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Step #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!

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.

Preventing Change Fatigue: Burnout is Expensive – Communication is Not

When I first met the Supervisors at WaterCo, maintaining water lines in a Midwestern city, I was a “change consultant” hired to help them adapt to new regulations and to improve productivity. Those Supervisors were not happy to meet me: I was a consultant, and female, and they didn’t want anybody to “fix” them. That’s sometimes called “resistance to change”.

But I brought food to our meetings (very helpful!) and used my network approach to understand their work. We made circles and arrows on the whiteboard, identifying all the individuals and groups they interacted with at least once a week. They soon saw their work in a whole new way and forgave me for being a “girl consultant”. We all decided which changes would be most useful, and we implemented them together.

But the most important lesson I learned was why they were so “resistant” at that first meeting. They had been doing change projects – what they called “Churn & Burn” – for three years. One man explained it to me.

“We’ve been doing changes for so long that nobody really knows what their job is anymore,” Hank said. “We used to have routines. Now and then we’d make some improvements or get new equipment we had to learn about. But these days we get a new thing to change all the time, like our work processes, our assignments, or who we can and can’t talk to.”  He rolled his eyes, and I could tell he wasn’t interested in improving productivity – or anything else.

“Let’s look back over the last year,” I said to the whole group at that meeting. “I have 3 questions for you. (1) What was the last big change you guys made? (2) What were the results of that change?  And, (3) What did you do when it was complete?”

They looked at me as if I was talking Martian. Hank finally spoke up, saying, “The biggest change was when our crews were downsized from five men to four,” Hank said. “The result was we started using only one truck for over half our jobs, instead of two. I guess that saved money for the company. I know it saved some time for us, since we could get to our jobs faster. Also, different crew trucks had different equipment, so we went to the jobs that needed only what we were carrying – we didn’t have to take everything to every job site.”

“But it was never complete, never over,” he said. “Or at least they never said anything about that. They just told us to change the crew size, gave us three equipment lists to stock our trucks for different jobs, and went on to the next thing. We do the “Churn & Burn” dance these days – I guess that’s our new job description.”  They explained that the “churn” part of the dance was the endless instruction to modify a process, start or stop doing something, and use new forms for job reports or equipment requests. The “burn” part was that more people were leaving for other jobs – the Supervisors were losing experienced people and spending more time training new hires.

Bottom line: I met with the COO and got the statistics on the results of the change – dollars saved, job backlogs reduced, customer satisfaction improved. Then I asked him to come tell the Supervisors about the value of that last big change, and to thank them for all they did to implement it successfully. Surprise! The men appreciated it, and were able to work with me on ways to improve their productivity. They had ideas for what might work and how to do it!

So, it looks like a genuine “thank you”, supported by a little data, can turn change-resistant people who are doing the “Churn & Burn dance” into a team with a recognized accomplishment: they had made a difference for their company. A closure conversation – reviewing the status of a project with the people involved – goes a long way to curing “change fatigue” and restoring people to action. That COO learned the lesson too. Now he has monthly “change debrief” meetings now, with lots of statistics and lots of thank-you’s.

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

Start 2017 with an enhanced ability to produce results by taking The Four Conversations online course. Specially priced in January for just $29.99 (usually $79.99). Purchase it today.

A Non-Apology is Not a Closure Conversation

A new conversation is now officially open: When is an apology an actual apology? The answer: When it creates a sense of closure for all involved. This week’s most famous non-apology failed that test.

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said. Why isn’t that an apology?

Because he did not say exactly what he was “wrong” about. His statement sort of referred to “whatever” it was that he had said, which he later clarified as “locker room talk”. So he apologized for his locker room talk – is that an apology?

Not yet, because he didn’t say to whom he was apologizing. To the audience? To the people who listened to the tape, or read about it? To all woman-kind? To Americans, for causing an international embarrassment? Not clear.

One other misdemeanor was his follow-up: “That was locker room talk,” he said a few minutes later. “And certainly I’m not proud of it, but that was something that happened.”

Something that happened? There’s no ownership there – it just happened, it’s in the past for heaven’s sake, and that’s that.

There has been some discussion about the need for “contrition” and insistence that the word “sorry” must be included in an apology. I’m not sure we need to see any kind of atonement, or that a certain vocabulary is required.

When you can say exactly what mistake you made, and own it completely that you did it – it didn’t “just happen” – and apologize to those who were affected by it, you can add whatever extras are true for you, including making a promise not to do it again or offering reparations to those who are hurt in some way.

But the basics are:   Apology = For what + To whom + Personal ownership.

“I was wrong and I apologize” isn’t a Closure Conversation because it isn’t enough to create closure. I know that because this non-apology happened several days ago and it’s still making headlines, still moving people from one voting line to the other, and still a topic of discussion at the coffee shop. And I know that because I was just there and I overheard it. Case closed.

Create Space in an Overwhelmed Life: A Recipe

About a month ago I was talking with a friend at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Dana is in her mid-30’s, and she seemed unusually low-energy. She admitted being tired and discouraged about her progress at work and, before long, she noticed she had the same issues at home too. “I can’t get ahead of it,” Dana said.

Naturally, I asked, “Ahead of what?”

“I can’t get ahead of the tasks that keep piling up, and the things I have to do, the people I need to contact, stuff like that. There just isn’t any progress in my job, and when I get home I’m too tired and crabby to get things done there either.”

We talked over coffee, and before I finished my 1st cup, Dana said what she really wanted was to be able to work on her pet project instead of the thousand things that weren’t that important to her. Too much paperwork, too many interruptions, not enough “quality time”. Sound familiar?

Of course, I got talking about closure and completion: What is the unfinished business you’re carrying around with you every day? What do you need to put in the past instead of keeping it in the present?

Halfway through my 2nd cup of coffee, we had made up a homework assignment for Dana to do by the following Friday:

  1. List 3 work tasks and 2 household tasks that you will Stop Doing – including having the conversations with the relevant people to let them know – in a respectful way – that you won’t be doing them anymore.
  2. List 3 email conversations you are going to Close Out – including making it clear to the other person (or group) that you have been able to talk – or work – with them about this subject in the past, and that it is now complete for you and wish them the best going forward.
  3. List 3 relationships that are sort of weighing on you and Clean Up something from the past – maybe something you haven’t asked or said to them – that is still hanging around and making things heavier than you’d like.

It was an interesting conversation. I never used this Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe before, but it evolved as we saw the things that she was tired of dealing with or carrying along throughout her days and evenings.

We talked again this past weekend, and Dana reported her results. Here is her bottom line on the project:

  1. I never knew I could Stop Doing things just by having conversations and being a stand for my own time and energy. I’ve got a new habit here! No more Miss Nice, saying Yes to everything someone asks. This has changed my life.
  2. I did Close Out several conversations – more than three, but not all on email. I had one associate who was complaining to me about her marriage and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that with her anymore. This has been really useful in keeping my energy and sanity.
  3. The Clean Up assignment was hardest, because I hadn’t seen how much I was overlooking in my relationships. Now I’m more real with people about what matters to me, and better at listening to what matters to them.

Hats off to Dana for taking her “assignment” seriously. Maybe you can customize your own Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe to take a load off yourself – I know I will. When overwhelmed or run down, it’s probably a good idea to lighten up. How: we can take just a few minutes to locate some of the baggage we’re carrying and schedule the conversations necessary to get rid of it.

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.

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.

Closure Can Save A Reputation

I have a friend who’s reputation is being damaged by not having a closure conversation.

Jay, the friend of mine, was recently accused of lying by Colleen,.  According to Colleen, Jay agreed to print and assemble materials for a training session on community service.  Since this was something Colleen was used to doing, and was prepared to do this time, she was hesitant to turn it over to Jay.  However, after several phone conversations and emails to get the details worked out, Colleen agreed to let Jay prepare the materials.

A few weeks later, Jay informed Colleen the materials were not getting done because he could not find anyone to do the work.  Shocked by what she was hearing, Colleen reminded Jay of their conversations regarding what would be required and that he had ensured her he would get it done.  To her surprise, Jay denied having made that agreement.

In response, Colleen sent an email to the session organizers informing them of the problem with materials and that Jay was misrepresenting what had happened.  Jay, who was sent the email, replied to Colleen “I am sorry you think I misrepresented things.”

Some of the people who received Colleen’s email know the facts and that Jay did misrepresent what happened.  And, they express their disappointed that he has never tried to clean up the “misunderstanding” with a closure conversation.  As a result, Jay is now known as someone who lies to cover his mistakes – a reputation he could have avoided.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.