The key to making a complete and clear plan, free from all assumptions (and thus improving accountability), is to make sure to include four key components :
As we just noted, problems typically arise because assignments have only two or three of these components. Let s look at each of the four and see what the experts have taught us from the trenches.
This first issue is the easiest : Someone s name has to be attached to each task. But there s the rub. Some one s name has to be attached. Some one needs to be in charge or accountable. At the end of a meeting the supervisor says, Okay, we should get it done by Friday at noon. Come Friday, nothing is done. The boss exclaims, Where is it? And the finger-pointing party begins.
We is too vague. In business the term we is often synonymous with nobody . There is no we in accountability (but let us not forget that there is in weenie ). Parents often make this mistake. Mom says to her kids, Now before you go play with your friends , let s clean our rooms. Later, to the frustrated mom, the kids whine, But Mom, you said you d help.
For accountability to work, a person needs to know what he or she is expected to do. If the task requires many hands, each person needs to know what his or her part of the assignment is. The team can be as ambiguous as us or we. Therefore, when it comes to large jobs, make sure one person is responsible for the whole task and then link specific people to each part.
Deciding exactly what you re after can be challenging. Johnson ended his performance review with Barb by accepting the responsibility to be more creative during the next quarter. So they followed the rules, right? It was clear who would do what by when. Not exactly. Barb needed to provide a detailed description of the exact behaviors she was looking for: By being more creative I mean I d like you to come up with more product ideas on your own. I d love for you to come to our weekly meeting and present new ideas for improvements. The same is true for solutions. When you see a problem, rather than asking what needs to be done, come up with suggestions and then present them to me.
When you end a crucial confrontation and are deciding exactly what to do, don t take the what for granted. Ask if there are any questions about quality or quantity. Ask if everyone has the same characteristics in mind. Ask what might be confusing or unclear that has to be clarified now, in advance.
If you suspect that other people are likely to misunderstand you, use Contrasting: I want you to think of new plans. I don t want you to implement them until we ve had a chance to talk, but I do want you to take the initiative to present them. Those of you who have had cataract surgery recently are familiar with the hospital version of this technique. A nurse draws (in magic marker and on your forehead, no less) an arrow over the eyeball that is about to receive the surgery, meaning this eye, not the other one. When the stakes are high, leave nothing to chance. (How many wrong surgeries were performed until someone came up with this trick?)
Time is a concept of our own construction. It comes with specific names and numbers . It s quantifiable and exact. Thus, when it comes to setting follow-up times or deadlines for change, you d think there would be no room for confusion. But we find a way. For example, consider the expression I need it next week. This may be specific. If you are perfectly happy to receive the finished product any time in the next week, you have a clear agreement. Technically, the expression promises nothing before 11:59 p.m. on Saturday. However, if you need it before 5:00 p.m. on Friday, say so. If you need it on Wednesday, clarify. If you need it by noon on Wednesday . . . you get the point.
What makes this issue particularly intriguing is that the more urgent the task and the more critical the timing, the more vague the instruction: This is hot; I need it ASAP. Get right on it. Hey, did you hear me? This baby is top priority. I need it yesterday . These terms of urgency are train wrecks waiting to happen. Think of it this way: ASAP: the do-it-yourself ulcer kit.
This problem comes up at home too. The following are statements begging for different interpretations: Don t be late. I ll get that to you soon. You need to clean up your mess in the kitchen. We could be wrong about this, but it seems that teenagers have an amazingly well-developed ability to find the cracks in incomplete plans and use them to their advantage. Clarity helps you fill in the cracks.
Once you ve clarified who is supposed to do what and by when, the next step should be obvious: Decide when and how you ll follow up on what s supposed to happen. Perhaps both of you have taken an assignment to do something to resolve the problem but things have come up. When it comes to problem solving with your direct reports or children, you don t necessarily want to leave them to their own devices, particularly if the task is difficult and the people who have to deliver on the promise are unfamiliar with the territory. By the same token, you don t want to be checking up on people every few hours. Nobody likes that.
When choosing the frequency and type of follow-up you ll use, consider the following three variables :
Risk. How risky or crucial is the project or needed result?
Trust. How well has this person performed in the past; what is his or her track record?
Competence. How experienced is this person in this area?
If the task the other person has agreed to do is risky, meaning that bad things will happen if it is not done well, and if it is being given to someone who is inexperienced or has a poor track record, the follow-up will be fairly aggressive . It ll come soon and often. If the task is routine and is given to someone who is experienced and productive, the follow-up will be far more casual.
The two most common methods for checking on progress are scheduled and critical event follow-up times. For routine tasks , schedule a time to see how much progress is being made. Often this is done during a routine meeting at which you ll already be together anyway. With more complicated projects, base the follow-up on milestones or key events: Get back to me as soon as you complete the initial plan. Or you can combine the two: If you don t have the plan completed by next Tuesday at noon, let s meet and discuss ways to speed things along.
If you don t have a defined relationship, follow-up can require more creativity. For example, a woman who confronted an inappropriate behavior from a male coworker worried that confrontation might not put an end to the behavior, and so she built in a follow-up. She concluded by saying, Would it be okay if in a month we met in the cafeteria for lunch ? I d suggest our first agenda item be ˜Am I acting weird toward you since this discussion? and ˜Has the behavior stopped from my perspective? What do you say? This candid , sincere, and respectful request was accepted. And when it was, this skilled woman gained four weeks of clear accountability. The behavior stopped .
If you find yourself in a crucial confrontation where you re worried about backsliding, never walk away without agreeing on the follow-up time.
How frequently you follow up with another person depends on that person s record and the nature of the task. How your actions will be viewed by others depends on your attitude and objective. When it comes to following up, ask yourself: What am I really trying to accomplish? If you don t trust others, your follow-up methods are likely to be seen as audits ( gotcha! ), and nobody likes an audit.
When people feel as if they re being watched too closely they tend to transmute into good soldiers. Just tell me what to do and I ll do it. They check their brains at the door. They perceive follow-up as criticism. They feel that they are working for a micromanager and are given no chance to show initiative or creativity. In short, the relationship they have with their boss is not based on trust and respect.
Unfortunately, the sense of abandonment people experience at the other end of the follow-up continuum may cause just as many problems. Cutting people loose is certainly more common in today s world of empowerment. Leaders don t want to micromanage . They ve felt it, they hate it, and they don t want to deliver it. Micromanaging is bad, and so leaders scarcely follow up at all. Good goal, bad strategy.
Other factors also contribute to an excessively hands-off style. Many leaders (and parents) don t believe they have time to follow up. They give a great deal of freedom to others, even to people who have been fairly unreliable. Nowadays people in authority spend so much time traveling, answering e-mail, and sitting in meetings that they don t even notice that they don t follow up very often.
Unfortunately, this hands-off style is rarely interpreted positively. People don t say, I understand. The boss is so busy that he can hardly find time to follow up. More often than not employees conclude, The boss doesn t care about me or my project. Busy parents suffer the same fate. Busyness is interpreted as apathy, and this harms both the relationship and the results.
When it comes to how and when you follow up with others, your intentions will have a huge impact.
How about you? If you think you may be at risk of being seen as a person who micromanages or who is too hands-off, check it out. When making an assignment, describe the type of follow-up you think is appropriate. Explain why and be candid about your reasoning. Then sincerely ask if the other person agrees with the method. When you both agree on the frequency and type of follow-up and you both know it, you won t be left wondering if you are being perceived as too hands-off or too hands-on.
Who initiates the follow-up discussion? Does the person giving the assignment always take the lead, or are there times when the person taking the assignment follows up? Do a checkup when you re giving the assignment and are nervous or have questions. You ve looked at the risk, the track record, and the person s experience, and you re feeling anxious or uneasy, even tense.
This is the time to use a checkup. You take the lead. Get your PDA or calendar out. Say something like the following: Since this is such an important task, I m wondering if we could meet next Wednesday at ten to review how it s going. You write it down. You are in charge of the follow-up.
The fact that you re taking the lead doesn t mean that you are micromanaging. It means that you own the follow-up. It can and certainly should mean that you re interested in how the task went, what worked, and what got in the way. If the task is risky enough, the follow-up should be scheduled along the way to make sure that all is going well and that you are available to provide help or coach.
Use a checkback when the task is routine and has been assigned to someone who is experienced and productive. Now that person is in charge. That person checks back. He or she offers suggestions: How about meeting at our next scheduled meeting? or The deadline is two weeks from today. Could we meet next Thursday fifteen minutes before our staff meeting to touch base?
To achieve the results you want as well as maintain healthy relationships, both checkups and checkbacks can be useful forms of follow-up.
A planning discussion can be fairly complex and fast-paced, causing us to forget things. Take the time to summarize what s supposed to go down. It could sound something like this:
Let me see if I got this right. Bill, you ll get the nine copies of the report, stapled with a standard company cover sheet, for the meeting Tuesday at 2 p.m. And you ll check back with me before noon that day if you see any problem. Is that right?
Can you see anything else that we haven t talked about that might cause a problem?
When you ask for the other person s input, it can help bring to light issues that might otherwise cause problems. However, the real power of this question goes far beyond clarifying understanding. You re checking for commitment. When the other person eventually says I ll do it, that person is much more likely to live up to the agreement. Never walk away from a crucial confrontation satisfied with a vague nod. If you care about gaining genuine commitment, give the other person the opportunity to say yes to a very specific agreement.