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.

Explaining Goals & Strategies is Not Enough: Bridging the Vertical Disconnect

High-level managers believe their mid-level managers and supervisors understand their organization’s top goals and strategies – and further, that they will align their work with those strategies. A recent article (see strategic misalignment) says that is not true. Why not? The article gives 2 reasons:

  1. “The top teams fail to agree among themselves on company-wide priorities.” More than half of the senior executives themselves could not state their own company’s official priorities.
  2. “Strategic alignment falls off a cliff from the top executives and continues to decline among lower-level managers.” It’s no surprise that when executives are not on the same page, those below don’t even know there is a page they could be on!

The authors’ recommended solution is that “Each top executive should consistently explain why his or her unit’s objectives matter for the team and for the company.” They went further, saying that executives should do a better job “explaining” to their mid-level managers how their unit’s goals fit into the overall organizational strategy.

Good advice, but note the authors rely on “explaining”, which is a weak form of communication. An alternative – and more effective – solution was demonstrated by one corporate client’s approach, using The Four Conversations as follows:

  1. Treat the executive-level goals and strategies as an “initiative conversation”, i.e., a proposal for corporate direction, rather than as a package of priorities to be delivered to – and consumed by – those below.
  2. Then arrange for several “understanding conversations” with the mid-level managers for the purpose of clarifying – and perhaps revising – the language of executive goals and strategies to match the language of mid-level goals and strategies (and vice versa). These dialogues design the bridge between organizational levels.
  3. Upon completing those dialogues, request that all members agree to use the organizational goals as a context for their more “local” goals, e.g., to keep both levels of goals and strategies visible in their workplace and part of their regular team meetings. These requests, promises, and agreements constitute “performance conversations”, and are useful to create a platform for alignment.
  4. Finally, revisit the success in implementing those alignment agreements on a regular basis with “closure conversations” that check whether – and how – the agreements are sustained and if they need to be updated in some way.

Communication to produce alignment between organizational levels will require attention to dialogue – a two-way discussion that incorporates the different perspectives into a unified perspective and language. Further, it calls for the rigor of making agreements to deploy those new perspectives and language at both ends of the bridge, as well as follow-up to support that implementation over time.

The vertical disconnect that can be found in most organizations does not always cause problems but the larger the organization, the larger the gap may become. Most people want to be effective and accomplish their own goals as part of accomplishing a larger purpose. It is the job of top executives to provide them with a well-structured opportunity to do that.

Why Executives are Cautious about Implementing Change

Here’s a question I just saw on the internet: “What do you think causes a company to not want to change its current HR policies or platforms?”  It opened a discussion on why companies “resist” change. Is it price or convenience? One person said, “If it saves my company time, or money, or both, then we should do it. Period.”

Comments mentioned psychology (fear of the unknown), and physics (the power of inertia), and general criticism (greed, laziness, low self-esteem).

But those explanations presume that changing HR policies or platforms will not rock the boat of the larger organization in unforeseen ways. However simple a change may seem, it helps to remember that everything in an organization is connected to almost everything else, either directly or indirectly: no change is isolated. When planning a change, there is a simple checklist to consider.

  1. Affected Network. Identify all the groups and processes that will be touched in any way, by each of the outgoing-old processes and requirements and each of the incoming-new processes and requirements. (A comprehensive list, please).
  2. Feedback. What input and feedback has been obtained from each of these groups regarding the proposed changes, i.e., the outgoing and incoming processes and requirements? (You did talk – and listen – to each of those groups in Step 1, right?)
  3. Updated Change Plan. When will the Final Change Plan be published and released to each of the groups involved? (The “Final Change Plan”, of course, includes the adjustments made to the original change proposal based on the feedback you acquired in Step 1).
  4. Change Support. Who are the individuals and groups that will be accountable for providing support and assistance for everyone in the affected network? (This “change assistance team” will be on the ground and out front for a little while).
  5. Debrief. When is the scheduled post-change-debrief with each element in the affected network? (You want to know how it went – and collect some “lessons learned” – so you can make future changes go smoothly).

It seems like a lot, but paying attention to change as a network phenomenon adds a lot of intelligence to the change process. Resistance melts in the face of the opportunity to add to the dialogue about what is going to happen and why it will be beneficial. People contribute ideas, of course, but more importantly they provide information that was never anticipated by the change planners. That’s because the people who have to live with the change know more about what is happening in their unit or department than the change planners, who may not have known which boats will be rocked by their good ideas.

Organizations are networks of accountabilities and processes. Nobody sees them all without investing some attention. You can make it easy for people to participate effectively in the change – both in shaping it and adapting to it. You’ll find it is well worth the effort.

I’m Really Sorry

Whatta mess! I apologize for the Way-Too-Many emails you must have received from your subscription to the Four Conversations blog. It was an error on the part of a “Tech Support” person. I know one of you received 21 emails, another received 27 emails, and I hope none of you received the 287 that I got. The Tech is now aware of the error, and the cost to subscribers in time (deleting all the darn things) and mood (exploring your range of annoyance to outrage is no picnic, right?).

So I’m really sorry, and am doing all I can to be sure it never happens again. Please feel free to drop me a note about any special concerns or inconveniences you endured with this deluge.

I wish you all a great Thursday, and appreciate the value of closure conversations.

Best regards, from Laurie Ford

Create Space in an Overwhelmed Life: A Recipe

About a month ago I was talking with a friend at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Dana is in her mid-30’s, and she seemed unusually low-energy. She admitted being tired and discouraged about her progress at work and, before long, she noticed she had the same issues at home too. “I can’t get ahead of it,” Dana said.

Naturally, I asked, “Ahead of what?”

“I can’t get ahead of the tasks that keep piling up, and the things I have to do, the people I need to contact, stuff like that. There just isn’t any progress in my job, and when I get home I’m too tired and crabby to get things done there either.”

We talked over coffee, and before I finished my 1st cup, Dana said what she really wanted was to be able to work on her pet project instead of the thousand things that weren’t that important to her. Too much paperwork, too many interruptions, not enough “quality time”. Sound familiar?

Of course, I got talking about closure and completion: What is the unfinished business you’re carrying around with you every day? What do you need to put in the past instead of keeping it in the present?

Halfway through my 2nd cup of coffee, we had made up a homework assignment for Dana to do by the following Friday:

  1. List 3 work tasks and 2 household tasks that you will Stop Doing – including having the conversations with the relevant people to let them know – in a respectful way – that you won’t be doing them anymore.
  2. List 3 email conversations you are going to Close Out – including making it clear to the other person (or group) that you have been able to talk – or work – with them about this subject in the past, and that it is now complete for you and wish them the best going forward.
  3. List 3 relationships that are sort of weighing on you and Clean Up something from the past – maybe something you haven’t asked or said to them – that is still hanging around and making things heavier than you’d like.

It was an interesting conversation. I never used this Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe before, but it evolved as we saw the things that she was tired of dealing with or carrying along throughout her days and evenings.

We talked again this past weekend, and Dana reported her results. Here is her bottom line on the project:

  1. I never knew I could Stop Doing things just by having conversations and being a stand for my own time and energy. I’ve got a new habit here! No more Miss Nice, saying Yes to everything someone asks. This has changed my life.
  2. I did Close Out several conversations – more than three, but not all on email. I had one associate who was complaining to me about her marriage and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that with her anymore. This has been really useful in keeping my energy and sanity.
  3. The Clean Up assignment was hardest, because I hadn’t seen how much I was overlooking in my relationships. Now I’m more real with people about what matters to me, and better at listening to what matters to them.

Hats off to Dana for taking her “assignment” seriously. Maybe you can customize your own Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe to take a load off yourself – I know I will. When overwhelmed or run down, it’s probably a good idea to lighten up. How: we can take just a few minutes to locate some of the baggage we’re carrying and schedule the conversations necessary to get rid of it.

Communicating for Change (this works at home too)

Jeffrey presented a case study to his masters-level students in a Human Resources Management class last week. The case was about a complete communication breakdown between two groups of workers in an organization: Engineers and Installers. Engineers sent a Work Order to the Installers telling them how to do a job. The installers did the job, but their work didn’t always match the Work Order – because the “engineers didn’t get it right”. The two groups never talked to each other. “It’s useless,” one man explained. “They don’t know what they’re doing.

The students, being HR-trained, had suggestions about bringing the two groups together and “facilitating” the communication to find out where the gaps are. This was a case I wrote, after working with the two groups. I was pretty sure these guys were not going to sit down together without some clearer understanding of the problem first.

The most successful insights for the students came when they worked on clarifying what – exactly – they wanted to accomplish. Reduction in installation delays and errors? Fewer customer complaints? Better feedback from installers to engineers?

The breakthrough in the real-life example was the same as the one in the classroom: it is important to get clear on what you want before you start communicating. Especially if the situation is tense or uncertain. When you know what you want, you can:

  1. Start with completion to erase some of the issues from the past. In the example, the Installers sent a message – via the Director – to acknowledge that they had not been providing feedback on the Work Order specifications and how they were different from the actual on-site requirements for installation.
  2. Propose a new way of communicating or operating. In the example, the Installers started sending Engineers an “error report” itemizing the differences between what the Work Order said vs. what the actual physical requirements were for installation at the new site.
  3. Talk about whether this feedback is useful and what other changes might improve the results. This is where you have to know what you want! Without a clear measure of success, your communication experiment will likely go nowhere.
  4. Each “side” can ask for specific changes, make promises to operate in new ways, and they can come to an agreement about how to work and communicate going forward. In the example, the two groups worked together to update the Work Order in a way that supported the use of new installation technologies.
  5. Complete the change by acknowledging where things started – the “Before” picture – and where they are now. The idea is to put a finishing touch on the situation in a way that lets everyone see that something has been accomplished.

This works at home too. A friend told me this morning that she had gone through these 5 steps (it’s just the “Four Conversations”, using a Closure Conversation at the beginning and the end) with her mother-in-law. “You’re right about needing to know what you want,” she told me. “I thought I just wanted to express myself, but that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. What I really wanted was an end to holiday guesswork and annoyances on both sides. Now we have a new agreement about when and how we will do our holiday get-togethers this year. It’s sort of a miracle!”

Change Fatigue – A Simple Remedy

I just got word that organizations are changing so many things at once – IT, performance reviews, operational procedures – that an organizational disease is spreading fast: Change Fatigue.

My co-author husband, Jeffrey, is in Vancouver wrapping up the Academy of Management conference there. He was on a panel to discuss “resistance to change” – a subject we have written several articles about. He heard quite a bit about how people are resisting change now because they are worn out from so many changes already that they don’t even want to hear about a new one.

Why are people getting Change Fatigue? Are there really too many changes?  I don’t think that’s it. We’re a high-change, fast-paced society. We carry mobile phones and use them while we’re walking around (sometimes even while driving – yipes!) – we’re used to doing 3 things at once and change is fine. So what’s wrong with organizations?

Managers don’t know how to have meetings, that’s what. They don’t know the secret words of completion:

  • That’s done. We did it. Good job. Anybody want to say something about how it went?
  • Let’s debrief that project. What worked? What didn’t work? What needs to be cleaned up?
  • Is there anything left about those three projects we did last Spring? Any leftover crumbs we should sweep up and close out?
  • Thanks for handling that. Anything you need to say to be complete?

That’s the way to encourage a Closure Conversation. I’ve written a lot about this, but these conversations need to be brought into meetings too. Change Fatigue is caused, not by change, but by the failure to complete the change. So, if you’re managing something where other people are involved, please wrap things up every now and then. In fact, add one of those conversations to every meeting, and watch that organizational disease start to clear up.

No Follow-Up? Management is Missing!

One of Jeffrey’s MBA students sent him this email (edited for brevity here) a while ago. The “lessons learned” here deserve to be shared:

Professor Ford,

In 2010, I worked at the United States Forces Iraq Headquarters in Baghdad.  I was part of a communications cell that developed communication plans in support of named operations (not ideal for an Apache pilot, but we all have to do our time on staff).

I won’t get into the details here, but we learned three things that demonstrate your points in class about the importance of “closure conversations”. It makes a difference when senior people hear reports on each team’s performance results, and see the team’s status on the goals and timelines for their plans.

  1. The plans that were very successful were the ones where the upper level leadership held consistently scheduled update briefs with their team of planners.
  2. Other operation plans, while very important, did not meet the threshold to be prioritized into the update meetings, so they didn’t get consistent upper level leadership attention, feedback, and follow-up. Some of these no-follow-up plans were successful based on the energy and commitment of junior leaders, Other no-follow-up plans were marginalized or simply overcome by events.
  3. Based on what I saw in that situation (as well as in other positions I’ve held), management is often missing when the leaders are not inspecting or requesting regular updates.

Bottom line: Leaders may say an event or a plan is very important, but if they don’t follow through with consistent attention and feedback on the team’s performance, they are not supporting either the commitment to the goal or the work of the team.

Well said.

Building Teamwork is Not About Fixing Feelings

A manager – let’s call her Sarah – was instructed by her boss to find ways to improve teamwork in their complex working environment. “People don’t collaborate,” she explained. “People don’t talk with each other about things they need to know.”

The whole group was about 45 people, but they are segmented into 7 different functions and specialties:marketing, publishing, business services (the internal client), and so on. Each specialty had its own language and practices, which can look a lot like their unique “turf”. How to support clearer and more timely communication?

Sarah was reluctant to use the “structural” tools we recommend, such as revised meeting schedules, clearer meeting agendas, and visible “Goal-Progress” posters (online or on the wall). She insisted that “people have to understand what things the other groups need, and more meetings will not be the answer.”

She was especially resistant to using a larger goal to create a shared context for the whole group. But Sarah agreed to meet with each group separately and ask them this question: “What information about our projects and goals are you NOT getting when you need it? What are you missing from other groups?”

Sarah did the research, talking to at least two people in each group, and she was surprised to learn that each group had a “complaint” about at least one of the other groups. “But still, it’s good news,” she said, “because now I know what people really need from each other. I thought our group was the only one having problems, but they are all wishing they had better information or more on-time information about our projects.”

Sometimes a little research is needed to find out what requests and promises are needed to connect a network of groups and teams. Sarah wanted people to “feel better first”, and she was sure they would then spontaneously deliver the right things at the right times. Teamwork doesn’t work that way. Team members – whether individuals or groups – need to know what is expected – and by when – from  each of their internal customers and partners. The “feel better” part comes after the accomplishment of successful delivery.

Next project: Have Sarah find – and use – a shared measure that lets the Team see that they are, in fact a Team, and not just a group of people sending things to each other.

Maybe They DO Understand

“These people don’t get it. If they understood what we’re about here, they would do their job better.” Jerrie was tired of giving the extra time and attention that two of her people needed in order to be productive team members. We were talking about Understanding Conversations, oddly the most misunderstood of the Four Conversations. I asked Jerrie what her two people would do if they really DID understand what she wanted. She had a list:

  • They would be on time to meetings
  • They would have their client materials ready for presentations
  • They would consult with certain other team members before staff meetings
  • Etc. etc. etc.

We call it the “Trap of Understanding”, when you believe that if someone understands what is wanted and needed, they will – of course – take the necessary actions to provide it. We call it a trap because, as Jerrie was now demonstrating, you can get stuck in it: she thinks people’s understanding will lead to action. Nope. If you want action, you have to ask for it. And that’s a separate conversation. Make a request!

I know, you shouldn’t have to ask, especially after you have spent all that time explaining why something is important, and how it’s best for everyone if you do it this way, and so on. But you do. You have to ask.

Jerrie said, “You’re right, I shouldn’t have to ask. These are smart people, and they should be able to figure out what to do after I’ve told them five times.” She sent me an email yesterday saying that both people were now, at last, “doing what they’re supposed to do and acting like team members.”

“This is the weirdest thing,” she said. “One of them told me that when I made a clear request for what I wanted him to do, it seemed like it landed in a different part of his brain. All my explanations might have been useful background, but they didn’t take him into action. Maybe I’ll try this at home too, since I have a 14-year old who doesn’t seem to get it either.”

Understanding Conversations are great for sorting out things like finalizing what the goals and measures should be, seeing who else is involved, and deciding the best sequence for action steps or communications. They’re great for sharing ideas and getting people involved in the planning and setup. But they don’t actually get people in motion. You’ve gotta make the request.

I’ll let you know what happens when Jerrie follows up her Understanding Conversations with her teenage daughter. Making clear requests and promises just might establish some new agreements with her teenage daughter.