Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bonus Blog: Busy People Solutions and Calendar Stalking

You may have heard the phrase, "If you have something that needs doing, give it to a busy person." The theory is that a busy person is busy because they are actually accomplishing things.

In fact, however, having been that busy person, I'm not in any way amused by this saying or the subsequent additional work. Most people do not float down the hallway saying "I'm totally swamped but pile it on!"

Usually, we're looking to offload the extra work to get our proverbial heads above water.

This is why when you're waiting on a response from someone whom you know is overwhelmed, and don't receive the response, it can be frustrating. Oh, you know they're busy. You're busy, too. You really need that info, and they have it.

Many bosses think the best way to get that info is to set up a status meeting once a week (or sometimes once a day) until that data is in your hot little hands. Effectively, they have a ton of work they are buried in, so to get what you need from them, give them more work to do and less time to do it at their desks. This should work perfectly!

Ok. A lot of the time this isn't a horrible idea; people who are perpetually incapable of meeting deadlines without a human hovering benefit from these types of meetings. Most people, however, are annoyed by them. I have 60+ hours of work to do and now I have an extra hour each week sitting at a table with people not doing that work. Theory holds it will provide impetus for them to provide the data required so they can reclaim their time. What the theory doesn't include, however, is that a) you're pissing them off and by ) what else is on that person's priority list.

Typically, people that owe you something have bosses. To their bosses their love be true. Ok, their love of raises and praise, anyway. They have priorities they've approved with their bosses. Your stuff may or may not be on that list. Dragging them to another meeting once a week is annoying, but if their boss hasn't prioritized your stuff for them, they will either a) attend and draw pictures on their notepad for the entire meeting and or/ b) skip your meetings with a refreshing regularity that reminds you of the data you haven't yet gotten from them.

So, you've now figured out that they aren't sending you the data and the meetings are possibly anti-useful in getting the data. What do you do?

Many people would suggest you escalate. Escalation, however, usually casts the person in a bad light. If that person really is doing the bidding of their bosses' priorities, the escalation could explode in your face as their boss takes your boss to task over you pestering their busy employee.

The nice part about escalation, though, is you can do it at any point. So while it doesn't have to be your first option--and is frequently more powerful when it's not--you can try a few other things first.

Ok. Email doesn't work (check). Extra meetings don't work (check). Can't escalate, yet (check). What now?

Well, if you were in that person's shoes, what would you want you to do (and "Go away and never come back" is not a viable option)? You'd want the person who is begging for your time (a valuable resource) to understand why you have not been able to give it. If that work is on your priority list--just not at the top--you'd still want to get it done, but you'd need to communicate that to the person asking you for the data. Finally, you might want some help. I mean, if you're so buried you can't respond to emails and there's this resource hovering around you wanting something from you...well, you're in the perfect position to bargain for some help, right?

As the person doing the begging, you can use your ability to help the person you are begging as another tool to help you get what you need. From a transactional standpoint (see how I cleverly called back to an earlier blog post?), you offer them something, and then you might be able to get what you need in return (or at least get what you need closer to the top of the priority pile). Even, and especially, if you've already done them a good turn, offering to help someone can produce the results you want much more quickly than scheduling a meeting or setting up an escalation. It also makes EVERYONE involved happier.

So you calendar stalk the person--

A brief aside, calendar stalking is where you use their calendar to determine where they are likely to be in the office and then appear there, like a stalker, to get their attention, response, etc. For example, if you know person A is in meeting room 2 until 5 pm, hanging out outside the meeting room at 4:55 makes it a 90% chance you'll get to talk to person A for at least 1-2 minutes (maybe more depending on his/her evening plans). Calendar stalking can even work when people don't open their calendar to you (eg: you don't know what all their meetings are or where they are), because you can still view the gaps in their meeting schedules and then casually wander by their offices during those times to catch them when they might actually be working.

--and you find them in their office or desk (preferably). There you explain that you understand they are VERY busy. Next, you ask them if there is anything you can do to offload their current work to get closer to the info you need from them. You can attend meetings in their stead, review documentation, take them to lunch and let them work on the problem while you're imaginative. Anything is possible.

At this point, either they tell you yes, you can help, or no you cannot. They also can give you an estimate of when the work will be done.

If the answer is "yes", tell them you're sending a confirmation email of your discussion including when they think the work will be done and drop some "Cheerleader Bum Rush" on them--be happy and cheerful and tell them how awesome they are. Then go back to your desk, write up the summary email, and send it to your boss, their boss and them, praising them and telling all parties how you will be helping that person and when you're component will be completed. Include their original estimate of time completion for the task you are waiting on from them. End with additional praise (total Cheerleader Bum Rush here), and submit. Then set your calendar reminder to remind you to poke them half way before their committeemen time, and again on the day the commitment is supposed to be completed. And by "poke" I mean, politely inquire if there is anything else you can do to help them/do they have what they need rather than ask, pointedly, where your stuff is. You want them to like seeing you, not hide when you come around.

If the answer is "no," tell them you really need the data, and therefore you're going to email your boss and their boss and cc them (so they know what you are saying) about your need for the data. Then let them know you're letting their bosses prioritize when it should be done and that you are including the fact that if your info gets prioritized higher than other data on that person's plate, that accommodations will need to be made. Then talk to that person about the highest priority items on their plate and what kind of accommodations would need to be made if your data was prioritized highest for them. Then go back to your desk and send the email with your deadlines and a request to prioritize your item, including the information about additional accommodations that may need to be made for the person whose priority apple cart might suddenly be upturned. Be sure to thank the person in your email about disucssing the issue with you, and end the email with the fact that that person and yourself are awaiting an answer by the higher ups--putting yourself in the group with them makes this a clarification from upper management, rather than an escalation. Additionally, identifying what they need if your priority becomes their priority will make the transition for them to your item easier, and them less likely to be unhappy with you for changing their apple cart's progress in midstream (to mix metaphors shamelessly).

If the outcome of the answer from management is to deprioritize your needs, thank everyone involved and pass the email on to the people with expectations about your project. Plan accordingly for workarounds. If the outcome is to prioritize your needs, thank everyone, offer to help the person (again) and follow up with making sure that person gets the accommodations required to make it easier for your request to the prioritized. Then set a date for response with that person for your data. Create calendar items for the due date and halfway before it, with a reminder to yourself to "poke" them on the topic (politely).

90% of the time, I have found this technique to work with busy people. It also builds transactional credits with them, making them more inclined to help you in the future, while keeping all the important parties informed.

As a person who is the busy, busy, busy one, you can employ this tactic in reverse--get additional work out of someone, praise them and yourself, and build a tighter team by turning "me" into "we." If someone who wants something is engaged and interested in your overall outcome, they are going to be a lot more likely to play nicely with you the next time the two of you cross paths.

After getting something from someone who is incredibly busy--no matter how I got what I wanted--I always do two things. First, I send a message to their boss and my own talking them up. Those emails are frequently saved for review time, and are worth their weight in gold. Also, as noted in my last post, no one ever complains about being thanked too much. Second, I bring them something. Candy or a small toy, or something meaningful to them. An example I have is that a dev here kept trying to tell what temperature it was in his area of the building (always seeming to be 10 degrees colder than the rest of the room), so I bought him a $4 indoor thermometer. It was small, but it proved I was thinking about him, and thinking about his needs, and I like to think that crosses his mind occasionally when he's reaching down to turn on his heater and checks the temperature.

True management, and, to a certain degree, true happiness in the workplace, is spawned by people thinking good things about you, even when you're not around. I strive for that every day (in between picking up apples from my upturned, mid-stream apple cart).

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