Eight Game Changing Ideas – Reflections on Games People Play at Work

Assigning and managing work tasks involves some well-worn “games people play”.  If you look closely, you discover these games can interfere with efficiently accomplishing the task-activity.  Here are 8 ways to use simple task management to change the games, increase commitment and boost performance.

The term “game changer” is in vogue and there is a great buzz surrounding this idiom.  What does this term mean and what situation, term, idea or person qualifies as being a real game-changer?  For this article I will use the term literally by describing the Old game and the New game.  Anyone can debate the significance of what constitutes a change, but I will be as definitive as possible about what game is being changed.

The context for these ideas revolves around the “games people play” with each other about getting stuff done in an enterprise:

—  how tasks are assigned and collaborated upon,

—  how customers and vendors work with each other,

—  how project managers relate to their team, and

—  how leaders lead and followers follow.

The eight ideas expressed below are not fluffy industry speak, like “build more trust”, or “increase accountability”, or “pay for performance”, etc.  I often encourage these approaches as well, but the concepts listed below are all executable.  They relate to specific behaviors and tools that can be tangibly implemented and observed.  One can tell at a glance whether the parties are playing the old game or a new one.

Each can be individually implemented, or can be co-jointly applied to good advantage as complementary behaviors in an entirely new game.

1.  Ask, Don’t Tell

  • Old Game: The project manager assigns tasks to a team member(s) along with desired delivery dates.  The performer(s) is expected to hit the assigned dates or face consequences.
  • New Game: The project manager describes a task and ASKS the intended performer(s) if and when the task can be successfully delivered.

To accomplish a task, one party (the customer or manager) makes a request of another instead of assigning a task.  Putting a person’s name next to a task does not equal real commitment to fulfillment. Making a request presumes a more egalitarian relationship between the requester and the performer (i.e. not a command-and-control management style).

2.  Performers negotiate delivery dates

  • Old Game: Delivery date is entered in the project plan or specified by the requester as the date they need it done by.
  • New Game: The performer responds to the request by clearly stating if and when the requested task can be delivered.  Counter-offers are commonplace.

The performer engages in a negotiated agreement (including the ability to decline or counter-offer).  The ability to say NO enables a performer to make a committed YES. Moving from task assignments to a two-way agreement that is explicit and public encourages added discretionary effort by the performer to deliver on time.

3.  Response required

  • Old Game: Manager says “I sent out the request, but have yet to receive any response.”  Staff person replies: “I received the new task email from my boss, but I do not want to do it so I will delay or not respond and see if he brings it up again.”
  • New Game: Performer provides an explicit agreement, negotiates an alternative, or declines the request, and each party knows exactly where the negotiation stands and who has the ball for the next action.

The intended performer provides an explicit response to a work request or task.  No more unanswered emails.

4.  Track dialogs in context

  • Old Game: The twists and turns, shifting priorities, and new information encountered along the way that ultimately affects task delivery is lost in a myriad of emails, chats, text messages, and voice mails.
  • New Game:  Every comment and stage of the dialog is captured and available for immediate reference and future review.  Each party contributes and creates a comprehensive record of events, activities, issues, and deliverables.

The real performance lever is the quality of the dialog between the requester and the performer. This is where relationships are built and maintained. The complete dialog thread, in context of who said what to whom, provides new insights into execution details.  As the task or project progresses there is a defined and viewable documentation which can be analyzed and used to learn and mentor the individual as well as the team.

5.  Close the loop

  • Old Game: Performers “slide in” partial deliveries in a haphazard fashion and managers do not formally accept or evaluate their satisfaction with the outcome.
  • New Game: Performers explicitly assert they have a made a delivery in response to a specific request, and managers explicitly accept, acknowledge and assess the result.

Deliveries should be made explicitly and actually accepted and acknowledged by the requester. How satisfied was the requesting manager/customer with the outcome and the deliverable?

6.  Track commitments

  • Old Game: “I have a general idea of the promises I have made, but I regularly forget something along the way.  I do not maintain or update a comprehensive list of all my commitments”.
  • New Game: “I do not lose track of my commitments to others, and therefore my reputation is backed up by hard data.  I know exactly where I stand with all my commitments”.

Keep track of commitments you have made to others and those that others have made to you.  A promise-keeper builds trust and reputation.

7.  History matters

  • Old Game: After the task is completed it falls off the Gantt chart without any memory of how it turned out or what transpired along the way.
  • New Game: A detailed record of all requests, tasks, and deliverables is preserved for mid and post project analysis and review.  Everyone has something to learn from.

Keep an historical record of past conversations and deliveries.  What approaches, policies and best business practices are deployed to capture past experiences and learn how to do it better next time? Break the cycle of past miscues and wasted efforts.

8.  Report performance metrics

  • Old Game: Managers write the annual performance review based on their general impressions and recent memory (e.g. last six weeks) of the employee’s performance.  Employees have no shared record of specific achievements and contributions they have made throughout the year.
  • New Game: Managers and employees have a detailed shared record of all the specific requests and deliverables including specific on-time delivery metrics.

Real metrics about personal and organization performance drive extraordinary improvements. No more performance reviews based only on limited memory of recent events.

The games people play at work no longer serve anyone well.  Forward thinking organizations looking to establish more effective and more powerful work norms will find that paying closer attention to the actual interactions between people will bring big dividends by improving commitment and productivity.  

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