Posts

Getting Things Done. Or Not.

Did anyone ever tell you something that startled you into a new reality? Our publisher (of “The Four Conversations” book) startled me with what turned out to be a great awakening. Two recent news items reminded me of that truth.

We – my husband-coauthor Jeffrey and the publisher – were discussing possible subtitles for our book. I argued for using the phrase, “A Practical Way for Getting Things Done”. After I’d proposed it 3 times, the publisher said, ever so gently, “Laurie, not everybody is interested in getting things done.”

I remember how stunned I was. Really? There are people who don’t want to get things done? What are they doing with their lives? But since then, I’ve noticed how many people can ignore their ever-growing pile of unfinished tasks, or the things they should throw out or give away, or situations that are dangerous and need to be faced promptly. I hadn’t noticed all that before.

Those recent news items? One, a report on Bob Woodward’s book “Fear”, was about Trump’s anger over South Korea’s trade surplus with America. Trump wanted to withdraw from a trade deal with them, but his attorney swiped the paperwork off his desk so he wouldn’t sign it. He knew that Trump “seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list – in his mind or anywhere else – of tasks to complete.”

The other item was in last Sunday’s New York Times about Japan’s nuclear waste. They’ve been building a nuclear waste recycling plant for the last 30 years and it’s still not done. But they can’t give up the project, because the community hosting the facility doesn’t want to face the real problem: recycling the waste is not going to solve over 47 metric tons of plutonium that needs to be safely stored and/or permanently disposed. The community doesn’t want to host a storage site, and disposition is surely impossible in Japan.

Does anybody want to get things done? Apparently, Trump does not keep a list of Things to Do – not on paper or in his head. And Japan is going around in circles to avoid making a permanent plan for solving their nuclear waste problem (so is the U.S.).

It’s simple to make a “To-Do” or a “Results Wanted” list of unfinished things, but it’s hard to face how much we’ve got lying around waiting to be done. I guess we’d rather lie around. But even one completion can give us energy and relief – and it’s usually worth the effort.

If you aren’t getting things done at the rate you’d like, you can always try communication. Propose a task or project to someone else (Initiative conversation). Talk with them about how that task or project might be accomplished (Understanding conversation). Make a request that the other person do some or all of what is required to get it done by a certain time, or even just agree to be a support for you as you take it on yourself (Performance conversation). Follow up on how it’s going by whatever due date(s) you’ve set (Closure conversation).

PS – The subtitle we finally agreed on for our book was “Daily Communication that Gets Results”. Don’t read it unless you want some ideas on getting things done.

Developing People & Managing Performance… With Meetings? 

Markus, manager of a security team in a manufacturing company, has little patience for the idea that “developing people” (the quote marks are his) is the path to performance management.

He told me, “I get people who are already developed. They went to school, they have experience, they got hired here – and we have a good HR department for the other stuff. So my job is to work with my team to spell out our goals, schedules, and assignments, then track their assignments and results. They don’t need me to be their best friend – they need someone who will help them earn a good reputation for being effective.”

Lately, people are saying some mean things about managers: managers are selfish, unfriendly, and don’t relate well to the “human side” of their people. (Leaders, of course, are wearing their halos as perfect role models, while being busy with inspiring and motivating people. Leaders, good. Managers, not so much.)

Markus says, “The only human development I do is to structure our team meetings so that people get a good look at what we mean by performance. I use a tracking board of everyone’s assignments for the past week, and each person says something about what they got done and what problems they had or lessons-learned they acquired. Everyone sees the whole set of tasks and assignments, and everyone hears all the results. They learn from each other and offer support where it’s needed. Then we decide – together – what we’ll take on to accomplish next week and who will do what. That’s how we learn how to improve our performance as a group. Team performance is what I want to develop.”

Another manager I know has 1-on-1 meetings with each of her staff members. “It helps me focus them on their behavior”, she says, “and that will reduce conflicts. Also, it keeps their performance confidential, which I feel is important. Group meetings are only for information updates about organizational changes. Performance is more personal.”

Probably both methods have their benefits, but I’d rather be in one of Markus’ meetings. Looking at the work to be done with my colleagues seems more interesting (and energizing) than talking about my behavior or workplace conflicts and politics. But that’s probably because I’m an engineer, don’t you think? I’d rather see the bigger picture and improve the whole group’s performance. Either way, it looks like “developing people” means different things to different managers.

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?

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

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.

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

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.