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Some Advice from an Effective Change Agent

Shannon, one of Jeffrey’s former students, just sent him an email about our “four conversations” material (https://usingthefourconversations.com/). He also referred to Matt Lemay’s “Product Management in Practice”, and included these two quotes from that book: (1) “the guiding principle for communication is ‘clarity over comfort’…”, and (2) “you cannot fear discomfort – you must actively work through it to get clarity for yourself and your team”.

Shannon said that in his workplace, he often hears people saying, “You need to be able to work within an environment of ambiguity”. This led him to notice that people often prefer ambiguity rather than having what could be a “difficult conversation”. The problem, he says, is that “we end up promoting and recognizing people who passively choose to not seek clarity”.

This reminded me of when I first discovered the idea of creating certainty (in the Landmark Forum https://www.landmarkworldwide.com/). I had always thought certainty was discovered, not created – and that it was discovered by scientists or geniuses, not by mere mortals like me. But then I learned about giving my word – making promises, agreements and commitments – and about integrity, which means keeping my word. Giving my word and keeping my agreements is what creates certainty.

Of COURSE people are reluctant to do that! It’s a little scary, at least until you practice it for a while and discover how useful it is – and how effective it can make you. Shannon is realizing there are people who don’t care about being effective, and it’s true that we aren’t all wired to be interested in that. Plus, it’s often easier to be ambiguous, unclear and uncertain than to commit to something or confront those “difficult conversations”.

But Shannon said that Lemay’s quotes about “clarity over comfort” helped him address the ambiguities that are usually left hanging in some conversations at work. I’m glad he also gave credit to his study and use of the four productive conversations in those situations. In fact, he gave Jeffrey some high praise that I will share with you: “First off, thank you for the awesome class you taught during our Master Black Belt training at OSU. I have actively been applying the principles around conversations and being an effective change agent at my job. We even integrated some of your key topics into our Six Sigma training sessions at the office.

Nice, huh? But I think the realization that may contribute the most to Shannon was in these 34 words of his email: “We rarely see leaders encourage people to create clarity with their peers. Instead, there is more emphasis on “getting along” instead of actually creating productive environments. We shouldn’t settle for ambiguity in the workplace.”  I’m betting that Shannon will use that advice to become a stronger leader himself. Let’s make it easier for people to step up to creating clarity and certainty.

How Reliable are “Expectations” for Getting Good Performance?

Answer: Not very. Why? Because expectations live in your head. If they are not put into a conversation with the person you “expect” will take action, those expectations have no way to get out of your head and into theirs. At least put them on a post-it and hand it to that person. That will increase the likelihood the person will take some action, all the way from 7% up to 24%.

OK, I made those statistics up. But in the past two days, I have heard three different people refer to “expectations” as if such a thing existed and are as real as a sign in the hallway or a billboard along the road – visible, in big bold print, where everyone can’t help but see them, and they know what to do. Here is one of those conversations:

Karyn, the head of an IT project management team, saw her boss in the hallway. He stopped her and said, I want you to gather the data on project performance over the last six months and prepare a report on what you find by the end of this month.” Karyn told him she would do that, and they went their separate ways.

Later that month, Karyn told me her boss was really cross with her because she had not delivered the report. “It wasn’t the end of the month”, she told me. “I thought he wanted me to prepare the report, but I didn’t know he wanted me to deliver it to him! Plus, I really had no idea that for him, the end of the month is really the middle of the month. He must think I am a mind reader.”

Karyn’s boss had “expectations”, thinking that she would know – of course – that “prepare a report” means “prepare a report and bring it to me”, and that she knew he meant the end of the company’s financial month, which was on the 15th of every month. Karyn was bothered by this, and by not seeing any way to tell her boss that he was making assumptions that weren’t valid.

I’m reminded of a former client’s response when I told him that the Marketing Department team was not giving the Customer Service office the information that they needed to keep customers informed about new options for different service packages. I thought he would help me be sure the communications between the two groups was workable for both of them. Instead, he banged his fist on his desktop and shouted, “They should know their jobs!” He apparently didn’t realize that jobs change faster these days due to technology and communication improvements, and that what it says on most people’s “job descriptions” (if they even have them) is usually way out of date.

So, if you have expectations for someone, whether a co-worker or a family member, it will be helpful to explain those expectations to the people you expect to perform in a particular way. If you explain what you want, when you want it and maybe even tell them why you want it that way… AND if they agree to that, then you have an agreement between you. If they don’t volunteer an agreement, ask them if they will agree to do what you ask.

You at least need a clear statement of what you want, and when – plus a “yes”, before you are entitled to have an “expectation”. What’s inside our head is less obvious to others than we think.

 

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

Training for Accountability: First Things First

Erin, a restaurant manager I know, was approached by a complaining customer the other day. Here’s a summary of what she told me about it:

  • Customer: The Servers here never paid any attention to us for over 15 minutes. No one even stopped by to say they would get back to us. Do your people know which tables they are responsible for serving?
  • Erin: Yes – it was really busy. And they are young, and most of them only work part-time. We train them, but they don’t always pay attention.

OK, it sounds like Erin is not listening to her Complaining Customer. But it got worse:

  • Erin continues, “For example, we have been training them how to set the tables properly – the flowers in the center, the salt and pepper on the right side, the sweetener on the left. But still they forget!”

How did Erin veer off into table-setting décor? She was defensive in the face of a complaint, and maybe that impaired her ability to sincerely acknowledge what the customer was saying. I heard the complaint as Servers neglecting their customers or not “owning” their tables. But maybe they don’t have “their” tables – maybe they just pay attention to certain people or locations they prefer.

I remembered putting myself through college as a waitress, when my boss made it very clear which tables I needed to tend to. Whoever sat at “my table” was “my customer”. I never heard much about settings or floral décor, just an emphasis on “clean and neat”. If your training emphasizes where to put the salt shaker, that’s what people will think is most important.

Erin’s job is now to improve her staff’s accountability for customer-oriented results. People can be accountable for the products, services, and communications they deliver – but only if they know exactly what those “deliverables” are. At a restaurant, greeting customers is one deliverable; taking food orders from customer to kitchen is another. Bringing food, checking on customer needs, and clearing dishes – all are results a restaurant Server is accountable for delivering. Ideally, that’s the core of training.

Erin and I talked about this, and at some point, Erin said, “You know, with such slow service I bet that customer didn’t give a hoot about the flowers, or whether the sweeteners were on left or even there at all. I’d better train people on what good customer service looks like.”

Accountability’s middle name is “count”, which is a clue that training people on their work responsibilities needs to be specific. If Erin’s servers don’t “own” their station of 4-7 tables (depending on space arrangements, etc.), then it’s time to invent the idea of “stations”, number the tables, and assign certain table numbers to each Server – and talk about the specifics of serving customers at those tables. That is something everyone can count, and Erin can count on her people to serve customers well.

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

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?

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.