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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!

Step #4 – The Results Are In: What to Tackle First?

After 97% of StateOrg’s staff completed their “workplace issues” survey, Rodd sent out emails to all personnel and attaching the results for all five Regions. Everybody was going to see everything about what people said about all eight categories of workplace annoyances:

  1. Lateness of assignments, projects, or people;
  2. Poor quality work and clarity of work standards;
  3. Difficult people;
  4. Lack of teamwork, collaboration and coordination;
  5. Poor planning and workload overwhelm;
  6. Insufficient resources, support, and training;
  7. Lack of accountability; and
  8. Incomplete communications.

He also instructed everyone to pay the most attention to the top-ranked issues in their own Regional Office, telling them, “These survey results show us the different types of non-productive situations you see around us all. When I come to your office next week, we’ll talk about the ones that are the biggest headaches in your Region.”

Rodd also attached a copy of the five Recommendations Reports for each Region’s survey – again, everything to everybody. But he encouraged people to focus on the recommendations for their own Region, so they could get the idea of resolving these issues by changing their conversations with other people, in their own office as well as in other StateOrg groups.

When made his one-day visits with each Regional Office, Rodd asked the attendees to tell him the top three issues and he wrote those on the whiteboard. “That should keep our attention on improving these issues”, he said.

Then he reviewed all four “productive conversations”, giving people a handout that summarized the basics of each one. This opened the discussion of how all four conversations occurred in each office, either internally or with people in other Regions and other agencies or community organizations.  They saw their daily communication in a new light, as well as where its strengths and weaknesses were.

Then Rodd asked, “Which one conversation – out of these four – is the one that each of you thinks you’re already pretty good at having? Everybody, choose one conversation.” He had people raise their hand as he read out each of the four conversations: Initiative proposals, Understanding dialogues, Performance requests and promises, and Closure completion of projects and agreements. Then he had people get into sub-groups, one for each of those conversations, to talk about how their conversation could be applied in the office. The discussion was lively, with people writing notes and ideas on the flip-charts around the room.

At the end of the session, Rodd gave them an assignment: “Keep your groups going in your Region, and put your insights to work on those “Top Three” situations in your workplace. It’s time to make those disappear!”

He closed the meeting by announcing an upcoming all-staff meeting at the State Capitol in the near future. “This should be a fun gathering,” he told them. “All five Regions getting together in the same room! We are going to take on communicating better and improving our coordination and collaboration across all the Regions. I know it sounds either impossible or like really hard work, but I promise to provide a really good lunch.”  Everybody laughed – they had enjoyed a good afternoon.

Each “conversation group” took away their flip-chart notes, agreeing to keep working on collecting new ways of communicating in various situations and testing them out every day. Rodd was pleased to see that people were energized and, as one staffer said, “We’re finally going to clean up our language!”

Step #3 – Using Conversations to Solve Workplace Problems

After Rodd filled out his own free Personal Workplace Communication Assessment, he received a Results & Recommendations (R&R) Report with suggestions for improving the biggest problem he saw: a lack of accountability. Those suggestions, summarized in Step #2, “Using Conversations to Improve Accountability”, moved him to invite all of his staff to take the survey and get their own Regional R&R Report based on responses from their own people. Maybe then they would all see the problem and work together to get it fixed!

Rodd decided to subscribe to the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment – because he wanted to have different Reports for each of his five Regional Offices, and might want to have follow-up surveys over time. He had talked about this survey idea at his last All-Staff meeting, and people sounded interested and willing to do it, so he was confident there would be a good response. He sent out the invitations to take the survey with a distinct link for each Regional Office’s personnel.

Out of 75 staff members, 70 completed the survey. To Rodd’s surprise, the five R&R Reports showed that the five Regional Offices really did see different worlds. And they didn’t all see “lack of accountability” as the biggest problem. But then, after studying the five Reports, he was intrigued to see the different patterns of responses, and figured that working on those differences as a group would help the Regions get better acquainted and begin standardizing StateOrg procedures and communications. (He was right about that!)

Rodd also made up a list of the “Non-Problems” – the items that got the lowest number of votes overall. “That’s the good news”, he told me. “I want them to see our real strengths before we talk about the problems and solutions. His plan was threefold: (1) Send the “Good News” email listing the strengths, or “Non-Problems”, of State Org to all 75 people on Thursday; (2) Send all five R&R Reports to everyone the following Monday; and (3) Schedule a one-day visit with each Regional Office the following week, to discuss their unique “Biggest Problems” and their ideas for improvement.

It was a smart thing to do – people responded well to hearing that this wasn’t all about problems and complaints. And, since each person had received their own individual survey feedback report and recommendations, they were already talking about the idea of using conversations to solve workplace problems. You can see Rodd’s Step #3 (out of 6 steps) here: Step #3 – Group Workplace Invitations & Results.

Step #2 – Choosing an Assessment to Identify Biggest Workplace Problems

We’ve received a wave of inquiries about practicing productive communication techniques to resolve workplace problems. Since last week’s post of Step #1 in a 6-step process used by Rodd, a former client (see Step#1 blogpost), it seems people recognize the need to repair a “fractured organization”. The idea of using 4 distinct kinds of conversation to get a group on track might be catching on – perhaps my retirement years will be well spent letting people know about this!

Rodd’s first introduction to using productive communication was the free Personal Communication Assessment – only 20 questions – to see how his own skills stacked up in this area. He got prompt feedback on his answers, showing him his strengths and his weaknesses. Then, he kept exploring by taking the free Workplace Communication Assessment – this time, 56 questions. Again, he got immediate feedback on 8 types of workplace problems in StateOrg (our name for his organization).  The report validated what Rodd saw as the biggest problem: a lack of accountability.  Even better, it gave him a recipe for how to use all four productive conversations to solve that problem.

First, though, Rodd thought about having all his staff take one of the Group Assessments so he could get an even stronger validation on that “biggest workplace problem”.  He only had to decide which Group Assessment he should get:

Rodd thought if everyone recognized that there was a “lack of accountability”, they would surely work together to solve it.  He also felt that getting feedback from everyone in all five regions would be a good way for them to experience themselves as part of one organization instead of five separate outposts. He was right about that part.

You can see the links to all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s second step is here, including the ideas he had for how to put the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment to good use in having his five-regions work together in a more coordinated way. (For a little more on the mess he was dealing with, see Step#1 blogpost.)

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.

Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

Management May Not Be Sexy – But It Really Is Necessary

I went to a conference last weekend and a man asked me what my current #1 project is about. I told I am working on defining what it means to “manage” something and how to do it. I said a little bit more, but then I noticed he was falling asleep. No kidding – he was falling asleep!

OK management isn’t a sexy topic that gets people on the edge of their chairs. But still, it’s everywhere, and when it isn’t done effectively there is a price to pay – sometimes a steep one.

Leadership – now that’s the hot topic in the past several years. Everybody wants to be a leader, and nobody wants to be a manager. I know this only from a sample of MBA students who were asked to choose one of those options. They voted 100% in favor of leadership over management.

Leadership is sexier, because leaders create desirable futures that are attractive and engaging. People are attracted to the positive vision and want to follow the leader toward that future. Who wouldn’t want to be at the head of that parade?

But good management is what gets things done. No vision, however desirable, is realized without management practices like planning, tracking, and reporting. Good management is more than simply being “in charge” of a group of people. It is all about productive communication – like discussing these things:

  • Specifying goals and objectives to create a good road-map to the desired future;
  • Building the calendar for accomplishment, with milestones and celebrations built in as appropriate;
  • Defining the necessary specific results to be produced along the way, complete with tracking systems and due dates;
  • Identifying other key players who will be vital to success; and
  • Agreeing on a meeting schedule and an agenda that will keep things moving forward on schedule, such as (1) refresh the goal commitment; (2) create productive relationships with others who will help produce the intended results; (3) compare the schedule of planned results to the reality of results delivered; and (4) collaborate to resolve problems and barriers along the way.

Management is communication, with an intention to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen by itself. I have heard that there are some people who are not interested in making things happen, so I know they wouldn’t be interested in management. But I never thought a conversation about management would make someone want to take a nap! I think the next time someone asks me what I’m working on, I will tell them that I am the new Director of Communications for the Trump White House. That should keep them awake.

Ring Out the Old. Ring in the New.

Three people have now told me they are clearing out quite a few “unnecessaries” from their Outlook contacts and Facebook friends list. Interestingly, they have all attributed this purging to the “changing times”, especially visible in the last few months. I didn’t pick up any signs that this downsizing of friends and acquaintances is a product of fear or anger. A few quotes from these conversations suggest they are interested in making more substantive changes in the quality of their lives:

  • “My in-box had too much politics and disagreement for me,” Dan reported. “I have real work to do, plus I have a couple of charity projects that matter to me. Some of the emails I’ve been getting are asking me to join protests or movements that I don’t have time for. And frankly, some of them seem just mean or self-righteous. Count me out – I don’t want to be that kind of person!”
  • “I was caught up in getting a bigger set of friends,” Eva said. “I thought having a large Facebook group would show that I was popular and had influence. But I don’t like what I am seeing on my Home-feed page, where everybody who is in my circle gets to post their thoughts. Some of their comments embarrass me, and I don’t want my real friends to think those people speak for me.”
  • “All the turbulence in this last election cycle has been ugly,” Kim told me. “I just feel it’s time to do some housekeeping and clean up my circles of friends, associates, and acquaintances. If I delete the connections to people who are doing the most whining, criticizing, or arguing, it will make room for something new in my life. Like maybe, more positive conversations and more personal peace.”

Perhaps a little “un-friending” can be useful, to rearrange who we interact with and to give ourselves a more purposefully designed set of relationships.

Another friend mentioned that he was changing the media he reads. “I found an article that included a Media Quality Chart,” Alex said, “and when I clicked on the chart, I studied it for about 15 minutes. Then I decided it was time to update the kind of media I was looking at every day. I want a bigger picture of what’s happening. I want to know what is true and what is fake. And I don’t want so much drama in my life – the sob stories and fear-based news headlines are confusing and can be exhausting.”

It sounds like some advice I got from a wardrobe consultant once: “If you want a new silk jacket, you sometimes have to toss out an old polyester one.” Embarrassingly, she also took a suede shirt of mine out of my closet, held it up high in front of me and said, very slowly and deliberately, “This is not where you are going.”

There’s a kernel of truth in those ideas. It’s okay to get rid of things – and relationships – that no longer reflect who we want to be or where we want to go. Eliminating what we do not need might just create a space for something more true to our commitments and aspirations. Bring in the new!

That Difficult Client Talk – Part II. What does “Discussion” Mean?

Dear Reggie,

First the good news, this time. Two of your staff members reported to me that they are excited about having clearer agreements for their work. I have reason to believe there are other people noticing a difference in the way you are giving assignments now. That’s great!

Now, for Step 2 on your path to being a better manager: After your staff meeting this morning, several people stayed behind to give me a suggestion. They want you and me to “have more discussion about having discussions”. I suspect there are things they want to say to you that they don’t know how to say, or perhaps they don’t know whether you will want to hear.

Discussion – dialogue – is at the heart of what we call an “understanding conversation”. That doesn’t mean you will have them understand something. It also means they will want to have you understand a few things too. So, a few more points:

  • Your staff members – technicians, programmers, and customer service people – often have a closer and more direct knowledge of what is happening in the details of their daily work than you do. When you tell them you want them to change the way they are doing a particular task, like the way they test a new system on a customer’s site, they expect to have a voice. They want to tell you about the situation they face with that customer when they are on their site. And they deserve to have you include their perspective in any new task definition.
  • Have a discussion about How & Why: How can we do this – and why does it matter? How will the changes affect our current tasks and responsibilities? How can we anticipate any new demands on our resources and skill sets?
  • Then have a discussion about Who & What: Who else is likely to be involved in reaching our objective – and what do they want? Who will talk with them about this – and what will they say? (Note: you may have to assist your people by making introductions to some higher-ups they need to contact).
  • Have a discussion about Where & When: Where will the resources come from – and when do we need them? Where will the benefits show up – and when will we see them? Where and when should we try this first, in order to develop our skills with the least risk?

The idea is that both sides have something to say. But even more important, both sides also have to listen, and to update their thinking and speaking as needed. That way, everyone’s opinion is respected for the knowledge, experience, and commitment they bring to the table; and everyone gets a good “understanding” of what is involved in accomplishing the objective.

Bottom line: it means you would be willing to learn something every time you meet with them – even when you’d really rather just tell them what to do.

Super-vision: It All Depends on Communication

Most of us are supervising something or other much of the time. To “supervise” means to “oversee” something, and most of us oversee about a million things every day, like our credit card balances, household and office chores, and email in-boxes.

Supervising is a way of paying attention to three things at once. We frequently give our attention to:

  1. Some kind of goal or concern, like making sure we can make a deadline, that our clothes fit properly, or whether the dog has fleas.
  2. Other people around us or associated with the matter, whether they are nearby – in our home or workplace – or if they are remote, reachable by phone or email. Are they competent? Do they look busy? Are they in a good mood, or still crabby from what happened yesterday?
  3. The environment we’re in – Are phones ringing and people talking? Do we have access to wi-fi? How long will it take to get someplace during rush hour? And what is it that smells so bad?

We’re on some level of alert most of our waking hours. But none of that mental activity is visible. All we can reliably see or hear is communication.

I watched this mother duck supervising her babies last weekend. She may have been thinking, planning, or worrying, but all I could see was the way she let those babies know they needed to stick close to her. She also let several much larger Canada geese know to keep their distance. And she clearly let me know that if I came any closer with my camera she would take those babies off to the other side of the pond.

Too often we live inside our heads, listening to our million thoughts and feelings instead of putting our attention on whatever communication might connect us to our goals, to other people, and to our environment. So here’s a couple of communication tips for reaching whatever goals you have at the moment:

  • Ask for what you want. Find someone who can help you resolve a problem or take a step forward, and ask for what you want.
  • Clean up things with people who matter to you. Say what’s happening with you, ask what’s happening with them, and be generous in your listening and your speaking.
  • Talk with someone about trying something new and different, or taking some project or activity in a new direction. Add some zest to your life by inviting someone to step outside your boundaries with you.

FYI, Mrs. Duck Supervisor sends you her best regards. And, I’m sure, she advises you to adopt her family management practices too.