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


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.

Use A Closure Conversation to Gain Credibility

How do you get credibility when you don’t already have it, particularly when you are new to a group?  One way is to use a closure conversation.  One function of a closure conversation is to acknowledge the facts of a situation.  In this case, it is used to let other people know that you know what they know – that you have no credibility.

Kouzes and Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, contend that credibility is the foundation of leadership.  According to them, credibility is a result of doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it.  But this definition creates a problem for anyone who is new to a situation and has no established history of doing what they said they would do when they said they would do it.  What am I suppose to do if I don’t have any credibility with you and yet I need at least some in order for you to listen to what I have to say?

One way to obtain some immediate credibility is to use a closure conversation in which I acknowledge what you already know – that I have no credibility. I could do this by saying something like, “I have something to tell you that you may not believe coming from me since I am new to the group and don’t have any credibility with you.  If I were you, I would probably be skeptical too and so I won’t take it personally if you doubt me. [Then proceed to deliver message.]”.

Making such a statement is both authentic (i.e., I am not pretending I have credibility) and courageous. How many people do you know are willing to admit they have no credibility to a group of people with whom they need credibility?  The result is that people will listen to you, at least for the moment.  Of course, you can only do this once, so you better be sure that what you say is easily and quickly verified.

Tiger’s Apology – A Complete Closure Conversation?

Tiger Wood’s recently addressed the world to apologize for his marital infidelity.  If you watched the apology, you could tell that it was not easy for him.  He was clearly ill at ease, unsure of himself, nervous, and at times, upset.  For someone who values his privacy, this was difficult.

In terms of The Four Conversations, Tiger’s address was a closure conversation.   The primary purpose of closure conversations is to create endings by completing something from the past.  It could be to complete an outstanding promise, it could be to report the status of a project, it could be to acknowledging that you received something that was sent to you, or it could be to own up to something you did, as in Tiger’s case.  Closure conversations, when done completely can be very powerful because they make it possible to “move on”.  When they are done poorly, however, they only add to the mess they are trying to address.

Closure conversations involve 4-A’s, though not all four are used in every conversation: acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.  How did Tiger do on each of these?

Acknowledge the facts, say what’s so.  Tiger clearly acknowledged that he had been unfaithful, that he had cheated.  Although we already knew this, this was the first time Tiger acknowledged the facts, the first time he “came clean”.  What he did not do, however, was acknowledge the extent or degree of his cheating.  How many women had he cheated with?  Were the reports in the press exaggerated, or were they accurate?  By not addressing these, he left questions that will haunt him in the future.  He did not have to provide the sordid details, only acknowledge something about the extent of his affairs.

Appreciate the people.  Tiger was clearly appreciative of and spoke well of his wife Elin and who she has been through all of this.  He was also appreciative of the people who have sent him emails, letters, etc. in support.  What could have made this even more powerful would have been had he appreciated the people who “blew the whistle” on him.  By not doing so, we are left with the impression that had he not been caught, he would have continued doing what he was doing.  If, as he says, he has no one to blame for the shame but himself, then the women who went public did him a service by giving him an opportunity to transform his life.  Not pretty, but a service nevertheless.  It would have been extraordinary for him to do this.

Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings.  This was the whole point of Tiger’s address, to apologize.  He did a good job of saying what he did that was wrong, and what he felt contributed to doing it (“I had worked hard all my life and thought I deserved…”).

Amend broken agreements.  Amending broken agreements begins with recognizing an agreement has been broken and reporting on its breakage to those involved.  Tiger broke agreements with Elin his wife, his sponsors, friends, and fans.  He betrayed their trust and confidence and owned up to having done so.  He also tried to address some of the costs and consequences of breaking these agreements, but I don’t think he came even close to dealing with the true cost.  He did, however, acknowledge that regaining people’s trust would take time and would involve a change in his future behavior.  Finally, amending broken agreements requires committing (promising) to a new future.  Tiger did that by saying he would continue therapy, that he would need help, and that he was promising to be a better person.

Was Tiger successful?  He seemed to have done a good job in terms of having a complete closure conversation.  It seems clear to me that just having the conversation completed things for Tiger and cleared some space for him to move forward, which is the intent of such conversations.  Did he satisfy everyone?  Probably not.

Want More Credibility? Own Up and Apologize

Credibility is essential to being an effective leader.  One of the most powerful ways to build credibility is to own up to something that didn’t work and apologize for it.

When Ed Koch was mayor of New York, he was concerned about the number of accidents resulting from bikers darting in and out of traffic. Determined to solve the problem, he had “bike lanes” painted on the sides of city streets. But instead of making things better, the bike lanes actually made things worse. Drivers, undeterred by the double yellow lines identifying bike lanes, crossed them so frequently that police could not write enough tickets, and accidents involving bikers increased. As a result, Mayor Koch had the bike lanes removed, ending a futile exercise that cost the city millions of dollars.

Plenty of editorial space was given to criticizing the blunder and Koch’s poor judgment. Reporters, looking for blood, sought interviews with the beleaguered mayor. In one television interview he agreed to, which was scheduled to last thirty minutes, the host was armed with a list of questions that were sure to make Koch look bad. The host began by asking, “Mayor Koch, you spent millions of taxpayer dollars to paint those bike lanes only to remove them. That tax money could have gone to valuable social services. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Pausing, Mayor Koch replied, “You’re absolutely right. It was a huge mistake. I made the wrong decision, and I apologize.” The host, stunned by the mayor’s response, gathered herself and proceeded through her list of questions, each of which was an accusation of some kind. To each accusation, Mayor Koch gave a similar response, admitting the mistake and apologizing for it. The interview lasted for only five of the scheduled thirty minutes after which the topic was dropped, never to be raised again.

Mayor Koch’s success in this interview demonstrates the power of what we call Closure Conversations. By acknowledging the facts that New Yorkers already knew—that the bike lanes were an idea that didn’t work—and then apologizing for it, Mayor Koch completely disarmed the issue and brought it to a close. In the process, he restored some of his credibility and the confidence New Yorkers had lost in his stewardship of the city.

Closure Conversations can restore credibility and confidence, reduce resentment, build accomplishment and accountability, add velocity to projects, and increase the engagement of participants and potential participants.  Try them – they work.

[From “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, p. 131-2]

Obama’s State of the Union: More Closure Needed?

The State of the Union address is an opportunity for the President of the United States to inform the Congress, and the American people, his assessment of the state of the union – good, bad, or ugly.  It is an opportunity to acknowledge accomplishments, recognize people for their service and sacrifices, and, where appropriate, make apologies and amend broken agreements.  In short, the State of the Union is a closure conversation.

The purpose of a Closure Conversation is to bring parts of the past to a conclusion, thus making room to start something new or to restart something that has bogged down. Closure Conversations acknowledge the facts, determine what will complete something that is unfinished, and allow people to move ahead. Closure Conversations, can restore credibility and confidence, reduce resentment, build accomplishment and accountability, add velocity, and increase the engagement of participants and potential participants.

Complete Closure Conversations acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.  If you listened to the President’s address, you heard some of each of these “A’s”.  I think, however, he could have gone further, particularly in the area of appreciation, apology, and amending broken agreements.

It takes a big person to appreciate the contribution of those who oppose what he seeks to accomplish.  Leaders and managers rarely sing the praises of those who resist change, even when that resistance actually improves the quality and result of the change.  Lisa Haneberg points to the value of inviting naysayers and critics to engage with your work in her Invite a Challenge and Zoom Forward posting.  It would have been completely disarming for Obama to recognize the Republicans in a positive way.

One of the criticisms of Obama is that he that he has not accepted enough responsibility for how things are currently working (or not) in Washington.  Although he said that his administration has made mistakes, he didn’t really say what they were or specifically apologize for them.  It is one thing to say mistakes were made, it’s another to own up and apologize for them.  Had he been more specific about these, it would have provided more closure.

Finally, there are the promises Obama has made but has not kept even though he appears to have had an opportunity to do so.  Breaking promises is THE key contributor to a loss of credibility and trust unless something is done to repair trust.  The best way to do this is to acknowledge the promises not kept, apologize for not keeping them, and then say what will be done about them in the future.  Although he did recommit to keeping some of the promises not kept, he could have been more explicit and it would have generated more closure.

As far as closure conversations go, Obama’s State of the Union address was very good.  It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he gone further.

No Response Leads to Resentment

A former student of mine sent me the link to a great blog article posted by Fast Company entitled “2010: The Year of Saying ‘I Got It’ “.  The focus of the article, written by Lynette Chiang,  is how companies, as well as individuals, have gotten into the habit of not responding to inquiries – they don’t tell you “I got it”.  Telling people you received what they sent you, or that you got their message, is a closure conversation and it completes something for them.  As the author of the article points out, when we don’t know if the person we are corresponding with received what we sent them, it creates uncertainty, leads to resentment, a loss of trust, and damages your reputation.

Most of us have experiences similar to those reported by Lynette.  I once order some electronic marketing materials online with a “money back guarantee”.  When I downloaded it and found it did give me what I wanted,  I emailed and called the seller – multiple times.  At no time did he respond (sorry, I don’t remember the  seller’s name), so I finally contacted my credit card company, went through their processes, and eventually got my money back. Interestingly, even though I don’t remember the seller, I do remember one of the people who endorsed him (whom I also contacted and who didn’t respond) and I will no longer consider his products either.  Unfortunately, not only do the people who “don’t respond” hurt themselves, they cast a shadow of doubt over everyone else in the business.

But “no response” is not limited just to businesses.  How many people do you send replies to when they send you something important?  How many people tell you when they got the report, the email, the proposal, or any number of other things you invested in providing them?  Is your opinion of them higher or lower as a result?

Telling people “I got it” does not take much.  Telling people “I got it” is a simple closure conversation, but it  makes a world of difference to them and to your reputation.  Tell people “I got it” and see what happens.