Step #4 – The Results Are In: What to Tackle First?

After 97% of StateOrg’s staff completed their “workplace issues” survey, Rodd sent out emails to all personnel and attaching the results for all five Regions. Everybody was going to see everything about what people said about all eight categories of workplace annoyances:

  1. Lateness of assignments, projects, or people;
  2. Poor quality work and clarity of work standards;
  3. Difficult people;
  4. Lack of teamwork, collaboration and coordination;
  5. Poor planning and workload overwhelm;
  6. Insufficient resources, support, and training;
  7. Lack of accountability; and
  8. Incomplete communications.

He also instructed everyone to pay the most attention to the top-ranked issues in their own Regional Office, telling them, “These survey results show us the different types of non-productive situations you see around us all. When I come to your office next week, we’ll talk about the ones that are the biggest headaches in your Region.”

Rodd also attached a copy of the five Recommendations Reports for each Region’s survey – again, everything to everybody. But he encouraged people to focus on the recommendations for their own Region, so they could get the idea of resolving these issues by changing their conversations with other people, in their own office as well as in other StateOrg groups.

When made his one-day visits with each Regional Office, Rodd asked the attendees to tell him the top three issues and he wrote those on the whiteboard. “That should keep our attention on improving these issues”, he said.

Then he reviewed all four “productive conversations”, giving people a handout that summarized the basics of each one. This opened the discussion of how all four conversations occurred in each office, either internally or with people in other Regions and other agencies or community organizations.  They saw their daily communication in a new light, as well as where its strengths and weaknesses were.

Then Rodd asked, “Which one conversation – out of these four – is the one that each of you thinks you’re already pretty good at having? Everybody, choose one conversation.” He had people raise their hand as he read out each of the four conversations: Initiative proposals, Understanding dialogues, Performance requests and promises, and Closure completion of projects and agreements. Then he had people get into sub-groups, one for each of those conversations, to talk about how their conversation could be applied in the office. The discussion was lively, with people writing notes and ideas on the flip-charts around the room.

At the end of the session, Rodd gave them an assignment: “Keep your groups going in your Region, and put your insights to work on those “Top Three” situations in your workplace. It’s time to make those disappear!”

He closed the meeting by announcing an upcoming all-staff meeting at the State Capitol in the near future. “This should be a fun gathering,” he told them. “All five Regions getting together in the same room! We are going to take on communicating better and improving our coordination and collaboration across all the Regions. I know it sounds either impossible or like really hard work, but I promise to provide a really good lunch.”  Everybody laughed – they had enjoyed a good afternoon.

Each “conversation group” took away their flip-chart notes, agreeing to keep working on collecting new ways of communicating in various situations and testing them out every day. Rodd was pleased to see that people were energized and, as one staffer said, “We’re finally going to clean up our language!”

Step #2 – Choosing an Assessment to Identify Biggest Workplace Problems

We’ve received a wave of inquiries about practicing productive communication techniques to resolve workplace problems. Since last week’s post of Step #1 in a 6-step process used by Rodd, a former client (see Step#1 blogpost), it seems people recognize the need to repair a “fractured organization”. The idea of using 4 distinct kinds of conversation to get a group on track might be catching on – perhaps my retirement years will be well spent letting people know about this!

Rodd’s first introduction to using productive communication was the free Personal Communication Assessment – only 20 questions – to see how his own skills stacked up in this area. He got prompt feedback on his answers, showing him his strengths and his weaknesses. Then, he kept exploring by taking the free Workplace Communication Assessment – this time, 56 questions. Again, he got immediate feedback on 8 types of workplace problems in StateOrg (our name for his organization).  The report validated what Rodd saw as the biggest problem: a lack of accountability.  Even better, it gave him a recipe for how to use all four productive conversations to solve that problem.

First, though, Rodd thought about having all his staff take one of the Group Assessments so he could get an even stronger validation on that “biggest workplace problem”.  He only had to decide which Group Assessment he should get:

Rodd thought if everyone recognized that there was a “lack of accountability”, they would surely work together to solve it.  He also felt that getting feedback from everyone in all five regions would be a good way for them to experience themselves as part of one organization instead of five separate outposts. He was right about that part.

You can see the links to all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s second step is here, including the ideas he had for how to put the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment to good use in having his five-regions work together in a more coordinated way. (For a little more on the mess he was dealing with, see Step#1 blogpost.)

How New Manager Got a Fractured Organization to Collaborate

I’ve been going through my past cases with client organizations – now that I’m retired from my consulting career, I figure I can write up some of what I learned from working with them.  One of my favorites was Rodd, newly hired to run a multi-regional organization that worked with state agencies, local employers, and lots of other businesses and civic groups. He was overwhelmed – not because there were too many people, but because none of those regional offices worked in the same way.

This case is now posted on our workplace communication website because after Rodd found that site, he tried two of the free assessments, and then figured out a way to get all of his people – and processes and procedures – working in synch.  In our last conversation, he told me, “I thought I was screwed, but this worked and we all actually had some fun doing it. Thanks for saving my career.”

I didn’t save his career, of course. He did that himself, using the assessments on that site to evaluate what was going on in his regional offices. But he started with himself: what was his profile in using the four kinds of productive communication?  He found that he was strong in two kinds of conversation, weak in the other two. Then he kept going, learning more about the communication in his whole office and ultimately in all five regional offices.

You can see the list of all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s first step is here, the beginning of his six steps to get his people more aware of each other and better able to collaborate on standardizing some of their work procedures and reports. It was a highly successful project for him, and he was right: it was fun.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

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.

We Want Employee Engagement – But… Engagement in What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Organization Change: Leader & Manager Conversations May Be Different

I just finished writing a paper on organization change – it was about the difference between change leadership & change management communications. In the process, I could see how different conversations are so important in making an organization change work well for everyone.

Referring to The Four Conversations (www.usingthefourconversations.com), I saw that leaders mostly emphasize one of these conversations the most: Initiative conversations. Those are the ones that propose a new course of action or a new idea, and say something about what we can do, and why it will be good for us to do it. It doesn’t matter if the change is large or small, complex or simple. And it doesn’t matter if the person speaking is an executive or a manager or has some other nice title in the hierarchy. When you have an Initiative conversation, you’re stepping in to leadership communication by suggesting a new possibility and saying something about its value.

The ingredients of an Initiative conversation are simple: What do we want to do or make happen? When do we want to do it, or have it done? Why is it important or worthwhile to do it? These conversations are often used to inspire and motivate people, which is what we think of leaders as doing. Their communications give us a reason to get into action, and to keep us going when things look really challenging.

But once the Initiative has been spoken, the other three conversations are the ones required to get an organization change going, and a good manager needs to master them. They are best used – over and over again – in this sequence:

  • CLOSURE – use “the four A’s”, and work together with the Team Members to: Acknowledge the current status of a project or situation, stating how we are doing on key measures right now. Appreciate the people involved, recognizing their effort and results. Apologize for broken agreements or failures, and Amend those agreements by updating statements of goals, timelines, or assignments and other interactions.  (Refer to the Initiative conversation here, i.e., the What-When-Why of the overall project or goal we are working to accomplish. This reminds people of the context for their work, and the purpose they are out to fulfill. If the Closure conversation has changed any of those ingredients, be sure to include their updates in referring to the Initiataive.)
  • UNDERSTANDING – Have a dialogue to review Who all is involved in this project or situation, and their roles and responsibilities; Where the resources for this project are coming from, and Where the results and benefits will be going; and How the work needs to be done, including production, service delivery, and communications. Like any reference to the Initiative, this reminds people of the bigger picture, but it also includes updates from any changes made by the Closure conversation. The Who-Where-How may have changed as a result of that conversation. This whole conversation is a dialogue, to re-position where people are with respect to their roles and responsibilities, and collaborate on identifying what needs to be done to gain (or regain) momentum on the project.
  • PERFORMANCE – Look at what is next to accomplish the goals of the project, starting from this new, updated place. What needs to happen now? When will it happen? Why does it matter? Who will do it? Where will any necessary resources come from? How should it be done (any special requirements?). The result of these conversations is people making agreements to do and deliver certain products, services, and/or communications at certain times, and to certain people.

At the next meeting (managers have regular Team meetings, right?) the management communication cycle begins again. Close out the status of all Performance agreements – how did it go? Then have an Understanding dialogue about how to get back on track or gain momentum. And then have the Performance conversations to create agreements for what’s next.

Leadership and management communications are not the same. But, of course, the same people can be having all of those conversations. If you are a manager, you can create an Initiative and get other people on board to implement your ideas. That’s you being a Manager-Leader. And then, you can follow through with the Closure-Understanding-Performance cycle. That’s you being a Manager-Manager.

Most managers do wear both hats – management and leadership. But many people we call Leaders wear only the one. They say, “Here’s my idea. Go make it into a reality, please”. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But sometimes I want to introduce those people to the complexity of the Real World. Or maybe they’re just good at delegating.  🙂

P.S. Happy Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year to you all! We’ll talk again in 2018.

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?

Leaders & Managers – Different Kinds of Communication

We’ve identified four “productive conversations”, and noticed that Leaders mostly use the first two while Managers use the second two. (P.S: if you know of a 5th productive conversation, let us know!) Here’s how it breaks out:

  1. Initiative Conversations get things started. They introduce a new goal, propose an idea, or launch a project, so people can see what to accomplish, when to accomplish it, and why it is worthwhile. (How many of these do you have in a week?)
  2. Understanding Conversations are discussions – two-way exchanges that include questions, explanations, and ideas – about how things will be done, who will do them, and where the resources, activities, and results will happen. (And how many do you have of these conversations in a week?)

Those are the two conversations Leader use most often, to engage people in talking about a possible new future and how it could or should happen. They get people thinking in new ways, and imagining how the possibilities or changes might alter their work and their lives. The Manager ones are:

  1. Performance Conversations always include specific requests, promises, and agreements that clarify which actions, results, and other requirements (such as timing, quality, etc.) are needed to implement portions of a goal or project. These conversations get people into action, and Managers that track who promised what, and when it will be complete, are setting a foundation for accountability. (Do you have a lot of these conversations, or only a few?)
  2. Closure Conversations update the status of a project, or follow up on a request or promise, and acknowledge when an assignment is complete or overdue. Managers who have regular team meetings for people to report on their progress (or problems), are using these conversations to practice accountability management. (These are my favorite to practice – they can create accomplishment and momentum in your life).

Managers are usually the people who make requests of others to do specific goal-related tasks. When team members agree to do those tasks (in Performance conversations), they can all track the progress of the whole project as well as each of their assigned responsibilities. This puts a strong focus on results, and lets the team course-correct as needed to reach the goal(s).

The way those two sets of conversations are used reflect the saying that “Leaders speak the future. Management makes it happen.” Of course, in real life, Leaders and Managers are often the same person, so they need to know how to use all four productive conversations.  PS: You and I are better at some of the “Four” than others, and you can find out your strengths by answering the 20 questions in Your Personal Communication Assessment. Learning more about the four conversations is a handy way to update and strengthen your communication skills for more accomplishment.

We need Leader-Managers – both skill-sets are important to effectively engage people and have them be successful in their work and in their lives. Productive conversations can help us add more trust, effectiveness, and integrity to our relationships with individuals and groups.

Personally, I’m practicing #4 and #1 these days to see if I can gain a little momentum in a new environment. Let me know if you are taking on a new communication practice!

What is a “Needs Assessment”?

Almost every HR initiative begins with a Needs Assessment. One HR training specialist announced to a group of manufacturing Operations Managers, “Our most important deliverable to you is the Needs Assessment.” The Operations Managers hooted. “We don’t need your needs assessment! We just need you to train our operators to use the equipment without breaking anything.” Sandra, the HR lady, burst into tears.

In the jargon, a “need” is a discrepancy between “what is” and “what should be.” That’s a big playing field on which a consultant can build an assessment investigation. And there are plenty of methods for doing that (just Google “needs assessment”). That’s a good thing, because HR – and consultants, both internal and external – need some way to determine what and where the organization’s problems are.

One tool we use – the Workplace Communication Assessment – is a survey that asks people about the issues they see daily in their organization. It’s quick – 56 questions – and lets each employee say what causes the biggest headaches in doing their jobs. The tool then tallies the answers by categories and prescribes a few ideas to include in a training program, based on the kinds of communication that will reduce or eliminate the problem.

Example: A recent client’s survey scores revealed that 3 types of workplace issues (out of 8 possible categories) were the most frequent barriers to their job effectiveness:

  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm – Too much work to do in too little time;
  • Lack of teamwork – People not working together or helping each other; and
  • Lack of accountability – People not “owning” their jobs or honoring their agreements.

We used the diagnostics that came back with the survey results to add four elements to our training programs for this client, putting each of “The Four Conversations” to work:

  1. Drafting a brief statement of each Department’s current goals and objectives that would go on the top of each Departmental staff meeting agenda.
  2. Getting the staff into Department discussion groups to make a list of ideas for improvements in (a) having clearer job results and schedules, and (b) interactions with one another and with other groups.
  3. Making specific agreements to adopt several of these ideas right away, and to review the progress at each Department meeting.
  4. Reviewing and updating the goals, ideas for improvements, and agreements at each Department meeting.

All of their “top 3” workplace issues began improving in just 1 month after implementing the ideas they developed in the training. The biggest surprise? They had not been having regular or standardized Department meetings at all – only meetings to solve problems or announce changes. They used the results of the Workplace Communication Assessment to invent their own staff meetings. One group leader for Development emailed me saying, “Now Staff Meetings are a thing! We have an agenda, we really talk, and we don’t get bogged down in side conversations that waste some people’s time.”

They put their “Needs Assessment” to work. Sandra would be pleased.