Workers Don’t Just Work – They Also Know How to Think!

An article in the October 24, 2020 edition of The Economist* suggested that the armed forces have a few lessons useful for non-military workplaces. No, not rewarding employees with service medals or anything like that – what they recommended was having employees use a “war-game” method to talk through team member ideas for achieving a goal, discuss different scripts to implement those ideas and evaluate the effectiveness of their decisions, situations and possible outcomes. It also helps them discover what might go wrong in the process of making an organizational change or implementing a strategic plan and to prepare for surprises.

The Economist spoke with Captain Gareth Tennant of the Royal Marines, who dealt with some Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2010. His team intercepted the pirates, confiscated their weapons and then were attacked. It became chaotic, but the team did not wait for orders – they acted right away because they had war-gamed what might go wrong. Capt. Tennant, now back in civilian life believes that, “the habits learned in the Royal Marines can be useful for business life.”

Another good method from the military that can empower employees is using the Before Action Review (BAR) technique. It is a great way to help a team start a project and to learn three important things: (A) How to clarify their intentions before beginning the project, (B) How to draw on lessons learned from past experiences to identify potential challenges and risks in the project, and (C) See what knowledge they already have and what they need to learn more about.

When I Googled “Before Action Review”, I found a set of instructions for doing this exercise, which promised to deliver “Fast, real-time learning in the midst of doing your normal work”:

  • When to use BAR: Before meetings of staff, team or board of directors.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What are the intended results?
    2. What will that look like?
    3. What challenges might we encounter?
    4. What have we learned from similar situations?
    5. What will make us successful this time?
    6. When will we do an After Action Review?

The After Action Review (AAR) is the “closure” or feedback conversation. The instructions look like this:

  • When to use AAR: After meetings of staff, team or board.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What were our actual results?
    2. What caused both the successful and the unsuccessful results?
    3. What will we maintain?
    4. What will we improve?
    5. When is our next opportunity to test what we have learned?
    6. When is our next Before-Action Review?
  • Special notes: Who should we copy this to? What other action items do we have?

All three of these tools – war-gaming, BAR and AAR – support team members in becoming more able to adapt quickly to surprise events and more proactive in planning and taking effective action.

But perhaps the best aspect of this method is that it has the employees doing the planning and testing of their own ideas to accomplish something, instead of having to wait to be told what the boss wants done. An image offered by Mr. Tennant is that “the ideal command structure is not a rigid hierarchy, but a sphere, where the core sets the culture and the parts of the organization at the edge are free to react to events outside them.” Using this image, we can see that command is centralized, and execution is decentralized.

We tend to expect the hierarchy to direct people in taking actions or producing results. It is surely better to develop people so they can see for themselves what will be successful and how to overcome barriers and resolve problems. As the closing line of this Economist article said, “In business, as in conflict, it isn’t the generals who carry the burden of the war; it’s the troops.”

* This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Fighting spirit”

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step Two

Two weeks ago (https://usingthefourconversations.com/blog, Sept. 15, 2020) I mentioned three examples of projects I consulted on where managers wanted to implement a change in their organization. For the most part, they did not know how to set the project up in a way that everybody could win and accomplish the goal. One of those projects will serve as an example for Step Two in Managing for Accomplishment.

A city government’s Department of Electricity had five Units related to their project: Electricity Distribution, the Meter Shop, Engineering, Customer Service, and Purchasing & Stores. These groups worked well together – except for the Engineering and the Distribution Units, who rarely interacted except to argue about equipment and supply requirements.

The diagram below has 6 circles, representing the 5 Units in the project + the electricity Customer. It also has 11 arrows, representing the primary “communication relationship” between the groups, i.e., the most important products, services and/or communications that moved between each pair of circles and what they talked about most.

Notice in the diagram that installation equipment and supplies were determined by the relationship between the Engineering Unit and Purchasing & Stores. The Distribution Unit, which was made up of teams that handled construction, installation and repairs of electrical wires and stations, were the primary users of that equipment, yet were left out of the decisions on what equipment was outdated or needed to be changed for new kinds of projects.

One member of the Distribution team told me, “We aren’t able to satisfy our Department’s mission to ‘provide energy, street lighting and related services reliably with competitive pricing’. We can’t always pay for the city’s need for streetlights.” He was discouraged that they had no voice in improving construction and installation for electricity distribution.

The administrator of the Electricity Department wanted the Engineering and Distribution Units to find a way that they could both have a say in the selection and purchase of electricity installation equipment and supplies, to ensure that Distribution teams would have the equipment they needed to solve the engineering and maintenance problems in the field. He told them to work together and come up with a solution, but the Engineers had little respect for the Installers – and vice versa – so they made no progress.

This administrator did not know that “management for accomplishment” begins with creating a “team”, i.e., getting people aligned on the basics of working well together. Management for Alignment is Step One, and once Team members are clear on the intention of the project, have identified a responsibility structure for the Team, and agree to recognize the relevant rules and regulations for working together, they are ready for Step Two: “Management for Production”.

Getting people ready lay the foundation for productivity requires Team collaboration to define three Step Two elements: (a) the metrics of success; (b) the Team’s performance network of agreements for goal-relevant communications etc. (that’s where their diagram came into existence, even though this version does not spell out all the deliverables); and (c) the production and delivery systems, and standards and practices, to coordinate work and agreements within the Team and with others, including for processes, quality, schedules and costs.

The idea of a “performance network” of deliverables and receivables is sometimes hard to grasp for people who haven’t thought of projects in terms of “deliverables”. We tend to think of “doing” a project and we look forward to when it’s “done”. But we don’t often think of what needs to be “delivered” between Team members and others in order to get the project completed successfully. There’s a big difference in what happens when you focus your attention on Doing vs. Done vs. Delivered.  Tip: Go with “delivered” – get the results (products, services and/or communications) produced into the hands of the people who will put them to work. And get the resources you need delivered to you.

Ultimately, this city Electricity project involved discussions with Purchasing & Stores and the Meter Shop, which produced changes in the way installation equipment and supplies were ordered. Meter equipment was then ordered using the same computer system that Distribution and Engineering would use, which included updated reporting formats that would go to Customer Service from all of the groups.

Production is not a matter of “doing”, nor of getting something “done”. Production requires looking at what needs to be produced and by whom, and to whom it is delivered. All 11 arrows in this performance network diagram were altered – with many added specifics and new agreements – as the Engineering and Distribution Units invented out a way to make more effective purchasing decisions. Note: The Engineering Unit also collaborated with the IT Unit for this project.

As with Step One, the elements of Step Two require the ability to ask 6 questions and to work together to develop the answers. And again, none of these elements involve managing the people (we manage agreements here).

Step Two: Management for Production

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Spell out the metrics for each key goal: What are the success metrics for budget and cost goals; What are the key performance indicators for production processes, product quality, and service quality. When are the key due dates and milestones. Why these metrics and timelines are important for fulfilling the overall purpose of the work.

WHO-WHERE – Identify the project’s performance network and establish agreements for sending and receiving goal-relevant products, services and communications: Who & Where are the non-Team players who are important for the Team to send and receive goal-relevant products, services and communications (e.g., funding, HR, maintenance, operations, product and service delivery, legal obligations, etc.). Assign responsibilities to the Team members to “own” one or more of these relationships and establish and honor agreements with external non-Team players for goal-relevant delivery content, quality, timing and costs between the Team and external players.

HOW – Spell out production and delivery systems, standards and practices for the project: How all aspects of the work and its deliverable products, services and communications will be produced, coordinated and delivered among Team members, and with players in the performance network, to satisfy goal-relevant requirements, e.g., content quality, schedules and costs, for key functions including: Budget, Operations, Product and Service quality and delivery, IT, Marketing, and Public communication.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But managing for production requires structures to accommodate the velocity of production and the partnerships in the Team’s external environment. Especially: (a) The metrics that will let everyone see progress and success (or failure) in meeting targets; (b) The relationships with other individuals and groups outside the Team who have resources and ideas that can support success and integrate the project’s results into the larger work environment; and (c) The Team’s organization and coordination of its work and its products, services and communications within its performance network and with other key functions.

A team of people aligned on working productively with goal-relevant partners, using its own custom-designed goal-relevant structures of (a) success metrics, (b) a functional performance network and (c) agreements for coordination and communication, will be ready to manage itself – for accomplishment. I’ll tell you that story in 2 weeks!

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step One 

We talk about it a lot, but mostly we see management as a concept rather than a set of steps or tools. One way out of that conceptual view is to say what we are managing FOR: What do we intend to accomplish? Here are a few ideas of results I’ve seen managers choose to accomplish:

  1. Bring together two groups that have interrelated activities to draft a plan that will improve the interactions, efficiency and/or productivity of one or more of the processes they both participate in. Example: People from the Engineering section and people from the Maintenance team get together to redesign the way they select, purchase and use the equipment needed to solve engineering and maintenance problems in the field.
  2. Have a group of people design and perform a specific change in their organization, such as implementing a new IT process and operating it properly for both users and customers. Example: A restaurant decides to implement a new Point of Sale (POS) system to improve staff productivity and customer satisfaction.
  3. Finish a long-term project that is persistently postponed due to staff shortages, poor scheduling and/or deadline changes on other projects (or maybe just simple procrastination). Example: A cleanup project in a corporate library to clear out old books and files, many of which would be re-categorized for other purposes, given to other programs, or recycled.

Management for Accomplishment is a three-step process. To prepare for managing any of these projects, Step One is alignment, which itself has three elements: develop team alignment for focus on the task at hand; plan the set-up for the production and performance of the task; and plan for accomplishment of the task, taking into account the environment it will be operating in. There are three interesting points about these elements:

  • All three are effective for preparing to manage a short-term or one-time project as well as a larger one,
  • None of them involve managing the people (we manage agreements here, and
  • They all require the ability to ask 6 questions, then work together to develop the answers. The questions are: What? When? Why? Who? Where? and How?

Step One: Management for Alignment

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Spell out the Intention for the task: What we want to make happen, and what will tell us when it is complete. When we will want it done, including goals for interim timelines. Why it matters for those performing the task and for others including customers, co-workers, or executives.

WHO-WHERE – Identify the “authority” structure for the task: Who will lead the team to ensure the intention is fulfilled, who will fill the necessary roles for task accomplishment, whether inside the team or outside it, e.g., people the team will report to, work with or get materials, information and/or support from, and who the beneficiaries of the end results will be. Where these people are operating from – their “base” – and where else people will need to go to fulfill their responsibilities.

HOW – Clarify the relevant rules and regulations for working together: How all aspects of the work to be done will comply with corporate rules and guidance as well as the needs and requirements of others within the organization and externally, and how all relevant federal, state and local laws and policies might pertain to the work at hand.

Seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? But these three sets of questions are often overlooked, especially for defining (a) the foundation of a team so that everyone is aligned on what the team is out to accomplish; (b) the relationships among team members and with external associates, senders and receivers; and (c) how the team will operate with respect to its surrounding infrastructure.

Creating team alignment is Step One in ‘Management for Accomplishment’ and is especially important for a group that has not worked together on a task or project like this before. The way such a project is launched begins with these 6 questions and their discussions to build direction, clarify responsibilities and respect the new environment they will be operating in for the duration of the task.

I’ll be back with Step Two in 2 weeks.

Managing Performance – From a Distance

So, you are a manager and your people are working from home – or on alternate days. How do you manage their performance long-distance? It’s a bit of a challenge, at least at first. Not because they are poor performers or you’re a poor manager. It’s a challenge because you’ll have to change your habits of communicating.

Remember how you used to tell them what to DO? With the details, sometimes: “Do this, then do that, and get Dave to do the other thing.”

No more. Performance is not about DOING anymore. It’s about DELIVERING. Borrow a term used by consultants: “Deliverables”. For a consultant, that’s what performance is: it’s a Deliverable. (I’m going to capitalize that word for a while because it’s important to learn to use it properly).

The whole world of performance has changed, because your “Goal Team” is now likely distributed, and you cannot assume that everyone understands the “big picture”. Now is the time to be clear with your people about the “Goal Deliverable(s)” – the product(s), service(s) and/or communication(s) to be delivered as the ultimate outcome of their work. If you haven’t had this conversation with them, they cannot see the larger purpose of what they are doing, so they are probably busy doing tasks and activities.

Once the Goal Team is familiar with the Goal Deliverable(s), work with them to identify all the other people, the necessary players, who will be involved in the accomplishment of the Goal Deliverable(s): their Collaborators, Resource suppliers, Authorities (not just you: include regulators and other rule-makers) and Beneficiaries (those who receive or benefit from the Goal Deliverable). Sound challenging? Maybe, but it’s what anyone who has a substantial goal or objective needs to figure out.

You have to “Know your CRABs”. You have been doing this for as long as you’ve been a manager, probably without saying it the way I’ve said it here. But now you need use the language and to train your Goal Team members about using it too. Your people will understand the CRABs idea: they know it takes Collaborators, Resource suppliers and Beneficiaries to accomplish anything substantive. They just never saw the whole circle before, and now it’s time. Introduce your Goal Team to their “Performance Circle” of CRABs, and invite their thoughts on how to expand, reduce or otherwise clarify it.

Note the Diagram that comes with this post:

  • The arrows are 2-way, indicating a central “Goal Owner”, i.e., your Goal Team members, will be in 2-way communication with each CRAB player, to create, commit to and support the fulfillment of Agreements – yours and theirs – to deliver goal-relevant Deliverables to one another.
  • Note also that the Collaborators, Resource suppliers and Beneficiaries have the same elements in their Agreements for goal-relevant Deliverables: Deliverable specifications, Schedules and Costs.
  • The Authorities have a slightly different set of elements in their Agreements – Deliverables, Goals, Rules & regulations, and/or Budgets – because, well, they are the people who have a say about the big-picture requirements for a Goal-Team’s work.

Your Goal Team members will come to learn that their job is not about DOING – it is about identifying the key players required to send and receive the goal-relevant Deliverables that will add up to their Goal Deliverable. They will learn about making Agreements with those key players to provide what is needed and when. And that means your Goal Team members will learn how to “manage” relationships with their CRABs to achieve the Goal Deliverable.

You’ve been doing this all along: you’ve always known there is an “end result”, the Goal Deliverable. But your Goal Team may not have seen that big picture Goal, or the Performance Circle of CRABs that contribute to its accomplishment. The key things they will discover for themselves are:

  1. They are a Goal Team. Every team (or department, or functional group, etc.) needs to be clear about its primary big-picture Goal. What is its ultimate Goal Deliverable? A product? A service? A communication? To whom? For whom? For what benefit? You can have this conversation with them and develop your own ways of saying it clearly.
  2. Every Goal Team has a “Performance Circle”. There are multiple “outsider” players necessary to accomplish a Goal Deliverable (finance people, IT experts, marketing consultants, regulatory agencies, etc.). Any Goal Team Member or any Collaborator, Resource supplier, Authority or Beneficiary can be made aware of the Team’s Goal and then be asked to commit to sending and/or receiving well-specified and goal-relevant products, services and/or communications, in support of the Team’s larger goal.
  3. Performance happens on the arrows. Performance is the product of a relationship – those two-way arrows between Goal Team members and the Collaborators, Resource suppliers and Beneficiaries. Each relationship will establish Agreements for the delivery of the goal-relevant Deliverables needed – to and from Goal Team member(s) and CRAB member(s) – for the ultimate accomplishment of the Goal Deliverable. Each arrow in the Performance Circle is therefore a relationship and Agreements for Deliverables and a pathway for the delivery of those Deliverables. Paying attention to the arrows between the Goal Team and the CRABs will also reveal the difference between Doing, which happens in those “boxes”, and Deliverable Agreements, which happen on the “arrows”.

A high-performance Goal Team will identify their Performance Circle and establish the relationships that commit to and deliver their goal-relevant Deliverables to meet agreed-upon specifications, schedules, and costs. Some of your Goal Team Members may begin to operate like managers, sometimes making the promise to deliver, sometimes asking others to commit to fulfilling the promise – and sometimes both.

No need to get crabby about any of this. It’s a new day, one that calls for a shift between Doing Things like “tasks” and “activities”, to Delivering things like goal-relevant products, services and communications. You know how to do this, and how to coordinate this “performance circle” idea, with relationships that clarify Agreements and support the necessary Deliverables. Now you need to speak that language with your people, so they learn how to do that too.

Manager Tip: Clarify What You Really Want in Every Work Request

One job of a manager is to ask, invite, or demand that other people “do their work”. But people understand the word “work” in three different ways. You may be asking that I “do” something, like you want me to put the appropriate data into a spreadsheet for analysis. That’s not the same as getting something “done”, which is when you tell me to get that spreadsheet finished. And it also doesn’t mean “delivered”, which would be you asking me to send the finished product over to you by close of business today.

When you want something from me, it is important to clarify: Do you want me to work on something? Or produce something? Or bring it to you or someone else? Do – Done – Delivered: do you want to keep me busy, or finish something, or turn my final result over to somebody? Or maybe all three?

Good work typically generates a specific product, service, or communication that calls for all three: to be produced, completed, and delivered to someone who will use it and/or value it. The best way to produce results – to perform well – is to focus on those “deliverables”.

A focus on deliverables, sometimes called “Do-Dues”, requires giving attention to the desired outcome(s) – the products, services, and communications to be provided to another individual or group. Deliverable results always have:

  1. Specific characteristics such as production processes, amounts, formats, and other attributes or qualities,
  2. A producer/sender and a user/receiver,
  3. A due date and time it will be sent or received, and
  4. Some value or benefit that will serve others.

Both the work-requester and the Doer-Deliverer should clarify – and agree on – these four aspects of what a “good result” will look like.

If you want to improve someone’s “performance”, don’t focus on what they should do. Start by being clear on the specifications, requirements, and conditions for what will be sent and received, to and from others. This seemingly small shift in attention – from what people are doing to the outcome of what they do – is actually very useful. If you add the information of who will receive it and why it matters to them, you have added value to people’s “doing-work” and to the result it produces. Magically, their “work performance” will improve too.

 

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

Step #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!

Step #5 – Implementation of Changes: How to Begin

After his five Regional visits to review results from their Region’s Group Workplace Assessment, Rodd arranged for all 75 of his people to get together in one central location. He was prepared to present the most important results that related to the entire group, starting with their top three strengths:

“We start and end our meetings on time,” Rodd said. “Hooray! And… we use measures to track our performance too – another plus. Not to mention that we put clear due-dates and deadlines on the assignments we give to each other. This is wonderful to know what we’re doing right. Give yourselves a round of applause!”

They did. When the noise died down, Rodd asked, “Are you ready to see the top three problems?” The room groaned, then laughed. Their three problems are very common in many organizations:

  1. Equipment or systems are outdated.
  2. Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.
  3. There are significant differences in the work people do.

He had people move to one of the three different sections he had set up in the room – each section with table-top signs that said #1, #2, or #3. This allowed smaller groups of eight or nine people to discuss one issue and capture their ideas. When everyone was seated, Rodd put a new PowerPoint slide up on the screen, showing a slide summarizing the four productive conversations.

“At each of your tables, I want you to look at the issue you have been assigned and ask yourselves one question: ‘Which of these conversations is missing?’, then make some notes on how you think we could change our communications to reduce or eliminate that issue. Each of you also has a flier in front of you, summarizing the details of those conversations so you can really dive in. Any questions?”

There was just one: “Could changing our communication really change these issues?”

Rodd’s answer was, “Yes, I have seen it happen. Just play with it a while and you’ll see what opens up.”

Before the day was out, each table had produced a plan of action, and would share it with the whole room. It was a high-energy afternoon, with people practicing the use of productive conversations in various situations that were all too familiar in their workplace.

At the end of the day, one Regional supervisor stood up and spoke. “This is amazing. I have never seen the power of a full-fledged request before. I think if we could just learn how to do that, 90% of our troubles would be over.” She received a healthy round of applause as well as two calls of “Amen!”.

You can see the “Step 5” story here: Implementation and Impact. The final step in this case study will be out here on The Four Conversations blog next week.

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.)

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.