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.

Closure Conversation – Management is Missing

A note from Laurie: I posted here earlier on 3 of the Four Conversations. This is the 4th, the Closure one.

I went through all my client projects from over the years, met with people to talk about them, and summarized the stories. I’ve decided to blog the “nutshell summaries” of these observations, so am leaving here to go to

Hope to see some of you there!

Best regards,

Laurie Ford

Closure Conversation Helps Get Job

Closure conversations can be used at anytime, they don’t have to be used only at the end of a project or an accomplishment.  Jason, a hospital administrator in a Columbus hospital, used a closure conversation at the beginning of his interviews for a new job at a different hospital to reduce anxiety and address an issue he was sure was on everyone’s mind – that his former boss as the one hiring him.  Here is what he told us about it:

I recently interviewed for a director position in a hospital in which the position was newly created and reports to someone (Linda) I had once worked for in my current organization.  Since I had never held a director’s position before, I expected people at the hospital where I was interviewing would be understandably curious about my relationship with Linda and how it would affect them. 

I had one interview with a panel of 14 front line managers.  I knew that this would be the most difficult of the interviews, as they have difficult positions and are typically pulled between front line staff and administration.  I assumed that my presence would evoke doubt and worry because of my relationship with Linda.  I felt that acknowledging this up front might alleviate some of the anxiety the panel felt as well as the anxiety I felt in the interview process.  Even though I had never officially met any of these individuals before, I felt that having a closure conversation and was appropriate.  The following is a synopsis of how it went:

Panel Member:  What do you think some of your initial challenges will be?

Me: Well, of course getting to know the system.  But I imagine that my first challenge will be perceptual.

Panel Member:  What do you mean by that? 

Me:  Well, I know from the interview process that you all have had a year of great changes.  I know that Linda is relatively new, and has brought in many new people.  I know the position I applied for is new to the organization.  I also know that you have read my CV, I am sure it took you about 3 seconds to realize that I worked for Linda in the past.  So here I am, in a new position to the organization that was created by my old boss.  I am sure that I will be viewed as Linda’s boy.

Panel: Laughter

Me:  By the way you guys responded to that, I can tell that many of you have thought that.  I get it.  That is okay.  You will not trust me at first, nor should you.  It is not because I am not trustworthy; it is that you don’t know me yet.  This is where the perceptual challenge comes in.  It will be up to me to prove myself to you through my actions that I am worthy of this position and this job. 

Panel Member: Thank you for saying that.  You are very astute.  I will admit that I came here with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because that is EXCATLY what I thought.  Now I can let go of it.  This will be fine, and you will be fine.  That is all I needed to know.

The conversation was much easier from there.  The interview was more conversational than adversarial.  We shared ideas about projects we were all working on in our environments, and the managers were able to open up to me more.  Even though I had never met these people, I think opening with the closure conversation was important.  The result was that the interview was much easier and I feel more confident in building new relationships with these managers.  More importantly, since the tension was taken out of the initial meeting, I was able to learn more about the organization and the team dynamics so that I could come to a more informed employment decision.

I used this pattern of conversation in other interviews during the process and each time I got similar results. 

Incidentally, I was offered the job. 

Although Jason only used one of the 4-A’s of a closure conversation (he used acknowledgement), it was all he needed at this point.  By acknowledging his relationship with Linda could be an issue and that he needed to earn their trust, Jason diffused a potential obstacle to his having an effective working relationship with the 14 front line managers.  He also made it clear that he was aware of what they were probably thinking and that he was not going to run away from it or pretend it didn’t exist or matter.  By being straight and acknowledging what was there, Jason made it easier for people to interact with him.

Good job Jason!

Best Management Book of 2009

“The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results” was awarded Best Book in Management by 800 CEO READ.  We are very pleased to win this award and will be traveling to New York to receive it on January 25.

Net Speed Fast Tracks knol features The Four Conversations

Net Speed Fast Tracks, a provider of management content for personal and professional development, is posting knols (small units of knowledge) on The Four Conversations.  The first one is currently available and you can read and listen to it here.

800-CEO-READ Interviews Jeffrey re The Four Conversations

Todd Sattersten, President of 800-CEO-READ, conducted an interview with Jeffrey regarding The Four Conversations.  You can listen to the interview here.