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.”

Understanding is a Dialogue – It Goes Two Ways

I was talking with Kevin, manager of a Customer Service Department, about (his words here) “how to get people to understand their jobs”. He wants to see “better performance”, and hasn’t been able to “get them to raise their standards”.

I’m thinking, “Uh oh, Kevin’s got a real problem: he thinks it’s his people but more likely, it’s really him. And then he launched into criticizing one of The Four Conversations. “I read on your website about Understanding Conversations,” he said. “But they don’t work. I had a meeting with the senior-level Customer Service people to try it out. It didn’t work.”

Here’s what he told the Customer Service people that he wanted from them:

  1. When you interact with people to schedule their appointments with our Tech Specialists, you either have to set up a new account for them or update the existing one. That’s because we need all their contact information plus details on the history of their problem,what equipment they have, and what they want to accomplish.
  2. When you are closing out their appointment, make sure you find out whether they got their problem solved before you talk about their payment. Take the time to hear – and record – their questions and concerns, and to see what else they need. The Tech people want this feedback.

“See?” Kevin asked me. “I told them exactly what good performance is about. But they are still doing incomplete records on people’s accounts. And they still don’t make good notes on what the customers say about their problem-solving process.”

I asked Kevin what his people had to say about his two “standards”. He rolled his eyes and assured me that they had “nothing useful to say”. I pressed for details, so he told me, “They just said the usual stuff. The computers are too slow. The Customer Service spreadsheet doesn’t connect right to the Tech’s session notes. The customers don’t want to wait for the computer, or to have a long talk after their session. Blah blah blah.”

I knew I was going to go back to the website and re-write the little paragraph about Understanding Conversations (The Book). I needed to move the part where it says, “These are 2-way dialogues” up to the beginning. Too many managers – especially high-level ones – think that an Understanding Conversation means telling people what to do, and then asking them, “Do you understand?”

I met with Kevin’s senior-level people and made a list of what they said was needed to implement his requests more completely. The first – and funniest – result was that they decided to make their own appointment with the Tech Specialists! Those meetings produced three outcomes that will be completed by the end of this month:

  • The Customer Service Department is getting a system and software upgrade;
  • All of the company’s departments will be using the same software and able to connect quickly; and
  • The Tech Specialists are working with Customer Services to clarify exactly what feedback they really need from each customer appointment.

Kevin took this as a lesson on learning how to listen: he plans to start taking notes on what he hears. We all think this will help him hold up his end of the Understanding Conversation.

 

Is Resistance a Useful Response to Change? Yes and No.

There’s a rumor that people don’t like change, and they resist it. Know anybody who’s resisting something? I just scrolled through Facebook, and there’s a lot of resisting going on there – mostly about some aspect of our political situation. I’m not sure if the solution I used in my management consulting practice is applicable here, but I’ll give it a shot.

When people were resisting an organizational change, I used the Understanding Conversation/Dialogue approach. Mostly it was organized to have people say what their problem was with the change, and to offer solutions or ideas that might remedy that problem. The only rule was that you had to get specific: exactly what does not work for you, why not, and a more workable option for solving your problem. This has been effective in some very difficult mergers, down-sizings, and other complex changes in corporations and government agencies.

I remember the time the Maintenance guys were pushing back against the installation of a new IT system. Their resistance was choking off any hope of getting an upgrade installed that was badly needed in other departments. The Maintenance people got specific.

“That new system is going to restrict how we purchase our equipment for repairing trucks,” one of the Supervisors said.

“Seriously?” the CEO asked me later that morning. “Those guys barely finished high school. They don’t know what an IT system is, much less have the know-how for seeing how it affects their equipment purchases.”

The next day, I brought the IT people in to meet with the Maintenance supervisors and they solved the problem. “We never saw that,” an IT team member said. “I’m glad those guys noticed it, because it would have limited their options for getting what they need to do their jobs.”

The CEO apologized for underestimating the knowledge of his Maintenance team.

But that discussion wasn’t just a bunch of complaints. The participants all got specific, and talked about the details of their problem and what needed attention. If you look at the comments from Facebook, however, you’ll see accusations (he’s an imbecile, they are lying, etc.) and complaints (they don’t care about people) – all generalities with no specifics and no reasonable ideas for solutions.

Maybe I’m just tired of the wasted energy in so many interactions. But could a grownup conversation, sharing different perspectives about what might work, just possibly be effective? For sure, getting stubborn and refusing to cooperate is getting us nowhere. But then, politics isn’t always about making things work, is it? I should know that – we have been watching Season 3 of House of Cards, i.e., a story that focuses on on individual success and relationships with very little integrity.

I’ll go back to ignoring politics and focusing on something I can have an impact on.

 

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

Start 2017 with an enhanced ability to produce results by taking The Four Conversations online course. Specially priced in January for just $29.99 (usually $79.99). Purchase it today.

Ring Out the Old. Ring in the New.

Three people have now told me they are clearing out quite a few “unnecessaries” from their Outlook contacts and Facebook friends list. Interestingly, they have all attributed this purging to the “changing times”, especially visible in the last few months. I didn’t pick up any signs that this downsizing of friends and acquaintances is a product of fear or anger. A few quotes from these conversations suggest they are interested in making more substantive changes in the quality of their lives:

  • “My in-box had too much politics and disagreement for me,” Dan reported. “I have real work to do, plus I have a couple of charity projects that matter to me. Some of the emails I’ve been getting are asking me to join protests or movements that I don’t have time for. And frankly, some of them seem just mean or self-righteous. Count me out – I don’t want to be that kind of person!”
  • “I was caught up in getting a bigger set of friends,” Eva said. “I thought having a large Facebook group would show that I was popular and had influence. But I don’t like what I am seeing on my Home-feed page, where everybody who is in my circle gets to post their thoughts. Some of their comments embarrass me, and I don’t want my real friends to think those people speak for me.”
  • “All the turbulence in this last election cycle has been ugly,” Kim told me. “I just feel it’s time to do some housekeeping and clean up my circles of friends, associates, and acquaintances. If I delete the connections to people who are doing the most whining, criticizing, or arguing, it will make room for something new in my life. Like maybe, more positive conversations and more personal peace.”

Perhaps a little “un-friending” can be useful, to rearrange who we interact with and to give ourselves a more purposefully designed set of relationships.

Another friend mentioned that he was changing the media he reads. “I found an article that included a Media Quality Chart,” Alex said, “and when I clicked on the chart, I studied it for about 15 minutes. Then I decided it was time to update the kind of media I was looking at every day. I want a bigger picture of what’s happening. I want to know what is true and what is fake. And I don’t want so much drama in my life – the sob stories and fear-based news headlines are confusing and can be exhausting.”

It sounds like some advice I got from a wardrobe consultant once: “If you want a new silk jacket, you sometimes have to toss out an old polyester one.” Embarrassingly, she also took a suede shirt of mine out of my closet, held it up high in front of me and said, very slowly and deliberately, “This is not where you are going.”

There’s a kernel of truth in those ideas. It’s okay to get rid of things – and relationships – that no longer reflect who we want to be or where we want to go. Eliminating what we do not need might just create a space for something more true to our commitments and aspirations. Bring in the new!

Management #2. When Things Change

I recently worked with an organization – I’ll call it Field Work Co. – that had downsized, taking an entire department and transferring it to another organization. It was a pretty big business deal – financial stuff, legal stuff, etc. It was also a pretty big deal for the social network of the organization, as people said goodbye to friends and associates. Some were even fearful for their own positions, worrying whether they would be next.

But the biggest problem of all was the fact that so many critical “productive relationships” were suddenly broken.

  • Karen had always been the hub for people who worked in the 5 Field Offices – they had always sent Karen their daily activity summaries, and she put the data into the template that tallied hours, service categories, and materials for the company’s quarterly report to the State. Now Karen was gone.
  • Delray was gone too. He had handled the schedules for Field Staff, assigning each person to their locations. He also entered the data for the inventory items the Field Staff used – he put it into the State Report template. That job was simple enough that anybody could be trained to do it. But how did Delray handle the scheduling of 23 people in at least 8 locations on jobs that lasted different lengths of times and were sequenced to reduce overall travel time? Delray took his experience with him, and the Field Staff are now pooling their knowledge to design a new scheduling system.
  • The now-missing Customer Care department was probably in a better place, folded into another Service Company that was organized for strengthening customer relationships. But the information they gave to Field Staff now comes from the Service Company’s website, which reports their customers’ feedback, problems, and questions in a new format that requires learning new software.

The Field Staff was under pressure to sort all this out.

As we said in last week’s blog, everybody is already managing lots of relationships – with banks, people, and schedules of all kinds. We decided to look at relationships in the Field Work Company. Our solution was to have all remaining employees in the Field Work Co. take our Workplace Communication Assessment (https://usingthefourconversations.com/organization-analyst-subscription). Out of the 8 different types of workplace problems, two of them were rated as the biggest:

  1. Poor Planning and Workload Overwhelm, including lots of unexpected “emergencies”, bosses giving assignments with no plan for the best way to get things done, and lack of clarity on where resources will come from.
  2. Lack of Teamwork, including people working at cross-purposes and making extra work for themselves and others, unclear goals, and lack of cooperation.

Organization change can cause chaos, and it can be hard to know what to do about it. The Workplace Communication Assessment – you can see the freebie version at https://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2 – was the “Group Assessment Subscription” version that added up everyone’s responses. So we learned what they needed help with, and designed a ½ day discussion to sort out some ideas and possibilities. More on this next time!

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

That Difficult Client – Part IV.  Completion

Reggie started with a serious performance problem in his department. He said his staff was “under-performing”, and he was insistent that I find out what the problem was and “fix it”. So I did. The problem was Reggie. He was a technical whiz, but not a very good manager. Here’s what I mean:

  • He was managing people instead of managing their agreements for performance. He could have looked at their agreements to deliver quality products or services, or to produce on-time results, but he didn’t have those spelled out. So he was “coaching”, and focusing on their attitudes instead of working with them to define clear jobs and tasks, and identify relevant ways to know whether they were doing what they agreed to do.
  • He was being a boss, not a manager, by giving orders and instructions without asking for input from the people who would be doing the work. His dialogue was “I talk, you listen”, which isn’t the two-way street he needed to manage a staff of diverse responsibilities.
  • The goals of various individuals and teams were sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected to each other. There was no “big picture” that allowed everyone to see themselves as collaborating in some way for a common purpose.

Here’s what Reggie himself said he learned to do out of this experience, in his own words:

  • “I stopped relying on people’s job descriptions and experience, and my own expectations, to be sure people knew what to do. Talking about what the end results should look like, and agreeing on timelines that worked for me and for my staff – that was a breakthrough. And follow-through was everything for me. I never saw that as my job – I thought it was their job. Now I follow up on every assignment we agree to put on the list. It’s part of my staff meetings. That alone improved people’s performance in a very big way.”
  • “The discussion thing was huge. I learned how much I didn’t know about what’s happening on our customer’s sites. Technology changes, and so do operations, and my staff is on the front lines of those changes. They have been great with educating me! Our customers are pleased too, and one of them told me he wanted the same team to come back for the next project.”
  • “We had gotten pretty good with the “GPS” thing – Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – but when we looked at how it connected into one bigger picture of Mission-Vision-Purpose, we saw where the holes were. I hadn’t updated that stuff since I got this job, so it was way out of date. When I could see the value of having those statements “belong” to our department, we all talked it through and created new statements for our MVP. Re-framing our goals after that was simple, and much easier for everyone to see what our primary game is. And we are winning at last.”

There was one last nice thing he said when he thanked me for helping him learn to manage his department: “I’ve always been a technical guy first, and never learned management. Sometimes we just get promoted, and don’t have the knowledge we need for that next step up. Thanks for the kick in the butt!”