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.

The Manager’s Golden Rule: Make Production Goals Visible

Carrie is a longtime friend who has one persistent delusion: she thinks the people in her work group are all committed to producing the results she mentioned in the weekly staff meeting. But the truth is that she is the only one who really focuses on Getting Things Done.

Poor Carrie is astounded – at least once a week – to discover (for the millionth time) that not everyone is dedicated to Getting Things Done. “What’s the matter with them?” she asks me. “Do they forget what we’re doing here? Or are they just not organized for getting their work done?”

And, for the millionth time, I remind her that if you don’t have a visible “scoreboard” of the results you want, most people will focus on their own preoccupations. As I learned in a recent Landmark Worldwide program, most of us are going through life on auto-pilot, at least most of the time.

I remember when I learned that some people are not interested in Getting Things Done. Our publisher broke the news to me (ever so gently) as we were all trying to come up with a subtitle for our book, “The Four Conversations”. Me: “What? Some people don’t care about Getting Things Done? What are they doing with their lives?” OK, I gave up my subtitle idea and bowed to their expertise, eventually settling on the subtitle “Daily Communication that Gets Results” .

In case you, like Carrie, are interested in Getting Things Done – both for yourself and with other people – it helps to know all three parts of the Manager’s Golden Rule:

  1. Spell out the results you want to see.
  2. Specify when you want to see those results: what day, and what time. And, if you have other people who need to produce or deliver something, make note of that too.
  3. Then display that simple chart in a place where you (and everybody else) can see them at least twice a day.

A sample of items from Carrie’s chart looks like this:

Get It DONE! When Who Does It?
Newsletter out Noon – every 3rd Friday Arnie
Training materials updated & printed Friday 3 PM before every training program delivery Training-IT-Marketing Committee
Subscriber Report Before Tuesday staff meetings (9:15 am) Marketing Team
Budget plans & projections For the mid-month Tuesday staff meeting Kelsey’s Money Team

Carrie posted it on the door outside the meeting room, in a hallway between people’s offices and the coffee pot, where everyone would see it. One member of the Marketing Team told me, “It gives me a little boost every time I go by it, just to see how we’re all working together to make something happen.” Carrie rolled her eyes when she heard about that, and said, “They should know their jobs.” (Sometimes she’s crabby.)

Yes, maybe. Or maybe it’s just nice to be reminded that there IS a “big picture” purpose for the team, and not just a bunch of humans running around being busy. I know I keep my own list on the wall in my study. It helps me manage this rogue brain.

Even if We Aren’t “Managers”, Most of Us Need to Manage THIS

Chuck, a maintenance guy, did some work for us the other day and we got talking about how he scheduled his job appointments. Since he was both friendly and skilled at his work, he had a few spare minutes to let me know the secrets of managing a contractor’s calendar. “It’s all about how I keep my job plans in existence,” he said. “Not just the jobs, but also the supplies I need for each one, and checking that my equipment is ready and working. I look at my schedule every evening so I know what to pack up for the next day.”

This reminded me of a question Jeffrey (my professor-emeritus-husband) gives to his MBA students:  “When you are asked to do something – or tell someone you will do something – how do you record it so you don’t forget it?”  We don’t always think of these things as “making promises”, but that’s what they are – and we need to keep track of them somewhere.

Chuck and I talked about keeping promises, agreements, and plans “in existence“, and came up with a list of ways to do it.  I added a few other thoughts from those MBA students too – here is the result:

  1. Write your promise on your schedule. This is really obvious, and probably the best thing to do, but many people don’t use their schedule as a living document in that way. If you promise to research a product, or write up a survey analysis for a colleague, where do you put that task on your calendar? Just writing it into a blank space on Tuesday afternoon and hoping it works out is not always reliable.
  2. Schedule a time to schedule your promises. Another way to use your calendar to increase your reliability is by scheduling a regular time – every day or every few days – to look at your “To-Be-Scheduled” items (see items #3, #4, and #5, listed below this one). Say, at 4:15 every afternoon, you have on your calendar that you’ll check all your (#3) temporary holding places, (#4) delegations, and (#5) the back seat. That’s when you collect all your promises into one place, then put the time(s) you’re going to do the work of fulfilling them on your calendar.
  3. Put your promise in a temporary holding place. Putting an agreement to do something into a queue for later scheduling can prevent us from feeling guilty about postponing the scheduling task. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. In order of decreasing reliability:
    1. A To-Do List. This is a useful catch-all, sometimes called a “Do-Due List” to remind us to include a due-date on every action item. NOTE: It says, “A To-Do List”, not multiple ones – using multiples decreases reliability.
    2. Pieces of paper. A favorite is writing something on a Post-It note (I love those things!) and sticking it to your computer, file cabinet, refrigerator, or bathroom mirror. But other candidates include writing on the backs of envelopes or on napkins, and one person even mentioned a “rolodex” (does Staples still sell those things?).
    3. Emails or voicemails to yourself. Your email in-box or phone can serve as a holding bin, a form of reminder for things to do. (Recommended: keep an eye on how many are in there!)
    4. A display on the wall. Bulletin boards can be a great way to keep things visible. They can also get messy.
    5. File folders, physical or electronic. Your office filing system or computer can also provide a holding bin for things to do. (I suspect that’s what’s really inside most computers!)
    6. Stacks of stuff, set out where you can see them. Piles of project resources on your bookshelf. Magazines and articles on a side table. Folders of things-to-do propped up against a lamp. These can get Ugh-Ugly and contribute to a sense of overwhelm.
    7. A collection of two or more of the above. If you have multiple Do-Lists; Post-Its on your desk, phone, and computer; more than 25 emails in your in-box; a bulletin board with layers of notes, cards, and papers… well, you get the idea. The problem : You’re not always going to deliver on the most important ones, and you might not even know which ones are the most important.
  4. Delegate your promise. This can be risky, as different people have different habits for reliable completion. But there are several ways to delegate your promises. In decreasing reliability:
    1. Assign a secretary or staff assistant to perform the tasks(s) and/or bring the item to a meeting for discussion and resolution.
    2. Send a memo, email, or leave a voicemail telling someone what action or result you want from them.
    3. Tell someone to remind you about doing that thing, or calling that person.
  5. Throw it in the back seat. This is how to put a “promise” – or something that you and somebody else agreed would be a good idea – into a quiet resting place if you know you’re not likely to get to it in this lifetime:
    1. Put it into a file folder or a notebook, which you then put back in the file cabinet or on a shelf.
    2. Trust that you’ll bump into that person in the hall or at a meeting, and will take a more structured action at that time.
    3. Trust it to memory.

Of course, if you don’t rely on a calendar to help you schedule your days, weeks, and months as a way to help yourself reliably fulfill your promises, then none of this is useful (in which case, I offer my apologies for the time it took you to read the above).

But if you’re interested in a reputation as someone who can be counted on, maybe this gives you some ideas to update your “existence system”. I hereby promise to keep my Do-Due List up to date with a thorough weekly review plus a rendezvous with my calendar.

What is a “Needs Assessment”?

Almost every HR initiative begins with a Needs Assessment. One HR training specialist announced to a group of manufacturing Operations Managers, “Our most important deliverable to you is the Needs Assessment.” The Operations Managers hooted. “We don’t need your needs assessment! We just need you to train our operators to use the equipment without breaking anything.” Sandra, the HR lady, burst into tears.

In the jargon, a “need” is a discrepancy between “what is” and “what should be.” That’s a big playing field on which a consultant can build an assessment investigation. And there are plenty of methods for doing that (just Google “needs assessment”). That’s a good thing, because HR – and consultants, both internal and external – need some way to determine what and where the organization’s problems are.

One tool we use – the Workplace Communication Assessment – is a survey that asks people about the issues they see daily in their organization. It’s quick – 56 questions – and lets each employee say what causes the biggest headaches in doing their jobs. The tool then tallies the answers by categories and prescribes a few ideas to include in a training program, based on the kinds of communication that will reduce or eliminate the problem.

Example: A recent client’s survey scores revealed that 3 types of workplace issues (out of 8 possible categories) were the most frequent barriers to their job effectiveness:

  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm – Too much work to do in too little time;
  • Lack of teamwork – People not working together or helping each other; and
  • Lack of accountability – People not “owning” their jobs or honoring their agreements.

We used the diagnostics that came back with the survey results to add four elements to our training programs for this client, putting each of “The Four Conversations” to work:

  1. Drafting a brief statement of each Department’s current goals and objectives that would go on the top of each Departmental staff meeting agenda.
  2. Getting the staff into Department discussion groups to make a list of ideas for improvements in (a) having clearer job results and schedules, and (b) interactions with one another and with other groups.
  3. Making specific agreements to adopt several of these ideas right away, and to review the progress at each Department meeting.
  4. Reviewing and updating the goals, ideas for improvements, and agreements at each Department meeting.

All of their “top 3” workplace issues began improving in just 1 month after implementing the ideas they developed in the training. The biggest surprise? They had not been having regular or standardized Department meetings at all – only meetings to solve problems or announce changes. They used the results of the Workplace Communication Assessment to invent their own staff meetings. One group leader for Development emailed me saying, “Now Staff Meetings are a thing! We have an agenda, we really talk, and we don’t get bogged down in side conversations that waste some people’s time.”

They put their “Needs Assessment” to work. Sandra would be pleased.


Lost Productivity: Is the Culprit Social Media or Sloppy Communication?

Productivity is a big deal – the idea is to produce good hourly output at work, especially if you want to get a raise. An article (Why Your Facebook Habit At Work Makes Economists Worry) says that some people want to blame employees who are using social media for the recent drop in productivity. Another theory is that employers aren’t investing in better tools for their personnel. The reason for this is that “there aren’t any game-changing innovations to invest in”.

Seriously? Has anybody noticed that people don’t communicate productively? Recent examples in organizations I’ve been working with:

  • A company policy makes it clear that performance reviews must be updated annually. But in a brief survey of managers asked about performance evaluations, over 60% of them said, “We don’t really do many performance reviews here.” So, you don’t pay regular attention to productivity?
  • Sharon, a new manager, used a long weekend to map out the job responsibilities of her 14 staff members. She spelled out the details, put each “assignment” into a separate document, and emailed it to her people. When they arrived at work on Monday morning, they saw their updated job descriptions in their in-boxes. One of them said to me, “She didn’t even talk to us about this. Some of these tasks are outdated, and she left out other really important things we need to do. This is just stupid.” A lost weekend, and probably some lost trust too.
  • Robin asked Ted to pull together an RFP to get people who will help integrate and upgrade their auditing software. Five days later, Robin asks Ted if it’s done yet. Ted says, “You never said when you wanted it, so I haven’t even started. What is your deadline?” Five days misspent?

Communications that lack follow-through, or don’t include a dialogue with relevant parties, or fail to include timelines for assignments, will be ineffective. It impaired productivity in all three of these cases, and over a long career I have seen many more instances of such bumbling.

What about helping employees learn to communicate more effectively? Like, how to follow through on policy implementation to support people keeping up with corporate commitments. Or how to have a dialogue with other human beings about what is wanted and needed to update their job descriptions.Or how to practice adding “by when” to your requests.

The article ends with something that makes a lot of sense. A long-term answer to boosting productivity is (…drum roll please) better educated workers. I couldn’t agree more.

Toxic Talk Impacts Workplace Productivity

Toxic Talk impacts workplace productivity. Complaining, blaming and gossiping damage relationships and impact productivity. Jeffrey offers ways to reduce its occurrence in your organization and convert it into a positive action.