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 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.

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.

Other Places to Put Your Promises? Nope. They Go in Your Schedule.

After the last blogpost about putting your promises into your schedule, I got a lot of feedback – mostly about all the other places you can put your promises. Here are the top five:

  1. Use Post-It Notes – on pieces of paper, bulletin boards, or the side of your computer;
  2. Write To-Do Lists;
  3. Send an email or text message to yourself;
  4. Keep physical piles of documents, books, and files in your office as “promise reminders”; and
  5. Ask other people to remind you what you said you would do.

That’s just a sample of the “good ideas” I received. They aren’t bad or wrong – except maybe that “physical piles” one. Plus, asking someone else to remind you is only reliable if you are paying them well to serve as your memory system. It is fine to use Post-Its, lists, emails or texts to yourself as a way to capture the specifics of the promise, i.e., the What, When, and Why – along with the Who, Where, and How as needed.

But all of those ideas for places to “put your promise” are only interim measures: where each promise needs to end up is in your schedule. A large and/or complex promise might even need to appear several times on your schedule: once for the final deadline, and other times to account for the various tasks and communications necessary in order to meet that deadline.

Why so picky about where to put your promises? Because when you tell someone you will do something, or send something, or bring something, you are giving your word – and your reputation depends on it. When you tell someone that you’ll be there at 2:15 and you don’t show up, or you’re really late, you are creating your own reputation. It won’t be a favorable one.

Your word matters. It is a way people know you, and know whether they can count on you. Think of the people you know: some of them are reliable and you can be sure they will do what they say, while others are much less dependable. You don’t want to be That Guy, the one who is sloppy about honoring his word.

Using a schedule makes sure you have a time for your promise, too. You know the people who say, “I’ll call you”, and never specify when that will happen? What if you started to ask them, “Can you call me on Wednesday between 10:00 and 10:30? I’ll make sure to be available then.” That gives you a promise, an agreement to put in your schedule. Of course, if you have never waited for someone to show up, or deliver something, or call you at the time they promised, you probably don’t need a schedule: your world is working beautifully. I do not yet live in that world.

So, I’m sorry to all those who sent in the “good ideas” – I’m going to stick with the idea of a schedule as the best place to put a promise. If it gets there by way of a list or a Post-It, that’s fine. But don’t wait long to get it on the schedule: time flies, you know.

Your Schedule? That’s Where Your Promises Go.

A friend, Jason, told me he waited at a restaurant this morning for over an hour because his friend “promised” to meet him there at 9 AM. The friend never showed, and didn’t email or text to say he wasn’t coming. I’ve heard this before from Jason, and it’s clear to me that his friend does not use a schedule to keep track of his appointments. Maybe Jason’s friend doesn’t consider their breakfast-date an “appointment”. Or maybe he treats all his appointments that way: I assume that I will remember, or even if I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter much.

Here’s an extreme example of that kind of thinking – The New Yorker reported (April 17, 2017, page 23) that Martin Shkreli probably doesn’t pay much attention to a schedule either:

“It was almost 9 P.M. when Shkreli drained his second glass of beer. He suddenly looked alert, remembering that he had received a jury-duty summons. He looked at his phone and said, “S**t, I might have missed it. What day is it?””

Wow. This is not someone you’d want to invite over to dinner. The soufflé would likely have to be reheated and served with a side of bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.

No-shows happen to Jason a lot – probably because Jason doesn’t use a schedule either. His life is unusually simple: a ride to work in the morning, the day at work, then home to dinner, maybe a bike ride, then TV and to bed. He lives pretty much one-day-at-a-time, and if something other than bike-riding and TV is supposed to happen in the evening, he remembers it, because it’s “special”. Weekends can be more complicated – he might meet his father, or go to visit nearby relatives, or make plans with friends. The dates and times for get-togethers with family members are very reliable – everybody communicates by email about the specifics of each event, so there are few surprises. Appointments made with his friends, however, are reliable only half the time.

What is so hard about using a schedule to make note of appointments or other agreements? I’m not sure, because I rely on my schedule to tell me where to be and when – every single appointment goes on my calendar, and once or twice a week I fill in the spaces between them with things from my “Do-Due List“. But that’s because I have reached a “certain age” where I have learned that my memory is not to be trusted. Not everyone has a complex life, and some weeks we may not need the schedule as much as others. But how can we count on keeping our word when we don’t write it down in a place we will check – and update – every day?

The question for Jason now, however, is, How long am I going to maintain a relationship with people who can’t be counted on to show up at the promised time and place? How many times am I willing to be stood up and left waiting before I assign you a reputation as Unreliable? I suspect Jason has more patience than most of us. He certainly has more than I do.

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.

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

A corporate trainer, I’ll call him Edwin, was complaining about having to update his middle-management training curriculum. “I have to do another Team Training,” he said, “and the bosses want me to include games and activities and other kinds of “fluff stuff”. Seriously? It’s a joke. Teams don’t work like that.”

I agreed that the word “team” is probably over-used, usually with a little bit of a halo on it. Some managers refer to “my team” or “our team” instead of saying “my staff” or “our department” – just because it sounds better. Sort of like the way people say “leader” because it sounds better than saying “manager”.

We talked about his old Team Training programs to see how to keep what he thought was valuable, and what he could do to improve them. “There are 3 basics I emphasize in those programs,” he said.

  1. A Team has a stated “team purpose” – a goal, a commitment, something that gives the group a reason for collaborating and coordinating internally as well as working with others.
  2. Team members work together to create a structure for coordination:
    1. Clarify who is the Team Leader, and which team members have primary responsibility for sub-goals or projects.
    2. Determine how decisions will be made. Which things does the Team Leader decide? Who else gets to make other kinds of decisions? How will those decisions be communicated to the rest of the team?
    3. Design a framework for how and when team members will communicate with one another. Weekly meetings, with an agenda? Regular consultations among subsets of team members? Or some other reliable pattern?
  3. Team members review and revise this structure of agreements as needed. If things get bogged down with internal or external problems, it’s time to get together and refresh the framework – as a team.

“Teams are not built on a foundation of focusing on individuals,” Edwin explained. “That is the biggest pitfall. Americans are especially fixed on being individuals first, and having their individuality be the centerpiece of their attention.

“Teams need a focus on the group: they need a reason for working together, and to agree on a structure of responsibilities, decisions, and communications.

“The purpose of a team is not to resolve conflicts, boost morale, or fix someone’s personality traits that are aggravating other team members. Team members might need to learn how to collaborate more effectively, or improve skills in communicating directly and honestly. But really, a team is a team for a reason: to make something happen, or to move something forward. It is not a family or an exercise in social studies.”

Thanks, Edwin. Now I realize there are many fewer “teams” than I thought. Not every group is willing or able to do those 3 things to become a team. The attraction to focusing on people, personalities, and interpersonal drama is compelling – and more familiar to us than defining a group purpose or creating a framework for interacting productively.

Hmmm. Maybe he could add a couple of games or exercises that help people practice doing those 3 things? Just a thought.

Lack of Integrity – It’s a Loose Connection, Right?

I have a nodding acquaintance – I’ll call her Liza – who says things like, “I’ll get back to you on that this week”; and “I will ask Nate to call you tomorrow;” and “I’ll text you about dinner plans.” Then nothing happens: she doesn’t deliver. Her mouth is not connected to her brain. It’s not connected to her Do-Due List or her Calendar either. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Do-Due List or a Calendar to help keep her brain connected to her word.

Liza is not somebody I interact with – she belongs to a colleague of mine. I wouldn’t put up with it. After the 2nd time she failed to do what she said, I’d have to say, “The last two times you told me you would do something like that, you didn’t deliver. You kept me waiting and expecting, and now I don’t trust that you will remember your promises.” She would be upset, maybe, but at least we could stop pretending that she cares about keeping her word.

I hear about Liza from my colleague, who doesn’t want to cause a conflict, or create bad feelings. So, it’s better to put up with someone whose word is meaningless and just keep letting her get away with it? No thanks.

Connecting my word to my behavior is on my mind because we are moving – downsizing to a smaller home in another state – and there’s a lot to handle. I am using those two tools (a Do-Due List and a Calendar) to manage our transition. The individuals in my ever-changing set of Outlook contacts are of many types and flavors, and I want to say proper Goodbyes, Hellos, and other conversations that honor their value to me. Same with organizations: cancel memberships, stop payments, open new accounts, etc.

I keep my Do-Due List on a journalist’s notepad. When a page gets too messy to read, I copy the still-undone To-Do’s and Due-To’s onto a fresh page and toss the old one. The Calendar is a printout of our 3-month transition schedule; one of those months is now gone. If it gets too messy with blue-inked notes and red-inked stars, I’ll just reprint it.

These documents help me avoid overtaxing my memory, and possibly create chaos or hurt feelings or wasted time and effort. Out integrity is costly – at work, at home, and among friends. If I connect my promises (the agreements I make with others) to my Do-Due List and my Calendar, then people won’t roll their eyes when I tell them I’ll do something. And they won’t say what people say about Liza: her word is worthless.

Ouch! I’m going to review my Do-Due List and Calendar right now to be sure it’s up to date!

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.