Getting Things Done. Or Not.

Did anyone ever tell you something that startled you into a new reality? Our publisher (of “The Four Conversations” book) startled me with what turned out to be a great awakening. Two recent news items reminded me of that truth.

We – my husband-coauthor Jeffrey and the publisher – were discussing possible subtitles for our book. I argued for using the phrase, “A Practical Way for Getting Things Done”. After I’d proposed it 3 times, the publisher said, ever so gently, “Laurie, not everybody is interested in getting things done.”

I remember how stunned I was. Really? There are people who don’t want to get things done? What are they doing with their lives? But since then, I’ve noticed how many people can ignore their ever-growing pile of unfinished tasks, or the things they should throw out or give away, or situations that are dangerous and need to be faced promptly. I hadn’t noticed all that before.

Those recent news items? One, a report on Bob Woodward’s book “Fear”, was about Trump’s anger over South Korea’s trade surplus with America. Trump wanted to withdraw from a trade deal with them, but his attorney swiped the paperwork off his desk so he wouldn’t sign it. He knew that Trump “seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list – in his mind or anywhere else – of tasks to complete.”

The other item was in last Sunday’s New York Times about Japan’s nuclear waste. They’ve been building a nuclear waste recycling plant for the last 30 years and it’s still not done. But they can’t give up the project, because the community hosting the facility doesn’t want to face the real problem: recycling the waste is not going to solve over 47 metric tons of plutonium that needs to be safely stored and/or permanently disposed. The community doesn’t want to host a storage site, and disposition is surely impossible in Japan.

Does anybody want to get things done? Apparently, Trump does not keep a list of Things to Do – not on paper or in his head. And Japan is going around in circles to avoid making a permanent plan for solving their nuclear waste problem (so is the U.S.).

It’s simple to make a “To-Do” or a “Results Wanted” list of unfinished things, but it’s hard to face how much we’ve got lying around waiting to be done. I guess we’d rather lie around. But even one completion can give us energy and relief – and it’s usually worth the effort.

If you aren’t getting things done at the rate you’d like, you can always try communication. Propose a task or project to someone else (Initiative conversation). Talk with them about how that task or project might be accomplished (Understanding conversation). Make a request that the other person do some or all of what is required to get it done by a certain time, or even just agree to be a support for you as you take it on yourself (Performance conversation). Follow up on how it’s going by whatever due date(s) you’ve set (Closure conversation).

PS – The subtitle we finally agreed on for our book was “Daily Communication that Gets Results”. Don’t read it unless you want some ideas on getting things done.

Training for Accountability: First Things First

Erin, a restaurant manager I know, was approached by a complaining customer the other day. Here’s a summary of what she told me about it:

  • Customer: The Servers here never paid any attention to us for over 15 minutes. No one even stopped by to say they would get back to us. Do your people know which tables they are responsible for serving?
  • Erin: Yes – it was really busy. And they are young, and most of them only work part-time. We train them, but they don’t always pay attention.

OK, it sounds like Erin is not listening to her Complaining Customer. But it got worse:

  • Erin continues, “For example, we have been training them how to set the tables properly – the flowers in the center, the salt and pepper on the right side, the sweetener on the left. But still they forget!”

How did Erin veer off into table-setting décor? She was defensive in the face of a complaint, and maybe that impaired her ability to sincerely acknowledge what the customer was saying. I heard the complaint as Servers neglecting their customers or not “owning” their tables. But maybe they don’t have “their” tables – maybe they just pay attention to certain people or locations they prefer.

I remembered putting myself through college as a waitress, when my boss made it very clear which tables I needed to tend to. Whoever sat at “my table” was “my customer”. I never heard much about settings or floral décor, just an emphasis on “clean and neat”. If your training emphasizes where to put the salt shaker, that’s what people will think is most important.

Erin’s job is now to improve her staff’s accountability for customer-oriented results. People can be accountable for the products, services, and communications they deliver – but only if they know exactly what those “deliverables” are. At a restaurant, greeting customers is one deliverable; taking food orders from customer to kitchen is another. Bringing food, checking on customer needs, and clearing dishes – all are results a restaurant Server is accountable for delivering. Ideally, that’s the core of training.

Erin and I talked about this, and at some point, Erin said, “You know, with such slow service I bet that customer didn’t give a hoot about the flowers, or whether the sweeteners were on left or even there at all. I’d better train people on what good customer service looks like.”

Accountability’s middle name is “count”, which is a clue that training people on their work responsibilities needs to be specific. If Erin’s servers don’t “own” their station of 4-7 tables (depending on space arrangements, etc.), then it’s time to invent the idea of “stations”, number the tables, and assign certain table numbers to each Server – and talk about the specifics of serving customers at those tables. That is something everyone can count, and Erin can count on her people to serve customers well.

The Manager’s Golden Rule: Make Production Goals Visible

Carrie is a longtime friend who has one persistent delusion: she thinks the people in her work group are all committed to producing the results she mentioned in the weekly staff meeting. But the truth is that she is the only one who really focuses on Getting Things Done.

Poor Carrie is astounded – at least once a week – to discover (for the millionth time) that not everyone is dedicated to Getting Things Done. “What’s the matter with them?” she asks me. “Do they forget what we’re doing here? Or are they just not organized for getting their work done?”

And, for the millionth time, I remind her that if you don’t have a visible “scoreboard” of the results you want, most people will focus on their own preoccupations. As I learned in a recent Landmark Worldwide program, most of us are going through life on auto-pilot, at least most of the time.

I remember when I learned that some people are not interested in Getting Things Done. Our publisher broke the news to me (ever so gently) as we were all trying to come up with a subtitle for our book, “The Four Conversations”. Me: “What? Some people don’t care about Getting Things Done? What are they doing with their lives?” OK, I gave up my subtitle idea and bowed to their expertise, eventually settling on the subtitle “Daily Communication that Gets Results” .

In case you, like Carrie, are interested in Getting Things Done – both for yourself and with other people – it helps to know all three parts of the Manager’s Golden Rule:

  1. Spell out the results you want to see.
  2. Specify when you want to see those results: what day, and what time. And, if you have other people who need to produce or deliver something, make note of that too.
  3. Then display that simple chart in a place where you (and everybody else) can see them at least twice a day.

A sample of items from Carrie’s chart looks like this:

Get It DONE! When Who Does It?
Newsletter out Noon – every 3rd Friday Arnie
Training materials updated & printed Friday 3 PM before every training program delivery Training-IT-Marketing Committee
Subscriber Report Before Tuesday staff meetings (9:15 am) Marketing Team
Budget plans & projections For the mid-month Tuesday staff meeting Kelsey’s Money Team

Carrie posted it on the door outside the meeting room, in a hallway between people’s offices and the coffee pot, where everyone would see it. One member of the Marketing Team told me, “It gives me a little boost every time I go by it, just to see how we’re all working together to make something happen.” Carrie rolled her eyes when she heard about that, and said, “They should know their jobs.” (Sometimes she’s crabby.)

Yes, maybe. Or maybe it’s just nice to be reminded that there IS a “big picture” purpose for the team, and not just a bunch of humans running around being busy. I know I keep my own list on the wall in my study. It helps me manage this rogue brain.

Servant Leadership vs. Management

I found this image online that itemized the “7 pillars of servant leadership”. OMG. I am such a total failure!

  1. Person of Character. I suppose I have a character, or maybe I even AM a character, but I don’t think either of those interpretations will meet servant-leader standards.
  2. Puts People First. Flunk this one too. My focus is on action, results, and outcomes – and engaging people in putting their attention on that. I don’t focus on people first, but even so, some of my best friends are people.
  3. Skilled Communicator. Well, I’m not a terrible communicator, but not sure if I qualify as “skilled”. I don’t always use the best practices I’ve been taught, and sometimes make communication mistakes. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at cleaning those up afterward.
  4. Compassionate Collaborator. Huh? Who put those two words together? I suspect it’s an attempt to combine collaborating with others while also “developing” them. I’d get about a C+.
  5. Has Foresight. I might pass this one, since I’m often looking ahead to see what’s coming in different projects. But I’ve really been enjoying lots of surprises lately, so foresight only goes so far.
  6. Systems Thinker. Nailed this one! I’m so addicted to systems thinking that I got a PhD in it. I love looking at things in context and finding connections that can make solutions and breakthroughs easier.
  7. Leads with Moral Authority. Clueless here. I don’t even know what this means. Does it require certain religious beliefs, or ethics training? Flunked this one too.

So, thanks to #6, I am one seventh of a servant leader. I just wrote a paper on leadership vs. management, and will present it at a conference in March. Frankly, the state of leadership literature and training today is quite a mess.

Leadership is useful for creating mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) – and for communicating it regularly. But I can do much of that for myself, so I’m hooked on management. One comprehensive definition of that is: “the function that coordinates the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” Yeah! That’s what produces action, results, and outcomes!

Seems like it might be a good idea for me to cultivate some moral authority, or some compassionate collaboration skills.  LOL.  Just kidding.

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?

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

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.