the time people spent making unnecessary calls to remind people about what they said they were going to do. Tell your husband thanks for teaching us how to make better requests and get good promises!”

It was funny to me, because Jeffrey and I had just asked a local handyman to repair the downspouts on the side of our house. The guy said he would come over “next week”. By Thursday morning, I was wondering if he was really going to come, and how I could get him to be more specific, so I texted him and reminded him that we were waiting. He didn’t answer, and only arrived on Saturday afternoon. I was annoyed at the lack of response as well as the vagueness of his “promised” time of service.

“Promised” may be a stronger word than he would have used. People don’t always hear that what comes out of their own mouth might be a “promise”. Right now, for example, I have an email in my in-box that was sent to me 2 days ago. It says, “I will get back to you tomorrow.” She hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

Did she make a promise? In my world, yes, she did. In her world, I would guess not. When you say, “I’ll have it for you Tuesday”, do you consider that you’ve made a promise?

What Shane did was take the idea of making good requests and put it into practice with his whole team. His goal was to get more solid agreements, and here is his description of what he did:

  1. First, I proposed the idea of making better requests to all my team members at our Monday meeting. I explained that whenever we ask for something from someone, whether they are on the team or not, we are going to say three things:
    1. Specifics about “What” will be done;
    2. A specific time “When” it will be complete; and
    3. A statement of whatever workplace goal our request supports, i.e., “Why” it matters.
  2. Then I reminded everybody to also specify any information about “Who, Where, and How” that is relevant to their request – or at least discuss those things with the person they are asking to do something. It helps you get the other person’s input to clarify and confirm the importance of the request.
  3. The last thing I told them was that we would keep a list of their requests on a flip-chart in the meeting room. Anyone on the team who requested something from anybody else in the company would write it on the chart, along with the “due date” for completion. And we would review the chart every Monday morning to see how our requests were being fulfilled.

Shane’s approach to getting better performance agreements from people focused only on the request side of the conversation. It was an effective first step. He said the first Monday review of the “Request List” revealed that there had been 35 requests made in the previous week, and over half of them had been completed as expected. “Not bad,” Shane said, “but not great either. Seven people had to follow up with people who hadn’t delivered what they promised. Five people had to reschedule some of their work because they didn’t get what they requested in time to do what they had planned to do.”

“We talked about what was missing in our requests,” Shane said, “and started to understand why we aren’t getting what we ask for 100% of the time. The second week we got much better results. Making clearer requests is a real time-saver – we are getting good promises from people and it has made our work life smoother.”

I never got a “good promise” from that handyman because I didn’t make a good request. I could have explained that I wanted him to come over when Jeffrey would be home to explain the problem. I could have asked for a narrower window of time to come to the house. I could have explained that the house is being sold and the buyer wants to check that all the necessary repairs have been done. Coulda. Didn’t.

Bottom line: making good requests is not just for the workplace. Productive communication works at home too.

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Valentines Day – But What do You Do When You Hate Someone at Work?

A good friend – let’s call her Katy – shared with a group of us the other evening that there’s a woman she works with who is “awful”. She didn’t go into details, but said she was unwilling to even have a conversation with “Cruella” to clean up the bad vibes. And Katy said, “There’s a lot of other people at work who agree with me about her.” Uh oh.

So not only does she dislike this lady, but she is participating in gossip about her, gathering evidence about what a horrid person she is. I don’t know whether Cruella is incompetent, or wacko, or just plain mean, but I do know there is a cycle of misery in that workplace: Katy and the haters aren’t happy, and Cruella can’t be too pleased either. What can turn this cycle around?

Some of us suggested using one of the 4 ingredients in a Closure Conversation, i.e., one of the “4 A’s”:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter;
  • Appreciate them for what they have contributed;
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or
  • Amend any broken agreements.

Katy could probably have used any one of these “A’s”, but I didn’t think she would. She seemed pretty dug into her position that this was a hopelessly unpleasant situation. In fact, she was hoping Cruella would lose her job soon. And she was working on a personal project to “take back her power”, and to get healthier (she had a nasty cough that night). So there.

Then a note landed in my email. It was addressed to everyone who was in the discussion the other night:

All,

Today I took some ground in my “taking back my power” project. I acknowledged the co-worker I told you about for the success of the project she has been managing. Yes, I did go talk to her! I pointed out several specific accomplishments of the project – the number of people reached, the materials and services provided to our community, and the huge impact we are having by delivering on the promises of our mission.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.” But I wouldn’t let her deflect the acknowledgment.  I said, “Yes, and you are the one who managed it.”

She was very guarded when I first approached her, as one would expect, but she was genuinely grateful for the acknowledgement. She said thank you. I will keep looking for other ways to acknowledge her.

Katy

Wow! That’s better than a Valentine, right? I’m betting this will change the atmosphere at work – for Katy, the other gossipers, and, especially, for Cruella. Plus, it probably also improved Katy’s health – is that cough is gone yet?

Gossip is a killer (see the 1/23/2017 blogpost) and damages workplace integrity along with reputations (everybody’s). It was great to see such a perfect example of someone who was swept up in a stab-fest take charge of the cleanup and rehabilitation of those involved. I predict good things here.

Last word from Katy: “Thank you for your much needed “gentle” nudge – aka – kick in the butt.” Last word from me: “That’s what friends are for.”

Lost Productivity: Is the Culprit Social Media or Sloppy Communication?

Productivity is a big deal – the idea is to produce good hourly output at work, especially if you want to get a raise. An article (Why Your Facebook Habit At Work Makes Economists Worry) says that some people want to blame employees who are using social media for the recent drop in productivity. Another theory is that employers aren’t investing in better tools for their personnel. The reason for this is that “there aren’t any game-changing innovations to invest in”.

Seriously? Has anybody noticed that people don’t communicate productively? Recent examples in organizations I’ve been working with:

  • A company policy makes it clear that performance reviews must be updated annually. But in a brief survey of managers asked about performance evaluations, over 60% of them said, “We don’t really do many performance reviews here.” So, you don’t pay regular attention to productivity?
  • Sharon, a new manager, used a long weekend to map out the job responsibilities of her 14 staff members. She spelled out the details, put each “assignment” into a separate document, and emailed it to her people. When they arrived at work on Monday morning, they saw their updated job descriptions in their in-boxes. One of them said to me, “She didn’t even talk to us about this. Some of these tasks are outdated, and she left out other really important things we need to do. This is just stupid.” A lost weekend, and probably some lost trust too.
  • Robin asked Ted to pull together an RFP to get people who will help integrate and upgrade their auditing software. Five days later, Robin asks Ted if it’s done yet. Ted says, “You never said when you wanted it, so I haven’t even started. What is your deadline?” Five days misspent?

Communications that lack follow-through, or don’t include a dialogue with relevant parties, or fail to include timelines for assignments, will be ineffective. It impaired productivity in all three of these cases, and over a long career I have seen many more instances of such bumbling.

What about helping employees learn to communicate more effectively? Like, how to follow through on policy implementation to support people keeping up with corporate commitments. Or how to have a dialogue with other human beings about what is wanted and needed to update their job descriptions.Or how to practice adding “by when” to your requests.

The article ends with something that makes a lot of sense. A long-term answer to boosting productivity is (…drum roll please) better educated workers. I couldn’t agree more.

Personality vs. Communication = Internal vs. In-Between.

Myers-Briggs is the “world’s most widely used personality test” and “the gold standard of psychological assessments”, says a Washington Post article. The article mentions government agencies and corporations that use the test, but then goes on to say that “the test is highly questioned by the scientific community” and that it’s not clear organizations should use it anymore.

Why not use a personality test in organizations? It’s a good way to find out about character traits and behavioral tendencies that might be relevant to improve training programs and group interactions. It’s also part of “talent management”, which includes “everything an organization does to recruit, retain, develop, reward and make people perform” (wikipedia). So what if it’s a money-maker, part of the $50 billion training industry – does that make using it a mistake?

Well, that depends on what you want to accomplish. Personality testing is a good way to let people know that other people operate in different ways, based on different habits and preferences. Just because I’d rather read a book and you’d rather go to a party doesn’t mean we aren’t both competent and capable in our jobs. But it does mean that we will probably prefer different kinds of work and work environments, and that we might disagree on what is most important. That could be good to know.

But personality tests will focus our attention on what’s inside a person’s skin as being the most important phenomenon. It’s interesting – in fact, the internal stuff is so interesting that we don’t always look at what goes on between people: conversations, such as making requests, promises, and agreements. Or giving and receiving, of both products and services. And learning – yes, learning is an in-between phenomenon, not an in-the-mind one. Even attitudes, usually thought of as internal, show up in facial expressions (think Grumpy Cat) and tone of voice that are in-between, sent from one person to another.

The in-between deserves a bit more attention. What we see, say, and hear let us know whether there is integrity in our relationships and our business. If I say I’ll call you on Tuesday, and you don’t hear from me all week, my word isn’t going to be worth much to you the next time we talk. If you tell me you’re going to email me a document but I haven’t received it after 6 days, I might want to notice that we didn’t agree on when you would send it (and that I need to make better agreements). And not just integrity is found in the in-between: accountability and credibility are there too.

So fine, use personality tests to help people see the diverse flavors and behaviors in their working world. But communication is not a personality trait. We might consider using a communication diagnostic to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of productive interaction in our workplaces.

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.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.