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Manager Tip: Clarify What You Really Want in Every Work Request

One job of a manager is to ask, invite, or demand that other people “do their work”. But people understand the word “work” in three different ways. You may be asking that I “do” something, like you want me to put the appropriate data into a spreadsheet for analysis. That’s not the same as getting something “done”, which is when you tell me to get that spreadsheet finished. And it also doesn’t mean “delivered”, which would be you asking me to send the finished product over to you by close of business today.

When you want something from me, it is important to clarify: Do you want me to work on something? Or produce something? Or bring it to you or someone else? Do – Done – Delivered: do you want to keep me busy, or finish something, or turn my final result over to somebody? Or maybe all three?

Good work typically generates a specific product, service, or communication that calls for all three: to be produced, completed, and delivered to someone who will use it and/or value it. The best way to produce results – to perform well – is to focus on those “deliverables”.

A focus on deliverables, sometimes called “Do-Dues”, requires giving attention to the desired outcome(s) – the products, services, and communications to be provided to another individual or group. Deliverable results always have:

  1. Specific characteristics such as production processes, amounts, formats, and other attributes or qualities,
  2. A producer/sender and a user/receiver,
  3. A due date and time it will be sent or received, and
  4. Some value or benefit that will serve others.

Both the work-requester and the Doer-Deliverer should clarify – and agree on – these four aspects of what a “good result” will look like.

If you want to improve someone’s “performance”, don’t focus on what they should do. Start by being clear on the specifications, requirements, and conditions for what will be sent and received, to and from others. This seemingly small shift in attention – from what people are doing to the outcome of what they do – is actually very useful. If you add the information of who will receive it and why it matters to them, you have added value to people’s “doing-work” and to the result it produces. Magically, their “work performance” will improve too.

 

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.

Create Certainty for Yourself and Others – Start Saying “By When”

I just read an article about “time” in The Economist. It was in the business section, so I expected it would say something about managers setting due dates for assignments (or not) – maybe in the context of high performance or something like that.

Nope. It was about whether “long-term strategizing” or “following mega-trends” would help businesses be more competitive in the marketplace. Their conclusion was interesting: “Too much emphasis on the distant future is a waste of time.” OK, amen to that.

But, that is a 10,000-foot view of time. Admittedly, it is a valuable perspective, but I’d like to see more discussion about workplace communication at the 1000-foot level. And even the 100-foot level. I’ve had more than a few examples recently of people leaving a “time” commitment out of their interactions, such as:

  • The colleague who answers my email requests for his conference presentation materials by saying, “I got your information”;
  • The woman at the moving company who wouldn’t commit to a time for the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new residence; and
  • The supervisor in the dining room who accepts every complaint – about food or service – with a generous smile and a promise to do something about it, though never saying “by when”.

A few of my former clients called me the “by-when-lady”, because every time they told me what they were going to do for one of our projects, I would ask, “By when?” That question always plunged them deep into their heads, where they searched for an answer. At some point they got used to thinking in terms of scheduling a due date for their work agreements with me.

I usually have to check my calendar before I can answer a “By when” question. But without knowing specific times when I will get back to them, other people are left either waiting or doing follow-up with me. Neither of those options is productive or enjoyable – and a little of our energy leaks away every time either one of us thinks about that unfinished business. Better to pick a time, enter it into the schedule, and make it happen.

The challenge is this: are we willing to be responsible for supporting other people in being productive too? Or do we leave them waiting, and having to follow up with us?  People do appreciate certainty in their lives, at work and elsewhere.  If we can give them that simply by including a “by when”, a date-and-time, we are granting them a little more peace of mind than they would have had without it. In these uncertain times, that is a lovely gift.

Personal productivity or accomplishment depends on the agreements we make with others. An agreement always has three ingredients: What are we going to produce + When will we deliver it + Why does it matter. If we leave out that middle one, we don’t have an agreement. Hope is good, but a promise for delivery is gold.

Stop Managing People, Step 2. Reconsider Those 1:1 Meetings

My last post was about how to “stop managing people” by focusing on managing agreements with people instead of the people themselves. Two different worlds: people are human, and agreements are communications. You can manage the communications.

Then I talked to Markus, and he told me another way managers focus on people: One-to-One meetings, or 1:1 meetings. “Managers complain they don’t have good teamwork,” Markus said, “and then they focus on individuals by meeting with them alone, apart from their team members. Don’t they see what they’re emphasizing by doing that?”

Good point. The 1:1 meeting is necessary for hiring new people, or placing current employees into new positions within the organization. And 1:1 meetings are also useful for traditional “performance reviews”: the annual reflection on what happened and where things are going with an individual.

But 1:1 meetings are not for ongoing “performance management”. Here’s why. Hiring or re-positioning employee requires matching an organization’s skills and capabilities with the organization’s strategic and operational needs.  The 1:1 manager-to-individual meetings for hiring or re-positioning a person are likely to include discussion about the person’s skills, what kind of work they like, and where they want to go in their career and development. That’s fine: this conversation is about the person, which is personal.

But performance is a whole other idea: the root of the word “perform” is “to deliver thoroughly”. So, it’s applied to people who are already in position, who have agreements to deliver some product, service, and/or communication – and who are going about their job of delivering products, services, and communications that will satisfy those agreements. In that world, we measure performance by whether the agreement was fulfilled. It’s not about the person, it’s about delivering per agreements.

Let’s say that you’re my Manager and I have an agreement to give you a summary report every Friday morning, showing the status of my week’s sales calls: who I called on, and when; how long we talked; what results were produced in terms of dollars, service agreements, and product purchases; and what next steps we have agreed to take with a by-when for each one.

When I give you the report, you can see what I delivered this past week. Our agreement was that I would get at least 14 sales calls completed, bring in a certain dollar amount, and close three new service agreements. Did I do that?

  • If so, I delivered thoroughly – 100% performance to agreement.
  • If I did 80% of what I agreed to deliver, then my delivery-performance is 80%.
  • Or maybe it’s 150% on the dollars-produced agreement, but only 20% on product purchases.
  • Or, what if I don’t bring you that report at all? Or, what if you discover that I have misrepresented my actions and results on that report in some way?

Whatever the results, this view of performance is good information to have: where I’m a high-performer (sales dollars) and where I’m not (selling products), and whether I can be counted on to deliver on our agreed performance deliveries thoroughly. But it’s not just good for you to know, it’s good for the whole team to know. Those agreements aren’t private between you and me – they are part of our team’s work, and should be visible to all of us so we can support one another and learn how to do better.

I’ll let Markus weigh in here: “I have three teams to manage, and each one has between 6 and 10 people in it. My meetings are never 1:1, except when I have a Problem Child. I work with the group and we decide: what do we need to deliver, to whom, and when? Plus, what do we want out of doing that, and what do we need in order to make it happen? We decide as a team which of us will do what, and then we hear the results as a team. We all learn how to do better next week.”

I’m with Markus on this. Ultimately, the Manager’s job is to work with their team(s) to define the work to do next – preferably as “delivery” rather than “doing” – then ensure that good agreements are established to produce all intended results and that “delivery performance” is tracked for each of those agreements. This is more work than many managers do, but it also improves performance all around. Markus says it also saves him from costly performance “mistakes” and avoids the annoyance of his having to micro-manage things. Who doesn’t want that?

Talking About “Performance” – But Which Kind of Performance?

A friend – I’ll call her Sidnie – has a job that pays her by the hour, and she shared her commitment to “doing quality work”. She asked, “Should I bill them for the hours when I know I’m not 100% – like first thing in the morning when I’m handling email and stuff? And should I bill them for time when I am working more than 40 hours a week, when the extra hours are focused on making sure I’m doing quality work?”

This put us squarely into a conversation about different kinds of performance. What does her boss – or in Sidnie’s case, all three bosses she reports to regarding the three different aspects of her job – really want from her? Do they want her to work as economically as possible? Do they want her results to meet certain standards? Or were they going to evaluate the results of her work in terms of how well they could be put to use in other locations or situations? These are three different kinds of performance, and are measured at different parts of the stages of work: Doing, Done, and Delivered:

  1. Efficiency & Productivity are “Doing” measures of performance, counting how many resources – people, hours, or materials and supplies – are needed to finish certain tasks. If it takes you 2 hours and 1 cup of soap to wash two full baskets of laundry, and Mary Sunshine can do the same job in 1 ½ hours with ¾ cups of soap, then Ms. Sunshine could be said to be more efficient and more productive.
  2. Quantity & Quality are “Done” measures of performance that are applied not to actions, but to results – whether products, services, or communications – to determine whether they meet some specified standards. If the quantity standard, for example, is to get 4 loads of laundry done in two hours or less, then both you and Mary Sunshine blew it. If the laundry you washed has no streaks, spots, or discolorations, but the laundry Ms. Sunshine cleaned has several unremoved stains and places where dark colors bled into white fabrics, then her work has a quality problem.
  3. Effectiveness & Impact are “Delivered” measures of performance: when the cleaned-and-dried laundry is folded and returned to Madam Customer, it will be her reaction that determines the effectiveness or impact of the work. If she says to you, “Thank you, that’s fine,” then the work was sufficiently effective, with a positive impact. If she says to Ms. Sunshine, “Look at these stains! Take it all back and do it properly!” or, “I will not pay for this – you have ruined my white pants!” then Ms. Sunshine has scored badly on the effectiveness and impact scale.

Sidnie was not sure of what her boss(es) wanted, which is not unusual. Most employees do not clarify this, thus do not know whether one kind of performance is more important than the others. Sometimes the bosses do not really differentiate either, which means the workplace is directed by guessing or by learning the personal preferences of higher-ups.

Our conversation did clarify two things, however. Sidnie will track her work hours without subtracting any hours she has judged as “doing unimportant work”, or “not being as sharp” as she thinks she could have been. Starting now, if she is working, Sidnie will count the time as work-time.

Second, if Sidnie doesn’t know what her boss(es) consider to be “quality work”, then what is she doing in those extra hours she is investing in “doing quality work”? Most likely, she is using her own judgment on whether she has done a good job with the tasks she was assigned. Perhaps she is even correcting errors in cumbersome work processes or in other people’s products. Still, by her own estimate, it is work that is adding value.

I say, bill that time. But also schedule a conversation with your boss(es), Sidnie. It’s time to clarify what they really want you to be accountable for, what standards they use for “quality”, and what matters most to them about the work you do to support their business objectives. The understanding of what “performance” means deserves a conversation. Maybe some of your extra hours could be better spent on different tasks – or perhaps on kayaking down the river with your friends instead of working overtime.

Management #1. We Are All Performance Managers

I overheard two people talking about “management” – not the art and science of seeing work done to completion, but “those people who are messing things up at work”. I guess they don’t know what “management” is, so they use the word as a substitute for “managers” Here are a few things I’ve learned about those “management” people:

  • How do most people get to be managers? Usually, they did their job well enough to be promoted to a higher-level position, often without being given any special training that might give them confidence when they get there. Managers are very brave people!
  • What do managers do? Some focus on handling people issues at work. Others focus on tasks and activities, looking at whether people are busy or doing their jobs “right”. Some play politics, trying to move up the hierarchy. And some evolve to managing performance, focusing on interactions with others outside their group and coordinating the exchanges of goods and services.
  • How do managers evolve? New managers are assigned to “manage a group ”, so they naturally think they need to focus on people. Are the people in My Group happy? Busy? Doing their jobs correctly? At some point, most come to see the bigger world outside My Group: all those Other groups out there that want, need, and expect things from My Group. Plus, My Group wants, needs, and expects things from those Others too. That’s when they switch to focusing on performance.
  • Do all managers become performance managers? No, some keep the habit of managing people, or activities, or the politics of positions. But many come to see that managing the “inputs-and-outputs” of their Group creates valued connections to others inside and outside of the organization. Plus, it’s saner than managing people (and their attitudes) or tasks (activity isn’t always interesting) or politics (ewww).
  • What is performance management? The word “performance” means “to deliver thoroughly”. Performance management looks at what gets delivered – the products, services, and communications that go to and from My Group and all Others. If you manage a group of people, you look at what your Group is accountable for sending and receiving to support organizational goals and keep things going well. You identify all key deliverables and focus on those.
  • Can you improve performance? You already have a handy framework: You know what your Group sends and receives, and to whom and when, so now can you make those links better. Three steps: (1) Talk to Users/Customers – internal and external – to see what they really need and don’t need from your Group; and (2) Talk to your resource-providers to see how they can help satisfy those needs. (3) Then change the deliverables – stop sending or receiving some things, and start sending or receiving others.

So, are managers a select few who move up the food chain and direct groups and departments to connect effectively with other groups? Yes. And more – all of us are managers. Performance is a “relationship” – think of it as an arrow that connects you with someone or something else. Can you see the places in your life where you already manage “inputs-and-outputs” for yourself and others? A few examples – maybe you manage:

  • Your bank account, household, mobile phone use, or Facebook page.
  • Your schedule, entertainment options, or relationships with family, friends and co-workers.
  • Your diet, with food purchases or restaurant orders.
  • Or any of those things for someone else – a child, family member, or neighbor.

Bottom line: Watch what’s coming and going between you and the Other. Then make it better, smarter, easier. You’re a performance manager.

Do As I Say! (or, Why We Don’t Get What We Want)

Mostly, the people around you want to please you. OK, there are a few meanies who just want to give you problems and headaches, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people you know really want you to be satisfied. And they want you to be pleased with whatever they give you – whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a communication. The world is not out to make your life difficult. At least most of the time.

So why don’t they give you what you want? Three reasons: pick one.

  1. You didn’t ask. You said, “It would be nice to know what the committee decided”, instead of saying, “Would you check and see what the committee finally voted for?” Or you said, “I wish we had a better plan for getting this complicated job done”, then silently hoped someone would step up and draft a better plan for that job. NOTE: Hinting is not a reliable method for getting what you want.
  2. You weren’t specific. You said, “Please make a restaurant reservation for 7 PM this Friday at Hyde Park”, then were mad when you got there and found out the reservation was for two people instead of five people (even though you think “He should have known”). Or you said, “Please get me a list of all the properties associated with each of our customers”, and were disappointed when she brought you the customer property list on a paper Word document instead of emailing an Excel spreadsheet (even though you’re sure there is an Excel spreadsheet around somewhere). NOTE: Communicate the important details about what, exactly, you want.
  3. You told them what to DO, but not what to DELIVER. “Doing” is an activity. “Delivering” is the act of turning over something after that activity is complete. Not the same thing. You ask Jane to make a phone call and get some specific information on a recent new item in your industry. But… Did you also want her to let you know what she learned? Did you want that information before 5:00 today? Jane can do exactly what you asked her to do and still fail to deliver. NOTE: Delivery is what completes an activity, so spell it out.

Perhaps people actually DO do what we say – we just aren’t good at saying exactly what we want from them. Hinting, being vague, or defining things only in terms of tasks or activities without clarifying the delivery of results – that’s what costs extra time and goodwill in our communications. Each of those errors demands that we make another request, or fix the misunderstanding (wait for a table for 5), or go get the result ourselves instead of having it brought to us at the time we wanted it.

Conversations organize our lives and relationships. It’s worth the bother to give more thought to the specifics of our requests – and what we want delivered back to us – to make everybody happier. Including you.