Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Death by Waiting by Michelle Kunz

In the October 9, 2007 print edition of the "Wall Street Journal" Jared Sandberg's "Cubicle Culture" column addressed an issue we can all relate to: the fatal effects of waiting on creativity, motivation, morale and productivity. Sandberg observes that no matter how many technological advances we develop to eliminate waiting, there are always built in enforcers of the status quo. Email, for example, can send our messages immediately, but we have no control over whether the person receiving will actually respond.

Managing up is a hot topic right now. Everyone would like to get their supervisor, or better yet, the C Suite, on the same page as they are. There is the perception that if upper management would change, everything would improve. There are many assumptions buried in those perceptions, and whether they are accurate or not is not the topic for this particular post. Waiting for management to change, however, is. That falls under the topic of trying to control the outcome of someone else's behavior, overtly or covertly, and we can just let that go and move on to areas where we have more direct control.

As leaders we do have a great deal of control over how smoothly things flow within our direct spheres of influence. Most of this control lies in setting good examples, laying down clear operating guidelines, communicating expectations and following up with direct feedback which delivers specific information to the recipient on how they can adjust their actions to better serve the team. Let's look at each of these areas in greater detail as they relate to waiting.

Good examples

Time management is one of those terms often used and seldom understood. It might be helpful to review the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of effects comes from 20% of causes. Think about that. What that is saying is that 80% of your causes (or efforts) are practically wasted (producing only 20% of your effects, or outcomes). The purpose of a time management system ideally is to maximize your efforts so that you are in peak performance more often than 20% of the time. Before you can implement a calendar or task list, however, you first need to identify which activities actually produce your greatest results (the 80% of effects) and devise a strategy for maximizing your time spent in those activities. This may require delegating, saying no to or redefining other activities so you can maximize your efforts.

If you can't get your arms around this as a leader, it will be difficult to make the case for your team to do it. Here are some common areas where leaders lay down weak examples for teams to follow, wasting time and causing undue delays in the process:

  • Failing to stick to action-producing agendas for meetings
  • Attempting to get consensus on a topic when a clear decision is called for
  • Resisting setting up clear accountability guidelines so action is well supported
  • Allowing deadlines to slip without asking for accountability in ways that produce action
  • Overlooking the importance of clarity in all aspects of communication, inviting misunderstandings, mistakes and delays
  • Miscalculating the importance of accurate and timely cascading communication systems

Clear operating guidelines

Some of the bullet points above fall under this heading. One of the best ways a leader can help a team avoid playing the waiting game is to lay down clear operating procedures from the very beginning. This requires a clear construct of all aspects of the team's activities and responsibilities, both internally and interdepartmentally. The best way to get this picture will be to ask for input from your team. They know better than you what they do, how they do it and how long it takes. You probably know the why better than they do. And you can push back on the how and how long, perhaps even the what if something seems out of place. With this kind of dialogue and open debate, a very clear picture of overall team activity and responsibilities will begin to take shape. Everyone on the team needs to have this clear picture -- each member should clearly understand what everyone else does and why and have a good sense of the how and how long. This understanding eliminates unreasonable requests from one member to another, and sets reasonable expectations between team members.

Once you have the picture, continuing the dialogue to include what core procedures must be in place to keep the team at peak performance will elicit ideas you may not think of if you do this exercise alone. You'll have an organizational view, which is essential, but they will have priorities and preferences which will be no less vital to keeping the team motivated and happy. Working through these issues early on will ensure that everyone is on the same page and has buy-in. Clearly laying this out for your team will ensure that later on no time is wasted waiting for someone else to decide what should be happening at this point in the project.

Clear expectations

"Expectations" is not about levels of perfection. It's about goals and objectives and deadlines and accountability. What do you expect people to do, by when, and how will they let you know it has been accomplished? How should they let you know it is NOT going to be accomplished or that a problem has developed -- and by when? How much do you want to be kept in the loop along the way? Who is accountable to whom else on the team? How will that happen? How do they handle an accountability issue between teammates? If you have not laid out a very clear set of expectations around objectives, deadlines and accountability, you are asking your team to wait while you figure it out along the way. Furthermore, you are asking for a lot of wasted time while people deal with misunderstandings and ambiguity around the essential questions of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Do not ever be afraid to be too clear when answering those questions. And always ask people to tell you what they heard you say just in case you weren't as clear as you thought you were.

Direct feedback

So many people struggle with feedback. They take it personally. They fear the other person will take it personally. If the other person does take it personally, they take that personally. No wonder supervisors frequently dread the annual review process. Wouldn't we all rather just give out gold stars and call it a day?

Feedback in its simplest form is information about where you are in relation to where you said you wanted to be. You set an objective: A, and you set a deadline: B. On date B you look to see if you've accomplished A. If you have, great! You can talk about what happened, how you felt about it, what you learned, what happened that you expected, and what happened that you didn't. That's all part of extended feedback -- how you felt and what you learned. What gets difficult for most of us is when date B comes along and we didn't accomplish A.

So here are two cases: Case 1: we are close to getting A, but we're just not there yet. In this case, we assess the original goal and see if our date was unrealistic. Or perhaps something else happened -- Time management issues? Extenuating circumstances? It's all feedback. Case 2: We didn't accomplish A, but we did accomplish C. In this case, we can really get out of the box and ask some interesting questions. Was A necessary after all? Is C more useful in some way than A? Were we just goofing off and C is a complete waste of time? What kept us from doing A and what drew us to doing C? All of this is also feedback. And, of course, there are many other questions that the exact situation will ignite that will shed additional light on the subject.

The point is, without feedback, there will be no forward movement. The goal can be large or small, no matter. Along the way, we all need feedback so we can adjust course. That might mean carry on, or it might mean abandon ship. Either course is valid and important, but we won't know until we get feedback.

Waiting is a part of life. We will wait in traffic. We will be put on hold while making a doctor's appointment. And we will probably wait for a request from another department or from the powers that be above us. But within our own teams waiting can be minimized or at least be made meaningful by adopting principles and creating systems which support movement -- creating the freedom to move, supporting the ability to move, enforcing accountability for movement and always, always making sure we have solicited input from the beginning so we have clarity, understanding and most importantly -- ownership.