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.

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

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.

Do As I Say! (or, Why We Don’t Get What We Want)

Mostly, the people around you want to please you. OK, there are a few meanies who just want to give you problems and headaches, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people you know really want you to be satisfied. And they want you to be pleased with whatever they give you – whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a communication. The world is not out to make your life difficult. At least most of the time.

So why don’t they give you what you want? Three reasons: pick one.

  1. You didn’t ask. You said, “It would be nice to know what the committee decided”, instead of saying, “Would you check and see what the committee finally voted for?” Or you said, “I wish we had a better plan for getting this complicated job done”, then silently hoped someone would step up and draft a better plan for that job. NOTE: Hinting is not a reliable method for getting what you want.
  2. You weren’t specific. You said, “Please make a restaurant reservation for 7 PM this Friday at Hyde Park”, then were mad when you got there and found out the reservation was for two people instead of five people (even though you think “He should have known”). Or you said, “Please get me a list of all the properties associated with each of our customers”, and were disappointed when she brought you the customer property list on a paper Word document instead of emailing an Excel spreadsheet (even though you’re sure there is an Excel spreadsheet around somewhere). NOTE: Communicate the important details about what, exactly, you want.
  3. You told them what to DO, but not what to DELIVER. “Doing” is an activity. “Delivering” is the act of turning over something after that activity is complete. Not the same thing. You ask Jane to make a phone call and get some specific information on a recent new item in your industry. But… Did you also want her to let you know what she learned? Did you want that information before 5:00 today? Jane can do exactly what you asked her to do and still fail to deliver. NOTE: Delivery is what completes an activity, so spell it out.

Perhaps people actually DO do what we say – we just aren’t good at saying exactly what we want from them. Hinting, being vague, or defining things only in terms of tasks or activities without clarifying the delivery of results – that’s what costs extra time and goodwill in our communications. Each of those errors demands that we make another request, or fix the misunderstanding (wait for a table for 5), or go get the result ourselves instead of having it brought to us at the time we wanted it.

Conversations organize our lives and relationships. It’s worth the bother to give more thought to the specifics of our requests – and what we want delivered back to us – to make everybody happier. Including you.

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.

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”.