In an ideal work environment, the first thing many of us do in the morning is schedule the stuff we will be doing for the day, plan the things we need to get these jobs done, and then proceed to do the job subject to said schedule and plan. By doing the thinking up front we improve our chances of being out of the office by 5pm to do more interesting things.
Unfortunately there are lots of variables at work that prevent us from achieving this simple daily goal. The biggest of these variables involves the people we rely on to get things done. For me, most of humanity’s problems are, at their core, communication issues. So a good place to start to mitigate your exposure to people who jeopardise your chances at an early start on the road leading to your comfy couch at home is to communicate effectively.
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Get everything in writing.
No matter how eloquent we are in face-to-face conversations with our work colleagues, nothing seals the deal better than written confirmation of what was discussed.
Let’s say you’ve just finished a conversation with John where you instruct him to do a task with an outcome you need to complete your work on time. Follow up with an email to John that might go like this:
As discussed in our phone conversation, here is what you will be doing for me:
(1) You will take a data extract from the WillItWork database and turn it into an Excel spreadsheet.
(2) You will then email that Excel spreadheet to me as an attachment by 4pm today.
The important thing is to file emails like these. You will most likely need them come the time when you are about to follow-up on a possible non-delivery of the requirement that was discussed. These also serve as evidence to your boss that you had taken all the appropriate measures to improve the probability of your completion of the job you are responsible for on-time given the unavoidable dependency on others’ delivery of their bit.
Apply a subtle “No response will be interpreted as agreement” threat.
Don’t set yourself up for derailment by the ambiguous “input” from quibbling colleagues. Make sure you engineer your messages to force categorical responses from everyone you deal with. This principle works even at the lowest denominator of all — the question of whether the recipient of your message responds or not. Construct a message that puts non-responders under your control, and managing those who do respond will be a walk in the park. Indeed, colleagues who are chronic non-responders are, in fact, the most ideal recipients. To take full advantage of habitual non-responders, make sure you are very specific about the purpose of a communication artifact like a memo, an email, or a phone call.
Here is an example of a purposeful email message:
With regard to your request for a report on actual sales figures, here is the scope of the report I will be sending you by 4pm today:
- Sales figures for the two products you are account manager for over 5-day work week ending the 8th July.
If you are ok with the above specs let me know by 1pm today.
Note in the above example how: (1) the nature of the work, (2) the expectations from the recipient of the message, and (3) the time it will be completed regardless of a response or non-response are primarily under your control. Of course this does not mean you are in full control of the situation created by the requestor of the job, but in this way you mitigate the risk of loss of control over said situation by making use of as airtight a message as possible.
Be first to define terms.
Coming out of a meeting with “action items” to your name? Not a good outcome for you. But there is a way to turn this unfortunate circumstance around and come out a winner. The important thing is to take the first stab at defining the action items on your terms. If, for example, you are the poor sod who has his name placed against the meeting minutes item “Organise people morale uplift committee,” send out an email outlining exactly what you are going to do; say…
I’d like to confirm my action item by clarifying the outcome of this action.
Here is what I am going to do:
- Tuesday morning: Identify committee members.
- Tuesday afternoon: Email list of committee members.
- Wednesday morning: Take stock of members who decline.
- Wednesday mroning: Spell out three-point agenda.
- Wednesday afternoon: Schedule meeting and reserve meeting room.
By close-of-business Wednesday we will have achieved:
(1) Finalisation of a list of confirmed committee members; and,
(2) The first meeting organised to be attended by confirmed committee members.
Note how the previous two principles are applied in the above: (1) steps you will be taking to complete your assigned “action item” are all in writing, (2) the process is 90 percent under your control; i.e., no action is dependent on open-ended input from all concerned — only on categorical (yes/no, I’m-in/I’m-out) responses.
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Life’s too short and nobody ever lay on their death bed regretting not spending a bit more time at the office. So by following the above simple communication principles, you stand a better chance of not losing the plot and getting a real life.