Productive Communication Works!

My first email to Kelly began, “You sat in the back row of the program I led in your hospital last week, and I wondered if you have used any of “The Four Conversations” to solve your budget problem.”

It had been a day-long training, reserved for only manager-level people because the VPs probably wanted their underlings to speak freely about their work lives. We used the last part of the day to talk about “special problems”, where some participants revealed their biggest workplace challenge and the rest of us suggested which conversation(s) might help improve the situation.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the most interesting problem was Kelly’s. She wanted to get her team’s portion of a Departmental budget transferred to her direct control. As soon as she said that, about half the room gasped and turned to look at her. Then they burst into applause!

It was so great that she saw the program as an opportunity to take charge of this issue for her team, and not wait passively for someone else to handle it. She gave very few details, but she didn’t need to – the whole room (except for me) knew who the key players were and how risky it seemed to talk to the VP involved. I didn’t even ask her which Department, or why her team needed this. But Kelly was obviously sincere about giving her team members a greater role in implementing decisions they saw as important to fulfill the hospital’s mission: health and wellness service quality, affordability, and compassionate care.

“I’d love an update on what you learned, and who you talked with about this,” I wrote, “plus, of course, whether you’re succeeding in getting the budget authority transferred to you.”

Kelly responded promptly, saying, “The day after the program, I scripted out a Closure Conversation and made a request to set up a new agreement. Here’s the 3 things I said”:

  1. “Adam, you were going to transfer my team budget to me by the end of last month, but I don’t see it on my system yet.” (Kelly acknowledging the factual status of the matter)
  2. “I know you are busy with a million things, and I need your expertise in getting this done properly.” (Kelly appreciating the man who is responsible for making budget transfers)
  3. “Please let me know if you can make the transfer before next Wednesday, and whether you need any other information from me or my team members on our plans for implementing the AXIS system.” (Kelly requesting a new timeline for the transfer)

She concluded her email with, “Adam has already created a cost center and will transfer the budget tomorrow morning!”

A week later, she emailed, “I actually have a quite a few other places where I am practicing the use of these conversations. My team is heading into a strategic planning process and yesterday we had a huddle. I started by restating the invitation (my Initiative conversation), then we spent 20 minutes in an Understanding conversation about the steps we needed and how long each one would take. I closed with a Performance conversation, asking them if they will be attending and participating in all three strategic planning sessions we scheduled. Everyone agreed to be in the game. Thanks for your support on all this!”

Thank you, Kelly, for making things happen in your workplace. It’s so much more powerful than being resigned to waiting, or complaining about “other people” who didn’t do what they said. Productive communication doesn’t require authority, influence, or motivation. Amazing what you can accomplish with straight talk, isn’t it?

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.

 

Management May Not Be Sexy – But It Really Is Necessary

I went to a conference last weekend and a man asked me what my current #1 project is about. I told I am working on defining what it means to “manage” something and how to do it. I said a little bit more, but then I noticed he was falling asleep. No kidding – he was falling asleep!

OK management isn’t a sexy topic that gets people on the edge of their chairs. But still, it’s everywhere, and when it isn’t done effectively there is a price to pay – sometimes a steep one.

Leadership – now that’s the hot topic in the past several years. Everybody wants to be a leader, and nobody wants to be a manager. I know this only from a sample of MBA students who were asked to choose one of those options. They voted 100% in favor of leadership over management.

Leadership is sexier, because leaders create desirable futures that are attractive and engaging. People are attracted to the positive vision and want to follow the leader toward that future. Who wouldn’t want to be at the head of that parade?

But good management is what gets things done. No vision, however desirable, is realized without management practices like planning, tracking, and reporting. Good management is more than simply being “in charge” of a group of people. It is all about productive communication – like discussing these things:

  • Specifying goals and objectives to create a good road-map to the desired future;
  • Building the calendar for accomplishment, with milestones and celebrations built in as appropriate;
  • Defining the necessary specific results to be produced along the way, complete with tracking systems and due dates;
  • Identifying other key players who will be vital to success; and
  • Agreeing on a meeting schedule and an agenda that will keep things moving forward on schedule, such as (1) refresh the goal commitment; (2) create productive relationships with others who will help produce the intended results; (3) compare the schedule of planned results to the reality of results delivered; and (4) collaborate to resolve problems and barriers along the way.

Management is communication, with an intention to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen by itself. I have heard that there are some people who are not interested in making things happen, so I know they wouldn’t be interested in management. But I never thought a conversation about management would make someone want to take a nap! I think the next time someone asks me what I’m working on, I will tell them that I am the new Director of Communications for the Trump White House. That should keep them awake.

Schedule that Appointment? OK, But First Check Three Things…

After I wrote about putting a promise – an agreement for an appointment, a delivery, etc. – in your schedule, I got an email from my dear friend Josh. He reminded me that scheduling a promise is the same thing as “creating an occasion” for something, and that any promise often involves creating more than just one calendar entry. He said:

Meet Bob at Chipotle at 10:30, is quite simple to think. (Or even forget.) But to actually fulfill it will likely require many actions – each of which will take some duration of time. Working backwards from the actual appointment: Get settled at the table in Chipotle; Walk in the door; Get a place to park; Travel amidst traffic; Pack my papers for the meeting; Shower and dress; Etc. It’s not quite the simple “10:30” to fulfill, but rather many other minutes, nay, hours, to make that “10:30” happen.

He’s right. Even though a lot of those things are already built into to our day – shower and dress, for example – we often forget to identify the specific time required to do the preparatory work associated with a successful promise.

I had an example of this the other day when I met with a former client to discuss the fallout from a project we had done last year to improve communication in her small company. As I left for the meeting, I grabbed the folder from the project, but it never occurred to me to bring copies of all the feedback I had received from her managers over the course of that project. My bad – she wanted to discuss a particular manager and I did not have the specifics on that person’s assessment about his role in the company. I kept my promise to be at the meeting, but generic information was insufficient for a deeper conversation on next steps. We completed the discussion on the phone the next day.

When we make promises, we usually create a good understanding of What we are going to do (go somewhere, do something, or deliver a product or service), When we will do it (before Friday at 3:00, on Tuesday at noon, or by the end of the work week) and Why it matters (to gather ideas about Topic X, get in a golf game before leaving town, or propose a new project for a profitable business deal). NOTE: If you drop out any of these What-When-Why pieces, you have a “hope”, not a promise. Now I can see I was pretty weak on understanding why she wanted the meeting!

But scheduling a promise also requires a good look at the other three “journalist questions”:

  1. Who else has a role in this matter, either before, during, or after the completion of the promise? Does someone else have useful or necessary information, or need to be included in communications? This was the step I omitted – I thought it was an informal meeting, and was too occupied with my own relocation project (we moved!) to consider that she might want to discuss future work with me.
  2. Where will you look to get any resources you need? Where will any resulting products or decisions be delivered? Are there other locations relevant to the occasion? I should have brought all my resources, no matter how bulky.
  3. How will the promise be fulfilled? Think through the steps, the players, and the information to be sure you see all the tasks and actions necessary for successful completion of the promise. I wasn’t looking at fulfilling anything but being there to talk with her.

Scheduling the fulfillment of a promise requires getting clear on what “fulfillment” means. That includes identifying the players, resources and results, and an action plan. If the promise is simple – meet Bob at Chipotle at 10:30 – and that’s all there is too it, then put it on the calendar. But if there is something to be fulfilled at that meeting, then a little more thinking is needed to be responsible for all the other actions that will support a successful outcome.

How to Save Time: Make Better Requests to Get Better Promises

Shane, a student in Jeffrey’s management class last semester said he had solved a problem at work: wasted time! He stopped me in the hall at the university yesterday and said, “We reduced the time people spent making unnecessary calls to remind people about what they said they were going to do. Tell your husband thanks for teaching us how to make better requests and get good promises!”

It was funny to me, because Jeffrey and I had just asked a local handyman to repair the downspouts on the side of our house. The guy said he would come over “next week”. By Thursday morning, I was wondering if he was really going to come, and how I could get him to be more specific, so I texted him and reminded him that we were waiting. He didn’t answer, and only arrived on Saturday afternoon. I was annoyed at the lack of response as well as the vagueness of his “promised” time of service.

“Promised” may be a stronger word than he would have used. People don’t always hear that what comes out of their own mouth might be a “promise”. Right now, for example, I have an email in my in-box that was sent to me 2 days ago. It says, “I will get back to you tomorrow.” She hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

Did she make a promise? In my world, yes, she did. In her world, I would guess not. When you say, “I’ll have it for you Tuesday”, do you consider that you’ve made a promise?

What Shane did was take the idea of making good requests and put it into practice with his whole team. His goal was to get more solid agreements, and here is his description of what he did:

  1. First, I proposed the idea of making better requests to all my team members at our Monday meeting. I explained that whenever we ask for something from someone, whether they are on the team or not, we are going to say three things:
    1. Specifics about “What” will be done;
    2. A specific time “When” it will be complete; and
    3. A statement of whatever workplace goal our request supports, i.e., “Why” it matters.
  2. Then I reminded everybody to also specify any information about “Who, Where, and How” that is relevant to their request – or at least discuss those things with the person they are asking to do something. It helps you get the other person’s input to clarify and confirm the importance of the request.
  3. The last thing I told them was that we would keep a list of their requests on a flip-chart in the meeting room. Anyone on the team who requested something from anybody else in the company would write it on the chart, along with the “due date” for completion. And we would review the chart every Monday morning to see how our requests were being fulfilled.

Shane’s approach to getting better performance agreements from people focused only on the request side of the conversation. It was an effective first step. He said the first Monday review of the “Request List” revealed that there had been 35 requests made in the previous week, and over half of them had been completed as expected. “Not bad,” Shane said, “but not great either. Seven people had to follow up with people who hadn’t delivered what they promised. Five people had to reschedule some of their work because they didn’t get what they requested in time to do what they had planned to do.”

“We talked about what was missing in our requests,” Shane said, “and started to understand why we aren’t getting what we ask for 100% of the time. The second week we got much better results. Making clearer requests is a real time-saver – we are getting good promises from people and it has made our work life smoother.”

I never got a “good promise” from that handyman because I didn’t make a good request. I could have explained that I wanted him to come over when Jeffrey would be home to explain the problem. I could have asked for a narrower window of time to come to the house. I could have explained that the house is being sold and the buyer wants to check that all the necessary repairs have been done. Coulda. Didn’t.

Bottom line: making good requests is not just for the workplace. Productive communication works at home too.

Getting Clear about “Difficult People” – Don’t Make it Personal

There is a LinkedIn post about “Difficult People”, which was really about difficult relationships – and how to deal with them ever so gently. Yipes! My clients had very specific examples of what they mean by “difficult people”, and weren’t interested in being gentle! The gentle example suggested saying, ‘I don’t like your approach’, ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’, or ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’. Soft stuff.

My notes from clients say that difficult people are the people who:

  1. Must be continually reminded or “micromanaged” to get their work properly or on time;
  2. Are argumentative, unfriendly, or otherwise disagreeable, causing trouble at work;
  3. Resist using new methods and procedures in their work;
  4. Gossip and make others look bad, or blame others for their problems, and being unpleasant to work with;
  5. Are chronic complainers, taking up the time, attention, and energy of others;
  6. Do only the minimum work necessary, or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done; or
  7. Expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

So there’s no need to be touchy-feely about it. Maybe what’s needed is a conversation about results – meeting deadlines, behaving respectfully, and producing quality work

I heard one manager tell a meeting of his entire staff, “Some of us, perhaps without knowing it, are not operating as part of a team. Sometimes we aren’t always producing what others need from us, or we’re waiting to be told what to do, or being unpleasant to others. I think we can create a better atmosphere here.”

He went on to lead a discussion on the following 3 topics:

  • How can we be more supportive of each other?
  • How can we do our work well, while also being aware of how our work fits in with what others need to reach our goals?
  • What does it mean to be cordial and positive at work?

He wrote people’s answers on a big whiteboard, then asked, “What will make these ideas work?”, writing down their solution ideas. He closed the session by asking them, “Are you – each one of you – willing to make an agreement with me that you will put at least one of these ideas into practice, starting today?”

As his staff members studied the list, hands started going up. Within 2-3 minutes, every hand in the room was in the air. He told them this would be included in their monthly review meetings, to see if their workplace “atmosphere” was improving or needed more work. He transcribed his lists of their best answers to his topic discussion questions and implementation ideas , and posted them – framed – in the rest rooms. They followed up at meetings, but soon didn’t need to do that anymore. The “atmosphere” improved without worrying about anyone’s approach, style, or values. Whew!

 

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!”

Three “Brexit” Lessons for Getting YOUR Goal

Did you notice that the “Remain” leaders in the United Kingdom – the ones who wanted to stay with the European Union – made some costly mistakes? It seems they had some lazy assumptions, and failed to deliver the well-designed conversations that could have painted a different picture for UK voters.

Mistake #1: Too few dialogues to create new understandings. It is foolish to think that people already understand the facts of a choice. A good leader will sustain dialogues to clarify the facts of the matter – so people can see them, ask questions, and create a positive relationship to what’s actually true.

UK voters did not know much about their country’s EU membership. Regular understanding conversations – those dialogues on Who does What, Where, and How – could have spelled out the roles and responsibilities of all EU members and clarified the facts in the arguments, from both sides, about what EU membership really entails – and what it doesn’t.

Alas, voters were energized by dramatic talk of “regaining sovereignty” and “immigrants stealing jobs”. They didn’t know that the UK’s sovereignty was not in question, and the UK was responsible for its own immigration policy.

Mistake #2. Too few communications on the value of what we have. A leader also cannot assume that voters will grasp the true costs and benefits of making a decision to stop doing something. They are so accustomed to the benefits of “the way things are” that they don’t see those things at risk. Spelling out the value of any particular decision is necessary – and must be done many times in many ways.

The “Remain” leaders forgot to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. Frequent “closure conversations” about what EU membership provides to the UK were missing: What good things did UK membership in the EU do for us this week? How did we profit from it this month? What have we gained from it this past year?

If the “Remain” leaders had done that, perhaps thousands of people wouldn’t have been Googling “What is the EU?” on the day after the vote.

Mistake #3: Giving away the initiative. Initiative conversations launch an idea by proposing something of value for the future: What do we want? When do we want it? Why does it matter? But those conversations can’t be a one-time thing. Leaders need to keep the mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) present every day. Find a way to talk about it, and make good slogans and visual reminders. Make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do that will create value for themselves.

The “Remain” leaders surrendered the game with their initiative. They failed to object to the referendum being called the “Brexit” (short for Britain exits the EU). If they had insisted on using the term “Bremain” in all media interactions, it would have given people a shorthand way to think of the value proposition for remaining in the EU. Instead, “Brexit” carried the day.

Note that what ultimately made the difference was leaders speaking, media talking, and people having conversations. Both sides communicating in many ways, all the time. One side won, and now almost nobody is happy about the uncertainty and costs of the whole mess.

Productive conversations matter, so let’s practice getting better at using them, shall we?

Do As I Say! (or, Why We Don’t Get What We Want)

Mostly, the people around you want to please you. OK, there are a few meanies who just want to give you problems and headaches, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people you know really want you to be satisfied. And they want you to be pleased with whatever they give you – whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a communication. The world is not out to make your life difficult. At least most of the time.

So why don’t they give you what you want? Three reasons: pick one.

  1. You didn’t ask. You said, “It would be nice to know what the committee decided”, instead of saying, “Would you check and see what the committee finally voted for?” Or you said, “I wish we had a better plan for getting this complicated job done”, then silently hoped someone would step up and draft a better plan for that job. NOTE: Hinting is not a reliable method for getting what you want.
  2. You weren’t specific. You said, “Please make a restaurant reservation for 7 PM this Friday at Hyde Park”, then were mad when you got there and found out the reservation was for two people instead of five people (even though you think “He should have known”). Or you said, “Please get me a list of all the properties associated with each of our customers”, and were disappointed when she brought you the customer property list on a paper Word document instead of emailing an Excel spreadsheet (even though you’re sure there is an Excel spreadsheet around somewhere). NOTE: Communicate the important details about what, exactly, you want.
  3. You told them what to DO, but not what to DELIVER. “Doing” is an activity. “Delivering” is the act of turning over something after that activity is complete. Not the same thing. You ask Jane to make a phone call and get some specific information on a recent new item in your industry. But… Did you also want her to let you know what she learned? Did you want that information before 5:00 today? Jane can do exactly what you asked her to do and still fail to deliver. NOTE: Delivery is what completes an activity, so spell it out.

Perhaps people actually DO do what we say – we just aren’t good at saying exactly what we want from them. Hinting, being vague, or defining things only in terms of tasks or activities without clarifying the delivery of results – that’s what costs extra time and goodwill in our communications. Each of those errors demands that we make another request, or fix the misunderstanding (wait for a table for 5), or go get the result ourselves instead of having it brought to us at the time we wanted it.

Conversations organize our lives and relationships. It’s worth the bother to give more thought to the specifics of our requests – and what we want delivered back to us – to make everybody happier. Including you.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.