Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trust But Verify

A lot of my posts have talked about direct ways of influencing the workplace to improve things both for yourself and for your team.

This post is a bit more introverted. We’re going to look at how we think, and how other people think, in an effort to get them to actually do things or understand why they do the things they do.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Never assume,” which follows about making an ass out of yourself and someone else, if you do (to paraphrase). However, it keeps reappearing as a notation of import in the process of doing business. So apparently, people—myself included—keep assuming, and keep paying the price for it.

For example: you are in a meeting with Bob. Bob says he’ll email Jane after the meeting so she will do the database back up you need. Bob is earnest that you shouldn’t bother his employee, Jane, directly, and he will do it. Bob is a really trustworthy guy and he’s done a bang up job in the past.

Three hours later, you still have no back-up.

Its not your fault you assumed that Bob would do what he’d said he’d do. It may not even be Bob’s fault that it didn’t get done. But if it was your job to get a backup by the end of the day, no matter that you can’t control Bob or Jane, it will be perceived as your fault because you’re the manager. Whether you’re the project manager, product manager, dev manager or QA manager, when you’re supposed to manage stuff people ASSUME that you will get it done, no matter how impossible.

So what could you do? When you get the promise from Bob about the email to Jane, you need to rephrase it so the item falls within Bob’s realm of responsibility. That way if he shoots an email to Jane as promised, he doesn’t stop thinking about it assuming (because everyone does) that Jane will tell you or magically you will somehow figure out what you’ve asked for has been done. To shore up your ability to put Bob in charge of the thing, give him a time limit to get back to you.

So, looking at the previous example, Bob says he’ll contact Jane. You thank Bob. Then you ask Bob if he can be in charge of the action item to make sure the back up is done by end of day? If Bob says yes—great, ask him if he can get back to you with the fact it’s done by X time today. If Bob says no, you now have negotiation room to access his employee, Jane, yourself, because the fact remains that item has to be done and its okay if Bob doesn’t want to do it as long as someone does. So Bob has said he can’t accept that responsibility, fine, let him know you’ll check in with him and Jane at X today to see where the back up is. Checking in with them means that Bob can send the email (if he hasn’t) while you’re standing there, and then walk over to Jane with you, later that day, to make sure it gets done.

People constantly promise things during the work day. Because they are adults and have held down jobs a while, its natural to assume that they’ll keep commitments that they make. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.” Never make someone feel like you don’t believe them, believe in them, or trust them. By the same token, however, never leave responsibilities of yours to be completed by others on trust alone.

It is so easy to assume someone will just get something done if you ask them. A lot of the time that person will come through. However, it really depends on a lot of factors how reliably someone will do things for you, even if you are their boss.

1) What else do they have to do today?
2) How many other priority items are there?
3) Are they preoccupied with home life, anticipation of a pleasant or unpleasant event, etc.?
4) Are the prone to forgetting things and didn’t have a pad and pen with them when you asked them?
5) Is this thing really close to something else they could easily confuse with it? That way they might think both are done when really only one is.
6) …the list goes on of possible issues.

To combat assumption (on my part and that of others), I keep a To Do List For Other People. Yes, I keep a list to make sure other people do things for me. I use it for myself (I’m #4 above, so I try to always keep a pad of paper and a pen with me, and then transfer those notes to my main list), but its also where I keep my “nagging” list—the list of things I do to surreptitiously check on items I would otherwise assume were being done.

While it's no fair you're dinged for Jane not doing what she was supposed to do or Bob not doing what he said he's going to do, you will be. The only surefire way to get things done is trust, but also VERIFY those items. Poised logically, most people have a hard time arguing with the logic of making sure something you're responsible for gets done. Unfortunately, and probably the topic of several future posts, people aren't always logical.


  1. There are online to-do list apps as well, like Remember the Milk, which I mostly use at home. (It allows sharing to-do items; since I linked my account to my wife’s, she can add items to my “honeydew list”.) Getting a year of Remember the Milk accounts (which gets you support for all the integration apps on iPhone and Android and Outlook etc.) for your entire team would be pretty cheap.

  2. I like your language here around asking Bob to commit to a deadline and take responsibility for completion of a task. You are right - asking is not enough; it leaves you too much at the mercy of someone else's priorities and competence.

    I agree that it's definitely very important to keep a follow-up list (or a waiting for/delegate list as David Allen calls it in GTD). I keep mine primarily in my calendar, deciding on a date on which I will follow-up and then adding the follow-up to my action list again on that day. Otherwise, if you delegate a lot of small tasks, it can get time-consuming to track.

    Nice article!

  3. Thanks, the klarichter.

    Max, I use Outlook to track most of my future tasks, and I use a tool called Swift Todo list. I have recently--for the house stuff, oddly enough--started using Reminder Fox. There are lots of great tools out there to track your own todos and to keep track of what other people owe you.