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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.

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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”.

To Keep Sponsors, Keep the Agreement

To keep the support of their sponsors, black belts and other specialists will do well to manage the agreements they have with sponsors.

The director of a lean management program recently approached me with a problem he was having with program sponsors prohibiting students from implementing their lean projects at work.  According to the director, each student who enters the program has a sponsor who agrees on the focus and scope of the project the student will do while in the program.  This agreement is worked out before the student enters the program and includes numerous “check off” points so the sponsor knows what is happening throughout.  However, when it is time to actually implement the lean project, 20-30% of the sponsors refuse to proceed.

Initially the program director thought the sponsors might be resistant to change, but I told him I didn’t think that was the issue.  Rather, I told him there was something else going on.  And indeed there was.  As students progress through the program, they see other things that could be done beyond the project they originally agreed to with the sponsor.  However, rather than renegotiate the agreement, the students proceed with developing the larger project.  It is these larger projects that sponsors refuse to implement.

The issue here is not resistance to change, but a failure to honor and manage the agreements among students, sponsors, and the program.  More complete performance and closure conversations will reduce the percent of sponsors who refuse to implement projects.

Closure Conversation Saves Dog and Home

Closure conversations are one of the most powerful conversations you can use.  I want to share an email from a former MBA student that illustrates just what impact a closure conversation can have.  She writes:

Professor Ford,

I had to write to you and let you know I had the most incredible closure conversation today.  Yesterday, I found out that apparently, our dog is on the “restricted dog breed” list for our apartment complex.  I was given two options; get rid of the dog in 2 weeks, or move out by January 1st, and pay an additional $1,500 in lease buyout fees (our lease didn’t expire until June).

I decided I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I went this morning to talk with the property manager.  I asked if she had some time to speak with me, which she did, and then I told her I had just a couple of questions for her first, and then I wanted to say a couple of things regarding the current situation. I acknowledged the issue, appreciated that she was simply abiding by the rules and regulations set forth by corporate, and apologized for my fault in the matter; not letting the office know when we got the dog, and failing to pay the fees that come as part of owning a pet on the premises.  I offered to amend it, if I could; paying back fees due to the complex, even offering to pay a penalty, if they saw fit, for my negligence.  I told her my request was to stay until the end of our lease in June, and keep the dog.  The manager was very receptive to me, and promised to do what she could; she would state my case to coporate, but couldn’t promise me anything, as cases like mine in recent history had ultimately been forced to get rid of their pet or move.

I received a phone call an hour and a half later.  Corporate agreed to let us stay until June, with the dog, pending no complaints from any of our neighbors.  They gave us until June 30th to pay the back fees due as a result of having the dog since December of 2009.

I have always thought I understood closure conversations in theory; to actually have one, to put the elements into conscious practice…I understand it could have gone either way, but I do believe this conversation saved our dog and our home.

Thank you for teaching me something that is more than just an interesting concept. Have a great weekend

Jen

Pretty cool huh?

What Happens When Promises Aren’t Kept?

All of us have failed to keep a promise we made to someone.  It might have been we forgot to make a call, failed to get something done on time, or only did part of what we said we would.  And even though we may have a good reason for breaking our promise, there are consequences nevertheless.  Among these are:

  1. People get upset.  Although most of us don’t like dealing with upset people, the fact is they have a right to be upset.  After all, they counted on us to do something and we didn’t do it.  Being upset is perfectly understandable.
  2. We lose credibility.  Credibility results from doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it.  Even if we have a really good excuse, every time we fail to keep a promise, our credibility suffers.
  3. We lose trust.  When we fail to keep our promises, people see us as less trustworthy.  Even if we think we are completely trustworthy, others may not share that opinion if we fail to keep our promises.
  4. We can lose affinity.  People stop liking us as much.  Sure, our close friends will still like us if we don’t keep our promises, but others may not.  Like it or not, people make decisions about how they will treat us based on whether they like us.

There are no doubt other costs , but these are among the primary ones.  How many of these can you afford?

One way to reduce these costs is to have a Closure Conversation in which you (1) acknowledge you did not keep your promise, (2) recognize it had an impact on the person to whom you made it, (3) apologize for the mess you have created, and (4) offer whatever assistance you can to clean it up.  Such a Closure Conversation might look something like this:

“I promised that I would have the data to you today by 3 and I have not done that.  I know you were going to use the information in a report that is due at 5 and that my failure to have the data puts you in a tight spot.  I apologize for the problem I have created and if there is anything I can do to help you now, please let me know and I will do it.”

Closure Conversations don’t make everything better, but they can sure help.  Next time you fail to keep a promise, no matter how big or small, try having a Closure Conversation with the person.