Author Archives: Dave Arella

Efficient Collaboration Requires Context and Structured Communication

Efficient collaboration requires context which email does not provide.  As noted by Simon Slade, CEO of AffiloramaSaleHoo and Doubledot Media: “Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they’re ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work.”

The above observation begins to address the need for context, but it misses some other relevant points.  A more complete context would include more information than just the project name.  Due date would obviously be important, but additional contextual cues would include: who is responsible for the next task, who should the task be delivered to, where are we in the process of completing the task (i.e. are we in agreement about what the task entails, is the work in progress, has the task been delivered, has the task been accepted as complete), and who’s got the ball for the next action (i.e., am I getting back to someone else next, or am I waiting for someone else)?  Most project management systems do not include all these contextual parameters.

William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu observes: “Email sucks because it’s too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don’t get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels.”

The above statement recognizes several shortcomings of email as a collaboration tool.  Emails arrive haphazardly making them easy to miss.  Remembering to follow up is difficult.  Emails do not provide any structure to the work conversations.  Direct (i.e. immediate) communication via phone or instant messaging attempts to resolve issues with no hiding.  This instantaneous resolution of issues is obviously desirable, but rarely happens in practice as messages cannot always be responded to immediately.

So, combining the above observations about the need for context and structure, the ideal project management tool would have the following features:

—  Incoming updates would be structured, and they would provide context showing task, due date, where do we stand, and who’s got the ball.

—  Follow up would be immediately obvious in terms of who has responded and when, and who’s got the ball for the next action.

—  Asynchronous inputs could be captured in addition to direct (i.e. immediate) communication.

—  The entire task-related conversation would be captured in a thread tied to the task, not the person.

—  An archive of complete task-based conversations would be available for reference and review.

—  The system would be as quick and easy to use as email (i.e. no need for everyone on the team to learn a complex project management system).

If you would be interested in a project management solution that really supports full context and structured communication, check out CommitKeeper.

As above so below

The adage is traditionally attributed to the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus who is generally regarded as a Roman adaptation of the Egyptian god Thoth.  Hermes Trismegistus may be the earliest philosopher, but his teachings are considered universal maxims that are reflected in many subsequent philosophical and technical realms right down to the present.  Sir Isaac Newton is credited with a version saying “Tis true without lying, certain and most true.  That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.”  Another reflection is from Confucius who claimed self-government mirrors the government of a state.

The basic meaning of “as above so below” is that by observing one relation you gain knowledge of the reflected whole.  The assumption is that everything at a macroscopic level is a mirror of the microscopic.

While it may seem to be a stretch to relate this quote  to organizational performance, I believe there is a point to be made here.

What is above is results: sales, profit, execution, growth.  So what is below? Below, at the lowest levels in an organizational context, is words. Specifically, conversations about what the organization is or should be doing and how individuals collaborate to get it done.

The quality of these elemental conversations effects the results. The performance effects the conversations.  As above, so below…end results depend on personal interactions.  Accordingly, improving the clarity and commitment bound up in individual conversations can improve top line results.

Self Management Rests On Making And Keeping Commitments

A new organization model called “self managing organizations” is gaining a following.  The idea is essentially that individuals organize themselves based on their own clear understanding of their personal role and commercial mission.  Each member of the organization is personally responsible for forging relationships, planning their own work, coordinating their actions with other members, acquiring requisite resources to accomplish their mission, and for taking corrective action with respect to other members when needed.  Relationships and organization structure arise spontaneously as each person seeks to contribute their value to the organization.  Decision-making is localized.  Individual responsibility is maximized.  This results in more self-directed work teams, employee empowerment, distributed decision making, “flattening” the organization, and elimination of bureaucratic red tape.

Formal, fixed hierarchy is non-existent.  There are no managers who doll out assignments with due dates and then hold people accountable for delivering.  Instead, each individual is accountable for coordinating around specific agreements they have made with each other.  The approach relies on developing sound practices for making and keeping commitments.  It is about the way in which people take action together by holding a shared commitment and facing changing realities.

The “conversation for action” principles originally developed by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd back in the 1980’s still offer the most robust model for making and keeping commitments.

The smallest element of work is not a task, it’s a conversation about a task.  Someone (a requester) is asking someone else (a performer) to do something.  The conversation progresses through three stages – negotiation, delivery, and assessment.  In the first stage, the performer considers the request in light of their other commitments and priorities and makes a commitment for a delivery schedule they can make.  The requester and performer forge an explicit agreement.  Following negotiation, the conversation moves into a delivery or in-progress stage.  The two parties, along with any other followers to the task conversation, keep in touch about how the work is progressing, shifting priorties, and new issues that emerge along the way.  At any point, if the need arises, the performer may request to amend the agreement, and the two parties renegotiate a new delivery schedule.  Once the delivery is made, the conversation moves to the assessment stage in which the requester determines if the task is fully complete and offers thanks and/or feedback to the performer.

Note that this conversational model sounds obvious, but it is NOT how most of us actually operate.  It’s rare to find clear requests, definitive delivery commitments, and explicit delivery and feedback.

The “self management” model holds great promise.  But shifting to this model will require training around new conversational practices.  Software, like CommitKeeper, can help guide and embed the new practice.

Build Commitments, Not To Do Lists

We all have to-do lists, tasks that have been assigned to us.  The list is always longer than we have time to complete and the list keeps growing.  The tasks that get done, however, are the ones we commit to.   And the tasks we commit to usually begin in a very different way than someone adding a new task to our list.  Commitment requires a real agreement by  the performer to get it done on time.  How a team performs depends on how well team members create and keep their agreements.  So how do we distinguish between assignments and commitments?

The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Commitments can be easily distinguished from assignments by looking at the quality of the conversation going on between the requester and the performer.

The flow of the commitment conversation starts with a request, then the two parties make an explicit two-way agreement, the performer delivers on the agreement, and the requester closes the loop by saying if they got what they expected.    Nothing hard to understand here, but this is NOT how most people actually work.  More often, one can observe sloppy requests and slippery deliveries.  Tasks are assigned with no explicit feedback and acceptance by the performer that they will get it done by a certain time, deliveries are slid in more or less as expected, and there is no acceptance by the requester expressing satisfaction or not.

If you’re interested in improving your team’s execution, and at the same time improving task ownership and accountability, start paying attention to the conversations between requesters and performers.

How We Speak At Work Matters

How work colleagues speak to each other, what words they use, what mood prevails, and the structure of the dialog have a lot to do with achieving reliable outcomes. Language trumps control.  HOW the communication is initiated and conducted is more important than WHAT is communicated.  How well people actually work together is all about the “soft stuff” – trust, engagement, motivation, commitment, etc.  Organization culture is made manifest in its language. The most powerful way to effect the culture of an organization is to change the quality of the dialog. An organization is a network of person-to-person work conversations during which information and energy is exchanged. Like cells in your body, the quality of these “work-atoms” determines the effectiveness of the whole. Attending to and influencing work conversations can help transform culture and improve collaboration.

Managers spend the largest portion of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple.  Think of conversations as a sophisticated “technology” for getting things done, not just a trivial everyday act. The starting point is the recognition that conversation is not just about sharing information. A big part of conversation is about making commitments. You ask me to do something by some date. I reply that I will do it. That kind of promise is the key to coordination and getting things done.

An entirely new genre of software tools is now available that combines task with relationship management and helps users manage their work conversations.  Products like our CommitKeeper, act as an active facilitator to guide work colleagues through an effective conversation that focuses on results.  The software helps set the mood by leveling the playing field between the requester and the performer and then suggests the words and actions that help the user navigate a closed-loop delivery conversation.  Most importantly, the software guides the parties to create sincere commitments with specific due dates.  Commitments drive actions that lead to results.

Task “Done” – Says Who?

I mean who should be the one to say whether a task is really done or not?

Someone (I’ll call them the performer) is assigned a task with a due date.  When they’re done, they click the “Done” button and move on to the next task.  I have not found an exception to this practice in any project management software or social task management system.  The idea is simple, obvious even, but flawed.

Sure, if you have developed the task for yourself, then you will know with certainty when it’s “done”.  But if someone else has asked you to do something (I’ll call them the requester), shouldn’t they be the one to determine if it’s really done?

A better, more specific approach is this:  the performer sends a message to the requester asserting that they are done with the task.  The performer delivers what they think was asked of them.  Then the dialog shifts over to the requester who accepts the delivery and then determines if the task meets the requirements of their initial request. If so, the requester closes the task.  If not, the requester sends it back for adjustment or rework until they are satisfied.

It may seem picayune, but underlying the above approach is a more fundamental point. The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation about a task. Two people (requester and performer) forging an agreement to get something done together, making adjustments along the way, and finally closing the conversation with some acknowledgement. It’s far too simplistic to think an assignment gets made and then the performer says “done”.

CommitKeeper software manages and records this “conversation for action” between requesters and performers.



Building Trust Needs A System Of Record

Let’s take it for granted that more trust in an organization leads to faster and better results; e.g., more initiatives completed on time and within budget, more innovation, lower turnover, etc.  But trust is fundamentally amorphous; it’s more a feeling than something we can quantify and measure.  So how do we improve something we can’t measure?

Boosting trust requires instantiating a set of practices and behaviors that directly contribute to developing, restoring, or extending trust.  In a previous post entitled “Reflections on the Speed of Trust by Covey and Merrill“, I discussed several of these trust-building practices including keeping commitments, confronting reality, practicing accountability, and delivering results.

But in addition to these practices, trust can also be built and sustained through the use of a simple system of record.  Operating with commitments takes more than good intentions and management support.  Adopting trust-building behaviors can be greatly aided if commitments are entered and tracked in a system of record that:

  •  Serves as a reliable remembrance tool;
  • Provides transparency of the whole team;
  • Shows dependencies;
  • Tracks the status of commitments; and
  • Records deliveries and results.

CommitKeeper was specifically designed for this purpose.

Performance Management Tools: We Need Something Different, Not Just Faster

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was “necessary,” but few managers, and not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes: (1) There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and (2) we have new tools for constructing review documents. Technology advances have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one- or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell checking). Today managers can “write” the review with a few clicks of a mouse. They use performance management software to select the characteristics (e.g., “exhibits teamwork”) from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”) to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written.” In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

I recently viewed an industry-leading performance management system. In touting the system’s sophistication the vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–“automatically personalized”?

Disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging. We have paved the cow path and upped the speed limit, but we have not improved the journey or the destination. The increased speed and automation of this approach actually serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process in several ways:

(1)   Speeding up the writing process may reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing requires applying a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized “coaching tips.” Additionally, the act of writing indirectly helps managers to prepare their script for the meeting with the employees. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the one-to-one communication meeting altogether.]

(2)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee. Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the “real work”–as if employee development were not part of a manager’s job.

(3)  The performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance. To be sure, the one-to-one communications between manager and employee is a key lever for improving performance, but these conversations are too infrequent and poor quality to realize their potential for improving performance.

Periodic goal setting and review are important, but the real driver for improving performance is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments around tasks. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result. Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. The smallest element of work is a conversation not a task.  Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

As an alternative to performance management reviews once or twice a year, 4Spires offers tools with an all-the-time focus on performance improvement that facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. Managers and employees use CommitKeeper software to help boost the quality and frequency of their ongoing dialogue around project and task completion by elevating and illuminating one-to-one conversations between those requesting actions or services and those who carry out those requests.  The software combines task with relationship management.  Rather than facilitate the use of automated, canned responses, this next generation of performance improvement software can qualitatively change the performance management system in use over the last 30 years.

Our Work Behavior Patterns Are Flawed


We appear to be blind with regard to the effectiveness and implications of our current work behaviors.  We have accepted current behavior patterns as “normal” and expected.  This despite tons of documented evidence of the breakdowns, inefficiencies, and waste that is immediately evident to anyone who chooses to look.

One example: the act of “assigning” a task actually tends to preserve a one-up, one-down notion of the relationship between work mates. Do we really not see that this is nothing more than one of the flavors of a command and control mentality?  Simply identifying a task, putting a person’s name and due date beside it does not come close to really getting a commitment or any real certainty of the outcome.  The smallest element of work is not a task; it’s a conversation.  And only in an adult peer-to-peer conversation can commitments be negotiated and agreed to.  Agreements reflect authentic accountability; assignments do not.


Go Slow To Go Fast

One of our management consultant partners has a fundamental principle that he attempts to instill in working teams struggling with coordination and execution challenges. Go slow to go fast. It’s an old idea even credited to Roman Emperor Augustus who is said to have used the motto “Festina lente”, meaning make haste slowly.

It’s an engaging phrase that has now become commonplace, but what does it really mean in practice. Turns out the phrase can be interpreted in many ways. In our context, it has to do with the very inception of any strategic initiative or task. More specifically, the two key ideas are: (1) have the key parties involved really been clear with each other about what is the desired outcome, and (2) have they made a clear agreement regarding its execution.

This sounds simple enough, but there is plenty of evidence that this is not how we commonly work together. Very often the manager/requester provides a relatively brief description of what she hopes the performer will achieve, and the performer immediately jumps into execution without full clarity and without making a real commitment to a specific outcome by a certain date. The result is often sloppy requests and slippery deliveries.

Going slow at the start has several important implications. First, the requester is obliged to spend a little extra time describing their expectations. Second, the performer is obliged to seek and negotiate clarity about what will be done by when. And third, the two parties make an agreement. An “agreement” is much different than the more common “assignment” of a task. An agreement reflects a higher level of commitment by both parties. By taking the time to formulate a more complete request, the requester is demonstrating their commitment to help the performer succeed. You might even say that the requester becomes more accountable for the outcome than the performer. The performer, on the other hand, demonstrates their commitment by making a specific promise to deliver the result by the agreed date. Notably, this practice is very different than the performer “doing their best”. It goes without saying that the performer will always “do their best” to get it done, but a commitment requires the performer to pause, reflect seriously on their current workload, and then negotiate a specific delivery date they can meet.

CommitKeeper is a software tool that helps our management consultant partner take this idea into the team’s everyday practice. Requesters make “requests”, performers negotiate scope and delivery dates. Crafting an agreement takes longer than making “drive-by” work assignments, but the probability of achieving the desired result the first time is far greater if commitments are clarified up front.