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.

Trump Abandons a Basic Element of Good Management

The US president has reduced the White House press briefings to once a month, and those conversations could go to zero soon. An article about the Die-out of Press Briefings says Trump told his Press Secretary not to bother with briefings anymore. That’s a mistake.

I remember when my boss, in a job I held just out of college, refused to have meetings with his staff. “Meetings are a waste of time,” he said. None of us knew what he learned at the executive meetings he went to once a month, or what he knew about our internal customers in the Underwriting Department. He praised us for “knowing our jobs”, but we didn’t feel in touch with the company we worked for. There was no “bigger picture” than the stacks of things-to-do on our desks. A briefing – giving information and instructions – would have been helpful.

If US managers in corporations, non-profits, and governments gave up their weekly meetings or their regular briefing conversations, they would notice a loss of energy and interest in their team members. They would lose the most effective means of sustaining a relationship with their people, their customers, and the rest of the outside world: communication. This president will too.

Conversations can be designed to be productive and effective – we have identified four ways to do that, as you may already know. When we don’t have a dialogue with other people about the ideas and activities we want to initiate, we miss a chance to get their feedback – including their questions, ideas, and concerns. When we fail to follow up with people to let them know what is happening, and talk about what is working (and what isn’t), we lose their attention and commitment.

It’s not about giving a pep talk, though sometimes that is useful. It’s about reminding people about what we are working on and how things are going. It’s about reporting on actions taken and results produced, addressing setbacks or changes in plans, and underlining the importance of next steps to be taken. Without press briefings, we’ll just have to make up what’s happening in the White House. But we have kind of been doing that all along, right?

Two Workplace Issues are Hooked Together – By Productive Communication

Jeffrey, my husband and co-author, is now teaching his students the important difference between “doing work” and “delivering results”. It’s a harder concept to grasp than you think. Almost everybody has a list of Things To Do. Almost nobody has a list of Things To Deliver (unless you’re a UPS or Fed-Ex driver). We schedule our work – the doing – but the end product and who wants it are too often out of sight.

That simple difference, between doing and delivering the results of our work, is what underlies two common workplace issues:

First, insufficient resources & support – The common complaint of many managers, and their staff too, is that they need more people, or a bigger budget, or more time. You get the idea: “If you gave us more X, we would be able to produce more high-quality, on-time results. Gimme more.”

Second, lack of accountability – Usually only managers complain about this one, but not too loudly. Most don’t understand accountability, believing it’s a personality trait or a product of someone’s upbringing. So they are resigned to thinking that some people just aren’t accountable. In fact, many managers just don’t know how to create accountability in their workplace.

What both of these issues have in common is the failure to use effective Performance Conversations. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Make a request – Specify What you want, When you want it, and Why it matters;
  2. Get a good promise – Do they have the time and resources to produce what you want? Do they agree to do what you ask? (If not, negotiate a workable agreement or ask someone else.)
  3. State the agreement – Spell out the What-When-Why one more time and get the conversational equivalent of a handshake. Or maybe even an actual handshake.
  4. Follow up Check in prior to the due date: How’s it going? Everything on track? Need anything? Then follow up on the due date: Did you get what you want? Either way, communicate. Say, “Thank you” or say, “Where is it?” and deal with the answer. Finally, follow up at the next team meeting: Where does everyone stand on their agreements to produce and deliver their results?

That last one – #4, the follow-up – is where Accountability lives, and often seen by managers as unnecessary or too time consuming. But the mistake regarding the two workplace issues – insufficient resources and support & lack of accountability – is the failure to clarify, in the Performance Conversation, to clarify What you want. People hear “do this” or “work on that”. What they do not hear or remember, even if you say it clearly, is what you want at the end of their doing and working. Do you want a product delivered? A service delivered? A communication delivered?

So a Performance Conversation (request + promise = agreement), supports accountability by naming and describing the deliverable – the end result(s) of people’s doing and working. It also supports having the proper resources and support for delivering the desired result(s), by bringing attention to the What-When-Why of the deliverable you really want.

I hope Jeffrey gets his point across to his students, because doing and delivering live in two separate parts of our brain. His students may take a while to get this into their work practices, but you can put more emphasis on strengthening those Performance Conversations starting now. You can also check out this Free Workplace Assessment  and see where your workplace stands on those two issues (and you’ll get some free feedback on what to do about it).

Thanks – and make some big requests before the week is out!

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