Category Archives: Workplace norms

Email Is Flawed For Managing Work – Transformation Is Coming

My co-author on this article, Francois Koutchouk, has a long background in designing and implementing groupware technologies.  We were discussing recent trends in the use, and abuse, of email and perhaps seeing the signs that herald the decline of email as it is currently used.  Our particular concern was the widespread and entrenched reliance on email as a flawed work management tool.

Getting things done

The heart of most business processes and team collaboration is a series of work request transactions and the means to keep track of their progress (or lack thereof).

Simplicity and ubiquity make email an acceptable tool to initiate requests.  But email is not adequate for tracking the dialog that follows.  Email does not support many key aspects of successful work requests including:

  • Formalize an agreement by the recipient to perform, complete, and deliver on a request
  • Negotiate the priority or completion date of a request
  • Track which party has the ball for the next action
  • Expose dependencies (dependent tasks)
  • Share work-in-progress beyond the immediate participants
  • Capture a historical record of the dialog in the context of the request and the project to which the request relates
  • Establish credibility and therefore the trust between the requester and performer based on previous performance
  • Distinguish work that is required to move the business forward from all types of messages, comments, and random information.

The technical reason is simple: email does not provide a structured repository nor workflow features.  Email is therefore woefully inadequate as a tool for handling business processes.

Most knowledge workers acknowledge this conundrum while facing daily onslaughts of emails, irrelevant cc-ed messages, lengthy reply-to threads and  late-night Blackberry messages as the deadline is nearing.

How much longer will we persist with this obviously flawed tool for managing critical business relationships and processes?

Getting out of your inbox

Let’s use the example of a successful sales rep.  Throughout the sales cycle, she needs to coordinate with a variety of individuals within her company:

  • Engineering and Product Management to answer technical questions from the client,
  • Procurement and Legal to fine tune contracts,
  • Accounting and Finance for payments and invoicing,
  • Supply Chain, Production, and Manufacturing for delivery status,
  • Senior management for account management, and
  • She may also have to coordinate with third parties, such as resellers, shippers, add-on components purchased from suppliers, etc.

To meet the prospect’s expectations and delivery timetable there will be a flurry of emails, most of which are at risk of becoming the proverbial messages-in-a-bottle unless she follows up rigorously (assuming she remembers to follow up – since there is no automatic reminder that something hasn’t been handled).  A single breakdown in communications may delay or compromise the deal and business relationship.

Clearly, email is an inadequate tool for managing this work by substituting a low quantity of results-based communications with a high quantity of inefficient messages. The solution may be to move all those disjointed communications and touch-points out of the traditional email system.

One alternate approach is to use project management software such as Microsoft Project or other cloud-based equivalent solutions.  These tools track task assignments, due dates and dependencies, but they are fundamentally single-user applications that do not capture the dialog between the parties regarding negotiation of delivery commitments and changes in status during delivery.  And because these tools require a heavy investment in learning new skills and methods they are best left to project management professionals handling complex tasks, such as building a new hospital wing or managing an ERP installation.

Another approach is to use custom-built software, such as a Lotus Notes application, or a version thereof, that enforces a predetermined workflow process.  Such an approach works well, tends to be simple to use, but is only appropriate for repeatable business processes – when the workflow is well known, does not change often, and involves the same series of steps and actors.  As such these tools are best used for a yearly contract renewal or provisioning of new customers.

From Talk to Action

Despite our collective understanding that email is flawed as a workflow management tool, we are firmly entrenched in its use.  What is needed is a generic solution that mirrors the simplicity and flexibility of email but adds better workflow tracking and management reporting features.  Knowledge workers will need to be incented out of email rather than forced out.  Adoption of alternate tools must be based on getting better performance from co-workers, not being told to use yet another new software system.  Requests may still initiate out of email, but the conversation that follows must be managed in a shared on-line space accessible to all, including third parties.

Performers negotiate and make explicit delivery commitments that reinforce productive behavior and focus on results.  Tracking the request through to delivery moves the initiative along, from talk to action.  Trust builds between actors (requesters and performers), commitments are met, goals are accomplished, moods improve and email inboxes thin out.

The principles of managing work requests called “commitment based management” are 50 years old, fine-tuned by social scientists such as Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd, as well as thoroughly described in academic journals.  Previous attempts to automate these principles, however, have failed to translate into workable software, despite valiant efforts from Action Technologies, Elf Technologies, and others.  The key to widespread use and acceptance will be solutions where ease-of-use trumps complexity, essential to entice hardened email addicts to a new way of working.

The End of Email?

We can glimpse the future of corporate email by looking at the younger generation of home users: Facebook, Tweet/texting and less and less Google email in that order.

Business emails may dissolve similarly into three entities:

  • Commitment-based messaging to handle business processes and task-based collaboration
  • Instant messaging (chat, SMS, private Tweet) for time-sensitive notifications
  • Cloud-based email for one-to-one conversations, casual discussions and whatever materials blur the line between the private and public life of a worker

Ultimately expenses-to-perceived value will drive the decline of email:

  • High licensing and administrative costs of private email systems (Outlook, Lotus Notes, and their respective server infrastructure)
  • High administrative costs to protect against viruses, spam and phishing
  • Trailing support of many organizations for personal communication devices into the workplace (iPhone, iPad, SMS) leads to compliance liability
  • Increased stress of workers unable to handle their inbox – magnified by round-the-clock mobile accessibility
  • Email inefficiency as a tool to get actions from requests; therefore a flawed means of achieving measurable business results

Email is not going away anytime soon, but the forces of change are mounting and a new communication paradigm is budding.  Work management conversations need to be tracked in a new non-email solution.

“Who Will Do What By When” – a Book Review

The title of this book says it all.  Getting work done with others requires the response to this simple question.  Obvious, right?  But as this entertaining book points out, in the real work world it’s not at all that simple.

Tom and Birgit Hanson wrote this book in 2005 with the subtitle “How to Improve Performance, Accountability and Trust with Integrity”.  Rendered in a personal parable about very believable characters in familiar work settings, the authors lay out a system of practices that are at the heart of really answering the question – Who will do what by when.

The authors remind us that our common work norms are not reliable in squarely addressing the WWDWBW question.  First of all, judgments and interpretations about other people’s motives and abilities often create some blindness on the part of managers.  Secondly, the discipline of clearly defining a task and obtaining an agreement and commitment from the intended performer is often glossed over.  And third, even though most would agree that making and keeping promises is key to your reputation and the success of your organization, the practice of really making “promises” is rare.

The system they outline is at once common sense and familiar, but also rare in actual business practice.  It involves the manager making a clear request and obtaining a clear response from the performer of agreement or a counter offer along with a promise to perform by a certain date.  Clarity up front is key.  Closing the loop is equally important.  If the promise is not going to be fulfilled the performer is obliged to re-negotiate a new deadline before the due date.  As the authors note “No one fulfills all their promises, but you can honor all your promises.”  After a delivery has been made, the manager is obliged to provide a clear acknowledgement (e.g. a simple thank you) or a well-considered “complaint”.  The authors also provide several helpful suggestions on how to structure and deliver complaints so that outcomes are improved and relationships are enhanced going forward.

One of the aspects of the book that I most appreciated was bringing the word “integrity” into our every-day work lexicon.  Integrity in business is not always about the big decisions, big deals, and fraud.  It’s also important to notice the smaller behaviors that help to either build or erode one’s personal integrity.  The authors hold up a mirror to self-evaluate and disclose our own lapses of integrity in our business dealings.  Integrity (doing what you say you are going to do) is a personal “tool” that helps you get things done.  Even “small things”, like habitually coming late to meetings, are noticed by your colleagues and erode your integrity which does translate into real dollar costs of doing business.

Conversely, the authors provide a road map for building up and maintaining one’s integrity, and they provide a glimpse of the substantial positive, bottom line effects.  They offer a specific list of “Integrity Tools”.  It’s a simple idea they call “operating with integrity” which is a “system [that relies on] a series of familiar actions, such as request, promise, and acknowledgement, applied in a more rigorous, clearly defined way.  We call the actions Integrity Tools because they help build, maintain and restore integrity to any interpersonal situation … Integrity is the foundation of interpersonal excellence [that] determines the reliability, speed, and bandwidth of your team’s performance.”

The practices promoted by their system improve work norms and behaviors, but sustaining the changes only comes with practice.  Doing it repeatedly is different than speaking about it.  Software systems (e.g. 4 Spires) can reinforce and instantiate the “integrity operating system”.

Finally, as the authors advise…”if you only remember to say the title of this book several minutes before the end of your meetings, the book will have been a great investment!”

“Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” – My Top Ten Quotes

In 2002 Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan authored a highly regarded management book entitled “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done”.  The book was lauded by such notable business leaders as Michael Dell – CEO of Dell Computer, L.R. Raymond – CEO of Exxon Mobil, and Ralph Larsen – CEO of Johnson & Johnson.  To quote them, “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today.  Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.”

I found even the authors’ choice of title instructive.  The dictionary defines “discipline” as a regimen or set of rigorous practices that develops or improves a skill.  It goes without saying that execution does not just happen reliably without some discipline.  And yet most businesses today do not employ much rigor in getting things done.

Requests are vague, commitments by specific individuals to deliver outcomes by a certain date are vague and implicit, follow-up is haphazard, deliveries are not acknowledged and feedback is not aptly and concisely provided.  Execution fails not from lack of intent or bad planning, but from poor discipline.

The disciplines discussed in the book revolve around the notions of making and keeping clear commitments, clarifying accountability, having an honest and open dialog, and following through.  I have discussed each of these topics in other blog articles.  The following are my top ten quotes from their book:

  1. To execute well there must be accountability, clear goals, accurate methods to measure performance, and the right rewards for people who perform…
  2. Follow-through is a constant and sequential part of execution.  It ensures that you have established closure in the dialogue about who will be responsible for what and the specific milestones for measurement.  The failure to establish this closure leaves the people who execute a decision or strategy without a clear picture of their role.  As events unfold rapidly amid much uncertainty, follow-through becomes a much more intense process…
  3. When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong.  But the strategy by itself is not often the cause.  Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well.  Things that are supposed to happen don’t happen…
  4. Typically the CEO and the senior leadership team allot less than half a day each year to review the plans – people, strategy, and operations.  Typically the reviews are not particularly interactive.  People sit passively watching PowerPoint presentations.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t debate, and as a result they don’t get much useful outcome.  People leave with no commitments to the action plans they’ve helped create.  This is a formula for failure.  You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business.  You need accountability for results – discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible – to get things done and reward the best performers.  You need follow-through to ensure the plans are on track…
  5. People engaged in the processes argue these questions, search out reality, and reach specific and practical conclusions.  Everybody agrees about their responsibilities for getting things done, and everybody commits to those responsibilities…
  6. Furthermore, while stretch goals can be useful in forcing people to break old rules and do things better, they’re worse than useless if they’re totally unrealistic, or if the people who have to meet them aren’t given the chance to debate them beforehand and take ownership of them…
  7. Clear, simple goals don’t mean much if nobody takes them seriously.  The failure to follow though is widespread in business, and a major cause of poor execution.  How many meetings have you attended where people left without firm conclusions about who would do what and when?  Everybody may have agreed the idea was good, but since nobody was named accountable for results, it doesn’t get done.  Other things come up that seem more important or people decide it wasn’t such a good idea after all.  (Maybe they even felt that way during the meeting, but didn’t speak up)…
  8. How many meetings have you attended where everyone seemed to agree at the end about what actions would be taken but nothing much actually happened as a result?  These are the meetings where there’s no robust debate and therefore nobody states their misgivings.  Instead, they simply let the project they didn’t like die a quiet death over time…
  9. Follow-through is the cornerstone of execution, and every leader who’s good at executing follows through religiously.  Following through ensures that people are doing the things they committed to do, according to the agreed timetable.  It exposes any lack of discipline and connection between ideas and actions, and forces the specificity that is essential to synchronize the moving parts of an organization.  If people can’t execute the plan because of changed circumstances, follow-through ensures they deal swiftly and creatively with the new conditions…
  10. Finally, robust dialogue ends with closure.  At the end of the meeting, people agree about what each person has to do and when.  They’ve committed to it in an open forum; they are accountable for the outcomes.  The reason most companies don’t face reality very well is that their dialogues are ineffective.  And it shows in their results.  Think about the meetings you’ve attended – those that were a hopeless waste of time and those that produced energy and great results.  What was the difference?  It was not the agenda, not whether the meeting started on time or how disciplined it was, and certainly not the formal presentations.  No, the difference was in the quality of the dialogue.

That last line bears repeating:  The difference that achieves great results is “the quality of the dialogue”.  In other articles I talk about how software applications can instantiate and enforce the discipline that is necessary to execute effectively as well as elevate the quality of the dialogue around getting things done.

Best Efforts and the “Pocket Veto”

Have you ever sent a request to a colleague or a staff person and then lost track of it wondering “Where does that stand?  Did he ever get back to me on that?”   Have you ever delegated a task and wondered if the performer was really committed to fully doing it?  Ever made a task request of someone who never responded?  Ever come out of a meeting with some good ideas tossed around and heads nodding that we should do “X” only to realize afterwards that no one actually took ownership and nothing is going to get done?

We all have had these too common experiences in our modern work world.  These are just the extreme examples.  Some of the more usual ways we all respond to work requests are captured in the following phrases:  “I’ll see what I can do about that”, “I’ll get back to you later”, “OK, I’ll add it to my list of tasks”, “I’m really busy right now, but I’ll do my best”, etc.  As I discussed in my last article, we work in a “best efforts” paradigm.  Throughout all business sectors and across all company sizes these are the work norms that have been created and perpetuated.

It is easy to understand why.  Employees and companies really do want to satisfy their internal and external customers.  We are culturally programmed to say “Yes” to requests; saying “No” is uncomfortable and may squelch future requests or business opportunities.  As requesters, we resist coming across as domineering or too serious while as performers, we never want to deliver late, so deadlines are often kept soft or vague.  Making firm promises to do something is reserved for private matters rather than business.

These norms have worked for a long time.  So what’s the problem?

The problem is that they also do not work most of the time.  Or viewed another way, these norms have hidden inefficiencies and costs that keep people and organizations from performing at peak levels.  Because we all know and understand the realities of these norms, requests require a large amount of follow-up (even nagging some times).  We do not really trust people to get things done.  Systems, corporate practices, and individual behaviors are established to check up and report back.  The rate of failed projects is very high, not because the planning was poor, but because the communication was poor.  There are real costs associated with these work norms and behaviors.

Many requests, in fact, are made which are never completed due to what can be called “the Pocket Veto”.

Bill is asked to do seven tasks by three different people.  He has told all three requesters that he will “do his best”.  He then goes about choosing how many and which of the tasks he will actually do and by when.  Two of Mary’s requests will never get done; Bill may have even known this at the time the requests were made, but he allowed Mary to expect he would complete her requests.

The performer is actually declining some of the requests, but the requesters never really find out which ones.  Think for a minute about the inefficiencies Bill creates in Mary’s world by this behavior.  The Pocket Veto leads to surprises, usually very late in the game.

Virtually all organizations today are afflicted to some degree with the costs and inefficiencies of these work norms.  A growing number of case studies show that changing these norms has a direct and nearly immediate impact on improving an organization’s performance.  This paradigm shift 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.

“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.