What to do when you don’t know what to do

Much of our work—problems, processes, projects—crosses department lines. Consequently, this creates the need for ongoing coordination among a broad range of stakeholders. In addition to practical hurdles like bridging varied schedules and responsibilities, coordinating our work can also present challenges including uncertainty, anxiety, and the increased likelihood of miscommunication and dropped hand offs.

Each collaborative problem or project requires:

  • Extraordinary effort by individual divisions/departments
  • Extraordinary coordination between divisions/departments
  • Extraordinary communication

This means we have more to do, in less time, and with greater interaction needed to stay on track. Without extraordinary efforts, tensions rise, deadlines are missed, and our best efforts often fall short. Experience, however, yields some significant lessons that can make problem-solving, projects, and hand offs work better for all concerned:

    1. Under-Promise and Over-Deliver
      Tell everyone in advance how difficult and time consuming the issue will be. Hopefully it will turn out to be less difficult than anticipated. The alternative—promising everything will go smoothly—almost always backfires. Rarely does a project go as smoothly as expected or hoped, often because participants have differing perspectives on what “going smoothly” looks like. Under-promise and over-deliver.
    2. Things Will be Messy in the Middle
      Anyone who has overseen a construction endeavor or attempted a “some assembly required” project, knows things get messy in the middle of the project. Directions, tools, parts, and debris are all over. Those who start out with some anxiety can easily become distraught in the middle of the messiness. Let everyone know in advance, Things will be messy in the middle.
    3. Fly to the Ball
      Good leaders represent the organization. They fly to the ball. They pick up the pieces. The higher you are in the organization (or if you aim to move higher in the organization), the more you need to represent the organization. This means we put our best foot forward, assume positive intent, and don’t throw our colleagues under the bus. If a problem or question arises relative to an area with which we’re not familiar, we say, “I’m sorry I can’t answer your question. Let me find out.” When you see problems, fly to the ball.
    4. Call the Meeting
      Large projects or problems often have no single official boss. Principals, maintenance, technology, custodial may all report to different supervisors. Without a clearly designated lead, it’s easy for anyone to say, “Not my job.” But if everyone says, “Not my job,” the job doesn’t get done. One dropped ball, one miscommunication, and all the hard work to date can be lost in a sea of recrimination. To add insult to injury, some work may need to be done over again due to mis-timing. Step up, be a leader, take a risk, pick up the phone: call the meeting.
    5. Get Everyone in the Room
      If one person is missing, you’ll either have another meeting or risk major miscommunication. Coordination is one of the hardest things to do. When we are uncertain, many of us retreat to what we know best. We hunker down in our individual departments and say, “I’ll just do my best and let others worry about the rest.” Even with our best, however, we may find that our timing doesn’t sync with others’. Problems arise when each component affects the others, but no one is communicating. For example, when we need power before we can do technology, when we need furniture moved before we can paint or remodel, when we need classrooms ready on time for teachers to move in. Get everyone in the room to plan together.
    6. Be a Facilitator
      When it comes to group planning, every plan needs a facilitator. Listen to all perspectives and frame the issue. Use the Briefing Paper format to capture in DRAFT format: Background, Values, Options, Pros AND Cons of each, and Potential action steps. Use the document for discussion with each stakeholder group, and keep updating the document with their specific wording where possible. Make the group do the work of the group. Facilitate; don’t put the monkey on your back. Listen to, capture, and restate all perspectives: be the facilitator.
    7. Agree on the Critical Path
      If anything can go wrong, it will. That’s Murphy’s Law. There are, however, no unintended consequences. Thinking in advance about what can go wrong means we can plan around those events and have Plans B, C, and D in place, just in case. Briefing papers help.  Cleaning needs to be done before the open house: what has to be done before the cleaning? Classrooms have to be set up: equipment needs to be delivered, materials transported, technology installed. Agree on the critical path and plan around it.
    8. Do What You Said You Would Do
      Coordination often means that only so many people can be in a given space at once. Decide in the meeting who will do what by when. Nail it down. What exactly will be accomplished? Who is responsible? When exactly will it be done? Who will be notified if plans change? Then, once the plan has been filled in, do what you said you would do.
    9. OVER Communicate
      Communicate more times in more ways to more people than you ever imagined. Doing something differently takes repetition—usually at least four times. None of us hears clearly under stress. And most of us hear what we are used to hearing. Whatever you’re communicating, say it again. Say it clearly. Say it differently. Ask others to repeat it. Write it down, and then copy the known universe. Good communication is like spokes on a wagon wheel. Leave one spoke out and the ride gets bumpy fast. Copying more people also increases the odds that at least one person will notice any glitches in the schedule. OVER communicate.
    10. Meet Regularly Face-to-Face
      Ninety percent of good communication is body language and tone of voice, both of which are absent from email or a text. Set a schedule at the outset for regular check-ins. As one well-known adage says, “Nothing would ever get done if it wasn’t for the last minute.” Face-to-face meetings make us more accountable. Knowing we will see colleagues personally and have to say, “I didn’t get that done,” often causes us to redouble our efforts and find a way to do what we promised. Meet regularly face to face.
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com