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Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step Three

Accomplishment means, literally, “to fulfill together”. That is a good way to describe a group of people who are aligned on working toward well-specified goals, engaging with a performance network of other Key Players by making and keeping agreements to send and receive well-defined goal-relevant products, services and communications (also known as “deliverables”). The combination of the Team and other Key Players in the network is the “together” part of accomplishment. Regard for keeping the agreements in that network to honor the goals, the Team member responsibilities, and the promises to send and receive goal-relevant deliverables in the performance network – that is the “fulfillment” part of accomplishment.

But accomplishment is not real for anyone until it is declared, with evidence that is visible to Team Members (and others as appropriate). To validate the progress and fulfillment of project goals, timelines and other measures of success requires three elements: (a) tracking the status and progress on all the project’s success measures, (b) reporting status updates to the Team and (c) updating the project itself, i.e., determining what, if any, updates or changes in the project’s agreements would be useful going forward.

Step Three is the heart of management – providing regular feedback to the people who are at work on Project X so they can see the effects and impacts of their work, and offering an opportunity to discuss those impacts and make decisions for improvements in the next phase of their work. Step 1 aligns people on goals, measures and schedules. Step 2 establishes the network of agreements that will produce the accomplishment. But without this final step of regular tracking, reporting and updating, there may be no actual accomplishment present for the Team Members.

To ensure that Step Three – Management for Accomplishment – makes any accomplishment real, the Team Members must be involved in this step too. Having a “manager” do all the tracking, reporting and updating misses the point: it is the Team’s role “to fulfill together”, so the tracking, reporting and updating become part of their work.

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Regular tracking of project status: What measures will be tracked and reported: Team Members collaborate to identify the most valuable indicators showing whether the project is moving ahead as desired or has encountered barriers or mistakes, including whether agreements for deliverables are being properly honored.  When will the tracking and reporting occur: The data capture schedule for tracking is likely to vary with the different measures but should be frequent and regularly scheduled. Regular Team meetings are best for reporting the tracking results, whether in person or online. Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meetings to share tracking results, i.e., project status updates, may depend on the pace of the project. Why is tracking the status of these measures over the course of the project worthwhile: it enables Team Members to stay close to progress and problems, and to address them as needed.

WHO-WHERE – Regular reporting of status updates: Who will be tracking and reporting of of the project’s success measures? Reporting project status updates for any success measure(s) is best done by the individual(s) who are responsible for the project’s performance in the area being measured. Progress reporting is ideally done with the entire Team participating.  Where will this reporting session be held? Again, this is a Team decision: in a meeting, online, in a visual display or somewhere else?

HOW: Regular reviews for updating project agreements: How will the updating be accomplished: Team meetings to review project status updates from the tracking process on each goal measure provides an opportunity for discussion, perhaps with some outside expertise weighing in as well.

  • Are all projections of goal progress being met?
  • Do any assignments or agreements need to be revised or more effectively enforced?
  • Is there any change in the goal statements or measures that may be appropriate for any aspect of the project – such as quality, schedules and costs of deliverables, or key functions such as Budget, Operations, IT, Marketing, and Public communication?
  • Where is more attention needed? What actions are suitable, and who will be best able to perform them?

RECAP:

Step 1 – 9/15/2020 blogpost: Management for Alignment. When you bring a group of people together to do a task or a project, job #1 is creating the group’s “alignment” – on (a) project goal(s), (b) responsibilities of participants and (c) what the group will need to recognize and respect in their project’s environment. Alignment on these 3 elements can create a ‘team’.

  • Spell out the Goal/Intention for the project: What our end goals are. When we want it to be complete. Why it is important to do.
  • Identify the “Responsibility Structure” for the task: Who will lead the team and fill other necessary roles, and Where these people are.
  • Clarify the relevant rules and regulations for working together: How will all aspects of the work to be done comply with corporate rules and guidance, and with other external requirements including relevant federal, state and local laws and policies.

Step 2 – 9/29/2020 blogpost: Management for Production. The team prepares for project production by inventing its own structures for performance:

(a) Spell out the details for each key goal: What are the success metrics, When are the timelines and due dates for goal-relevant products, services and communications – and Why those metrics are important.

(b) Identify the project’s performance network of Key Players and establish agreements for sending and receiving goal-relevant products, services and communications: Who and Where are the project’s Senders & Receivers of necessary and goal-relevant products, services and communications, bolstered by agreements and a system for coordination within the Team and beyond into its performance network.

(c) Spell out the production and delivery systems, standards and practices for the project: How will the work and all the movement of products, services and communications be coordinated and delivered to and from Team members and in the performance network – so that goal-relevant requirements such as quality, schedules and costs will meet all of the goals including Budget, Operations, Product and Service quality and delivery, IT, Marketing, and Public communication.

Step 3 – 10/13/2020 blogpost: Management for Accomplishment. The team creates project accomplishment by tracking the progress of success measures over time, reporting them to the Team, and considering updates to the projects structures and processes where they would be valuable:

(a) Track the project’s status: What the project “success metrics” are that indicate project success are the ones that should be tracked over the course of the project, so Team Members can spot places where the probability of success could be improved. When the tracking happens will vary with the nature of the measure and the agreements associated with its fulfillment. Why those metrics are important to track is so that assignments and other agreements – or the measures themselves – can be revised to repair mistakes, solve problems and/or improve the chances of success.

(b) Report status updates for each of the project’s success measures to the whole Team. Who and Where – in this meeting/discussion, Team Members identify where they are winning and where they are not, i.e., which elements of the project need repair or improvement: resources, communications, agreements with other Key Players, etc. Find the places where the Team is accomplishing what was intended, and where there are barriers, difficulties or outright failures.

(c) Update project agreements: How can the project either get back on track, or go faster on the track to success? A Team discussion will identify which agreements, processes, and/or responsibilities need to be updated to meet the challenges observed in the reporting of project success measures. When all goals need to be accomplished, attention is given to the visible places that can be addressed.

Bottom line: Management for accomplishment is about alignment of people, production by people and feedback for people. Where many managers fail is in that third piece, if they forget to give people feedback on their performance, or provide only generalities instead of goal-relevant measures, or deliver feedback too infrequently. It is possible for managers to be more effective if these steps are part of their regular practice of management for accomplishment.

High Praise from the United Kingdom

It’s always nice to hear that someone has said something nice about you, but this one made me laugh. Not that it wasn’t high praise – it definitely was. It’s just that I was reading The Economist this morning, which is published in London, and they said some things about “managers” that sounded absurd to this American.

Apparently, managers are not the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic that they are here. Just two phrases, taken from the “Bartleby” column about management, should make you wonder what kind of people they are talking about:

  • “Managers are incentivized with share options”, and
  • “That encourages them to pay spare cash to investors in the form of dividends and buy-backs”

I’ve worked with many managers over my 40-year career as a management consultant and I daresay not more than 1% of them has ever been “incentivized with share options”.  I’m pretty sure that none of them ever paid “spare cash to investors” in any form, either.  I bet 50% of managers in the US do not even know who their organization’s investors are, much less crossing their palms with silver. Reading an article in The Economist (full disclosure: I read it cover-to-cover every single week) is fine until I trip over something like “managers are incentivized with share options”. I’ll have to tell that one to the Water Maintenance Manager at the Department of Public Utilities.

The difference on this side of the Atlantic is that we have so many names for the different kinds of people who are in positions of organizational authority, such as Executives, C-Suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, etc.), Department managers, Team managers, Directors, Supervisors – I could go on. A “manager” doesn’t necessarily mean a person is even in the top 1/3 of the organizational ladder – it means that s/he oversees a group of people who are responsible for a certain section of the organization.

And yet, Boove, a UK bookseller, read our book – The Four Conversations – and rated it #17 for “books-on-being-a-good-manager”. They said the book “breaks down the task of management (they used that word!) into the four kinds of conversations needed to move any project from initiation to completion.”  That’s a good way to say what it does – I never quite thought of it as breaking down the task of management.

Boove also posted a link to Amazon, for people to buy the book, and it also included a little summary of the book: “Most conversations to get things done at work are of one of four types – initiative conversations, conversations for understanding, performance conversations, or conversations for closure – but they are often done poorly or misused. This book shows managers and employees how to use the right conversation at the right time, plan and start each conversation well, and finish each conversation effectively.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Here’s Boove listing for the book:

#17 The Four Conversations by Jeffrey D Ford

Awarded Best Management Book by 800 CEO-READ and Rated the #5 Best Business Book by The Globe and Mail (Canada) breaks down the task of management into the four kinds of conversations needed to move any project from initiation to completion. Armed with a solid body of research plus their own first-hand observations, Jeffrey Ford, Emeritus Professor of management with the Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and his management consultant wife, Laurie Ford, provide a clear outline for management success whether in the corporate world or at home. Easy to read and immediately applicable, this book is the best guide to good management available.

I loved that last line, “Easy to read and immediately applicable, this book is the best guide to good management available.”  THANKS MATES!

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

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.)

Leadership? Or Management? What’s the Difference?

An article in The Economist (March 30th, 2019, p. 67) said, in the opening paragraph, “Everyone can think of inspiring leaders from history, but managers who think they can base their style on Nelson Mandela, or Elizabeth I, are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

First, did the reference to Mandela and Elizabeth I tip you off that The Economist is a British magazine? More importantly, do the words “leaders” and “managers” suggest that leaders are managers? Or that managers aspire to be leaders?  It got me thinking. Which means it nudged me to take out my Etymological Dictionary on the origins of words.

Leader – One who conducts others on a journey or course of action, keeping watch from above and providing defense, protection and guidance for the action below.

Manager – One who handles, controls, or administers a journey or course of action.  Note: the word “manage” is derived from “manus”, Latin for hand, as in “handling or steering a horse”, i.e., holding the reins.

So a manager is in control and steering the action, while a leader is protecting and defending the actors. Sounds like two different roles to me. Which job would you want?

If you are a manager and want to be a leader, here’s a tip from that article: Being “competent” involves one important skill – the ability to have dialogues, or what we call Understanding Conversations. This kind of leadership “communication competence” has three important ingredients:

  1. The ability to listen and understand, sometimes called empathy.  “Team leadership requires having sufficient empathy to understand the concerns of others.”
  2. Dialogue with people ‘below’.  “Employees are more likely to be engaged with their work if they get frequent feedback from their bosses and if they are involved in setting their own goals.”
  3. The ability to course-correct.  “When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, a good leader also needs the flexibility to adjust their strategy.”  This would be done in dialogues with others, both above and below the leader.

The article made some other good points:

  • On competence and charisma: “The biggest mistake is to equate leadership entirely with charisma,” and, “Competence is more important than charisma.”
  • On competence and confidence: “People tend to assume that confident individuals are competent, when there is no actual relationship between the two qualities.”
  • Most fun quote (read it twice): “Charisma plus egomania minus competence is a dangerous formula.” (This reminded me of someone who is much in the media these days.)

The article also mentioned a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which should be a best-seller, based on the title alone: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)”. That one should be jumping off the shelves!

You’ve Got an Improvement Project?  First, Listen!

I’ve been working with a group of people who are focusing on how to improve the “continuing care” services in a “senior living” facility.  (Note: those quote-marked phrases are intended to avoid using the term Old Folks Home).  The people in the group divide nicely into two types of people. See if you can spot them in these comments from four of them:

  1. Aaron: “We need to pay attention to whether people are getting the right kind of social activities. And whether their diet is appropriate for their medical profile.”
  2. Bonnie: “When I was over there, walking through the facility, I noticed a couple of rooms where the beds were unmade and there were holes in the sheets. This is not good quality at all!”
  3. Frank: “Let’s do a survey to find out what the residents say is working well and what they want to improve. Sort of a satisfaction survey. Then we can come up with some goals.”
  4. Elaine: “I think what’s missing is a statement of mission and vision, and a good strategic plan. Maybe those need to be created or updated.”

The meeting spun around for a while with comments like these – the group leader let everyone talk – and when some of them began to get noticeably impatient, she intervened. Thank goodness. I was thinking that people like Aaron and Bonnie were too “deep in the weeds” of details and I didn’t want to spend more time there. Others, like Elaine and Frank, were more “big-picture”, probably a better place to start.

“I’m sure your suggestions are all useful,” the group leader said. “But let’s look at how we could arrange them to get pointed in the right direction. We can’t create our Facility Improvement Project to include everything, so how do we get clear on what we want to accomplish?”

Aaron said, “I like Frank’s idea of doing the survey. That would give us something to stand on, and a way to see what’s important to the residents.”  Then Elaine admitted that a strategic plan was going to need some clear goals and said that a survey could be useful to find out what those are.  Even Bonnie agreed, leaving the “holes in the sheets” behind for now.

Frank summed up the group’s insight, saying, “It’s important that we start by listening, asking the residents what they want most. That gives us some goals to work toward. But also (a nod to Elaine), it might help us refresh the mission statement and even come up with a strategic plan – or at least an action plan.”

Aaron agreed, saying, “Listening first – hey, that’s good. I want to put social activities and healthy diet questions on the survey, though.” Everyone looked at Bonnie until she laughed and said, “I’ll write the question about bedsheets, OK?”

Lesson learned: The group leader didn’t tell us what to accomplish – she asked us how to find out what to accomplish. We learn what will improve a situation by asking the people who are most directly affected. So, don’t just make up “improvement goals” and solutions for others without granting them the gift of your listening.

The Missing Piece in Managing for Results: Know Your CRABs (no, not that kind!)

We all know people work to produce results, right?  Produce a sale, a widget, a TV show – there are lots of kinds of results. It’s great if producing the result also produces a paycheck or some other reward.  Either way, the purpose of work is for the results.

That’s why a good manager knows it’s important to be clear about the results people should produce. And equally important, be clear about the goals – the reasons for producing those results. But… many managers, even the best ones, leave out something important (besides giving deadlines, which I wrote about earlier this month). They leave out the “CRABs”.

We forget to tell people that for every goal, and every result, there are people we should consult, i.e., people who have resources we want, people who need to approve some part of what we’re doing, and probably a user-customer at the end of the line who has a preference or opinion you should know about. Here’s how to remember who those people are:

  1. Collaborators – the people who have information we need, such as scope, constraints, and other professional perspectives;
  2. Resource providers – those with money, people, and know-how that could be critical to what we want to produce;
  3. Authorities – the people who will sign off, or reward (and punish, if necessary) some of the details of our work; and
  4. Beneficiaries – the people who are going to use and appreciate (or complain about) the results of our work.

These are the CRABs associated with every goal and every work assignment. They need to be our partners in performance, but they are too often invisible to us. Sometimes we forget they’re there until it’s too late! CRABs are a key part of your “performance circle” to produce results.

You can see the sketch of a CRAB network in the picture accompanying this blogpost. I drew it up as part of a project with people who were working at nuclear power plants. Note: I was a management consultant for a long time and have lots of these diagrams.

Identifying CRABs is a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has a goal and a result to produce. Find out about the individuals and groups who will likely have (or want to have) something to say about what you are doing or producing. Maybe get in touch with them early on, to let them know what you’re up to and to learn about their perspective on the matter.

But don’t get crabby, even if they say something negative. Those CRABs could be around for a long time.

PS – You don’t need to mention that you call them CRABs. ?

We Want Employee Engagement – But… Engagement in What?

The benefits of “employee engagement” are said to include better customer satisfaction, higher productivity, increased staff retention, etc.  Articles on improving “employee engagement” talk about how leaders don’t “treat employees respectfully”, or “take good care of employees”. There are surveys to measure those things, of course.

But if what we really want is better behaviors and attitudes from employees, let’s be straight about that. Because if we want employees to be “engaged”, then we have to offer something for them to be engaged in.  The unanswered question is, “Employees engaged in what?” Really, there is only one good answer:

  1. Employees are engaged when working to accomplish a clearly stated goal or objective.

The problem, however, is like that of the long-married couple, where the wife says, “We have been married for 46 years. Why don’t you ever say you love me?”  And the husband says, “I told you on our wedding day – how often am I supposed to repeat it?”

A once-a-year presentation by the CEO or Department Director about the progress and optimistic future of the company just isn’t enough. What gets people “engaged” in their work is something that is tied to a sense of accomplishment.  (Note: the word “accomplish” is derived from the Latin for “to fulfill or complete together.)

There are several tactics for engaging employees, but first you need to be up to something. An organization change? A new project or program? A task that is an important part of a larger goal?  You need something to engage people in working toward something – something that makes a difference to the organization and to other people in that organization. Just “doing stuff” is not engaging, and doesn’t activate “employee engagement”. So, you need a goal or end-point to be accomplished.

Then, you need to talk about the value of accomplishing that “something” – preferably more than every 46 years, and more than just at the annual retreat or holiday party. Here are three ways I’ve seen “engagement” work in organizations, large and small. They are all about communication: dialogue and discussion.

  1. Q&A sessions. After you roll out your newest strategic plan, or your next goal or project for people, have a few smaller-group “breakout session” where people get to ask and answer questions. This could be done in a round-table or a conference room. It’s good to have a recorder there, taking notes on what questions are important to people, and which answers need more development. It also shows people you are paying attention to their input.
  2. Success sessions. Once people are clear about the goals and objectives, another kind of discussion is to capture ideas (again, take notes) on what success will look like. Ask for what people think will (and won’t) work well, how to measure and track success and progress, and which people or groups should take on specific sub-goals or tasks. This lets people see the “big picture” of the work plan while also clarifying their “role in the goal”.
  3. Status update sessions. These are reliably regular meetings – weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the timing of jobs to be done. They are to review the status of success and progress toward the goal, and the status of assignments for various responsibilities. It is also an opportunity to identify and discuss problems or delays, revise assignments, and declare some items complete – with a tip of the hat to those who have completed their task or project on-time and/or on-budget.

People do want to be engaged in their work. They just don’t always know exactly what their job or assignment is, or understand the bigger game they are working in. When you don’t know your “role in the goal”, or, sometimes, don’t even know the goal itself, there is nothing for you to engage in.

You want employee engagement? Spend a little time on engaging them in something that would be an accomplishment for them – and for you.

 

P.S. I’ll be away the next 2 weeks – working on something that is really engaging. Back to the blogging board when I return.

Preventing Change Fatigue: Burnout is Expensive – Communication is Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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