Category Archives: Execution

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.

 

Developing a habit of making and keeping commitments

It’s the New Year.  Time for some new thinking and new goals.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in your organization had a habit of making and keeping their commitments?  Can you imagine how much smoother operations would be; how much better morale would be; how much happier your customers would be; how much more successful the organization would be?

Learning habits follows a process.  First you learn the new behavior, then you practice until it becomes a habit.  It’s a simple process, but not at all easy. Learning a new behavior requires awareness, intention and most often guidance.  Practice means consistent repetition.  Habits only form after a considerable number of repetitions.

One of the greatest powers of software is its ability to shorten and reinforce the making of new habits.  That notion is the core idea for the design of our CommitKeeper tool.

First, CommitKeeper teaches the process of making and keeping commitments.  Done properly this process requires a clear request, a negotiated agreement with a specific due date, on-time delivery of that agreement by the performer, and acceptance/feedback from the requester.  To be precise, the new behavior does not guarantee that all tasks will be done on time.  Rather, making and keeping commitments is about elevating (or is it deepening) the quality of the conversation between two individuals acting with intention, mutual respect and care about the agreements they make with each other.  In addition to guiding both requester and performer through the commitment conversation the software provides a record of the conversation and clear focus on who has the ball for the next action.

Second, adopting a system forces consistent repetition of the new behavior for making and keeping commitments.  Without a new system, it’s too easy to “fall back” onto old habits.  The software also provides an archive of completed conversations for review and further learning.

Getting better at meeting commitments takes more than just talking about it.  Adopting a new system is a great way to develop new habits.

 

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.

Culture Is Revealed In Conversations, Some Tips For Improvement

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post Business section on 03/02/ 2015

When we think of work culture, what do we mean? Often what we mean is the mood of the place. And there are many moods we are all familiar with that range from excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity, openness, honesty, and partnership to competitive, argumentative, overbearing, cynical, withdrawn, and punitive, to name a few. And how is the mood displayed? Through talking, i.e. how people speak with each other. The tone of voice, the specific words we use, the energy, and even the structure of the dialog are palpable manifestations of work culture. Respect and empowerment are expressed in conversations between work colleagues. Drop into any meeting, listen to how people speak with each other, and you will have an immediate sense of the culture of the organization. How work colleagues speak to each other, what words they use, what mood prevails, and the structure of the dialog have more to do with achieving reliable outcomes than all other factors.

How work colleagues speak with each other is not only evidence of the culture; changing the dialog may also be the biggest lever for changing the culture.

What people say and what they withhold matters.  Language trumps control. How the communication is initiated and conducted is often more important than what is communicated. 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.

What’s most interesting to me is that while our dialog is a reflection of all the soft stuff like trust, openness, honesty, engagement, motivation, transparency, confidence, and respect; dialog can also be viewed as a “technology” in the sense that it can be structured, measured, and guided through specific practices. One can readily observe and monitor what dialog is occurring and, in turn, what culture is being expressed and reinforced. Interventions to improve culture by changing the dialog can, therefore, be quite specific, not just platitudes like “we need more trust”.

Managers may spend 80% of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple.  Rather than thinking of conversations as trivial everyday acts, conversations should be thought of as a sophisticated technology for getting things done. 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 control and coordination.

One specific intervention is to use language with more precision. One example would be introducing the distinction between an assertion and an assessment. An assertion is a statement of a fact or belief. An assessment is a personal judgment or opinion. An assessment can either be grounded (i.e., backed up with some evidence) or ungrounded (i.e., just a personal hunch). Another example is to notice that a request is very different from an assignment or a complaint and that an explicit promise from a performer to deliver something by a certain date actually changes the state of things. Making our utterances more precise is a great start to improving work relationships.

Another intervention involves paying attention to the structure of work conversations. Over the last 50 years social scientists and linguists have developed, for example, a precise model for a “conversation for action” that has four stages. In the first stage the team leader/manager/customer makes a request of a specific performer and the two parties begin the negotiation stage. Once they reach agreement, the conversation moves to the delivery stage. When the performer delivers they enter the acknowledgement/assessment stage where the requester declares whether they are satisfied and completes the conversation. Tracking conversations around this closed loop can be a big boost to better accountability and more on-time deliveries.

Promise Cycle

Language is both the expression of culture and the lever for changing culture. The “technology of conversations” is a new domain that HR practitioners should become involved with. Organization consultants bring special sensibilities and tools for exposing, exploring, and enhancing work conversations.

 

Behavior Change Is Hard, 6 Factors To Improve Your Odds

We all know that changing one’s behavior is so fraught with challenges that it rarely actually works.  We get set in our ways.  Even when there is good reason to change, mighty forces stand in the way.  And even when we do finally make a change, there remains a strong and long-lasting pull to revert back to the old “tried and true” ways.  The resistance to change is more than just personal preferences, it’s biological.  We are wired to preserve the status quo

Changing the behaviors of teams or organizations is many times harder!  Numbers of people need to be pulled, cajoled, or pushed against their natural tendencies.  Ask any OD or change management consultant, and they will tell more stories of failure than success.

To improve your odds of achieving organization change your change management program must have the following 6 components.  Your chances of success plummet if you miss even one.  Note that 3 generally require intervention, consulting, and/or training by an outside consultant who knows the territory and can guide the overall journey.  The other 3 relate to the supporting role of technology.  Consulting or new technology by itself will rarely succeed in the long run. The combination has real power.

  1.  A good enough reason to change. Some problem or opportunity must be so compelling as to merit even attempting the change process.  Don’t take this consideration lightly.  If the goal is only marginal improvement, then don’t bother.  The prize has to be really big, and it has to be understood by people on the team.  Virtually everyone needs to “buy-in” at some level.
  1.  A picture of the new behavior.  This involves two levels.  First, the group needs a shared vision of the new organization that has enough clarity to be enticing.  Second, individuals need to know what the new behavior looks like when we see it.  Stories from other companies can only be of limited help because every organization is different.  Descriptions of the new behavior(s) need to be specific.  General platitudes like “we need to build more trust and better accountability” won’t cut it.  People need detailed scripts.
  1.  Leadership.  Most often this is the team leader, boss, supervisor, CEO, etc.  The leader has to be gung-ho for the change.  But leadership must also come from team members.  In fact, having a couple of “early adopters” on the team who point the way for others can be the real key to success.
  1.  Practice. Software is the instantiation of the new “scripts”.  Even the words used in describing the change should be mirrored in the software interface.  The software guides, nay requires, following the new behavior.  The software forces users into a path toward the new.  Furthermore, new behaviors require repetition.  Software creates standard, repeating actions that reinforce and sustain the new practices.
  1.  A system of record to monitor progress. Monitoring change in progress cannot be accomplished based on mere impressions and personal opinions.  There must be some supporting evidence.  The new behavior(s) need to be codified.  Technology is the “neutral” eye-in-the-sky that records successful new behavior and answers questions like: Are we doing the new behavior or not?   Which individuals are doing them and which are not?  How often?  What are the results of the new behavior?  Do the new behaviors show promise? etc.
  1.  Metrics to show results.  Ultimately, we need to answer the question did the change make a difference?  Producing a definitive before and after analysis is often very difficult, but the software database can provide a host of both personal and organization-wide statistics from which real bottom-line benefits can be inferred.

Changing the behavior of a team is hard.  An honest assessment of these six factors can tell you whether it’s worth a try.  Combining management coaching/training with supporting technology can really improve the odds of succeeding.

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.

The Missing Loop – Guest Post by Paul Foraker

CommitKeeper: The Missing Loop

What’s missing in work group software?

Cloud-based software supporting collaboration can include shared calendars, files, and tasks. Workers share dates and documents with each other using services like Google Drive or SharePoint; and there are several task managers available to small groups. Plus, there are platforms like Producteev, Flow, and Remember The Milk that integrate all three. One thing they all seem to be missing, however, is a collaborative workflow that emphasizes the importance of making negotiated commitments.

A negotiated commitment (Flores, et al.) is one in which a Requester and Performer have made an explicit agreement about the terms of the task at hand. Requests will include:

  • title
  • due date
  • budget
  • description of the scope of the task

The next step — which most solutions ignore — is to get the Performer to agree. Top-down management doesn’t always work. Lost emails stop progress.

The SaaS solution called CommitKeeper (www.commitkeeper.com) aims to provide the missing link; or better, the missing loop. CommitKeeper automates the commitment-based management (CBM) stages of:

  1. Preparation
  2. Negotiation
  3. Countered
  4. Delivery
  5. Acknowledgement
  6. Archival

When a team member fills out a New Request form and clicks Send, the parties Negotiate. If the Performer needs to, she makes a Counter-offer. After the parties agree, they enter Delivery. When she’s finished, she clicks Deliver, and the Requester is notified. Time to Acknowledge. The Requester can ask for rework (back to Delivery) or click OK (Archived).

Explicit commitment closes the loop and brings results.

Evolving Email – Guest Blog by David Creelman

David Creelman (www.creelmanresearch.com) has been a thought leader on human capital management issues for more than 10 years.   He writes extensive, thought-provoking papers and speaks frequently at industry conferences.  I reached out to David back in 2011 to gather his reactions to the work we were beginning at 4Spires.  In response, he wrote the following blog post.  Two years on, David’s observations are even more relevant.  He writes:

“The biggest untapped opportunity for organizational effectiveness is email.

Managerial and professional staffs spend a big hunk of every day on email. It is the single most important means for control, coordination and communication. Yet how much time does HR invest in creating the means so that this tool for control, coordination and communication is used effectively?

One stumbles a bit here, because while HR leaders can imagine providing training on using email, the broader sense that HR should “create the means to make email more effective” (to repeat my own awkward phase) feels outside the scope of the function. Yet if HR doesn’t grab hold of this, who will?

Let me ease the discomfort by pointing to something concrete. I recently spoke to David Arella of 4Spires. He reached out to me because of things I’d written about conversation as a technology. My point was that managers spend 80% of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple; HR should think of conversations as a sophisticated “technology” for getting things done, not just a trivial everyday act. Arella is interested in “managed conversations” and because many, even most, conversations take place in email—and because email has all the opportunities that come with any online technology—Arella is interested in email.

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 control and coordination.

The theoretical underpinning for this is speech act theory. If you are a keener like me you will have read the background work by philosophers JL Austin and John Searle, but the practical application of speech act theory comes from Fernando Flores. Flores elucidated the small number of elements of a conversation that results in commitments. Basically it starts with a person making a request, and then someone accepting it, rejecting it or making a counter-offer. When the request is fulfilled and acknowledged as suitable, that commitment cycle is complete.

Flores believes that if people are deliberate about these key elements of conversation, organizations would work more effectively. What better way to enable this than to add functionality to email that helps clarify and track the conversations that manage commitments? This is exactly what 4 Spires is attempting to do.

If you are old enough and geeky enough, you will remember that 4Spires is not the first to try this. Flores himself created an communication application called the Coordinator which attempted to enforce his view of how conversations should be conducted. This wasn’t a success, and my understanding is that it was due to overzealousness on Flores’ part. You wanted to send an email saying “Great game last night!” and the Coordinator would make you decide if that was a request, a counter-offer or whatever. Arella has learned from this experience and has a system that is much lighter on its feet; it gives you the option of a disciplined email conversation that manages commitments but imposes nothing.

Let’s imagine you are running a project that involves 5 or 6 people and a few of their own direct reports. Everyone knows this kind of project can be hard to keep track of. Is everyone doing what they are supposed to? Has something fallen off the rails? Project management software is not suited to this sort of thing; it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But if your email program is tracking who has committed to what by when, then there is an automatically generated record of what is going on. It becomes easy to see “What are the things Joe is supposed to be doing?” or “What deliverables ought to be back to me today?” Tracking who is doing what by when, need not be a separate activity, it happens automatically simply by ticking a few boxes. This is the new face of project management.

One thing that also falls out of this simple commitment tracking is who has done what, who is done on time, and who is consistently late on meeting their commitments. As always, any metric is simply the launch pad for more investigation, but if an employee is consistently late it raises the question of whether the employee is overworked, under skilled or simply poor at estimating how long something will take. This is important management insight. It’s the new face of performance management.

Having structured data online about conversations and commitments leads to many possibilities: potentially you can look at all the commitments an employee has made; you can look at all the deliverables you expect this week; you can see if elements of your project are being held up by people who have made, but not fulfilled, commitments to your own direct reports.

Management is mainly about conversations, and important conversations are about commitments. Most commitments are made by email and so if we track this we can manage it. It’s that simple.

Email is the biggest thing to happen in management in the past few decades, but we’ve kind of just let it happen. We’ve never really grabbed hold of it as the powerful tool it is. If a whole department can worry about the control tool of accounting; why not pay similar attention to the much more expansive tool of email?

Managed conversations in the 4Spires way is not the only thing you can do to improve email. The point is to realize that in email we have a monster of a tool; investment in managing that tool better could have an extraordinary impact on organizational effectiveness.”