Author Archives: Dave Arella

Fish in Water – Workmates in Language

In his commencement speech to a graduating class at Kenyon College, author David Foster Wallace began with the following joke.  “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace uses the story to point out that what surrounds you every day is often oblivious to you.  The analogy can be applied to the work environment, and specifically to our language.

Similar to fish in water, we move through our days in language that is usually taken for granted and unobserved.  Almost everything we do is accomplished with words.  The language we use in conversations with our work colleagues is typically not noticed.  How we behave, however, is bounded by the way we speak and listen to each other.  Paying attention to our language can help move us beyond our implicit assumptions into better clarity, more integrity, and improved performance.

The branch of linguistics that informs and inspires the 4Spires products flows from the work of John Austin, John Searle, and Fernando Flores.  These thinkers studied how language coordinates action between people and achieves results.  Dr. Flores brought new clarity to the idea that there is unrealized power in the use of specific words structured into a specific pattern of conversation.  He called it a “conversation for action”.

Helping work colleagues pay attention and harness language to improve results (i.e. to figuratively help people “see the water”) is at the heart of what differentiates our solutions from others in the market.  Our products focus, illuminate, and guide work conversations that can profoundly improve both team productivity and relationships.  Real breakthroughs happen if we open our eyes to what we say, and how we listen to each other.

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.

Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – A Commentary

In 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” describing the many pitfalls teams face and the fundamental causes of organizational politics and team failure.  Despite the lack of actual data to support his observations, the book has been on the New York Times and Business Week best-seller list, and it is a favorite of many organization consultants.  This is no doubt because the dysfunctions are so familiar.

Lencioni describes the hierarchy of the five dysfunctions:

  • Absence of trust — if team members are unwilling to take interpersonal risks with one another and are unwilling to be vulnerable or to admit mistakes and weaknesses; this culminates in poor trust-building practices.  (Note: See my other blog articles on Trust.)
  • Fear of conflict — when teams are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas, the outcome is that members rely on carefully crafted safe statements to avoid conflict and reprisal; the unvarnished truth is not spoken.
  • Lack of commitment — without healthy conflict team members feign buy-in; causing ambiguity about decisions. If there is agreement, it is done begrudgingly or to deflect conflict.
  • Avoidance of accountability — without commitment and buy-in, accountability suffers as it is hard to hold someone accountable for what you do not believe in.  Performance standards decline when no one is called out on their counterproductive behavior.
  • Inattention to results — if team members do not hold each other accountable, results suffer. Individual interests, such as status and ego, override the team’s agenda.

Lencioni’s model

We can all recognize these dysfunctional tendencies.  In fact, these are present to a lesser or greater degree in virtually every team.  So the question remains; how can leaders promote improvement along these dimensions?

Many organization consultants use this model in team-based interventions and executive coaching.  Recognizing the dysfunctions and understanding how they affect team performance is not difficult, the hard part is changing them.  How exactly do leaders change the norms, practices, and behaviors of individual team members?

The root of the problems and the focus for making change is in the nature of the conversations going on among team members, i.e., who is saying what to whom, on what topics, with what words, in what mood, etc.  The team dysfunctions are manifested in the dialog, or lack thereof, going on between team members.  To make improvements in team performance, managers need to focus on these conversations.

In his 2013 book Conversations For Action and Collected Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, Fernando Flores wrote:

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual.  The role of the leader is to make sure the right conversations are happening and that they are being assessed by the team as being effective.  These are not one-way messages like take out the trash or do this task, but rather two-way conversations in which individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing.”

Lencioni’s model is used by many management consultants to help leaders and groups understand the roots of their performance problems and to prompt changes in the group’s conversational patterns.  For some this can be an important intervention illuminating a pathway for change.

The real challenge, however, is making the intervention stick.  It is one thing to learn the model and quite another to change a group’s behavior, their practices around the structure and quality of their conversations.  Even if this can be done during an intervention spanning a few weeks, how can the manager, leader or group make sure the new practices stick over the long haul?

This challenge is one of the reasons 4Spires developed its social task management solutionCommitKeeper. The software helps to instantiate new practices around conversations that address all of the team dysfunctions.  CommitKeeper prompts explicit responses to requests and assures that clear commitments are made and that each party maintains proper and ongoing communication throughout the entire cycle: initial request through post-delivery.  Accountability is made visible and the software keeps a detailed record of results.  Trust is built through more honest conversations and a track record of making and keeping one’s commitments.

I’m betting the interventions that yield the best long term results will include a combination of training accompanied by the CommitKeeper software.

Evolving Email – Guest Blog by David Creelman

David Creelman ( 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.”

Elevating Employee Engagement – New Technology Can Make a Difference

Improving employee engagement is a perennial management concern.  While difficult to quantify, there is little debate that engaged employees contribute more to the enterprise.  An HR executive recently summarized the keys to improving engagement with three words: “Respect, Empower, Inspire.”

Ok, fine, but how does a company or manager do this exactly?  Beyond admonitions to managers, what specific behaviors can managers employ?  I suggest one key lever to focus on is how managers communicate with their staff, i.e., what words are used, what are the conversational patterns, what are the means of following-up and reaching closure, etc.  These are “systematic behaviors” that can be observed and strengthened with an eye to increasing respect and empowerment.

I am referring here to the ground-breaking work by Drs. Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd who developed the model of a “conversation for action” that embodies a new pattern of communication between work colleagues.  First of all, each work conversation 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 whole 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 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 with a performer who is empowered to respond with what they can accomplish by when.  Note, also, that providing this measure of autonomy to the performer is the quid pro quo for clarifying subsequent accountability for delivery.  Accountability is baseless without negotiation.  If the performer never has room to say no (i.e. decline a request), then how can you trust a yes?

The work conversation proceeds full circle with a clear delivery of the agreed outcome followed by the manager’s acceptance and praise or critique.  A 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 organization?

We believe technology can improve engagement by guiding and facilitating a “managed conversation” between requesters and performers.  4Spires has developed a new generation of social task management software that combines task and relationship management.  It goes right to the heart of the engagement question with a specific and tangible intervention that can change the conversation content and dynamics.  The software acts as a third party to the conversation 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.  Helping individuals make and keep their commitments builds engagement.


“Until one is committed…” quoting the correct author

Because of the work I do regarding the importance of making and keeping commitments, as well as the paths I have chosen to follow that express personal commitments I have made in my life,  I have often found inspiration in the following quote that is attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from his work, Faust:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Thanks again to the wonders of the internet, which now contains nearly the entire knowledge of all mankind (our modern day equivalent to the Royal Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s single largest collection of knowledge), I stumbled upon a question as to whether this quote is correctly attributed to Goethe.  Here is what I found.

The Goethe Society of North America investigated this very subject over a two-year period ending in March 1998. The Society got help from various sources and after extensive research they and others have discovered that the “Until one is committed…” quotation often attributed to Goethe is in fact by William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), from his 1951 book entitled The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.  Murray’s book (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1951) details the first Scottish expedition in 1950 to the Kumaon range in the Himalayas, between Tibet and western Nepal. The expedition, led by Murray, attempted nine mountains and climbed five, in over 450 miles of mountainous travel. The book is out of print and can cost over $100 from used book sellers.

The attribution to Goethe no doubt added a bit more cache to the quote, but I am nevertheless still indebted to the correct author, and therefore felt compelled to set the record straight here.  Please pass it on.




Book Review – “Conversations for Action and Collected Essays” by Fernando Flores

First, I am impressed with how well the information in this book has stood the test of time. I might even go further and say that the material is more relevant in today’s work culture than it was 30 years ago when it was written. Our modern, technology-connected, but personally-disconnected life can certainly benefit from improving how we converse with each other. Dr. Flores offers an astute analysis of how we communicate, from the basic linguistic elements through an appreciation for background concerns, flow, moods, and trust. He deconstructs our everyday exchanges with other people into their essential elements and then constructs a compellingly simple model of the back and forth “dance” that goes on to achieve shared action. The “conversation for action” loop he developed 3 decades ago remains a powerful model for improving knowledge worker productivity.

In particular, I found the discussion of autonomy vs. accountability very relevant in the context of our current generation of workers. Along with shifts toward less loyalty to company and increasing worker mobility, we can sense a growing demand for increasing autonomy in how (and where) work is conducted. There are obvious benefits to this trend, including increased employee engagement and innovation, but maintaining efficient coordination may be more challenging. Adherence to the conversation for action model adds clarity and a modicum of rigour to work conversations that can make accountability explicit and visible. A growing number of case studies attest to the improvements in collaboration the model provides.

The book offers valuable insights like the following:

— We all make “characterisations” of others and of ourselves. We say “he is trustworthy,” “she is unreliable,” “I’m bad with numbers.” “These features are not real; they only exist in conversation…when we forget that characterisation is a conversation, we perpetuate our competencies and incompetencies, and those of others…grounded characterisations allow us to have productive conversations; these are conversations for moving forward together rather than staying stuck in the present.”

— Our background mood affects how we perceive the world and the people around us and how we behave. A person’s mood is driven by their vision of the future. “A common belief is that the future is basically an extension of what is going on today.” To manage moods, therefore, it is necessary to create a different understanding about the future. Dr. Flores suggests “the most important key to generating moods of challenge, confidence, and ambition is to understand that people create the future in the commitments they make to each other and the actions they take together…we invent the future together.” There is key information in this section for any group leader to consider.

— “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 fulfil the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective. The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

— Language is central to being social. “We build networks of people with whom we participate in conversations.” These are not one-way messages like “take out the trash” or “do this task,” but rather two-way conversations in which two or more individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing. These are the kind of principles we should be mindful of as we design modern work management systems.

Perhaps the gem of the whole book, however, is the last chapter “On Listening.” Using examples as seemingly far apart as a used car salesman and Lech Walesa, Dr. Flores presents an entirely new approach to the practice of listening. Exhibiting keen observation skills, the author exposes the mechanics of dysfunctional conversation patterns that are immediately recognisable and then presents a new model for listening that can achieve genuine engagement between people with entirely different backgrounds. We see how the traditional training on listening skills is flawed, and we learn an observable, but radically new way of participating in conversations that any reader can utilize and benefit from.

My one reservation with the book is that I was left wanting more examples of these principles in practice. The everyday examples in the book are used only for explanatory purposes. I think the book would have benefited from the inclusion of some case studies where the ideas made a difference. I know they’re out there…perhaps in the second edition?

CommitKeeper selected as finalist in Global Awards for Excellence in Knowledge Worker Innovation

In April 2013, Future Strategies Inc. invited 4Spires to submit a case study in their annual search for excellence in “knowledge worker innovations”.  Our case study described how our Fleet One customer has used CommitKeeper to improve the productivity of their marketing department.  The press release below announces our selection as a finalist in this prestigious competition.

May 22, 2013—Boston, Mass. The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) is pleased to announce the finalists for the 2013 Global Awards for Excellence in Adaptive Case Management.

In 2011, WfMC inaugurated a Global Awards program for Adaptive Case Management (ACM) case studies to recognize and focus upon ACM use cases. Adaptive Case Management represents a new approach to supporting knowledge workers in today’s leading edge organizations. ACM provides secure, social collaboration to create and adapt goal-oriented activities that enable informed decision-making using federated business data and content.

Finalists were selected by a 16-person program committee comprising experts in this field. Committee leader, Max J. Pucher said, “The submitted ACM solutions in 2013 are focused on showing the financial return of being a leading business that uses state-of-the-art technology. While forefront ACM functionality such as evolutionary process improvement by business performers is used by only a few entries,, the ‘Design-by-Doing’ aspect of ACM is widely represented. The spectrum of verticals this year is proof for the wide-ranging applicability of Adaptive Case Management concepts.”

Co-sponsored by WfMC and, these prestigious awards recognize user organizations worldwide that have demonstrably excelled in implementing innovative ACM solutions. Award winners will be announced at a special virtual awards ceremony on June 27th at ACM Live.
There are seven categories this year:
  • Back Office
  • Construction and Big Projects
  • Financial
  • Legal and Courts
  • Public Sector
  • Shipping and Logistics
  • Knowledge Worker Innovation
The 2013 finalists (in alphabetical order) across all categories are:
1.    Axle Group Holdings Ltd., nominated by EmergeAdapt
2.    CargoNet AS, nominated by Computas AS
3.    Department of Transport, South Africa, nominated by EMC Corporation
4.    Directorate for the Construction of Facilities for EURO 2012, nominated by PayDox Business Software
5.    Fleet One, nominated by 4Spires
6.    Info Edge Pvt. Ltd, nominated by Newgen Software Technologies Ltd
7.    National Courts Administration of Norway, nominated by Computas AS
8.    Texas Office of the Attorney General Crime Victim Services Division, nominated by IBM
9.    U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nominated by AINS, Inc.
10.  UBS Bank, nominated by Whitestein Technologies

WfMC Chairman and founder of the ACM Awards program, Keith Swenson commented on the strength of the entries, “This year brings a significant maturing of the field of entries,” said Swenson. “We see well-rounded mainstream use cases with lots of knowledge workers as participants who use the system to innovate their processes every day. In domains where thinking matters, they show that there is a real business case, and the return on investment is really incredible.”

“This distinguished group of finalists survived very high standards and tight scrutiny by a discriminating panel of judges, representing the top influencers in our field” noted WfMC Executive Director Nathaniel Palmer. “Now in its third year, the Excellence in Adaptive Case Management program reflects not only a thriving global market for case management, but clearly demonstrates the value this sector offers to businesses and governments worldwide.”

More details on case study requirements and the finalists can be found online at  Finalists receive additional recognition by having their case studies published in the 2013 edition in the ACM Excellence Series by Future Strategies Inc., following the success of  “Taming the Unpredictable” in 2011 and “How Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” in 2012.  The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) and jointly sponsor the annual Global Awards for Excellence in ACM.  The Awards program is managed by Future Strategies Inc.

For further information:
Layna Fischer (Awards Director)
Future Strategies Inc.

Improving Performance Management Systems Requires More Than Paving the Cow Path

This post includes extracts from an article I wrote in ‘Performance Xpress’ – the monthly news letter for the International Society for Performance Improvement.

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral individual feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR managers 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 also 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 of those involved, not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review actually led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes:

  • There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and
  • We have new tools for constructing review documents.

Enhancements in the form of new tools 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. Modern performance management systems enable managers to select the characteristics (e.g., ‘exhibits teamwork‘) from a predefined list (sometimes called ‘coaching tips’) and 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.

In touting the system’s sophistication, one industry-leading performance management system 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.

The cow path has been paved and the speed limit has been increased, but we have not improved the journey or the destination.  As outlined below, this approach may even serve to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.

There are three initial concerns with this development:

  • 1.)  Speeding up the writing process may actually reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee.

Writing is 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,’

The act of the writing also helps managers to prepare their script for the face-to-face meeting with the employee. [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 meeting or personal communication 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 the job.

  • 3.)  This performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance.

Traditional performance management systems do include a key lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee. This communication, however, is often inadequate for achieving any performance improvement because it is too infrequent and of poor quality.

Performance improvement conversations benefit from annual or semi-annual goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result.  Performance improvement (not “management”) is achieved in these ongoing conversations.

Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

Rather than support once a year, or even once a quarter, performance management reviews, software tools with a year-round/all-the-time focus on performance improvement can facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. A new generation of software tools is coming that can boost the quality and frequency of the dialogue between managers and staff around project and task completion.  Elevating and illuminating these one-on-one conversations between those requesting actions and those who carry out those requests can, I believe, actually move the dial around personal and organisation performance. Rather than add speed and facilitate the use of automated/canned responses, the next generation of systems will advance performance management practices in a way that qualitatively changes the approach we’ve used for the last 30 years.

“Conversations for Action” – Perspectives on the Design of Cooperative Work


In 1987, Terry Winograd, Professor Emeritus, Computer ScienceStanford University wrote a compelling paper ‘A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work’ which was published in Human-Computer Interaction 3:11 (1987-1988), 3-30.

In the article, Winograd describes what he and his fellow collaborator, Dr. Fernando Flores, called ‘Conversations for Action’ which he asserts form the central fabric of all cooperative work.  “Language is the primary dimension of human cooperative activity.”   Winograd concluded that a language-action perspective would play a major role in developing the field of ‘computer-supported cooperative work’.

He was right, but it has taken more than 25 years and several software attempts to realize his vision.  4Spires is the most recent company to design work management software based on this perspective.

Below is a synopsis of the Winograd article:

People act through language.  The language-action perspective focuses on the form; the meaning and use of language to get things done.  A ‘conversation for action’ follows a certain structure – one party (A) makes a request to another (B).  Each party interprets a future course of action that will satisfy the request.  B can accept (and thereby commit to an outcome), decline, or propose a counter-offer with alternative conditions.  Each of B’s ‘moves‘ then lead to different ‘moves‘ by A, and the conversation can be seen as a dance that eventually leads to a mutual understanding that the requested action has been done or that the conversation is complete without it having been done.

The perspective deals with the structure and coordinated sequence of acts by A and B rather than the actual doing of whatever is needed.  Conversations for action are the central coordinating structure for human organizations.

“We work together by making commitments so that we can successfully anticipate the actions of others and coordinate them with our own. The emphasis here is on language as an activity, not as the transmission of information or as the expression of thought.”

Winograd (and we) are concerned with designing computer systems that support these conversations for action.  Email is still the dominant electronic communication tool, though email does not provide sufficient structure to properly support taking cooperative action.  Email, for example, offers only one, generalized way to begin a conversation – ‘compose email’, and it does not offer any distinction between information sharing and making a request.

The system Winograd and Flores conceived allows for a user to initiate a ‘request’ form which prompts the user to specify a performer, others who will receive copies, a related domain of interest, and a description of the desired outcome and due date.

The recipient, on the other hand, is prompted with the various options for responding (e.g. Agree, Decline, or Counter-Offer) that are generated by a conversational state interpreter.  At each stage of the conversation the user is presented with a display of only those actions that could sensibly be taken next by the current speaker (i.e. A or B).  The program deals with the structure of the conversation, not the content.

“The system has no magic to coerce people to come through with what they promise, but it provides a straightforward structure in which they can review the status of their commitments, alter those commitments they are no longer in condition to fulfill, make new commitments to take care of breakdowns and opportunities appearing in their conversations, and generally be clear (with themselves and others) about the state of their work.”

Unlike email, the basic unit of work is a conversation, not a message.  Rather than just linking email messages by the use of Re: in headers, each message belongs to a conversation.  This key distinction enables a much more powerful retrieval and monitoring of work in progress.  To begin with, answers to basic questions like who has the ball, and what do I have to do next become readily apparent.  Messages can be retrieved based on status, or stage (e.g. open or closed), or role (e.g. performer or observer), or domain (e.g. goal or account), etc.

The system replaces typing parts of the contents of an open email message with more direct and structured interactions which are more efficient.  It is a generic tool in the sense that it is intended for a particular kind of communication (i.e. taking cooperative action) without regard for the topic or functional domain.  It is not built for arbitrary sequences of messages, but for the requests, promises and completions that are at the heart of coordinated work.

Systems designed to support conversations for action are not intended to replace face-to-face verbal interactions, or to lessen the importance of interpersonal relations.  Language acts, in general, can be less effective in the absence of personal relationships.  Much of business involves meetings and the social acts of persuasion, negotiation, and, at times, argument.  Trust is developed and built-up over time and is a key factor to productivity along with the mood and motivation of individuals.  Systems, however, can add substantial value by recording and tracking these agreements and work tasks.

Winograd’s article lays out a compelling case for a new generation of tools designed specifically to support conversations for action.  Email is as inadequate to this purpose today as it was 25 years ago when he wrote the article.  Like Winograd, we here at 4Spires believe the basic unit of cooperative work is a conversation that turns into a commitment to act.  Our solutions draw their differentiation from this work management perspective.