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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create Certainty for Yourself and Others – Start Saying “By When”

I just read an article about “time” in The Economist. It was in the business section, so I expected it would say something about managers setting due dates for assignments (or not) – maybe in the context of high performance or something like that.

Nope. It was about whether “long-term strategizing” or “following mega-trends” would help businesses be more competitive in the marketplace. Their conclusion was interesting: “Too much emphasis on the distant future is a waste of time.” OK, amen to that.

But, that is a 10,000-foot view of time. Admittedly, it is a valuable perspective, but I’d like to see more discussion about workplace communication at the 1000-foot level. And even the 100-foot level. I’ve had more than a few examples recently of people leaving a “time” commitment out of their interactions, such as:

  • The colleague who answers my email requests for his conference presentation materials by saying, “I got your information”;
  • The woman at the moving company who wouldn’t commit to a time for the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new residence; and
  • The supervisor in the dining room who accepts every complaint – about food or service – with a generous smile and a promise to do something about it, though never saying “by when”.

A few of my former clients called me the “by-when-lady”, because every time they told me what they were going to do for one of our projects, I would ask, “By when?” That question always plunged them deep into their heads, where they searched for an answer. At some point they got used to thinking in terms of scheduling a due date for their work agreements with me.

I usually have to check my calendar before I can answer a “By when” question. But without knowing specific times when I will get back to them, other people are left either waiting or doing follow-up with me. Neither of those options is productive or enjoyable – and a little of our energy leaks away every time either one of us thinks about that unfinished business. Better to pick a time, enter it into the schedule, and make it happen.

The challenge is this: are we willing to be responsible for supporting other people in being productive too? Or do we leave them waiting, and having to follow up with us?  People do appreciate certainty in their lives, at work and elsewhere.  If we can give them that simply by including a “by when”, a date-and-time, we are granting them a little more peace of mind than they would have had without it. In these uncertain times, that is a lovely gift.

Personal productivity or accomplishment depends on the agreements we make with others. An agreement always has three ingredients: What are we going to produce + When will we deliver it + Why does it matter. If we leave out that middle one, we don’t have an agreement. Hope is good, but a promise for delivery is gold.

Breaking News: Accountability Can Be Killed by Vocabulary

I learned something this week: accountability isn’t just a matter of the conversations we use. It can also be ruined by the words we use.  Wow.

My “conversations” theory – which is still valid, by the way – is that Accountability is strengthened by conversations that (1) establish agreements and (2) follow up on those agreements. Let’s say we have a (performance) conversation, in which I agree to bring some boxes over to your place so that you can pack up your antique toy cars and take them to an auction. We agree that I’ll deliver them Tuesday morning.

Depending on how reliable I’ve been with past promises, you might assume I will keep my word and not bother to follow up with a second conversation. Or, maybe you’ll decide to call me Monday evening and ask, “Are we still on for you bringing those boxes over tomorrow morning?” Or, if I didn’t get them to you on Tuesday morning, you would likely call me and ask where those boxes are. Either one of those would be a closure conversation.

Accountability begins with performance conversations: a request plus a promise makes an agreement. Then accountability is completed with a closure conversation: Was the agreement kept? Do we need a new agreement? Did something unexpected happen that needs to be dealt with?

This week, however, I saw a demonstration of what I will now call “Accountability Prevention”. A woman, let’s call her Millie, worked at a moving company and was responsible for coordinating the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new home. Millie said the delivery date would be no later than July 9th.  On July 9th, my sister texted Millie, saying, “What time will my things be delivered?” Here are some of the statements she got back from Millie over the next 8 hours:

  • I’m trying to reach the driver.
  • I tried calling you and got a busy signal.
  • The driver tried to load your shipment from the warehouse, but he was unable to do it because of a miscommunication.
  • The local agency has been trying to get the containers, but they haven’t arrived yet.
  • I will try calling you again after my meeting this morning.

You notice the word try?  That word was used rather than making a promise, which would have sounded more like, “I will call the driver and get back to you within an hour.” Or, I will call you at ten this morning.” Or, “I will see that the warehouse releases your containers to the driver and let you know your expected arrival time.”

My sister noticed that Millie was really “trying” – in every sense of the word – rather than committing to something specific. Unfortunately, my sister – an executive at heart – has little sympathy for people who are “trying” rather than performing. Now our radar is now out for the try word, because if we let it stay in any conversation we’re having it will block access to creating an agreement. Without agreements, and the follow-up they make possible, there is no accountability. Sometimes it is best not to try.

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.

How to Deal With a “Do-It-My-Way” Person

Over the years, I’ve collected some tips from working people on the ways they solved a communication problem with a boss, a co-worker, or even a friend or family member. One favorite was how people interacted with someone who saw only “One Way – My Way” to do something. Here are a few examples of how people handled those conversations.

Amanda says, “I had a micro-manager boss who wanted everything done just-so. He was nit-picky about how we formatted internal documents, whether we did this task first or second, and who we collaborated with to get things done. One day I reminded him of our department’s goal: “Customer First – Service Excellence”. I told him that internal documents, task sequencing, and work partners didn’t really matter for that goal. He was shocked but didn’t say anything. Two days later he told me I was right, and that he had just been trying to help me. We talked about it, and at some point, he said he was confident I didn’t need that kind of “help” and that he trusted me to focus on our goals. It’s been a different workplace then, and not just for me. I’m glad I spoke up.”

Davis told me, “One of my colleagues seems to think he is a coach. He tells me what to do and how to do it – and he has no interest in hearing my perspective at all. The other day he lectured me about how to fix a computer problem I was having. I had just looked up how to fix it and was almost done when he started giving directions. I heard him out, then showed him the instructions I was following from the computer manufacturer. He kept arguing for his ideas until I asked him to stop, and to let me finish what I was doing. Then I told him, “I promise that I will ask you whenever I need some help or coaching. You’re good at that, so I really will do it. But not this, not now.” He gave me a little smile and left me alone. I just might call him sometime. Or not.”

Max told me about an argument he had with his cousin about his car maintenance plan. He said, “I looked at the manual that came with my car. It’s a used car, so I even checked with the dealership to be sure I take care of it right. But my cousin disagreed and told me three other things I should do. I’m not going to do them, but he kept bringing it up. I finally told him, “Look, I’m not going to do those things, so you should stop wasting your breath.” He looked at me like I’m an idiot, and said, “That’s on you, then, whatever happens.” As if I didn’t already know that. But at least he has stopped bugging me about it. I’ll keep talking straight with him and maybe someday he will understand that I’ve already made up my mind about how I’m going to do some things. That way he can save his breath with me. And we can still be friends and go fishing together.”

The best bottom-line tip I got was this: When people are trying to tell you what to do, if you have already decided what you’re going to do, then just tell them you’ve already decided – and that you hope they will support you. That kind of straight talk saves time and doesn’t hurt feelings – it works in almost every case of communicating with a person who is trying to set you on the “right path” of doing things their way. It’s OK to do it your way.

And another tip – this one for those annoying wanna-be coaches: Landmark Worldwide (www.landmarkworldwide.com) taught me I should never coach anyone who is not asking to be coached. Brilliant advice, and a time-saver for everyone involved.

We Want Employee Engagement – But… Engagement in What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

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?

Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Performance (Two Very Different Things)

Sheryl, a 30-something production manager in a small printing company, was telling me about a problem employee. “He’s disorganized,” she said, and he has no emotional intelligence at all.”

Huh? She explained it to me this way: “Kenny isn’t reliable about coming to work on time. He gets angry with me if I mention that to him, or if I point out that he made a mistake in a customer’s printing job and has to re-do part of it. He needs more emotional control so he can improve his performance.”

Sheryl had obviously done an Emotional Intelligence training program recently. We waded into a discussion about it, and she insisted that Kenny’s performance problems were due to a failure to manage his emotions.

Emotional intelligence has two sides: first, being able to read other people’s emotional responses, and second, knowing – and perhaps controlling – our own emotional responses. If we are good at those things, does it mean we will have higher workplace performance?

Perhaps, if I have a job that involves sales, or providing personal services such as counselling. Then it would be valuable to “read” how others are reacting and what they are feeling, and maybe steer the conversation in a way that would help the other person see some value in what I’m offering. (Note: this could be seen either as manipulation or as motivation.)  But if I’m a computer programmer or an air-conditioning technician, my work is applied more to things than to people. You want your AC to work efficiently, and I probably don’t have to be an expert at reading facial expressions or body language: just fix the thing.  Still, whatever kind of work we do, it surely helps to recognize our own emotional responses to people, things, and situations. When we experience fear, anger, or resentment, for example, we may not be acting rationally, but instead, reacting emotionally. That’s not usually a reliable way to interact with others.

Knowing ourselves allows us to be more in charge of our lives and our communications. Does Kenny know where his own emotional “hot buttons” are? Losing his temper, for example, could compromise his critical thinking and take a conversation – or, in this case, a relationship – in a negative direction.

But even if self-awareness and maintaining good manners makes workplace interactions more positive, it does not necessarily improve performance. Workplace performance is more about fulfilling agreements to produce and/or deliver something than it is about managing emotions. OK, being a jackass makes a workplace less pleasant, but Sheryl has said that Kenny’s performance issues are:

  • Being late to work; and
  • Making mistakes on customer printing jobs.

I questioned whether emotional intelligence was the only way to help with that. Sheryl said she would have a conversation with Kenny and explain what performance she wanted in those two areas. She was also going to ask him to come to her office and talk with her, instead of the fly-by, in-the-hallway conversations she’d had before. And she was going to start the meeting by telling him they needed to make a couple of agreements, and that she wanted his input on how to do that.

I saw Sheryl the next week, after she had talked with Kenny. “He was a different person in my office,” she said. “He seemed pleasant and interested in working with me. And we did find a way to phrase the agreements for being on time to work and making fewer mistakes on print jobs. It’s simple: if he’s going to be late, he will text me and let me know. And if he doesn’t understand the print job specifications, he’s going to ask me about what it means.”

Kenny had been afraid to tell her he was responsible for taking his little sister to school on the days his mother was working the early shift at the hospital. And he had been afraid to ask for help when the print job instructions were not clear to him.

Sheryl said, “Emotional intelligence training might have helped with the situation. But knowing how to make performance agreements with my staff has definitely helped me be a better manager.” Three cheers for that!

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.