Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to https://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Getting Other People to Do Stuff

A recent review of manager comments on their workplace communication was very revealing: they didn’t get the idea of dialogue. Two-way talking was not recognized as a tool for getting things done on time and on budget. Here are two samples of their management “conversations” for getting people to perform:

  • “I think we need to get these customer responses reviewed and organized, then prepare a plan for how to improve our customer service and support processes.”
  • “Let’s identify what we need to do in order to improve our in-house communications, and then we can prioritize the ideas and start solving the issues one at a time.”

Neither one of these statements – and they are statements, not conversations – should give the manager any confidence that something will get done, much less with any urgency. An “Initiative Conversation” is simply a proposal for a good idea. Both of those statements qualify as proposals. But a proposal may not get anything into action, much less produce a result.

That’s why the next step would be an “Understanding Conversation” – a dialogue that gives the other people involved a chance to talk about the proposal. They can contribute ideas and clarify the specifics and expectations for actions and results. They can have a conversation to develop the proposal, including timelines and connections to other projects, in a way that increases the odds of success. Managers who seek input from others are much more effective in having their proposals move toward action.

Going a step further, “Performance Conversations” actually produce the action. The manager launches the dialogue to clarify which people will do the specific tasks and produce specific results. This dialogue is a tool for clarifying assignments: Who will do What + by When it will be performed + Why it matters. That sets up the possibility of people being accountable for keeping their agreements to perform.

Initiative conversations are a good start, but no manager can count on getting reliable results by just proposing a “good idea”. If we practice engaging other people in dialogues that build alignment on specifics and agreements for action, we are more likely to be successful in making something happen.

Big Change, Part III: Em-Powerment

Matthew, the CEO of the company that is closing a regional office and laying off 11 staff members, talked with the HR manager. Her name was Emmeline, and everyone called her Em. She is tall, smart, and lovely, and she knows her business.

When I told her I wished she had been at the first Executive Team meeting, she rolled her eyes. “I know,” Em said. “They don’t think about HR until it’s sometimes too late. I’m glad Matt came right back here and brought me into the picture.”

She looked accustomed to being left out of the Big Cheese discussions, but didn’t appear unsettled about it. She showed me her list of tasks and timelines: Contact the attorney; Plan the agenda for the regional office announcements; Review the employment longevity for each person who would be laid off; etc. She knew what to do.

I saw Em in her first meeting with the Executive Team. She mostly stayed quiet, occasionally reminding someone of a legal requirement or a way to support people in transitioning from one situation to another. Afterward, we talked about her one new role: educating the other executives. She could not assume they would know – or remember – what to do in a transition like this. She would strengthen her productive communication as a way to be heard above the stress of the situation over the next few months:

  • Initiative conversations: Remind people that one key purpose is to support the whole workforce of people who are in a difficult situation, including considering security, privacy, and respect. And mention this at every Executive Team meeting – even Big Cheeses can lose sight of the big picture.
  • Understanding conversations: For every problem that Em will observe, anywhere in the workforce, she will either solve it on the spot, get help from her partners on the Executive Team, or bring it to the weekly meeting and ask for ideas. She’s not going to be the Lone Ranger here – everybody needs to contribute their best.
  • Performance conversations: Em will make requests for assistance, and will press for agreements from her Executive peers, and from workforce supervisors and staff, for what they will do and by when it will be done. She’s going for impeccability on agreements throughout the transition.
  • Closure conversations: She will have lots of these, including: (1) Bring a report to every weekly meeting, updating the facts of what’s happening in the workplace regarding the transition; (2) Say “thank you” easily and often, to everyone, and be appreciative of every conversation and contribution of support. (3) Take responsibility wherever possible, never blaming “other people” for their decisions or actions. (4) Update agreements as needed with other executives, and with workforce personnel as appropriate in every conversation.

Em is taking on deepening her own personal and professional power in this matter. As an HR manager, she is going to be an important engine to have this transition go well. They are lucky to have her.

Back to School: Reduce Office Communication Problems

Here’s some feedback from people who just found out about solving the biggest issues in their office communication:

  • We took you up on your idea to find out about the communication issues underneath our department’s problems, and found that the category for “Poor Quality Work” was our biggest concern. We are putting your recommendations to work, reminding people about our department goals, talking to clarify the quality standards for what we want our products and documents to look like, and making better agreements for each assignment. After just 2 meetings where we added these conversations, our Quality issue is much reduced – so we’re going to tackle the 2nd-highest problem next!
  •  The boss thought our problems were caused by personality issues. But now we have proof that it’s time to upgrade communication. Thanks for just giving us just the group scores – we liked the seeing the totals and the averages on each of those 56 questions. It gave us individual confidentiality plus probably softened the Cranky Lady’s score too.
  • Wow – we didn’t know we had such a problem with “Lateness”! But we see it now – we didn’t have good deadlines for our assignments, and most of our projects went beyond the scheduled time and budget. We’ve been getting better at specifying due-dates for things instead of saying “ASAP” or “It’s a priority”. Thank you very much!

Our Workplace Communication Assessment for groups is available now – just go to the regular page where you can take the Workplace Assessment for yourself – https://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2/ – and read the instructions. When you get to the “PS”, you’ll see that you can also arrange to have a profile done that summarizes responses from your whole group or department. Just click on that email and you’ll get the information on how to do it.

We’re betting you will appreciate getting your group involved in improving communication with just a few easy and simple steps to reduce recurring workplace problems. Much quicker than sending everyone back to school.

See Your Communication Habits

While the blog has been down (we’re fixed now – yay!), the activity using “Communication Assessments” has been up. People are going to https://usingthefourconversations.com/free-assessments and checking out the value of those tests (both are free).

I just re-took the 20-question Personal Communication Assessment, which is a quickie way to find out which of the Four Conversations are strong and which ones need some work. I learned that I need to work on Closure Conversations – especially cleaning up some agreements. What I got on the screen when I clicked ‘Submit’ was (1) a graph showing how I scored on the conversations, which is how I knew I Closure was the lowest, and (2) my answers on the questions in each category. That’s how I knew my agreement-management scores were off. I like that can see where I’m doing well and where I can upgrade something. I’ll take the test again in a month or two and see what needs work then.

The 56-person Workplace Communication Assessment takes longer – about 10-15 minutes – to complete. This isn’t about scoring your personal communication habits – it’s to identify the biggest problems in your workplace that result from poor communication habits.  When you click ‘Submit’, you get a profile of eight types of workplace problems (lateness, difficult people, lack of resources, accountability, etc), showing which ones are biggest for you. Plus, for your #1 biggest workplace problem, you get a few tips on what kinds of communication habits can be developed to reduce the problem.

I’m glad people are getting some mileage out of these assessments. We are developing a way for a group of people to take the Workplace Assessment and compile a group score, so it’s not just one person’s opinion. We have done a few of those manually and the results have been very valuable to managers and team members. Having a group of people take the test means everyone has seen the questions, so they have at least thought about their workplace in terms of its communication-related problems. That means more people might be interested in upgrading their group habits for better teamwork. A good thing, right?

The Myth of Silos, Fences, and Boundaries

A great teacher once asked me to take 15 minutes and make a list of all the things I am ignoring in my life. I did it: the list included a basket of mending, a rude neighbor, and the funny noise my car made when I went over 50 mph. Then I read the list to him and he asked, “How can you say you are ignoring those things if you are able to write them on a list and tell me about them?”

Point taken: there is no such thing as “ignoring” anything because ignoring is an active task that must be maintained over time. We cannot simply use our willpower to put something out of mind.

A former client contacted me recently to say that a whole division in her company was being moved to another location. “The problem of communicating across silos,” she said, “is going to get even worse.”

I had lunch recently with someone – a smart and fast-thinking guy who does excellent work – who explained the problems he has with certain incompetent people at work. “They don’t understand management or technology,” he said, “and they slow things down. Now I just I fence them off.”

A project manager told me at a meeting he believed setting boundaries on what a project should and should not include was his most important job. “Otherwise,” he insisted, “we can’t plan for the project schedule and budget.”

My question: Why do we talk about silos, fences, and boundaries? What we are really talking about is creating effective ways to relate to others in different circumstances, isn’t it?

  • Silos are gaps we may need to bridge with agreements for how, when, and why to communicate. Even if people move to another location, we can still communicate across distances these days, right? It just takes some care and attention to design the necessary communications. That was always true, but we sometimes forget to honor our responsibility for productive communication when we get to see people at the coffee machine every day.
  • Fences are artificial constructs – there is no fence around that incompetent manager. But isn’t our “bypass” actually an agreement that we’re not going to follow protocols? The manager knows how and when to expect to hear from you, so you actually have an agreement, not a fence.
  • Boundaries also emphasize the separation rather than the connection between groups. Project scope is always defined in terms of which relationships are needed to bring in a successful end result. We know we need to build bridges of communications and agreements with some people or groups in order to reach a goal. But identifying a “boundary” around those people focuses attention on what will not get done rather than what we do intend to produce.

The stories we tell ourselves about how we are connected or disconnected to others are interesting, but not always very useful. What’s useful is to notice which connections we need, and to upgrade them for the objectives at hand. It’s also useful to notice what connections we are “stuck with”, and find a workable agreement for what, when, and why to communicate. If you feel better calling some of those agreements a silo, fence, or boundary, that’s fine.

But remember, that’s just you pretending to ignore an existing connection. Just because you’re not working to fix that funny noise in your car does not mean it isn’t there.

Agreements for Change

Last night was the final class on “Leadership and Implementing Change”, and graduate students reported the most valuable things they learned. Their #1 tip – Make agreements, track agreements, and follow up on agreements.

Each student had done a semester-long project to define and implement a change in their workplace, applying the latest class lessons to the project every week. Their reports showed some changes were successful and some were not, what worked best, and what they needed to get better at doing.

The most popular idea was about agreements. If you don’t make agreements, they said, then you don’t have any clarity or certainty about what will happen or when it will be done. If you don’t track those agreements, you will forget about them and fail to follow up. And if you don’t follow up, you will “lose credibility”, as one student said. “People will think you don’t really care about whether anyone actually does what they promised to do,” she explained.

They also noticed they were not very skilled at creating agreements. One person said, “I am usually too casual about asking people to do things. I say “if you want to do this” or “maybe you could get that for me”, which isn’t a good request. And it doesn’t set up a good agreement.”

No clear agreements create unreliable results. “Without agreements, it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” another student said. “If you don’t care about making a change, don’t bother talking about it.”

Their recommendations: Start with a clear intention. Refine it in conversations with people who can assist you. Make solid agreements for people to take actions. Keep track and follow up on all promises. A useful recipe for implementing change.

Productive Communication: Your Best Goal-Getting Tool

I just looked up “management communication” to see how it is described in the world today. I’m a woman with an undergrad degree in Psychology, and two grad degrees in Engineering, and I admit to being horrified.

The American Management Association has a communication training on “Getting Results Without Authority”, subtitled “How do you influence other people who don’t work for you to get the results you need?” It covers:

  1. Personal power: Your source of influence and authority over others, independent of the position you hold (based on theories from psychology and sociology);
  2. Reciprocity: Your ability to behave in a friendly manner to build positive relationships that will encourage others to do things for you (from social psychology);
  3. Personal style in relationships: Your responses to psychology quizzes about whether you are secure, anxious, dismissive, fearful, dependent, etc.;
  4. Persuasion: Your ability to change other people’s attitudes or behaviors by sharing information, feelings, and/or reasoning with them.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your ability to bring about a peaceful ending to a conflict (negative and non-productive interaction) between other individuals or groups;
  6. Negotiation: Your ability to facilitate dialogues that craft outcomes satisfying various interests.
  7. Action plans: Your ability to outline the actions needed to reach a specified goal.

Interesting. I might want to Google some of those things and take the quizzes just for the fun of it. And certainly a few skills in building positive relationships and making good plans are valuable in every area of life.

But, as the authors of “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, we’re really simple. We see four productive conversations to have at work – and we have tested them with people who are managers as well as people who have no authority whatsoever. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Talk about your goal(s) – what you want, when you want it, and why it matters – with other people who could be involved in accomplishing it. Have those conversations frequently.
  2. Have dialogues with others to find and clarify ideas about how you could achieve the goals, who else could be involved, and where you could make connections for resources and results.
  3. Get people in action (yourself included). Make clear requests for what you want, and when and why. Make good promises to deliver results to others so they can support your objectives. Create agreements with people for making things happen on time and on budget.
  4. Clean things up regularly. Update the facts about progress toward the goal and revise plans accordingly. Thank people when they’re great, or even just for showing up, and don’t be shy about holding them to account. That means reminding people to deliver what they promised or to revoke their promise so you can stop waiting for them. Apologize when other people are inconvenienced, or when you see either a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding that could slow down progress toward the goal.

That’s it. Have each of those 4 conversations on a regular basis, in whatever sequence is needed to keep things moving toward goal success. Productive communication is simple talk to propose specific goals, engage people in planning, and boost them into action with good agreements for What-When-Why something will happen. Then you have a regularly scheduled “status check” to get everyone updated, appreciated, and refreshed for the next steps toward the goal.

So if I want to reliably get results – including with people over whom I have no authority – I could learn to propose ideas, discuss them with others, make requests, and track progress. That’s my plan: I’ll keep practicing The Four Conversations.

#1 Most Useful Meeting Topic: The Debrief

The most powerful part of a good team or project meeting is the “debrief”. There’s no better way to take the pulse of a group’s productivity and effectiveness than to ask these two key debrief questions:

  1. With regard to your job assignments, what is working well?
  2. What is not working well?

When your team members take time to consider “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?”, they come to the meeting prepared to find out about where their job responsibilities may need an upgrade. This is pure gold – it bypasses the “problem-solving” blather that usually eats up meeting time and goes straight to the heart of the matter: Where are the successes? And what isn’t working?

There are three underlying causes of “What’s Not Working” for department or project team members:

  1. Lack of clarity on results to be produced. Mostly our work assignments emphasize what we need to do, and not so much on what results we need to produce. Team members can get lost in doing – and slow down the entire endeavor.
  2. Lack of awareness of outside requirements or constraints. Team members who don’t know about external rules or conditions that need attention can leave out important connections or communications with other departments or outside organizations and agencies. This can cost the whole project unplanned time or resources.
  3. Lack of coordination. If my assignment somehow affects your results, we need to talk. The word “coordinate” comes from the Latin for “begin together “– another way of saying “Get on the same page.” It’s the hardest thing to manage because it’s invisible: everybody can see the people and the work, but nobody can see the connections unless they are spelled out in debrief meetings. Then, it’s best to write them down as part of a task-list for future team members.

Opening up these “cans of worms” in a debrief conversation – also known as the first part of a Closure Conversation where you “acknowledge the facts” – is valuable because it moves everyone into an Understanding dialogue about what is missing from some aspect of their shared project or goals. Clarity, awareness, and coordination go missing on a regular basis, so ask the “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?” questions at least once a week.

PS – To find out what’s working in your department or project, take the free assessment.