Talking is good; taking action together is better. At the end of the day, what really matters and defines each of us on an individual, group and organization level is what was executed. In any organization, all accomplishments are the result of individuals taking action together. What a simplistic thing to say.
And yet, there exist many flaws in how we take action together. People make vague requests. Actual performers are unspecified. Delivery dates are proposed without confirmation – if they are mentioned at all. Agreements to deliver, when they are defined, shift and derail without a clear dialog between the person requesting or expecting an outcome and the performer(s). Outcomes and deliveries are submitted willy-nilly. Expressions of satisfaction, or not, with the delivery are absent.
Worse than these mechanical flaws, we are all familiar with the attendant interpersonal breakdowns. Team members are silent about their cynicism toward the proposed requests. Real engagement by employees is lacking. People work on their favored assignments and leave other tasks to decay. Low trust that deliveries will be met on time forces a need for backup systems and frequent check-ups by “management”. Can we not recognize and acknowledge that the current model of working together is broken?
There is nothing in what I’ve just outlined that is unfamiliar to every reader. We all have allowed (even colluded) in this “system” for a long time. Isn’t it time to disrupt the existing system and try a new approach which provides results and benefits to all parties? Let’s get back to basics and recreate our working relations around the golden rule: “Say what you’re going to do, and do what you said”.
The core of this idea is making/remaking our work agreements personal. Saying out loud, “I intend to accomplish the following by this date”, has powerful implications for both the speaker and the audience.
- The speaker articulates their personal understanding of the desired outcome.
- Accountability is taken on; the speaker has assumed ownership.
- Giving voice creates commitment and in so doing discretionary effort is invoked to make good on the commitment.
- Transparency builds trust. Customer confidence is increased many fold.
The quality of the ensuing dialog between performer and customer moves from vague assumptions to clear agreements. Our word creates a bond with another person. Personal honor and reputation are now at stake.
The following five simple, but profound, practices describe what such a system would actually look like:
(1) Make requests and offers, not assignments. Clarify roles involved in this action – some one person is the performer and some one person will be recipient/customer for the delivery. This practice is not limited to hierarchical roles; requests go down, up, and sideways throughout the organization. This is the step that sets up the conversation for action between two people. Others are/may be stakeholders and observers but let’s be clear on who is being asked, or who is offering, to deliver what to whom. It’s personal!
(2) Make clear agreements. Clarify expectations and negotiate commitments. Say no if you mean no; unless you can say no, there is not the possibility of a committed yes. This is the part about “saying what you’re going to do”.
(3) Keep communications going between the requestor and the performer throughout the delivery stage. Stuff happens along the way. Agreements are not guarantees, but agreements must be honored.
(4) Present the deliverable explicitly, i.e. the performer says “here is what I said I would deliver” or “this is why I could not deliver”. This is the essence and evidence of accountability.
(5) Last, but by no means least, the recipient/customer must acknowledge and assess the delivery. Honesty and truth demand an assessment as to whether the delivery met the original expectations. Answering the question – were you satisfied? – completes the cycle and assures closure. This underutilized practice is the minimum quid pro quo to the effort of the performer and serves to represent the customer’s accountability to honor the agreement. Moreover, these are often the “golden moments” when feedback can enhance both future performance and trust.
We have colluded to make task delivery conversations vague and impersonal. Our common work practices are packed with inefficiencies that dilute personal accountability. We need to get back to basic fundamentals by saying what you’ll do and doing what you say.