When People Drop the Ball

A Little Background

Recently, I was brought into a stalled project to migrate vendor invoicing to a new system. Started a year ago, the process had been stalled for months. When I came in I was anxious to produce results but was also concerned because the problem was beginning to impact services critical to our business. It was time to restart business processes before real financial impacts could be caused.

This post is my effort to record my observations about what looked wrong and what we tried that helped get things moving again.

What Went Wrong?

About a year ago our company was purchased by a much larger organization. What had been done by a couple people was now the responsibility of hundreds. Along with the need to move our invoicing to the new system came company name changes and vendor account management changes. Overnight, everything was foreign to all of us. What had once been a simple, mundane task had become a mysterious and bewildering problem. Everyone seemed to just shut down.

With dust settling all around, I’ve made the following three observations about why:

  1. Confusion is contagious
  2. Lack of follow through kills progress
  3. Intertia Sets in Fast

Confusion is Contagious

I witnessed people feed off each others confusion. The assumption we seemed to make was that the other person was right and we just “didn’t get it”. We didn’t want to question things too much for fear of offending. My advice is to tactfully break the cycle of confusion as soon as you sense it. The next time you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Make a note to yourself and follow up.

When my son was getting ready to be born, the doctor told us there was a concern with one aspect of the pregnancy. He would be sure to check on it during our next appointment. When the time came, he finished our appointment without checking. I was nervous about questioning him, but did anyway. I simply asked how this condition was tracking, and he immediately apologized and checked it. An hour later we were in the hospital. Most situations we deal with aren’t life or death, but humble questioning for clarity may help avert disasters of every magnitude.

If you cannot get clarity from the person you are working with, you should escalate or strategically draw in others to help fill the gap. If someone cannot make something clear or does not respond, it is a sure sign they are confused. You should fearlessly eliminate confusion by clear, concise and consistent communication. The result of confusion is a lack of progress, so help eliminate it.

Lack of Follow Through Kills Progress

Lack of follow through will keep you from hitting home runs. You may connect with the ball, but if you don’t follow through you will not transfer power as cleanly and the results will always fall short. If you know me, you know how stupid it sounds for me to make sports analogies, but the picture is clear enough. Following through on actions and communication is critical. There are several ways to ensure good follow through on tasks relating to a complex process.

  • Time management is a good companion of clean follow through. With good time management comes better focus on things you might otherwise forget. Keeping a list with notes is a good practice. Prioritizing tasks based on their overall value is a good start. Any system is better than random forgetfulness.
  • Delegation is key to stretching your time currency. You can’t do everything yourself. No matter how hard you may try, your time is already at a premium. Recognize the skills your team has and give them a chance to shine. What if you don’t have a team? No problem. Everyone is a manager. Some only manage up and to the sides, but we all manage. Make sure there is good communication if you need tasks spread around differently because you are not able to keep up. There is no shame in asking for help! Just make sure you follow up on delegated tasks.

Intertia Sets in Fast

Newton’s 1st Law. Inertia: A body at rest tends to stay at rest. In other words, if something stalls, it takes a concerted effort and will to make it move again. The process I’m talking about had been stalled for months. There were plenty of conversations occurring although nothing was getting accomplished. Someone needed to create a plan and make completing it important again.

How Do You Overcome Inertia?

I had to make the problem important again. When I realized no one was engaged against a plan I started following up on the tasks where the process stopped. A full week went by with no responses. I went to my boss and let him know I needed help escalating with the vendor. He pointed out to me how my approach to bring more people into the broken process was not likely to result in fixing the problem. This woke me up. I had been a victim of the stall. I was part of the inertial mass of the problem!

The Plan Was Clear

By this point the success criteria was clear to me, but I still needed a way to make it important to the people who could implement it. I decided the only method I could employ was to make sure the vendor knew I needed help, and that I was not getting it. I found an escalation contact tree for the vendor and started at the very top. The people who had stopped making progress were motivated by being held accountable again. Something had to wake everyone up from the hypnotizing effects of inertia. Whether the issue was originally their fault, ours, or mine, was immaterial. All that mattered at this point was getting past this hump.

Final Thought

There is one additional thing you will most likely need to practice when you’re working through tough, stalled projects, and that is patience. Patience doesn’t mean sitting still yourself and waiting for responses from people who have stopped. Instead, patience is about keeping your cool and being able to fail and persist and not give up. Keep fighting and making sure things start and end with you so you can provide continuity where it has been lost.

It’d be cool if saying all that was helpful to anyone.

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