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Thinking About Leadership and Management. . .

Learning (Part 3): Just a Few More Questions. . .

This is the third (and final) in a series of posts about how to use problems that have arisen in the past to shape improved future performance.  Not by focusing on accountability, but through a learning process that centers on asking five basic questions.  This post [Link} introduced the subject, the next one [Link] focused on how best to use “What happened?” Here, I’m going to move quickly through the final four questions.

Again, the 5 questions are:

  • What happened?
  • What should have happened?
  • What should I have done differently?
  • What should you have done differently?
  • What will be different next time?

2.         What should have happened?

Many managers assume this is their chance to talk.  They will tellthe “offending party” what should have happened.  But didn’t they already try this once, when they made the assignment?   If for some reason it didn’t get through the first time, what’s the point of repeating, now that it’s too late?   Unless you’re absolutely 100% convinced that the problem is that your staff person is just forgetful, ask the question.

The answer may or may not surprise you.  Best case scenario is that you aren’t surprised—your staff person has the same vision of what should have happened as you do.  Something just got in the way of that happening.  It might be a skills issue, a problem prioritizing, external factors or any of a dozen other issues.  The task ahead, then, is to identify the specific hurdles and work through them. Happily, you are on the same page, with a shared vision of success to guide you.

The second scenario is that the staff person knew what we thought should happen, but thought that something else should happen—and acted accordingly.  This signals a number of important issues are in play having to do with power and alignment.  Both of these are worth a lot more attention than I can give them here.  The good news, is that this process of exploration just brought a critical issue into the light.  Now you can at least start to deal with it.     

The final scenario is probably the most common: your staff didn’t really know what you wanted.  And all of a sudden, that not-blaming approach I talked about in the last post [LINK] starts to sound pretty good, because if blame werebeing distributed, you’d have to accept a heaping share.  How could they not know?  There are lots of possibilities, but just consider a few here:

  • You didn’t know what you wanted.  You asked for a piece of work without thinking it through first.
  • You made a number of assumptions that you didn’t articulate..
  • During the time the project was underway, your expectations changed, but the staff person either didn’t know or didn’t pick up on the signals you sent.
  • You thought you had communicated clearly, but your efforts were not as successful as you had imagined.

Whatever the case, this is also good news—there are going to be simple things you can do to fix this.  

One thing not to lose sight of here is that as the manager, you define “What should have happened?” Maybe you didn’t do a very good job setting these expectations at the outset or maybe you tried but it didn’t take. Regardless, defining what should have happened is another way of clarifying what you expect for the future. As you move forward in your inquiry, your staff person is entitled to clarity on what those expectations are going to be. 

3.         What should I have done differently?

The problem that you’re addressing is your responsibility.  It may or may not have been directly related to something you personally did or failed to do, but it happened on your watch.  Assuming you’ve done a nice job so far of not casting blame, now is the time to go one step further and accept responsibility.  

By the time you get to this question, you may already have some ideas, but it will be useful to hear these either validated by your staff person or new ones offered up.  Usually when I ask this question, I don’t get too much that’s useful.  But that’s OK because as with the first question, only part of the purpose in asking is to generate valuable information.

Primarily, what we’re doing here is modeling.  We’re showing that we’re  taking responsibility, curious about how we can do better, open to hearing constructive feedback and able to accept it without getting defensive.  In other words we’re demonstrating exactly the kind of response we expect to see when we ask the next question:

4.         What should you have done differently?

Do you have a partner in this process?  As you’ve worked together in the years or months leading up to this moment, have you developed a relationship grounded in trust and mutual respect?  Have you led the discussion through the first three questions in a way that opens the space to shared problem solving?  If so, you may be rewarded now with some candid self-reflection.  If so, give yourself a gold star.  If not, that’s OK, no need to push too hard. Like any other relationship, management relationships grow and evolve over time.  Your existing relationship may not support the level of vulnerability that this question requires, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get there a little further down the road.

5.         What will be different next time?

This is what you really care about.  That’s why it’s last.  You would like to end this discussion with confidence that the situation will not recur. 

There are two parts to this—are you both clear on what shouldhappen next time and do you have a plan for howto make sure those expectations are achieved.  The first part should be obvious by this point, it’s really what you’ve already been talking about in the context of what happened previously.  So focus this discussion on the how. In many cases, the howwill be a breakdown of the larger piece of work to allow for greater communication and oversight.  It may include some of the following:

  • Even if I ask you to do an assignment verbally, I’ll follow up with an email describing what I’m looking for, how much time I expect it to take you and when the final product is due.
  • You’ll reply with an acknowledgment, identify any issues you see as getting in the way of your success and share any assumptions that you have so I can validate or correct them, and lay out an initial time line including when I should expect to see different drafts or pieces of the work. 
  • You’ll schedule a kick-off meeting to talk about the resources you need to be successful and to troubleshoot any concerns that you have. 
  • We will put the assignment on our agenda of our weekly check ins.

Focusing your management on the future can be exhilarating both for you and your team.  Stop just talking about learning while really focusing on accountability.  These questions will provide you a simple a framework to facilitate the learning we all love to see.