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.

Do Leaders Focus on Results or People?

A while back (December 2013), the Harvard Business Review had an article on the subject of leaders and results-focus vs. people-focus. The verdict is you need to focus on both results and people. But we knew that, right? The trick is figuring out how to do that.

How you do that is in communications – more specifically, by using productive conversations. But we knew that too, didn’t we?

For a focus on results, build your strengths in using Performance conversations. Practice making effective requests and promises, and then use those to establish good agreements with people for what each of you will do or produce.

For a focus on people, improve your ability to have Understanding conversations. Practice having dialogues where you ask other people for input about a particular task or project, and use the feedback to revise the task or project goals, measures, and responsibilities. Hint: it requires listening and validating their responses by using them.

To strengthen both of these focuses, practice gaining mastery in Closure conversations:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter – what were the agreements you both made for results and timelines, and what actually happened?
  • Appreciate the people – what do they bring to the project that you see is particularly valuable?
  • Apologize for mistakes or misunderstandings – take responsibility for things that were left unclear or didn’t work for some reason.
  • Amend broken agreements – clean up the past, including what didn’t work, and make fresh agreements that you have confidence will work now.

The mysteries of leadership and management are not solved by listing the traits and characteristics you need. The solution is in practicing ways of doing the things that have been demonstrated to be effective. Saying “focus on results” or “focus on people” (or both) is not enough. We need to practice the conversations that will produce the focus we need.

To see the HBR article, go to https://hbr.org/2013/12/should-leaders-focus-on-results-or-on-people/

On Getting What You Want

The hardest thing about getting what you want is the problem of deciding what, exactly, you really do want. If the Lamp Genie offered you one wish, what would it be? Over 70% of people would ask for some time to think about it – which probably means they are living a pretty good life already. The almost-30% group would answer quickly, usually because they have some kind of emergency or are in dire need of something important (like food, shelter, and other basic resources).

But once you do know what you want, how do you get it? A friend recently told me this story as he drove off to a week-long getaway (he was talking to me on his car-phone):

“I wanted my girlfriend to support me in taking a solo summer trip to a quiet cabin by a lake. The place is a long day’s drive away from where we live, and I knew she would rather have me stay home with her. So I explained that I needed the “alone time” to clear my head and make some decisions about work, and that I would only be gone for a week and would bring back a nice surprise for her. Then I took her out to dinner at our favorite place. This softened her up and she helped me pack my stuff so I could leave early this morning. Now all I have to do is figure out what kind of “surprise” I need to bring her.”

This poor guy might need a few lessons in Straight Talk. He reminded me of a quote by Albert Camus: “Charm is a way of getting the answer ‘Yes’ without asking a clear question.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to just propose the idea (an Initiative conversation), discuss the ways it would alter their daily household routines (an Understanding conversation), then make a clear request (a Performance conversation)? Seriously, it’s not hard to say, “Would you please support me in taking a 1-week trip to the cabin so I can have some quiet time alone?”

But charm has its advantages, being softer-edged and less confrontational. It got him the answer he wanted. Now all he needs is a brainstorm idea for the gift he promised in order to close the deal when he gets home. Without that, he could join the 30% who need to put out a fire in their life.

#1 Most Useful Meeting Topic: The Debrief

The most powerful part of a good team or project meeting is the “debrief”. There’s no better way to take the pulse of a group’s productivity and effectiveness than to ask these two key debrief questions:

  1. With regard to your job assignments, what is working well?
  2. What is not working well?

When your team members take time to consider “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?”, they come to the meeting prepared to find out about where their job responsibilities may need an upgrade. This is pure gold – it bypasses the “problem-solving” blather that usually eats up meeting time and goes straight to the heart of the matter: Where are the successes? And what isn’t working?

There are three underlying causes of “What’s Not Working” for department or project team members:

  1. Lack of clarity on results to be produced. Mostly our work assignments emphasize what we need to do, and not so much on what results we need to produce. Team members can get lost in doing – and slow down the entire endeavor.
  2. Lack of awareness of outside requirements or constraints. Team members who don’t know about external rules or conditions that need attention can leave out important connections or communications with other departments or outside organizations and agencies. This can cost the whole project unplanned time or resources.
  3. Lack of coordination. If my assignment somehow affects your results, we need to talk. The word “coordinate” comes from the Latin for “begin together “– another way of saying “Get on the same page.” It’s the hardest thing to manage because it’s invisible: everybody can see the people and the work, but nobody can see the connections unless they are spelled out in debrief meetings. Then, it’s best to write them down as part of a task-list for future team members.

Opening up these “cans of worms” in a debrief conversation – also known as the first part of a Closure Conversation where you “acknowledge the facts” – is valuable because it moves everyone into an Understanding dialogue about what is missing from some aspect of their shared project or goals. Clarity, awareness, and coordination go missing on a regular basis, so ask the “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?” questions at least once a week.

PS – To find out what’s working in your department or project, take the free assessment.

Workplace Communication & Resistance to Change

The program last week was based on the responses of a 50+ person group that took our Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on www.usingthefourconversations.com). The #1 issue for managers – and #2 for staff – sounded familiar.  They all agreed on this:

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

This complaint is often associated with workforce discouragement, where managers and staff no longer even try to do anything about gaining a say in a change proposal. Then we hear the popular criticism of “Change for the sake of change”, and everyone rolls their eyes when they hear another one coming. What to do?

  1. Initiative conversation. When introducing a change, link it to a mission, goal, or objective. Every change needs a context that is clearly stated and easy to recognize as something important and worthwhile.
  2. Understanding conversations. Schedule one or more dialogue meetings with the people whose work will be affected by the change and the people who will be implementing the change. NOTE: That’s a dialogue, not an announcement or a speech. The people whose work will be affected will tell you why the change will never work. That’s exactly what you want! Here’s how to conduct those dialogues:
    1. Write down each specific reason for “Why It Won’t Work” on a whiteboard or a computer screen that everyone in each dialogue can see.
    2. Keep adding to the list with every dialogue, and letting everyone see the growing list. Encourage them to make revisions, clarify the items, and add to the list.
    3. After everyone has weighed in, send out the finished list and ask people to rank the items from 10 – “The Real Reason It Won’t Work”, down to 1 – “A Possible But Unlikely Reason It Won’t Work”.
    4. Post the new rankings of “Reasons It Will Never Work” in a place where everyone can see it, along with this question: “If we work together to handle each of these items, can we make this change work?”
  3. Performance conversations. Make a request to everyone who participated in the “Why It Won’t Work” dialogues. Ask, “Who is willing to take on some of the tasks of either implementing the change or resolving those barriers on the list?” Make agreements with those who are willing to come on board, and don’t be mad at the others who are holding back for a while longer.
  4. Closure conversations. Start having regular “Change Implementation” meetings to review the necessary tasks, assignments, and agreements with other groups to make the change happen. Check things off task and barrier lists, say Thank You a lot, and keep your list of assignments, deliverables, and agreements up to date. Then go back to Step 1 and re-introduce the change; Step 2 to talk about what needs attention now that things are underway; and Step 3, inviting others to step in to adopting a task or process.

We humans are so funny. We want to keep things the same. And we want to be part of changing things. Resistance is fun – and so is the game of making things work. Help people join the game.

Organization Change: Uncertainty is Predictable

Guess what? Things are going to change! What a big surprise that seems to be in some organizations. But I just met with a group of managers who are almost always preparing for change.  I told them that one of the most frequent questions I get from managers is, “How do we retain knowledge from people who are leaving due to retirement or taking new jobs?”  They laughed at me.

“We are always preparing for the day people leave,” one woman told me. “Most of our people in key jobs spend at least 3 hours a month mentoring at least one partner in how to do their most important tasks. The bonus is that when they pair up like that, they usually find a faster or easier way to do the job, so work keeps getting smarter.”

Those dialogues are valuable for many reasons, the group explained. It doesn’t just get one task to be performed more efficiently – it lets more people know what other people are doing. So they get to see a bigger picture of the work in each department. “The more people know about what we do here, the better they can coordinate on a daily basis, and the more prepared we are to change things when we need to do that,” another manager said.

This group took a class on “Dealing with Uncertainty” recently. The conclusion at least some of them came to was that uncertainty is predictable. A senior manager explained, “We keep refining our work practices and systems because we never know when we will face a big change that we can’t control. We have to stay ready and flexible.”

Keep the inter-job dialogues going, whether formally or informally, they recommend. They all agreed on another thing: “We predict that things are going to change.”

What Dialogue is Worth

Not naming names, but somebody in our town just lost her job because she didn’t know how to conduct a productive dialogue with the people who work for her. She stayed on her very high horse at the top of the hierarchy, and held dialogues only with those in the layers directly above and beneath her. The people who were two or three layers below her were out of luck.

A dialogue isn’t just two people (or groups, or layers) talking to each other. It includes listening – on both sides. If I am really listening to you as you give me your ideas and feedback on something that I’m interested in, then I’m probably going to take your thoughts into account. I might change the way I state my goal or objective, or add your suggestions into the “How-To” list, or the schedule, or the list of resource people to include. In other words, I’d probably treat your input as something valuable that would help me make the plan of action better and smarter.

This lady didn’t do that. Why? Because she’s the boss, that’s why. If she includes input from those (lower-down) other people in her plans and initiatives, it will look like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Or so I’ve heard it explained. One high-level boss told me that if he asked for input from people too far down the ladder, they would think he wasn’t a very well-informed boss. “We use surveys when we need to know something from them. If I have to ask them, they would see me as weak and lose respect for me.”

Actually, it works the other way. Listening and honoring the input you get from people who will be affected by your plans – at all levels – is a good way to increase respect all around. Plus, it gets you a better plan, even if you only use a fraction of their input. Plus, they are much less likely to stage a revolution and throw you out of your job. Bye, bye, lady.

The Worst Thing About Performance Improvement

I did a survey in one organization. The two places most managers wanted performance improvements were (1) communication, and (2) accountability. OK, no surprise there. Better communication and more accountability would make a manager’s life easier, right?

But 6 months later, guess what they hated most… Communication about accountability.

Dave, a mid-level manager, said on the comments section of the survey, “I hate dealing with people’s excuses for why they didn’t do what they said. There’s always some justification, but it’s really just a story about where they stopped and who else is to blame.”

Sharon wrote, “I don’t want to try the accountability thing anymore. People just give explanations for why they couldn’t do it. They’re creative, but it’s annoying to deal with their buck-passing.”

So the worst thing about improving performance was dealing with people’s excuses about why they weren’t performing.

One manager, Carole, found a solution. “I took my people at their word when they told me that other people were messing us up. We started meeting with key people in other units. We explained our objectives to them. We told them about our deadlines and what we needed from them – and why it was important. After that, when we asked for things from them, they were on board with us. We’re meeting our group targets now.”

Using the excuses as feedback on the quality of relationships gave Carole a reason to reach out and strengthen those relationships. A little closure conversation plus some understanding conversations and voila! Performance conversations (requests + promises = agreements) gained more muscle – and excuses for failures were no longer necessary.

Interesting – talking to people who are messing up your life can actually be a useful thing to do.

Is Your Dialogue Really a Monologue?

Karrie swears she is getting – and using – input from her people to make decisions. “The teachers and principals said they wanted these changes, so I approved them,” she insists. Karrie is a School Superintendent, with 8 School Principals reporting to her.

One teacher disagreed, saying “We never had a voice in the changes or their timing. It takes a lot of work to change courses and we should have planned this together.”

Karrie genuinely believes her decisions were the result of a dialogue, but another teacher said, “All we heard was the decision.” “She had a monologue, listening only to herself.”

Understanding Conversations are dialogues –listening is a key part of that. If we want other people to be engaged in making something happen, we need to tell them 3 things:

  1. The goal (What),
  2. The timeline (When), and
  3. The value (Why).

Then we need to ask 3 questions:

  1. Is there a better way to state the goal, timeline, or value?
  2. What are your ideas about how we could reach that goal by that time?
  3. Who or what else should be involved to reach that goal?

Then listen. Use people’s ideas and answers to help rephrase the goal so it’s more understandable and attractive. Collect good ideas on how to proceed. Without that, we cannot really claim to have had a dialogue.

Karrie had had a coffee-meeting with 2 of her Superintendents and assumed they represented their teachers, bypassing the dialogue. Now she’s got a problem.

Quit Motivating Me!

We did a survey of about 25 managers, and one of the biggest problems they reported was “Getting people motivated, keeping them motivated, and/or having them motivated in the right direction”.

Have you ever had anyone try to motivate you? Don’t you hate that? It’s more like a manipulation than any kind of inspiration or encouragement. This points to a failing of many managers: they don’t see themselves as responsible for keeping up the energy of the workplace. They have too many meetings that drag on too long, or they don’t “close out” assignments and projects on the due date, or they assume that everyone understands – and remembers – the goals and objectives of the department regardless of what has been going on in their lives.

Just because somebody isn’t doing what you want them to do doesn’t mean they aren’t “motivated”. There are probably about a dozen other things that are more likely:

  • They are disorganized in managing their work and feel overwhelmed with mess and loose ends.
  • They are not good at scheduling their tasks and commitments and feel “behind” all the time.
  • They are already at their productive max and just wish you would stop asking them to do things.

None of those problems is going to be solved by “motivation”. People sometimes need assistance in getting a better grip on their workload by learning ways to be more productive –office tidiness and scheduling habits need an upgrade now and then.

We know a manager who has had good results holding an Office Cleanup Day once every quarter. He gets get everyone cleaning out their file drawers and email in-boxes, and has them make up a fresh “Do-Due List” of everything they really need to address within the next two weeks. He’s done it for the past 5quarters and claims everybody is more awake, interested, and productive than they used to be.

One other replacement for “motivation” is to make sure people are very clear about what they need to do, how soon it should be done, and why doing it would be more important than doing some of the other things on their desk. The What-When-Why rule of productive communication is usually a better strategy than trying to make someone “feel” a certain way, such as motivated, engaged, or committed. A straight request is: “Here’s What I want, When I want it, and Why it matters. Are you available to do that?”

Of course, it’s good to add some humanity to it by tailoring your request to whatever already-existing relationship you have. If you can connect on a more personal level, you won’t be mistaken for a robot – and it’s okay to dress your request up a little as long as you’re genuine about it. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can reach into my mind and “motivate” me.