Category Archives: Accountability

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.

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.

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.

Elevate Engagement, But How?

It goes without saying that more engaged employees produce better results. But the topic of engagement often spawns a lot of generalizations and hand-wringing with only little practical guidance. How DO you execute in order to raise employee engagement?  What specific behaviors can managers employ?

This topic often starts with admonitions about respect, empowerment, and encouragement.  Some more advice follows along like:  set clear expectations, provide more autonomy, and offer frequent praise and recognition.  Ok, but then  taking this advice to an operational, day-to-day level, what specific behaviors can managers employ?

I suggest one key lever is to focus on how managers communicate with their team; I mean specifically what words are used, what are the conversational patterns, what are the means of following-up and reaching closure on work requests, when and how feedback is delivered, etc.  These are “systematic behaviors” that can be observed and strengthened with an eye to increasing respect and empowerment.

I refer here to the ground-breaking work by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd who developed the model of a “conversation for action” that describes a new pattern of communication between work colleagues that goes right to the mechanics of elevating engagement.

First of all, each conversation for action begins with a “request”.  Not an “assignment” that presumes a one-up and one-down relationship between the parties, but a “request” which acknowledges from the start the mutual dependency and the associated respect due to the performer.  Just using the words “can you. . .” changes the mood of the following work delivery conversation.

The second stage of the conversation is equally powerful.  The performer is provided the opportunity, as a respected equal, to “negotiate” their response to the request.  The performer is explicitly invited and empowered to say what they can and cannot commit to.  No more just assigning a task with a person’s name on it and a due date.  Rather, an actual agreement is forged with a performer who is empowered to respond with what they can accomplish by when.  This practice of an explicit negotiation achieves better clarity of what’s expected.  Moreover, it reinforces a sense of the performer’s autonomy and control over their work.  Note, also, that providing this measure of autonomy to the performer is the quid pro quo for achieving real task ownership and accountability for delivery.

The conversation for action closes the loop with a clear delivery of the agreed outcome followed by the requester’s acceptance and praise or critique.  The closing of each task is an opportunity for praise and recognition.  This amounts to real-time, all-the-time performance improvement conversations instead of end-of-year performance reviews.  Each successful cycle inspires the next one.  Trust, a key element of engagement, is built along the way from repeated cycles.

So, the next question is how do you instantiate these behaviors throughout the team or organization?  One way is to use technology that has been specifically designed to guide and facilitate a “managed conversation” between requesters and performers.  4Spires has developed a new generation of social task management software that combines task and relationship management that goes right to the heart of the engagement question.  It’s a specific and tangible intervention that can change the conversation content and dynamics between work colleagues.

The “CommitKeeper” software acts as a third party to the conversations between requesters and performers by prompting the use of specific words and responses and by assuring explicit closure of the conversation.  The tool is an expression of new practices and new behaviors that can help build engagement.

The First Seven Breakdowns in Work Conversations

For those who have read my earlier posts, you know that I have a particular interest in the structure and quality of work conversations.  The smallest element of any achievement is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Any team or organization is nothing more than a network of conversations.  These person-to-person conversations can be thought of as the exchanging of information and energy much like the cells in your body.  The quality of these exchanges determines the effectiveness of the whole organism/organization.  It follows, therefore, that the most powerful way to improve performance of an individual, a team, or a company is to improve the quality of the dialog.

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.” (Fernando Flores)

This is intended to be the first of a series of articles that provide more specifics about how to improve the quality of work conversations.  It’s one thing to state the general premise that conversations matter.  My intent is to be more specific; I intend to describe specific behaviors that evidence good and bad conversations.  Let’s begin with recognizing some of the most common breakdowns in work conversations that create miscommunication, low engagement or even resignation, and poor execution.  Note that 5 relate to the Requester’s side of the conversation and 2 relate to the Performer’s.

THE FIRST SEVEN CONVERSATION BREAKDOWNS

1)    Not Making Requests – Wanting or needing something from someone else and not making the request.  A request is a clear statement of a desired result within a time frame.  It is surprising how few managers are able to make requests, but it is not hard to explain.  Making a request acknowledges dependence and exposes vulnerability.  In addition, we each have a built in reticence or fear of hearing a “no” response and feeling rejected.

2) Living with Uncommunicated Expectations – A pernicious form of “not requesting” occurs when an individual lives in a world of “shoulds” and expectations that are really unexpressed requests.  This amounts to private conversations with ourselves about what others should and should not do.  There is some inherent dishonesty in this behavior.

3) Making Unclear Requests – Lack of clarity and precision in a request generates breakdowns.  Others do not see the world as you do.  Effective requests are specific, precise and detailed.  Note, however, that making effective requests requires more attention and commitment from the requester.

Making clear requests often requires extra effort to think through more precisely what outcome is desired.  A preliminary conversation with the team is sometimes needed to achieve better clarity about what’s needed and who can do it.  The requester, therefore, shares the accountability for the outcome.

4) Not Observing the Mood of Requesting – Making a request like a demand or like a beggar.  The mood of your utterance affects the listener as much as your words.  If the mood is demanding, your performer might decline your requests because they see you as arrogant and righteous, or they might make promises to you out of intimidation, not choice, and these commitments are weak and rarely fulfilled.

5) Promising even when you aren’t clear of what was requested – Committing to something you are not clear about is foolish.  More, it is also a breakdown in integrity to take on a task that the performer knows is unclear.  Failure to meet expectations is built in from the start.  Not being clear about what will be delivered will guarantee wasted effort.

6) Not Declining Requests – The ability for a performer to decline requests is crucial for health, dignity and well-being.  This is a common sense notion, but radical at the same time.  Most managers operate from an implicit position of “I pay my people well and I expect them to do what I ask of them.”  And perhaps even more important, team members/staff people have no experience nor confidence in the possibility that they could actually decline a request.   And yet, if there is no room to ever say no to a request, how can either the manager or the performer ever trust a yes.

7) Breaking Promises Without Taking Care – Promises are not guarantees that deliveries will be made on time, but breakdowns do need careful handling.  The requester implicitly trusts that the performer is sincere, competent, and reliable to do what they’ve promised.  Breakdowns occur, but so as not to undermine that trust, the performer must honor their original promise by immediately notifying the requester and being open to making a new promise.  In this way the performer is staying accountable and behaving in integrity with what they have said.

Getting task-related conversations off on the right foot is an important beginning to an effective “conversation for action”.  Future blog posts will describe guidelines for how the conversation should progress to maximize the chances for a successful outcome.

 

A “Workspace” for Knowledge Workers – what does this really mean? Eight characteristics of next-generation workspaces.

As social networking and particularly collaboration technologies have flourished, so have a whole new crop of terms intended to describe what differentiates these new capabilities from the old. One of the new terms is “shared workspace”. It’s now common for vendors to tout their new “workspace” somewhere in their marketing. But beyond the claims, there is little discussion about what is really meant by the term. My intention is to dig a little deeper into describing what most current vendors mean by a “shared workspace” and the characteristics that distinguish a next-generation workspace.

Knowledge workers of today who are more often remote and mobile do certainly benefit from technologies that provide the virtual equivalent of the old whiteboard in a meeting.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide spectrum of capabilities that various vendors use to describe their “workspace”. The single common understanding is that “shared workspaces” support collaborative input, editing, and updates from more than one person at the same time, i.e. it’s a multi-user tool.  While email technically allows any party in the dialog to add a comment at any time, the general idea is more like ping-pong. One person sends a note and another person responds. The first person waits for the response; it’s a back and forth paradigm. Email certainly presented a new “workspace” to users 30 years ago. Current day tools support capture of anyone-anytime-anywhere dialog in the context of a work group or project.

Some consider a shared document to be a workspace. Enabling multiple people to view and edit the same document at the same time is certainly a huge step beyond email, but producing shared documents is only a relatively small part of what knowledge workers do.

Modern workspaces also provide the basic capabilities of storing and retrieving shared documents in a shared repository. A shared workspace typically also includes ready access to your colleagues organized by group or project and the ability to post comments in a shared view.

The software provided by most of today’s vendors utilize a one-to-many paradigm. The workspace is a shared forum in which collaborators update each other in real time. Anyone in the group can post updates at any time, and all group members are updated simultaneously. While keeping colleagues up to date is important, such workspaces engender intermittent participation from team mates and the workspace provides only limited focus on individual accountability for who is delivering what by when.

The most advanced workspaces, however, go much further. The software is not just an open field where participants have the possibility to add a comment or respond to someone else’s post. The workspace technology actually functions like a facilitating third-party to the conversation.

I take it for granted that the workspace must be easy to use. Who doesn’t make this claim? A more interesting differentiating characteristic is whether the workspace is passive or active.

 Passive vs. Active workspaces

Passive workspaces sit there, a virtual blank canvas that collaborators can write on together.   The passive workspace collects and displays the inputs from participants and may even provide some search (e.g. tags) and sorting features, but the technology offers nothing to directly influence the content, style, or mood of the communications that are going on.

Active workspaces act like a third party in the work conversations. An active workspace guides the participants into how to conduct a focused collaborative action that leads to results. It facilitates a certain structure and rigor, the rules of engagement so to speak. The conversation is “managed” so as to increase the likelihood of a successful delivery. The software is also specifically designed to facilitate the quality of the conversation (e.g. who says what to whom) and in so doing to build a positive relationship between the parties going forward.  Task and relationship management are combined.

Eight characteristics of a next-generation workspace 

Following are 8 specific characteristics of active, next-generation workspaces that are not yet generally available in the marketplace:

1– Context. Entries are organized in a thread that is specifically related to some action or result someone has requested, i.e. not just a general posting.

2– Focus.  Dialog is focused on what we are trying to accomplish, i.e. the explicit requested outcome by when. Who is involved, who is the accountable performer, and who else is an interested observer to the conversation? What’s the current status, i.e. is the task on track or not?

3– Structure.  Composing the goal or task request must contain certain information. Structure cannot be so confining, however, as to inhibit the flexibility needed for natural conversations.

4– Ownership.  Views show who’s got the ball at this moment to move the conversation along. Who is waiting for who?

5– Next steps.  What are the appropriate next actions any user could/should take next? The software provides a set of shared ground-rules for “managing” the conversation including expected responses at any particular point in the dialog. An underlying “intelligent” workflow keeps things moving forward.

6– Setting the mood.  The software prompts what “words” are appropriate to set up the optimum “mood” for the conversation that will enhance respect, engagement, and trust.

7– Closing the loop.  Delivery of agreed outcomes is explicit. Performers don’t  claim “done”; instead they assert that a delivery was made and let the original requester confirm whether the delivery was satisfactory.  Team leaders accept and express satisfaction and feedback.

8– A history.  Memory of past conversations is preserved for later review and analysis. Participants build their reputation as a reliable team member. One’s integrity (i.e. say what you’ll do, do what you say) is catalogued and supported by data.  Trust improves.

4Spires solutions are examples of next-generation workspaces that include all of these characteristics.

How Is Accountability Put Into Practice

In a recent blog post Suresh Kumar, President of KaiZen Innovation and former Assistant Commerce Secretary for Trade Promotion appointed by President Obama asked a key question: “What does it take to put accountability into practice?  How does one create a culture of responsibility and integrity?  Leaders need to nourish the cultural context and manifestations of accountability.  Leader-member exchanges create an atmosphere of mutual responsibility and obligation.  Monitoring creates a natural context for dense feedback.  Providing feedback successfully requires a high level of management credibility. Accountability depends upon defining who is responsible for what.  The leader needs to set, and get agreement on, expectations that are clear, measurable, and personal.”

As Suresh points out, accountability is NOT about setting a goal or assigning a due date to see if a person delivers.  Real accountability is achieved in a “conversation”.  In fact, achieving commitment and engagement requires a particular pattern of conversation.  I’m referring to the ground-breaking work of Fernando Flores, and others, who developed the practice of “commitment-based management”.  The model he developed of a “conversation for action” is simple, even obvious, but powerful for achieving accountability in practice.

The conversation progresses through 4 stages – Request, Negotiation, Delivery, and Assessment.  The leader/manager or even a colleague begins with a request to a specific performer (e.g. Can you…by this date?).  The performer provides an explicit response (i.e., Agree, Decline, Counter-Offer).  Once a clear agreement is reached between the two parties, the conversation moves to the Delivery stage during which the parties keep in touch with each other regarding progress or issues as they arise.  Next, the performer delivers what they said they would deliver or explains why they couldn’t.  The conversation moves to the final assessment stage where the requester accepts the delivery and provides feedback about their satisfaction.  The cycle repeats for each goal or task.

What excites me most about this model is the effect this practice has as an organization development intervention to build a culture of autonomy, transparency and trust.  Performers are “elevated” and engaged at a peer level relationship (as opposed to a command and control leadership style).  The quid pro quo for providing greater autonomy and control to the performer is palpable accountability for achieving outcomes.  The practice introduces a new style of conversation.

The act of making a “request” (vs. an assignment) changes the mood of the conversation from the outset.  What we say, the words we use and how we say them, changes the quality of the interaction between individuals.  New words (e.g. request, commitment, counter-offer, decline, assessment) are introduced into the organization, which drive more explicit accountability for the performer and the requester.

New technology can be very helpful to introduce and reinforce this “conversation for action” model.  To see this in “action” for yourself, check out the 4Spires demo.