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.

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.

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.

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

No Closure, No Accomplishment

A normally upbeat and productive guy was suddenly downcast and discouraged yesterday morning. I went in to see Chuck and talk about progress on his most important project – implementing an employee development program – and he wasn’t even interested anymore. Wow.

“This project doesn’t matter,” he said. “I thought it would make a huge difference in the whole department, and get people working together in a new way, being more productive and satisfied. Nope. Nobody cares.”

That led us into talking about who he thinks should care about this, and how he knows they don’t. That’s when I found out about the department meeting two days ago. On Monday, two bosses in the organization – both VPs – had attended the department meeting in Chuck’s area. When Chuck presented an update on his Team Building project – progress, participation, and on-time project performance – all the statistics were looking good.

“But the Veeps didn’t ask anything about it, and didn’t even seem like they thought it was a good idea,” Chuck said. “My boss didn’t speak up for it either. I’m tired of busting my butt on things that don’t make any difference.”

I’ve been a management consultant my whole career. That means as soon as I’m done talking with Chuck, I can zip over to those two VPs and have a chat about this project and the importance of speaking up for it. So I did that. I saw Chuck later that afternoon, and he’d regained some energy.

“I got a call from one of those Veeps,” he told me. “She asked how long my project had been going on, and seemed surprised it was such a new idea and was already showing good results. Then she asked me to come and talk with her team at their next meeting, because they might want to do something like that in their division.”

His energy was coming back. All it took was for him to have a sense of the value of this thing, and when nobody bothered to have even a quick Debrief-and-Thanks conversation, the air went out of his enthusiasm. Closure conversations are the most necessary conversations in any relationship – at work or at home. Acknowledge the facts – that’s the debrief part. Appreciate the people – that’s the thanks part. And it can be useful to dust out any crumbs of discontent too, by adding the other 2 pieces: apologize for anything that’s been left swept under a rug, and update any old expectations from the past so they fit well with today’s reality.

Closure conversations can restore a sense of accomplishment and resuscitate a neglected project. Sometimes a little Thank You, laced with some appreciation of the facts in the matter, makes a big difference.

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.

Getting Other People to Do Stuff

A recent review of manager comments on their workplace communication was very revealing: they didn’t get the idea of dialogue. Two-way talking was not recognized as a tool for getting things done on time and on budget. Here are two samples of their management “conversations” for getting people to perform:

  • “I think we need to get these customer responses reviewed and organized, then prepare a plan for how to improve our customer service and support processes.”
  • “Let’s identify what we need to do in order to improve our in-house communications, and then we can prioritize the ideas and start solving the issues one at a time.”

Neither one of these statements – and they are statements, not conversations – should give the manager any confidence that something will get done, much less with any urgency. An “Initiative Conversation” is simply a proposal for a good idea. Both of those statements qualify as proposals. But a proposal may not get anything into action, much less produce a result.

That’s why the next step would be an “Understanding Conversation” – a dialogue that gives the other people involved a chance to talk about the proposal. They can contribute ideas and clarify the specifics and expectations for actions and results. They can have a conversation to develop the proposal, including timelines and connections to other projects, in a way that increases the odds of success. Managers who seek input from others are much more effective in having their proposals move toward action.

Going a step further, “Performance Conversations” actually produce the action. The manager launches the dialogue to clarify which people will do the specific tasks and produce specific results. This dialogue is a tool for clarifying assignments: Who will do What + by When it will be performed + Why it matters. That sets up the possibility of people being accountable for keeping their agreements to perform.

Initiative conversations are a good start, but no manager can count on getting reliable results by just proposing a “good idea”. If we practice engaging other people in dialogues that build alignment on specifics and agreements for action, we are more likely to be successful in making something happen.

Back to School: Reduce Office Communication Problems

Here’s some feedback from people who just found out about solving the biggest issues in their office communication:

  • We took you up on your idea to find out about the communication issues underneath our department’s problems, and found that the category for “Poor Quality Work” was our biggest concern. We are putting your recommendations to work, reminding people about our department goals, talking to clarify the quality standards for what we want our products and documents to look like, and making better agreements for each assignment. After just 2 meetings where we added these conversations, our Quality issue is much reduced – so we’re going to tackle the 2nd-highest problem next!
  •  The boss thought our problems were caused by personality issues. But now we have proof that it’s time to upgrade communication. Thanks for just giving us just the group scores – we liked the seeing the totals and the averages on each of those 56 questions. It gave us individual confidentiality plus probably softened the Cranky Lady’s score too.
  • Wow – we didn’t know we had such a problem with “Lateness”! But we see it now – we didn’t have good deadlines for our assignments, and most of our projects went beyond the scheduled time and budget. We’ve been getting better at specifying due-dates for things instead of saying “ASAP” or “It’s a priority”. Thank you very much!

Our Workplace Communication Assessment for groups is available now – just go to the regular page where you can take the Workplace Assessment for yourself – http://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2/ – and read the instructions. When you get to the “PS”, you’ll see that you can also arrange to have a profile done that summarizes responses from your whole group or department. Just click on that email and you’ll get the information on how to do it.

We’re betting you will appreciate getting your group involved in improving communication with just a few easy and simple steps to reduce recurring workplace problems. Much quicker than sending everyone back to school.