I spent the last few days trying to resolve a simple and straightforward problem with a printing company. It was one of those things that started off clear, turned cloudy and then stormy, before ultimately returning to clear again.
And, it got me thinking about the frustrations we often experience with dependencies in the project management cycle.
My seemingly unrelated foray into live chat customer service felt oddly familiar. It had all the hallmarks of a Dependency Debacle; the sense of feeling heard, then completely unheard, then utterly forgotten, then frustrated, and finally relieved.
The Heard-Unheard-Forgotten Triad
If you’ve spent any time in project management, with or without the title, you’ve likely experienced this cycle.
Heard: You have a project meeting and everyone agrees on what important thing will happen next and by when. Great.
Unheard: You follow up on the important thing and discover that it is not yet on the radar of the person responsible for completing it.
Forgotten: Emails begin to go unanswered, deadlines go unmet, and the project stagnates.
Until the next meeting that is, when the cycle kicks into high gear and starts over again. The responsible team member genuinely has every intention of getting it done this time around. But, if the conditions haven’t changed, there’s little chance of success.
And this is how the Dependency Debacle plays out in real time.
It may not sound like much, but over time, this can have exponentially negative effects on the collaborative spirit and earned trust within your team.
The Importance of Keeping Your Promises
We don’t talk enough about the invaluable nature of our responsibilities to each other. There’s absolutely no sense in talking about project management in isolation. There is a human aspect to it that is inextricably linked and undeniably valuable.
And whether you love collaboration or try to avoid it like the plague, we simply must acknowledge that we often need to rely on each other to do our best work.
So why not make that all a little easier by staying in touch and being transparent.
When team members are relying on you in order to be able to do their work, stay connected. Resist the urge to disappear and own whatever issues arise. If you say you’ll respond by Tuesday, respond by Tuesday. Whether or not you have everything perfect or all the answers, keep the promise and adjust the expectations accordingly.
I used to work with a colleague who confided in me that when she didn’t have an answer for someone, she would simply stop responding. She felt terrible about it. She knew it was awful and that it damaged her work relationships. Yet she continued with this practice because she felt utterly paralyzed by the idea that she didn’t have all the answers.
Fun fact: no one does. And similarly, there will be times when you simply can’t do it all. When what’s on your plate is just too much to get it all done.
To help manage this, I love using something I’ve titled The Elephant Email. It only takes a minute, but it has a ripple effect that goes well beyond when the moment you click send.
“I haven’t forgotten that I owe you Item X. I’m not able to get it to you by this afternoon as planned, but it’s first on my list for Thursday and you’ll have it by noon.”
This gives the person waiting vital information that they can use to either continue the conversation or switch gears to focus on other things now that they have a clear understanding of where you are and the shift in expectations.
It’s short, it’s useful, and it’s thoughtful. It eliminates the feeling of being unheard or forgotten and reduces the subsequent frustration that can result from communication lapses.
We all get busy. We all get overwhelmed. It’s the keeping of our promises to each other that makes all the difference. And it’s the best way I know to keep the fabric of a team strong and resilient.
Root Cause of the Dependency Debacle
There are any number of reasons that a team member may have difficulty completing a task. In truth, it doesn’t matter what’s causing it as long as you can accurately identify the root cause. When you can name it, you can usually fix it. And if you can’t fix it, you can adapt to it.
There are two exercises that I think are particularly helpful in resolving the Dependency Debacle while simultaneously normalizing accountability and strengthening the bonds of your team.
1. Micro Steps: When it’s a simple matter of time and/or task management, my go-to exercise is to reverse engineer the problem and turn the problem task into multiple micro tasks. Essentially, you decide together what ‘done’ looks like and then, thinking backwards from ‘done,’ identify every single step that’s required to get there.
This has two key benefits.
First, it immediately shifts the focus from blaming a person for the problem to working together toward a solution.
And second, using micro steps yields more opportunities for success. One small win leads to another as momentum begins to build which gives each person on your team a much-needed sense of progress and forward motion.
2. The Five Whys: When the root of the problem is a little harder to spot, I love using The Five Whys approach. It’s as easy as it sounds, although it has the potential to cut through a great deal of noise and clutter to help your team get to the real reason for the stall.
You’ll start with the main questions; “why weren’t we able to complete Item X?” From there, you’ll simply continue asking “why” until there’s agreement within the team that you’ve reached the complicating factor that needs to be resolved.
This could show up as competing priorities from different supervisors, an unclear distinction between important and urgent, a skill gap, an unrealistic timeframe, and any number of other culprits.
The most important thing to remember here is to focus on a shared desire to identify the root cause, not blame a specific person. Want more on The Five Whys? Check out this post.
The Benefits of Transparency in Accountability
When I finally wrapped up my printing disaster, I was relieved that it was taken care of, but I didn’t walk away feeling good about any of it.
I walked away feeling disappointed, a little worn out, and like the outcome wasn’t really worth the process.
Feelings you never want your team to have upon resolving a challenge.
Fortunately, this result is mostly avoidable by tackling hurdles like the Dependency Debacle with grace and compassion.
When we can talk with each other on a human level about where we’re struggling and why we’re sometimes unable to deliver, it changes the entire tone of a conversation.
We’re able to shift from frustration and irritation to empathy and understanding. This gives us a running start toward problem-solving that simply isn’t available when we’re focused on blame.
Most importantly, it fuels true collaboration. It encourages a shared pursuit of progress by reinforcing the trust and reliance that is built over time on a million kept promises.
If you’d like more on this topic, pick up a copy of my Start With Better Meetings book. Included along with it is free access to my Meeting Makeover Series Mini-Course that has a detailed tutorial on the Micro Steps process, along with The Five Whys.