Some Advice from an Effective Change Agent

Shannon, one of Jeffrey’s former students, just sent him an email about our “four conversations” material (https://usingthefourconversations.com/). He also referred to Matt Lemay’s “Product Management in Practice”, and included these two quotes from that book: (1) “the guiding principle for communication is ‘clarity over comfort’…”, and (2) “you cannot fear discomfort – you must actively work through it to get clarity for yourself and your team”.

Shannon said that in his workplace, he often hears people saying, “You need to be able to work within an environment of ambiguity”. This led him to notice that people often prefer ambiguity rather than having what could be a “difficult conversation”. The problem, he says, is that “we end up promoting and recognizing people who passively choose to not seek clarity”.

This reminded me of when I first discovered the idea of creating certainty (in the Landmark Forum https://www.landmarkworldwide.com/). I had always thought certainty was discovered, not created – and that it was discovered by scientists or geniuses, not by mere mortals like me. But then I learned about giving my word – making promises, agreements and commitments – and about integrity, which means keeping my word. Giving my word and keeping my agreements is what creates certainty.

Of COURSE people are reluctant to do that! It’s a little scary, at least until you practice it for a while and discover how useful it is – and how effective it can make you. Shannon is realizing there are people who don’t care about being effective, and it’s true that we aren’t all wired to be interested in that. Plus, it’s often easier to be ambiguous, unclear and uncertain than to commit to something or confront those “difficult conversations”.

But Shannon said that Lemay’s quotes about “clarity over comfort” helped him address the ambiguities that are usually left hanging in some conversations at work. I’m glad he also gave credit to his study and use of the four productive conversations in those situations. In fact, he gave Jeffrey some high praise that I will share with you: “First off, thank you for the awesome class you taught during our Master Black Belt training at OSU. I have actively been applying the principles around conversations and being an effective change agent at my job. We even integrated some of your key topics into our Six Sigma training sessions at the office.

Nice, huh? But I think the realization that may contribute the most to Shannon was in these 34 words of his email: “We rarely see leaders encourage people to create clarity with their peers. Instead, there is more emphasis on “getting along” instead of actually creating productive environments. We shouldn’t settle for ambiguity in the workplace.”  I’m betting that Shannon will use that advice to become a stronger leader himself. Let’s make it easier for people to step up to creating clarity and certainty.

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

Step #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!

Step #3 – Using Conversations to Solve Workplace Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

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 New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

The Perils of a Too-High Hierarchy: All Talk No Listen

I studied an organization that had quite a few unhappy people at “the bottom” of one of its departments. After several meetings and some 1-on-1 interviews, I heard from people who were looking for another job due to favoritism and rudeness by their supervisors. That wasn’t the biggest problem, however.

Seventeen people made up a direct-service group with daily customer contact. “We call ourselves the Service Bottom”, one group member told me. “We are fending for ourselves down here with no connection to the top of the organization. We serve the customers as best we can, but we are definitely not a well-organized service team. We have 3 supervisors who are focused on their own job interests instead of our group performance.”

“That’s not true!” one Executive said (loudly) to me when I told him about that comment. “Our Supervisor Team collaborates to make plans and work with the service staff.”

My observations, however, showed the large distance between the Executive and the Service Bottom that prevented him from seeing what was happening. Seven layers filled that gap: Senior Director, Director, Manager, Assistant Manager, Service Chief, Supervisor, and Team Leader. Each layer was primarily focused on its own concerns, with most attention going upward in the hierarchy, not down to the people below. The Executive was certain that the 3 supervisors heading up the Service Bottom worked in coordination to support their people. But in fact, they were competing for promotion to replace the Service Chief who was leaving at the end of the month.

I gave the 17 people in the Service Bottom group our Group Workplace Assessment, to find out where the problems really were. Here are the top three workplace issues, as reported by group members:

  1. Lack of accountability: Instructions are given with no follow-up to see if they were carried out; there are no measures of good vs. bad performance; and there is no formal system for tracking customer satisfaction or complaints.
  2. Poor quality work: The lack of follow-up by Supervisors meant that they didn’t see the difference between good employees and ineffective ones, so training efforts were not improved to assist service staff.
  3. Incomplete conversations: Service staff did not have the opportunity to have a dialogue with Supervisors regarding what they saw as dysfunctional work patterns in their group. Communication with Supervisors and their staff was “all one-way, from boss down to worker”. Supervisors did not get useful feedback on the challenges staff members were facing every day.

I met with the Supervisors and shared this data with them. One said, “We stopped having regular meetings with staff about 5 months ago. I guess this is why we needed those meetings.” Another said, “It’s good to see the specifics about what is missing. Now I think I know what would solve this.” The third said, “Don’t show this to our bosses, okay?”

I said I wouldn’t , and that we could work together to improve staff effectiveness. Then I showed them the recommendations from the version of the Group Workplace Assessment that I used: the Manager Subscription. We scheduled three meetings with the Service Group members too study the communication changes identified in the recommendations. We’ve had one of those meetings already, and all participants are optimistic about the new communications they are now practicing.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just too high. Executives can see what’s on the horizon, but do not know what is going on in the deep, where staff meet the customers, contractors, and competition. A little diagnostic work and a few communication changes can bridge the gap.

How to Handle Lateness – It’s Everywhere!

Projects are late. Promises aren’t kept. Schedules are tweaked or ignored. We human beings are pretty bad at starting and ending our tasks on time, no matter how much planning we do.

A good article-plus-podcast Why We’re Late explains the causes. One is that lateness is due to the “planning fallacy” – our estimates of how long a task or project will take is often too optimistic. We don’t plan for all the possible interruptions we might encounter – after all, as the article said, we plan to succeed, not to fail. Two other contributors to lateness are:

  1. On big complex projects, we often forget to plan for the coordination required to pull various aspects of the project together.
  2. On a more personal level, we forget that humans aren’t very good at “impulse control”, meaning we procrastinate because we do what we want to do at the moment, instead of sticking to our scheduled plan. Like, I’m going to check my email for a minute first? Yeah, sure, and half an hour later I’m into a whole other mini-project. We humans are pretty distractible!

Solutions? They mention software that helps project team members see what other players are responsible for, and how project parts are related by schedules and dependencies. They suggest tracking your performance – get data on what takes a project off-course or distracts you personally from getting a task done. And also, of course, using that data to improve your time estimates.

Lateness is everywhere. People are late to meetings. Managers give assignments without a specific deadline, often over-using the word “priority” as if that will make things go faster. And when an assignment is turned in late, nobody says, “This is three days overdue.” We let it go.

Communication can shift the lateness habits of a work group. Performance Conversations and Closure Conversations help give more attention to timelines, including follow-up on whether deadlines were met.

  • Alex says, “I’d like to present this policy brief at the Board Meeting on Tuesday. Can you get the references needed, collect comments from the other three Advisors, and include the changes they suggest? I would need that finished by Friday close of business.”
  • Justin says, “Sure, I can do that. Send it over to me.”
  • Alex confirms that they have an agreement: “You promise you have time for this? I don’t want to be scrambling to pull things together on Monday.”
  • Justin: “Yep. Consider it done.”

So, a request from Alex + a promise from Justin = an agreement. Performance Conversation complete.

  • Justin, on Friday at 5:45, says, “Sorry, but one of the Advisors hasn’t responded yet. I’ve sent you the update using comments from the other two, but don’t know if that’s enough.”
  • Alex says, “Thanks, I’ll look at it over the weekend. But, FYI, close of business means 5:00 PM, not 5:45, so I was wondering whether you were going to deliver. I say this because I want all of us to pay more attention to keeping time agreements. I’ll talk with Advisor #3 this weekend about that too. Sorry I didn’t make it clearer before. And, despite being picky about timing, I really appreciate that you’ve made it possible for me to review this and plan my Board presentation over the weekend. Thank you very much.”

Closure Conversation complete. Bringing all “four A’s” into a conversation is powerful:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the situation – what happened and why it matters;
  • Appreciate the people – recognize the value of their effort and contribution;
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings – cleanup improves trust; and
  • Amend broken agreements – set up for a future where agreements can be honored.

The article pointed out there is data going back more than 100 years showing that at least 80% of projects have cost and/or time over-runs. Making clear agreements, and communicating with people about the success and failure of those agreements, can shift the communication habits of a work group to support being on time.