Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Begging Forgiveness v. Asking Permission: What's at risk and when to risk it

The contents of this post (pretty much like any other) could get you fired if you follow them incorrectly (or, well, correctly, depending). The following is meant to be informational, to help you think outside the box, but please use your own discretion so you keep your job.

As an employee, we've all been in that situation. You know, the one where you've got a deadline hanging over your head, but a decision has to be made by person or persons who are not you. Realistically, no one can blame you if you miss your deadline, but in reality, we all know that people do blame us for things outside of our realm of control.

I'm a huge fan of getting consensus the right way; talking to people individually or in small groups and getting agreement, then sending out an email letting everyone know they've agreed to it...nice, efficient, and people think well of you when you're done. But if the deadline is this afternoon and you got the problem this morning, elegance and simplicity are not really in your game plans for the day.

Now, if the parties in question that have to make the decision don't know (but you do), you can go the beg forgiveness route. In this method, you send an email to everyone telling them the decision you are going with, the time frame by which that decision has to be implemented, and an explanation that if any of the approvers don't wish to approve, then they will be responsible for missing the deadline. Always make the time frame for approval of the decision a few hours earlier than the actual deadline; people will email 10 minutes after, and if its a Vice President, you are going to have to find a way to put the bullet back in the gun if you've already fired.

That's a fast and dirty method of getting approval--everyone's on the thread, and everyone is aware that they will be responsible if they have objections. Now, some people, like bulls in china shops, won't care. Porcelain will fly, but the project will not. Some people, however, will send a few emails to ask questions to make sure they at least appear to have done their due diligence. The majority of people? They won't respond at all during the time frame. You might get a no vote tomorrow, or when they get back from vacation. Usually though, you'll get silence if they agree, or if they don't care enough about the issue to respond.

I do not advocate letting them know about their choices at the last minute, unless that's when you found out. Deliberately reducing the time window can bite you in the butt. But doing it legitimately can get those decisions moving, and allow plenty of credibility when you're begging forgiveness for any decisions made.

Got an approver who is always in meetings and rarely answers email? Got an issue you need to move forward with? Send an email to them and let them know that you are doing X unless they tell you otherwise by Y time. Then follow through. When they eventually find the email, you may have to beg forgiveness. But you did consult the approver, to the letter of the law of approvals (even if not especially the intent).

In a meeting with the rep who is about to fly back to a far corner of the earth and no way to reach your approver? Make a decision on the spot that reserves your options if you can. Don't sign any contracts or agree to any financial clauses (at least substantial ones), but if the choice is "yes or no" and answering "no" means the opportunity could be lost or hard to get into the queue again, answer "yes." Follow up with your approver pronto and get your word backed by their law. You won't always be right, but they will appreciate you keeping their options open.

Note, these things can get you in big trouble (maybe even sometimes fired). If you have an option to talk to someone or use these alternate routes, you should probably always talk to them. I do say "probably." Some things--deadlines, projects, friendships, companies--are worth risking everything for.

I leave it up to you to decide what you're willing to risk.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Techniques: Using Email instead of Email Using You

Email is often a necessary evil in the world world; some people love the natural distraction, others rue the pinging sound every time their email program alerts them that someone not present wants them to read something.

Today we're going to talk about using email as your ally, but also how to know when to ditch your ally--say, when someone else may not be making the best use of it--and when to use in person "charm" to get things done.

Using Email as Your Ally

Your boss forgets he agreed to things, forgets the status you gave him, forgets the tasks he assigned you, or you have multiple bosses or employees who do some of all of those things.

1. Keep a daily log of what you're doing and for whom. It seems like a pain, but it can be as simple as a draft email saved to that folder with notes and times.

2. With a person or persons that forgets things, every time you talk to them you summarize the convo as soon as you get back to your desk, and you send an email indicating what was decided, what you are doing, etc. AND make a note in your daily note file. For multiple responders, be sure to include who made the decision and with whom they can take up any concerns or complaints that aren't you. For the boss who gets annoyed by being peppered with these emails all day long, but still needs them (or he/she forgets and takes it out on you) a summary email at the end of each day with notes from your daily draft email will do the trick nicely without peppering him/her with too much email.

Talking to People is Sometimes a Good Thing

Email is no longer your friend; you and another person or persons have traded emails multiple times and have not managed to settle an issue (even, and especially, if that issue seems very clear to you). Maybe this person just keeps avoiding answering the question, maybe they are having problems with the semantics you choose in your email. Whatever it is, it's getting frustrating, possibly for both of you, and the deadline isn't taking a coffee break to wait for you two to sort it out.

Get up and go find the person. This doesn't always work well--if you are in the US, for example, and they are in Thailand, its a bit difficult to explain to the expense department to pay for a trip to the Thailand offices. However, a phone call can be set up, which is the second best option under the circumstances.

My general rule of thumb is that if you've traded three or more emails and still have no resolution, you should set up a point of connection that allows for talking, and, where possible, sharing a white board or an electronic shared meeting so you can diagram things and/or gesticulate wildly to get across your point.

Often, things can be sewed up in five minutes that have floundered for days via email.

Email: Getting Permission (without having to beg too much for forgiveness)

Your boss or bosses or other approver NEVER RESPOND and CANNOT BE FOUND. However, she/he/they require approval or you cannot move forward with your work/project/etc. Deadline is looming and you get the occasional email from them asking what the hold up is, but you don't even hear crickets when you respond back that you're waiting on them to approve the thing.

You've heard the phrase that in some cases, "It's better to beg forgiveness than seek approval?" This situation typifies this.

However, you can have the best of both worlds...if you are willing to be bold.

A few weeks prior to the required decision, gather all subject matter experts you can find and get consensus on the answer/approval you require. Write up the notes of that meeting and that consensus. Send an email (with that email attached) requesting approval from the appropriate folks. Do other tasks as no one ever responds to your email.

A week from the date due, send another email with attachments of your previous emails. This email should say something along the lines of "If I do not hear back from you by (DATE), I will assume we are going with (Subject Matter Expert Supported Solution)."

The day of the decision, make another effort to find them/email them/calendar stalk them, etc. In absence of getting them, send a final email, again with previous emails attached that says "We're going to go with (Subject Matter Expert Supported Solution) in order to make the date. Thanks!"

Then follow through with that decision.

Note, I did mention you had to be "bold." Why? Because in some organizations, approvals are actually more important than deadlines. So be darn sure that in your case, the deadline warrants this, and/or the decision is sufficiently trivial that the approvers really don't care once they've had a chance to read the issue. This could backfire in your face, but sometimes, it's the only way to act when caught between a rock (deadlines) and a hard place (approver who won't respond to any method of communication you try).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Echoing: Hop To It!

Another movie in The (Im)Perfect Manager movie series. Today's episode is about using echoing to help resolve work place disputes...such as the one in today's episode.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Asking for (and getting) above and beyond the call of duty

As an employee, you know that sometimes you're going to have to suck it up: work through a lunch, stay an hour later, come in an hour earlier, work a night, work a weekend, shorten a vacation...every once in a while work asks extra of you, and, because you like working there or are in love with the concept of money for goods and services, you put up with it to prevent a stoppage in the flow of dirty lucre.

Typically, someone has to ask you to do that.

As the manager, boss, project manager, etc., you're the one who is going to have to ask people to do that for you.

Now, my other posts still apply, of course; if you suck at being a boss or are a lousy person, there's a good chance no one will go more than an inch out of their way for you.

But there are other things to consider when asking people to go above and beyond the normal call of duty.

For example, what will you be doing when people are working those extra hours? Will you be at home watching TV? You shouldn't be. Even if there's squat you can actually do while they're doing the heavy lifting, you should be there, where they can see you. Employees put a lot of stock in people who stick by them, especially in sucky situations and even more so in situations where you don't have to. Now, you don't have to stay the whole time, especially if people are trading in and out of the extra time. But you do have to show up, show some hardship for what you're asking them to do for you. It goes a very, very long way towards them doing a good job and being willing to do this for you again someday.

Next, how often have you asked for this special brand of favor? My preference--and we know the world doesn't revolve on preference--is not to ask people to work extra late/weekends/early more than once a month if I can help it. In the tech industry, many people are familiar with "crunch" time, when extra hours are required of everybody, but even in the tech industry, if it's not actually "crunch" time you want to think long and hard about asking for the extraordinary because if you tap that resource too often people aren't going to want to give it to you later, when you need it. Worse, they are going to start to resent you, which makes for all kinds of serious problems managing them during normal work hours.

Also, think carefully about how useful additional extra hours will be. If you've asked this favor for the last two weekends, they aren't going to be fresh on Saturday when they show; it might be worthwhile to skip working the weekend entirely, give them time to recharge, and try again later. People do burn out, and that makes for bad work that lasts longer than crunch time.

Next question: what do they get for doing this for you? A lot of people feel that, because their job includes some non-work regular hours, they should do it simply because its their job. While you might feel that way--and heck, they might, too--its too much like taking people for granted to say it. Staying late or working a weekend or coming in early or missing a lunch is unusual and extra and they don't actually have to do it, even if their contract says it, because they could always get another job where they don't have to do that (or can do it on their own terms). At the very least, you must acknowledge what they are doing for you is above and beyond, and thank them, preferably doing both regularly and publicly.

Where possible, provide incentives. Some companies will expense dinner or lunch for people working through lunch or dinner or on the weekend. You can always ask, and they can always say no, but if they say yes, you have advocated for your people. A free meal is not, by any means, equal to giving up their private time to you, but its a good place to remind them that you do appreciate them and you will go to bat for them in whatever ways you can.

No expense account? Take up a collection for pizza and donate extra to the pot for your people. Or, bring in donuts or bagels or soda or home baked goods. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it has to be a treat and a symbol of your appreciation for them.

Can you do comp days? Can you excuse them a much longer lunch (or two) later next week? There are a lot of ways to compensate people that don't require cash. Just make sure your options are legal and approved by the people who would get to use them.

Note, working a Saturday, in my opinion is not equal to getting a Thursday off. Trading days one for one is never my idea of a good time. When I can, I try to give more time for a weekend day than a weekday of work. If that's not possible for you, you can arrange those comp days in a better way for the employee...such as a four day weekend, for example. Be creative. Be thankful. Let them know.

Next, can you make the above and beyond suck less? Sometimes working just the Saturday and giving people Sunday off is way better than half of both days (or vice versa). Check in with the team and find out what floats their boat. Majority should win, though the next time you can try it the other way to please the people who didn't get their option this time.

Will there be a long period of waiting? Managing devs, they often have to wait for the testers to finish, and vice versa, or Operations has to wait for the team to finish. Bring fun stuff for down time; games, treats, toys. Look up interesting things on the web and have them available to share (but, of course, make sure they aren't anything HR will come after you for showing). APOD has these awesome star pictures, but some people are into LolCatz. Know your people. Let them laugh and have a moment as a team. It bonds them, and they work better.

Finally, reward them. They do the work, and you praise and publish their success, and you reward them. It can be as simple as bringing a board game to play over a long lunch, or hitting a restaurant as a team, or letting people go early (outside whatever comp deals you may have set up). Now, I'm not advocating letting people spend tons of time away when you do need them the most, but I am suggesting that you give them what you can when you're in crunch, and then be generous with them when they're not in crunch. Because there will always be another time you need them to go above and beyond the call of duty for you.

Doing these things will never make working late, early, through lunch, or on weekends 100% better. But it will be better than it could be, and they'll know. Pretty soon, they might not want to work extra time or go above and beyond for just anyone, but they will want to do it for you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Techniques: The Natural Consequences Method of Maintaining and Enforcing Your Boundaries (without being the bad guy)

Its well and good to provide guidelines for common stuff that happens and new approaches to ways to handle issues that pop up. But, there are the occasionally seriously crappy issues and problems that repeat, that you know will happen, and that you get bogged down into. The "Techniques" series that will pop up occasionally are ways that I use to minimize overall craziness, improve efficiency, and you know, GET STUFF DONE.

This week is all about Natural Consequences.


You are dealing with a person who either a) doesn't understand the flow of logic (willfully or ignorantly or willfully ignorantly), or b) understands but needs someone to get mad at so they pick you when things do not go their way, even though logically its clear that the choices they have made are going to result in a situation they don't like.


This tip I take from a very good friend, Mara "the awesome" Kaehn, and I call it what she does, "Natural Consequences." Basically, cause and effect are usually enough logic for most people, but some people will--whether they mean to or not--blame you for the negative results of cause and effect. Natural Consequences is a nice, easy way to prevent that from happening. Basically, you talk to the person and tell them that the Natural Consequences of what they are asking is X if they want Y--or, whatever you are explaining. You break it down into specific actions equaling specific results. You tell it to them as if you have no control over it--forces of nature are what they are (hence the name "Natural" Consequences) and you side with them the best you are able to do so: "Let's kick the butt of these potential consequences together!" This brings you out of direct conflict and into cooperation with them, while establishing that there are cause and effect patterns that they cannot alter.

Sounds easy, right? Ok. Doesn't sound that easy. But, with practice, it is pretty easy. The purpose is to make it clear that there are circumstances beyond the control of that person and yourself, and that you are a partner with them to prevent the bad circumstances from happening.

It's possible, of course, that this is not exactly true; for example, the person pestering you may well have a point that you can stop everything you are doing and do what they ask even if they failed to meet the required conditions that trigger the Natural Consequences. An enormous amount of bother--for you and other people--could be had to accomplish what they want to accomplish. However, Natural Consequences is a way of maintaining boundaries you have established while taking the "blame" for enforcing those boundaries off of you. This doesn't mean you specifically lie to them, but you do lay out the discussion in absolutes. "If you get the article for the newsletter in past Friday there's nothing we can do--it won't make the Wednesday newsletter release. How can I help you get what you need gotten in by Friday?" is a lot easier to sell than "You have to get the request in by Friday to make the following Wednesday newsletter. If you don't, you won't be in the newsletter until the week after."

Now many a person confronted with Natural Consequences will look at this as an escalation challenge. This is why the second part of Natural Consequences can help: when you state the conditions of Natural Consequences, you include what the escalation path is, or that there is no possible escalation path.

In our example above regarding the newsletter, a savvy person trying to deliver copy to you on Monday is going to suggest that since you're in charge of the cut-off you can make an exception for them. This is why when you are explaining the Natural Consequences of their action--turning in the copy late means they miss the next newsletter--that you include an escalation path or a method to diffuse the need for an escalation path (especially if no escalation exists). In this particular case, you have a couple of options: 1) Tell them that is totally possible but they need to get permission from your boss and the other folks invested in the newsletter to do it to avoid any concerns of other contributors who may be bumped or get less space by someone turning in their content late, and be very helpful to get them the info and how to do the escalation so when they do escalate, they have nothing bad to say about you. 2) If the copy is already sent to wherever it's supposed to go, and there's no way to alter it (short of spending more money/delaying the release), tell them that. Then give them info for your boss and anyone else overseeing the newsletter in case they choose to ask questions/escalate.

Even if you ARE or can be the final authority on the item, always have someone higher up than you to send them to--if they don't have someone to be pointed at, who knows how high above your head they'll go, and no one wants to have a Director come at them with complaints because of a newsletter.

Finally, when you're done with them, immediately TELL the person or persons to whom you've sent them what is up; that they will be approached. You can give a recommendation on how you recommend it be dealt with, but a) be sure that it's very civil and polite because b) some people, even trusted ones like your boss or a peer, may send your recommendation to them as part of their explanation of why they cannot have something they want.

Sometimes in using this technique, instead of pointing to an escalation path, you might instead (or in addition) point them to an authority on the topic. For example, you can argue that people cannot hold their breath for 30 minutes until you are (to excuse the pun) blue in the face, but sometimes people need an authority figure and/or subject matter expert to make the case for you. In that case, you can refer the person to research, Wikipedia, or a human being subject matter expert...whatever you think will work, is polite, and has the information they require.

The overall theory behind Natural Consequences is to make yourself an ally of the person asking to violate your boundaries, and give them information and presentation that makes them feel they have options and you are on their side. Even if you pretty much lividly hate what they're asking for, using this technique is not only the civil way to deal with the issue, but it will often make the issue go away and them think more highly of you afterward.