Category Archives: Workplace norms

The First Seven Breakdowns in Work Conversations

For those who have read my earlier posts, you know that I have a particular interest in the structure and quality of work conversations.  The smallest element of any achievement is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Any team or organization is nothing more than a network of conversations.  These person-to-person conversations can be thought of as the exchanging of information and energy much like the cells in your body.  The quality of these exchanges determines the effectiveness of the whole organism/organization.  It follows, therefore, that the most powerful way to improve performance of an individual, a team, or a company is to improve the quality of the dialog.

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.” (Fernando Flores)

This is intended to be the first of a series of articles that provide more specifics about how to improve the quality of work conversations.  It’s one thing to state the general premise that conversations matter.  My intent is to be more specific; I intend to describe specific behaviors that evidence good and bad conversations.  Let’s begin with recognizing some of the most common breakdowns in work conversations that create miscommunication, low engagement or even resignation, and poor execution.  Note that 5 relate to the Requester’s side of the conversation and 2 relate to the Performer’s.


1)    Not Making Requests – Wanting or needing something from someone else and not making the request.  A request is a clear statement of a desired result within a time frame.  It is surprising how few managers are able to make requests, but it is not hard to explain.  Making a request acknowledges dependence and exposes vulnerability.  In addition, we each have a built in reticence or fear of hearing a “no” response and feeling rejected.

2) Living with Uncommunicated Expectations – A pernicious form of “not requesting” occurs when an individual lives in a world of “shoulds” and expectations that are really unexpressed requests.  This amounts to private conversations with ourselves about what others should and should not do.  There is some inherent dishonesty in this behavior.

3) Making Unclear Requests – Lack of clarity and precision in a request generates breakdowns.  Others do not see the world as you do.  Effective requests are specific, precise and detailed.  Note, however, that making effective requests requires more attention and commitment from the requester.

Making clear requests often requires extra effort to think through more precisely what outcome is desired.  A preliminary conversation with the team is sometimes needed to achieve better clarity about what’s needed and who can do it.  The requester, therefore, shares the accountability for the outcome.

4) Not Observing the Mood of Requesting – Making a request like a demand or like a beggar.  The mood of your utterance affects the listener as much as your words.  If the mood is demanding, your performer might decline your requests because they see you as arrogant and righteous, or they might make promises to you out of intimidation, not choice, and these commitments are weak and rarely fulfilled.

5) Promising even when you aren’t clear of what was requested – Committing to something you are not clear about is foolish.  More, it is also a breakdown in integrity to take on a task that the performer knows is unclear.  Failure to meet expectations is built in from the start.  Not being clear about what will be delivered will guarantee wasted effort.

6) Not Declining Requests – The ability for a performer to decline requests is crucial for health, dignity and well-being.  This is a common sense notion, but radical at the same time.  Most managers operate from an implicit position of “I pay my people well and I expect them to do what I ask of them.”  And perhaps even more important, team members/staff people have no experience nor confidence in the possibility that they could actually decline a request.   And yet, if there is no room to ever say no to a request, how can either the manager or the performer ever trust a yes.

7) Breaking Promises Without Taking Care – Promises are not guarantees that deliveries will be made on time, but breakdowns do need careful handling.  The requester implicitly trusts that the performer is sincere, competent, and reliable to do what they’ve promised.  Breakdowns occur, but so as not to undermine that trust, the performer must honor their original promise by immediately notifying the requester and being open to making a new promise.  In this way the performer is staying accountable and behaving in integrity with what they have said.

Getting task-related conversations off on the right foot is an important beginning to an effective “conversation for action”.  Future blog posts will describe guidelines for how the conversation should progress to maximize the chances for a successful outcome.


A “Workspace” for Knowledge Workers – what does this really mean? Eight characteristics of next-generation workspaces.

As social networking and particularly collaboration technologies have flourished, so have a whole new crop of terms intended to describe what differentiates these new capabilities from the old. One of the new terms is “shared workspace”. It’s now common for vendors to tout their new “workspace” somewhere in their marketing. But beyond the claims, there is little discussion about what is really meant by the term. My intention is to dig a little deeper into describing what most current vendors mean by a “shared workspace” and the characteristics that distinguish a next-generation workspace.

Knowledge workers of today who are more often remote and mobile do certainly benefit from technologies that provide the virtual equivalent of the old whiteboard in a meeting.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide spectrum of capabilities that various vendors use to describe their “workspace”. The single common understanding is that “shared workspaces” support collaborative input, editing, and updates from more than one person at the same time, i.e. it’s a multi-user tool.  While email technically allows any party in the dialog to add a comment at any time, the general idea is more like ping-pong. One person sends a note and another person responds. The first person waits for the response; it’s a back and forth paradigm. Email certainly presented a new “workspace” to users 30 years ago. Current day tools support capture of anyone-anytime-anywhere dialog in the context of a work group or project.

Some consider a shared document to be a workspace. Enabling multiple people to view and edit the same document at the same time is certainly a huge step beyond email, but producing shared documents is only a relatively small part of what knowledge workers do.

Modern workspaces also provide the basic capabilities of storing and retrieving shared documents in a shared repository. A shared workspace typically also includes ready access to your colleagues organized by group or project and the ability to post comments in a shared view.

The software provided by most of today’s vendors utilize a one-to-many paradigm. The workspace is a shared forum in which collaborators update each other in real time. Anyone in the group can post updates at any time, and all group members are updated simultaneously. While keeping colleagues up to date is important, such workspaces engender intermittent participation from team mates and the workspace provides only limited focus on individual accountability for who is delivering what by when.

The most advanced workspaces, however, go much further. The software is not just an open field where participants have the possibility to add a comment or respond to someone else’s post. The workspace technology actually functions like a facilitating third-party to the conversation.

I take it for granted that the workspace must be easy to use. Who doesn’t make this claim? A more interesting differentiating characteristic is whether the workspace is passive or active.

 Passive vs. Active workspaces

Passive workspaces sit there, a virtual blank canvas that collaborators can write on together.   The passive workspace collects and displays the inputs from participants and may even provide some search (e.g. tags) and sorting features, but the technology offers nothing to directly influence the content, style, or mood of the communications that are going on.

Active workspaces act like a third party in the work conversations. An active workspace guides the participants into how to conduct a focused collaborative action that leads to results. It facilitates a certain structure and rigor, the rules of engagement so to speak. The conversation is “managed” so as to increase the likelihood of a successful delivery. The software is also specifically designed to facilitate the quality of the conversation (e.g. who says what to whom) and in so doing to build a positive relationship between the parties going forward.  Task and relationship management are combined.

Eight characteristics of a next-generation workspace 

Following are 8 specific characteristics of active, next-generation workspaces that are not yet generally available in the marketplace:

1– Context. Entries are organized in a thread that is specifically related to some action or result someone has requested, i.e. not just a general posting.

2– Focus.  Dialog is focused on what we are trying to accomplish, i.e. the explicit requested outcome by when. Who is involved, who is the accountable performer, and who else is an interested observer to the conversation? What’s the current status, i.e. is the task on track or not?

3– Structure.  Composing the goal or task request must contain certain information. Structure cannot be so confining, however, as to inhibit the flexibility needed for natural conversations.

4– Ownership.  Views show who’s got the ball at this moment to move the conversation along. Who is waiting for who?

5– Next steps.  What are the appropriate next actions any user could/should take next? The software provides a set of shared ground-rules for “managing” the conversation including expected responses at any particular point in the dialog. An underlying “intelligent” workflow keeps things moving forward.

6– Setting the mood.  The software prompts what “words” are appropriate to set up the optimum “mood” for the conversation that will enhance respect, engagement, and trust.

7– Closing the loop.  Delivery of agreed outcomes is explicit. Performers don’t  claim “done”; instead they assert that a delivery was made and let the original requester confirm whether the delivery was satisfactory.  Team leaders accept and express satisfaction and feedback.

8– A history.  Memory of past conversations is preserved for later review and analysis. Participants build their reputation as a reliable team member. One’s integrity (i.e. say what you’ll do, do what you say) is catalogued and supported by data.  Trust improves.

4Spires solutions are examples of next-generation workspaces that include all of these characteristics.

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.

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?

Four Principles for a New Model of Accountability

Accountability, everyone wants more of it, from our political leaders and institutions, businesses, schools, work colleagues, and even our children. Our general understanding of the word, however, and how to acquire more is imprecise and shallow. This is particularly disappointing in the work place context because increasing accountability can indeed improve performance. This post explores the term and proposes a new perspective, based on four principles that can increase accountability.

Let’s begin with definitions and the current perspective. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” The Random House dictionary offers a different perspective defining accountability as “the state of being answerable: obliged to report, explain, or justify something.” It is noteworthy that in its common usage, both definitions emphasize a backward-looking perspective; i.e. holding someone accountable for something he or she did. Often there is also a punitive overtone. It comes down to tracking deliveries and due dates with the question:  “Did you do it, and if so, what are you going to do about it?” Going further, the term is associated with the notion of “accounting” as in checking the score and determining who’s going to pay.

These commonly held notions are actually counter-productive to building more accountability in the workplace. The underlying enforcement and punitive notions about accountability do not create the optimum mood with a prospective collaborator. We need to develop a new perspective about accountability based on four principles:

1)     Accountability is forward-looking.  Accountability should be agreed upfront and not assigned at the end. As a task or initiative is being planned, the parties involved should be talking about who is going to be accountable for each outcome or deliverable. The performer consciously and explicitly commits and accepts responsibility. 

The critical portion of the conversation is at the beginning where the commitment is formed.

2)     Accountability is based on willingness.  There is a critical distinction between being willing to accept responsibility and being obliged to perform a function or produce a deliverable. In an organization characterized by a command-and-control culture, the performer is “obliged” to accept responsibility for delivering an outcome. Accountability is foisted on the performer simply by virtue of their position relative to the requester (e.g. the boss gives the orders).  In effect, the senior person ends up saying “I’m holding you accountable…” This is not the optimum means to boost accountability. Real accountability comes from “the performer’s mouth”.

A performer willing to accept responsibility explicitly declares their commitment and says in effect “You can count on me.”

3)     Accountability is about the quality of the dialog.  Building on the dictionary definition: “the state of being answerable”, what is important is the “answer” from the performer. Instead of the more usual presumption of accountability, the dialog begins with an explicit request that needs to be met with an explicit response. A conversation ensues and a specific agreement about expected results and due date is crafted. Having responded directly to the request and committed to the outcome, the performer has, in fact, taken on the accountability for delivery.

The quality of the dialog between the parties is much more important than recording the assigned due date.

4)     Accountability involves negotiation.  The requester must acknowledge their dependency on the performer by providing an opportunity for an honest response. The performer answers by sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request. Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure and dialog that is typically not present when tasks are assigned. Most managers assign tasks and expect accountability to follow along as part and parcel of the assignment. In effect, they are saying “I am assigning you this task and holding you accountable for getting it done on time”. This is not a dialog, only a one-way statement. The performer has not actually “answered”. The performer has not made any personal or public ownership of the task. While we are all familiar with position-power simply “assigning” accountability, a superior approach is to afford the performer a genuine opportunity to negotiate a response to the request.

Negotiation strengthens commitment. 


Focusing on accountability can be an effective lever for improving organization performance.  Accountability drives execution. To be most effective, however, we need to replace the current enforcement and punitive notions about the word with a new perspective that keys on upfront dialog and making clear agreements.

5 Disruptive Practices That Boost Commitment

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.

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

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

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

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

—  how tasks are assigned and collaborated upon,

—  how customers and vendors work with each other,

—  how project managers relate to their team, and

—  how leaders lead and followers follow.

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

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

1.  Ask, Don’t Tell

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

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

2.  Performers negotiate delivery dates

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

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

3.  Response required

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

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

4.  Track dialogs in context

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

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

5.  Close the loop

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

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

6.  Track commitments

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

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

7.  History matters

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

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

8.  Report performance metrics

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

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

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

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.