Series: Basic Workflows
Workflows dealing with human interaction aren’t discussed much. Workflows dealing with emails probably ranks number one. This doesn’t make sense. Email is an important tool but it is not the main factor in your productivity. Your interaction with other people is what will drive your productivity. What is strange is that human interaction workflows don’t even show up on the radar screen. After email, popular workflows include reading, scheduling, planning and prioritizing. The closest thing to human interaction workflows seem to deal with meetings. They might seem similar but dealing with a group of people is far different from doing it with a single person. There is the concept of creating an agenda for each person you interact with to remind you of what you want to speak to them about but this is not a workflow.
What do you want from the interaction?
Human interaction workflows can be classified based on the person that you are interacting with. In your role as a professional this might be a work colleague, a line manager, a customer, a prospective employee, etc. In your personal role you might categorize this along the lines of spouse, children, family, friends and acquaintances. To simplify the examples I’ll look at your one-on-one interactions with a work colleague. I’ll be far more detailed than I normally would be just to make the example clear.
Workflow breakdown structure
Similar to the work breakdown structures used in formal project management, a workflow breakdown structure (WBS) simply lists and organizes the main parts of the WBS. In the case of interacting with a work colleague you might decide that the first level of the WBS might look like this:
- Contact initiation
- Agreements / Responsibilities
- Contact Conclusion
- Post interaction follow-up
Don’t worry about getting this “right” as it will always evolve. Just get something that makes sense down.
Once you decide on the first level of the WBS it is time to dig down into each element. Contact initiation can have many elements. For example, how is contact initiated? Is it in person, via a call or via email? Where is contact initiated? Is it in an office, a meeting room or the hallway? Is the contact planned or not? If the contact is not planned, are you free or busy? These questions, and more, become relevant as we look at the other elements.
Being caught off guard and unprepared puts you in a weak position. It is these types of situations that lead to you be swamped doing other people’s work. Of course, much of the time these meetings are innocuous, either a social call or a normal request for information or clarification. These do not need workflows. But for when it gets serious, you should be prepared.
Does the interaction have a previously agreed agenda or is it ad hoc? If there is no pre-agreed agenda does your co-worker appear to have their own agenda? Is the interaction related to a project, a client, inter-personal problems, professional networking, or is it just a social call? Is there supplemental material, such a presentation, that is part of the meeting? Was the supplemental material shared before the meeting? Does the meeting require that minutes be taken?
Having a discussion whereby one side has had time to review all the information and you are seeing the information for the first time creates a large asymmetry that, again, puts you at a disadvantage. You see it in the movies all the time, in the courts lawyers cannot introduce information without allowing the opposing side to review it. This is one of the extreme consequences. The more likely consequences is that your side of the discussion is weak or possibly harmful to you because you have not been given the chance to review the material.
Agreement / Responsibilities
This step is where interacting with co-workers leads to problems. Are there issues that have been formally agreed and have they been formally recorded? Is it clear whether or not there are any action items and who is responsible for them? Is it clear that you and your co-worker have the authority and/or the responsibility to make such agreements and/or assign action items to each other? Who is benefitting from these agreements and action items?
It is at this point that many people end up accepting work that is not their responsibility and effectively allowing their co-workers to hijack their careers. There are books with titles like “Just say No!” But if you wait until this point, saying no is next to possible, the momentum of the discussion is shooting you forward like a kayak on white water rapids.
Contact conclusion and follow-up
If you don’t want to waste your life meeting with people without generating any results then it is important to summarise what was agreed. This is done verbally at the end of the meeting and should be followed up in writing. These agreements will usually focus on who is responsible for what outcome and by which date. An important point here is that you should avoid the mistake of “fire and forget” in which you assume that your co-worker will deliver by the deadline or at least inform you if there is slippage. You need to keep in your workflow what people owe you and set reminders on the deadlines.
Building your human interaction workflow
As I’ve stated, it is overkill to create a workflow for every situation. You need to balance the effort involved with the frequency and importance of these situations. Personally I have found the following type of encounter problematic:
- Unannounced encounter in person or via call. Emails are not a problem because they can be reviewed without time pressure.
- Introduction of new information be it verbal, written or otherwise.
- Request for an opinion, decision, or action.
- No urgency other than that created by the co-worker, either because they think it is urgent or they waited too long before approaching me (I hate that!)
Because of the multiple scenarios I built an escalating workflow. The workflow describes what I do, not how I do it. It is important that you are diplomatic and respectful when dealing with people, but when building your workflows you can be concise.
- If someone begins a discussion with me unannounced my first response is that I immediately stop them and ask them what the subject is about and if they have agenda points, e.g. “What’s the main issue here, what are the points that you want to cover?”
- Once my co-worker finishes speaking my immediate second response is to ask my co-worker what he wants from me? To be a sounding board, to provide ideas, to play devil’s advocate, to take a decision or take an action? E.g. “Just so that I know how to think about this as you explain it to me, are you looking to bounce some ideas off me or do you want a decision or something else?”
- If my co-worker just wants something that doesn’t create a responsibility for me then I will usually go forward if I have time or request that we schedule a meeting if I am busy. E.g. “Sure, I’ve got a few minutes now and if it’s not enough we can schedule something later.”
- If my co-worker wants something that creates a responsibility or liability for me then I demand that we schedule a meeting. I also ask for all information available including an email summarizing the issues as my co-worker sees them. E.g. “This sounds serious, so I’d like schedule enough time to give it my full attention. In the mean time, why don’t you shoot over any material that you have and what your main issues are, possibly in the form of an agenda for the meeting, just to get the though juices flowing.”
- Closing, be clear on action items, e.g. “So send me an email with the info and a couple of time slots that work for you. We’ll agree a time to meet and hopefully I’ll be able to support you with your issue.”
It took me a few years to figure out the above workflow. It actually takes less than two minutes and saves me much more. There are a few adaptations that I have created, but I’ll leave that for future posts.