Category Archives: Organization Development

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.

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.


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?

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.

One Simple Behavior to Elevate Employee Engagement

There is a growing recognition of the close relationship between an organization’s performance and its employee engagement.  Many observers share a concern that employee engagement is in decline; which is directly affecting how an organization internally and externally meets its obligations.  There is particular concern regarding Millennials.  (For an overview of this age group read The Millennials.)

This article describes one specific management behavior that can elevate engagement.

In a recent article Arthur Lerner, Principal at Arthur Lerner Associates, has done a nice job of describing a hierarchy of the levels of engagement.  He writes:

“This isn’t precisely what Senge et al wrote in The Fifth Discipline, but close and slightly expanded. (The original had four types of compliance – grudging, formal, ‘regular’, and genuine, and require comment to differentiate.  I’ve substituted the words below, which includes adding in coercion as the lowest level, probably needing a line above it because it connotes no willingness.)

It was written well before the current passion for engagement, and has served well in my experience to differentiate some of what others have pointed to in this discussion already.  It presumes leader-follower/hierarchical relationship. Read the following from bottom up:


From the bottom, each higher stage indicates a greater degree in the willingness to subordinate to do what a leader (organization) wants, in particular via greater ‘buy-in’ to the vision and perhaps the goals that underlay what is asked. . .  As it stands, with no explanation, it does not include ways to attain the stages in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, etc.  The line between volunteering and being committed indicates an internal shift from doing – even enthusiastically – what the ‘other wants’ to taking on internal ownership for the behavior or result desired.  Enrolled connotes going beyond commitment in that someone who is enrolled so fully cares about and wants to see the success that s/he will carry forth even in the absence of a prior leader of the effort.  One could collapse some of the stages as shown, but the drift is definite, and the line is a distinctive qualitative divider.  I won’t go into connections between the stages and progression between them and issues of motivation, enthusiasm, engagement etc. but they are many.”

I like this hierarchy; we can all recognize the levels.  But how do we make changes that move engagement up the hierarchy?  What are the work practices and manager behaviors that can move the needle?

One dimension that is both practical and observable is the character of the dialog that’s going on between the parties.  For the bottom five levels (Coerced through Supportive) the conversation is top-down.  In fact, there is no real dialog at all.  The manager-leader simply tells the team members what they must do.  This ranges from a direct order, with consequences, to a stated need.  The ‘demand’ or assignment changes in style (i.e. harsh direct order to kindly assignment) but not in character.  “I need this done by you by this date”.  It’s a statement.

At the Volunteering level there is a fundamentally different type of conversation.  At this level and for the first time, an actual two-way person-to-person or manager-to-employee dialog occurs.  The difference is the manager asks a question rather than making a statement (e.g. “I need this done, which one of you can get it done?”)  The performer, aware of the need, responds with an explicit agreement to fill the need.  Even though the dialog is still a bit ‘tilted’ in favor of what the manager wants, there is at least an opening for a response to express willingness by the performer.

Something very different happens when moving up to the Committed level.  To get to this level, there must be a genuine dialog between two individuals, more or less on equal footing, where the performer is making an explicit agreement to deliver.  The key change is that this conversation starts with a request (e.g. “Can you complete this project or task by Friday?”) versus beginning with a statement.

What follows is equally important.  The performer has the ability to respond by saying yes, no or by proposing an alternate completion date.  They are able to negotiate what they are able to successfully complete by a specific deadline or make a counter-offer to the request.  Most importantly, with the real opportunity to negotiate, they make a commitment (e.g. “I will get this done for you by next Monday.”).  This statement expressing “ownership” by the performer is the hallmark of the jump to the Committed level in the hierarchy of engagement.

The top level in the hierarchy is Enrolled.  At this stage, the engagement is spontaneous, even anticipatory.  As with the other levels, this one is also characterized by a certain type of dialog.  This level is characterized not by requests from the manager, but by offers from the performers; e.g. “I understand what needs to be done, have the time, resources, and enthusiasm to get it done, and therefore I am making an offer to do it.”).  Again, the performer is engaged in a negotiation with the manager-customer that results in a clear commitment for delivery.

While I readily grant the substantial over-simplification of a complex issue, managers who want to increase engagement can begin by changing one thing – the character of the dialog with the performer(s).  Changing statements to requests is a good first start.  This simple step releases the power of the performer to respond at a higher level of engagement.



Priorities Don’t Deliver – The Only Thing That Matters Is Agreeing On A Delivery Date

When someone delegates a task to someone else it’s common business practice for the requester to assign a priority (high, medium, low) to the task.  It’s done all the time, in email messages, task assignments, yearly goals, etc.  The priority is a signal from the boss that the “top” priorities are most important to him/her, and they are expected to be done ahead of others.

This practice has less value than we think.  Assigning priorities to task assignments does not drive better outcomes – i.e. does not assure that the right things get done at the right time.

What good is it to have low priority items that we know will never get done? They’re cluttering some list, but, if truth were told, they’ll never get done.  We’ve made a record of them, but we just don’t have the courage to delete them.  On the other hand, what good is it to have numerous high priority items, with more being added each week?  Before you have completed the list, another “top priority” item is added.  In the end, you can only work on one at a time.

In the final analysis, priorities don’t really drive delivery very much.  Due Date is the only thing that drives delivery.

So, when you want to get something done, don’t specify the priority, ASK the intended performer for a delivery date.  And I do mean ASK.

This practice is so much different than ASSIGNING a priority and a due date.  The actual conversation should be a REQUEST not an assignment.  You are ASKING a performer to execute some outcome and ASKING when they can commit to deliver it.  Delivery date is the only thing that really matters.  A high priority item that won’t be delivered when needed is useless.  And just adding a low priority item to a long list of tasks that will never get delivered is also useless.  Juggling several “high priority” items should not be left to the performer’s discretion.

Instead, make a clear REQUEST, and ASK your performer when they can deliver.  Sure, in making the request it’s good to communicate about the relative importance of the task, but just assigning a priority has only limited value in the decision-making of the performer as to what to do next.  In response to the REQUEST, the performer looks at what’s already on their plate, considers a series of factors (e.g. urgency, intuition, personal interest, political value, career advancement, difficulty of accomplishment, etc.) and responds with a proposed delivery date.  If their response is not soon enough, some negotiation of delivery date may be appropriate.  But in the end there is an AGREEMENT about a delivery date.  This is all that matters.

This practice seems so obvious, but it is surprisingly rare.  Instead, we persist in assigning work and giving out priorities.  It kind-of works, but it is very inefficient.  Let’s have better conversations and make clear agreements.  Requesters should drop the notion (or at least rely a lot less on it) of assigning their priority to the request, with the implicit assumption that high priority items get done first.  Instead, both parties would be better served by focusing on obtaining an agreed due date (regardless of what priority the requester or the performer may have in mind).

Next generation task management systems will focus on forging agreements around delivery dates, not on assigning priorities.

Performance Management Does Not Equal Performance Improvement – Improving Systems Requires More Than Paving The Cow Path

Performance management systems have been around for over three decades.  As an HR manager at a high tech company in 1984, I was responsible for administering the annual “performance review period”.  The annual review was supposed to be a time for setting goals and providing developmental feedback.  It also insured that every manager had at least one performance-related conversation with each employee each year.  It was also seen as a way to either justify the planned 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.  The real action regarding evaluating each employee’s performance took place in the rating and ranking session that all the managers participated in during which compensation increases were decided.  Once this two-day meeting was completed, HR had to hound the managers to get all their reviews written.  Since the salary increase was already determined in the rating/ranking meeting, the performance review document was often written so as to support the proposed salary increase.  Performance strengths and developmental goals for the next period were included in the document that went into the employee file.  Managers understood that this annual process was “necessary”, but no one, not even the HR folks, really believed that the annual performance review actually led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved very little since then with the exception of two changes: there is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and the tools for actually writing the review document have changed.  Enhancements have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Whereas in 1984 the manager would be expected to compose 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 their mouse.  Today’s performance management software lets managers click to select the characteristic (e.g. “exhibits teamwork”) they want to include from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”), click to decide how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point, and voila, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written”.  Several more clicks and in less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager is done with the (too often dreaded) annual review process for that employee.

I recently viewed the product tour for an industry-leading performance management system.  In touting its system application sophistication the vendor boasted… “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized…”  Does anyone else see the oxymoron here….”automatically personalized”?

This is the same old practice packaged with enhanced electronic aids.  The increasing speed and automation of this approach actually serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.  We’ve just paved the cow path and upped the speed limit!  Is this really the direction we want to be going?

I will mention here three initial concerns I have with this development:

(1)  Speeding up the writing process reduces the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing is actually a process of thinking.  Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be much more specific and grounded in their feedback than any generalized “coaching tip”.  Additionally, the act of the writing is also indirectly helping the manager to prepare his/her script for the upcoming meeting with the employee. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document to the employee and obtaining their electronic signature, thus allowing the manager to actually skip the meeting or personal communication altogether.]

(2) Automating the document sets the wrong mood for the actual meeting with the employee to discuss their performance. Automating the document implicitly suggests that the review process is “automatic”, mechanistic, and mostly quantitative.  Automated writing suggests that template writing is better.  The quicker 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 performance improvement system. Traditional performance management systems have the right lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee.  Conversely, they have a totally inadequate and warped implementation of the practice in terms of frequency of occurrence and quality of this conversation.  Performance improvement conversations do benefit from periodic goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the more granular level of making and keeping commitments on a week-by-week, month-after-month basis.  Every task request a manager makes is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined performance level.  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.

A new breed of software tools is coming to the market based on the concept of performance improvement.  The annual employee review document will persist, but the new tools will focus on the frequency and quality of the one-to-one ongoing dialog between managers and their staff.  The real lever for boosting personal and enterprise-wide performance is elevating and illuminating these closed-loop conversations.  These new software applications will offer the first fundamental advancement in performance management practice in over three decades.

“I’ll Do My Best” is Twaddle

We have all made a request of someone and received the response: “I’ll do my best”.

Probably the first time you received this reply you were encouraged, believing you would get what you needed and when you needed it.  But in a large number of cases I am guessing you were disappointed with the timeliness and the end results.  In fact, this answer rarely gives you what you want by the time you need it.

There are three main reasons why “I’ll do my best” is one of the worst responses you can get to a request.  First and most importantly – it tends to end the discussion.  As the requester, you literally are unable to ask for more than someone’s best.  Secondly, you may think that you have a commitment that you can rely upon, but in reality, you have nothing.  Lastly, the performer has no strong incentive to make sure that the work is done by a particular date – after all, there is no “date” and s/he can always say “well, I tried”.  Let’s take a look at each of these in a little more detail.

The response of “I’ll do my best” functions as a negotiation stopper.  Consider the situation where you ask your coworker or employee to “complete the report by the 1st” of next month.  If the response is “how about the 6th” and the two of you negotiate an agreement of “the 4th”, you can be reasonably assured that you are likely to have something on the 4th.  On the other hand, if the response is “I’ll do my best”, or its friend “I’ll try my best”, not only do you not have an agreement; you most often do not even have a counter response.

You may be thinking that you have the performer’s commitment to “do their best” in terms of quality of work effort, output, as well as the delivery schedule.  But isn’t that implicit – after all, how many people will respond to a request with “Well, I’ll give it a half-hearted attempt” or “Perhaps I will try to get that done for you – perhaps not”.  The “I’ll do my best” does not give you any specific date by which you can reasonably count on the work being done.  This approach leaves you as the requester with “managing by hope” – where you are in the unsatisfying position of “hoping” that the work will get done as expected.

Shifting to the performer’s viewpoint, the “I’ll do my best” response does not imbue much incentive to track the work effort or even get the work completed.  This response does not create the focus, concentration, and energy to get the job done in today’s overly busy world. It is far too easy to let the assignment slip or not fully complete the assignment – after all, the performer never really agreed to do it; they only agreed to “do their best”.  By contrast, when a performer has negotiated an explicit delivery agreement, they have a much higher stake in the situation – their promise is on the line in a public way.  The performer will feel the stress of that commitment with its specified date and will stretch to make sure it gets accomplished – often by being creative and/or accomplishing something they were not sure they could do.  Conquering challenges is one of the primary engines of job satisfaction.

Below are three starter recommendations that can change the work norm of “I’ll do my best”:

  • Convert Requests into Commitments. While obvious, this is more difficult than it might initially appear.  Here are two starter points to consider:
    • First of all, the requester has to establish an agreed upon specific delivery date and not accept the mushy “I’ll do my best” response.  “I’ll do my best” establishes a non-beneficial relationship between the requester and the performer.  Performers who are reluctant to make a firm commitment or who often make too many commitments undoubtedly believe they have very good reasons to reply with “I’ll do my best”.  Managers need to understand and draw out these reasons, understand and validate them, while at the same time emphasize the requirement and benefits of making a firm commitment.  This “pushing” for a commitment reflects a different management style and, it should be said, requires a measure of personal courage.
    • Secondly, requesters need to shift the dialog to a negotiation.  Saying, for example, “I know you will do your best, but it would be helpful to each of us if we could establish a firm completion date” provides the performer with some control and gets them used to the idea of negotiating specific commitments.  Over time, as trust is built between the parties, negotiations can evolve to true counter-offers as in “I hear that you can get it done by the 8th, but what would be necessary for you to get this done by the 6th”.  It bears noting that adopting a relationship with the performer that allows for, and encourages requester-performer negotiations may require a substantial cultural change in organizations bound in strict hierarchical norms (i.e. where the boss gives orders).
  • Accepting Failure. It is likely that commitment phobia is caused by excessive punishments for failure.  Organizations that treat failure as an excuse for punishment and not as an opportunity for learning and improving their processes are doomed to create people who are unwilling to take risks.  At its heart, making a commitment is taking a risk.  If you find widespread commitment phobia – take a look at your company’s behavior with respect to “failure”.
  • Tracking Commitments. Finally, having some type of system that tracks commitments is vital to making a commitment based organization work.  When performers know that commitments are tracked they will put in the necessary energy to keep their commitments.

Virtually all organizations today are afflicted to some degree with the costs and inefficiencies of the “I’ll do my best” culture.  A growing number of case studies, however, show that changing these norms has a direct and nearly immediate impact on improving the organization’s performance.  It is called “Commitment or Promise-based Management”.  The practices associated with this relatively new management theory lead to clearer accountability, better visibility into execution, increased employee engagement, and more trust.  These ideas are starting to gain a foothold in today’s management circles, and we here at 4 Spires are doing our part to advance the conversation.

My Workflow Journey: From Apple to 4 Spires

As I begin this dialog of blog entries presenting my observations, ideas and suggestions, it is appropriate to provide readers with a view into my background, credentials, biases, and predilections.  For over two decades I have been intrigued with the power software applications can have to significantly improve organization performance and employee engagement.

Prior to starting my 8 year career at Apple in 1983 and getting immersed in the more technical side of systems development I worked in the “softer” sciences of human interaction as an Organization Development consultant.   I led training groups, coached executives, and facilitated off-site retreats for management groups – the traditional OD interventions intended to improve organization performance.  I was generally disappointed with the results, however, because once the “high” of the event faded, most participants would invariably return to their previous behavior.  The intended changes did not stick.  Disillusioned, I moved away from this field of work.

Apple HR Systems, Technology, and Innovations Group

In 1986 I was the founding Manager of Apple’s HR Systems, Technology and Innovation Group; the group that did the seminal work on the electronic office.  At that time, Apple was the only company in the world that had a personal computer on every employee’s desk, and that infrastructure was the basis for our Group’s development of the first generation of electronic forms and workflow management solutions for an organization of 5,000 employees.

Over a 4 year period my team designed, developed, and implemented a series of first-ever applications that enabled:

  • Managers to write, edit, and compile online performance reviews,
  • Managers to recommend and approve staff salary increases and bonuses,
  • Recruiters and managers to scan, track, and retrieve resumes,
  • Employees to evaluate, price, and select their flexible benefits, and
  • Managers to directly update employee records using a workflow approval process and electronic signatures.

The computer on every employee’s desk was a Macintosh, and having “grown up” with the Mac User Interface Guidelines as a standard, the solutions that we developed demanded a very high level of user interactivity in order to satisfy user expectations and ensure adoption.  This audience really understood what a superior Graphic User Interface (GUI) looked like; just saying it was “user-friendly and intuitive” was not enough.

The applications this team developed at Apple were way ahead of their time.  It was over five years before other companies, even those as innovative as Lotus Development Corp, deployed similar networked solutions for their employees, and it was fully 10 years before similar intranet solutions were coming on the scene at technology leading companies like Dell Computer.  I know this because both Lotus and Dell were customers of mine at the time.

During this period, I developed an insight that has guided me ever since:  A well crafted and thought-out software application can be a transformational Organization Development (OD) intervention with sticking power.

Apple to 4 Spires – Software Solutions focused on User Interactions

Software developers and architects design their applications to capture, manipulate, organize, and report on data. The paradigms and characteristics of the user’s behavior in an organizational context, however, are not often explicitly considered.

In addition to designs that elegantly and efficiently capture and report on data, I approach software design with the concerns of what behaviors and practices are being introduced and reinforced on the part of users.  I am concerned that design requirements also consider questions such as:

  • What are the organizational implications of enabling certain actions and preventing others?
  • What practice of interaction between people is the software instantiating?
  • What mood does the software create for its users?

My career has been focused around and dedicated to developing work management solutions for business that address these concerns and that strive to enhance organization performance.  4 Spires was founded to continue this legacy with a vision to create business applications that enhance the way work gets done through collaborative efforts by facilitating collaboration, commitments, and trust-building as means to substantially improve organization performance.

This Blog series will orient on my observations and recommendations about the role well-designed software can play in achieving these outcomes.  Beyond just using software to help get things done, the topics covered will include workplace trust, requestor and performer accountability, performance metrics, user adoption, social networking, managing remote workers, and the sensibilities of the modern work force among others.

I look forward to participating with readers in this dialog.