Teaching Habit #3: How to Be Dependable

Paul Weinstein / 27th August 2015 / Comment

In my last post, “Reading with the Intent to Teach,” I wrote about how I improved my absorption of the material from The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by simply changing my approach to reading. As I read, I thought about how I would teach the material — and my capacity to retain and practice the learnings increased significantly.

Since reading the book, I’ve begun to speak with team members about it. The main purpose of our meetings is to discuss 7 Habits and explore how each of us is applying the material to our work and life. We recently discussed Habit #3: “Putting First Things First.” I was fascinated by how differently it applied to each of us, and how the underlying concept remained the same.

Habit #3 seems tailor-made for those who manage people, transfer knowledge, and work to empower others – so-called “Production Capability” activities. But I had a harder time figuring how Habit #3 would apply to someone in a direct production role (such as the person I’m coaching). It seems that an employee on the front lines, producing work every day under deadline, would have trouble moving from Quadrant I (urgent and important) to Quadrant II (not urgent and important). After our session last week, my assumptions were proven wrong. Let me explain:

Habit #3 and Managing Others

As a manager of others, I found immediate value in Habit 3 by re-framing my own work to focus on coaching and training, enabling the team to take on more work and responsibility. For example: up until recently I had handled the integration of Google Analytics with a client’s call-tracking software. It wasn’t difficult, but I found it faster for me to do the work than to train someone else. But those familiar with this habit know that faster does not mean most effective.

So I embraced Habit 3.

Instead of just doing the task quickly, I took the time to train one of our associates and enabled him to perform the task again in the future. It was an easy win, and by itself not all that significant. But by replicating this for other tasks, we’ll soon have a team that is diversely skilled, which will allow us to continue to grow as an organization.

Habit #3 on the Front Lines

So how does Habit 3 apply to those on the front lines? How does someone whose work is assigned in an agile environment such as ours shift away from Quadrant I (urgent and important) and toward Quadrant II (not urgent and but important). Our discussion quickly revealed an answer.

Tasks are often assigned without all the details. In fact, this happens all the time. Yet even without the details (requirements, acceptance criteria, etc.), we somehow “know” how long a task should take. Most times this is based on experiences with a similar task or client. But in almost all cases, we’re setting expectations without taking the time to fully understand the challenge at hand. If we don’t take the time to dig in, and if our team members accept the assignment at face value (including the timing), we’re set up to miss expectations.

My reason for spending time discussing with team members is simple – and a bit counter-intuitive. Our team members are some of the most conscientious, helpful, hard-working, and smart people you could hope to meet. But ironically, these same characteristics (particularly a willingness to immediately help anyone who asks) can result in a tendency to over-commit or under-deliver in an important aspect of a given task or project – most often a delivery date or less-than-expected deliverable.

Now, I see the problem as a two-way street — this is a shared responsibility. Not only do staff members need to set clear expectations, but as managers, we have to do the same. Our eager teammates may too easily commit to tasks without fully understanding what they’ve committed to or fully considering pre-existing obligations. We think the assignment is clear, they confirm (“got it!”), we check in and things are OK, until the deadline comes and things fall apart. This is what we’re working to avoid with these discussions.

So what does that have to do with Habit 3? Everything.

The key here is to get out from just doing the tasks and shift more time to thinking about the tasks. This is true for both staff and managers. I’ve challenged teammates to spend 30 minutes every day thinking about upcoming tasks – items planned for next week or even the week after. This time will help ensure that, before they start working on a task/project, they have a clear plan of what needs to be done. This requires the discipline of Habit 3.

The Process of Putting First Things First

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Here is the process that falls squarely into Habit 3:

  1. Work first to understand assigned tasks and projects. Are the requirements clear? Are the acceptance criteria well understood? Is there is any ambiguity? If so, seek to remove it. Meet with the stakeholders or internal customers for the task/project. Go into the meeting prepared with questions, a draft plan, and your understanding of the requirements. Seek clarity.
  2. Once the task or project is well defined, document the plan to complete the work. What sub-tasks are required? How much time/effort is required for each? Where are the dependencies? What can be done to remove them? What about this project is still ambiguous, and will this ambiguity create uncertainty in the time estimates? If so, build that in. In this step, it’s critical to establish the realistic LOE (level of effort) to complete the entire task. Be sure to plan time to check (QA) the work and to meet periodically with internal stakeholders if it’s a longer process.
  3. Communicate the plan. Make sure that all stakeholders understand what’s required to complete this work. This step ensures that the project is scoped correctly. Are the deliverables well defined? Is there extraneous work built into the plan? Can the work be simplified in any way or divided up among other team members? This step ensures that expectations are clear – before the work starts.
  4. Prioritize the work. Step back and look at this task/project in the context of all the rest of the work assigned. Is this project more important than others? When is delivery required? Have we planned enough time to accomplish this task alongside others? Or is this our sole focus for the next few days? This step looks at other commitments that have been made and seeks to recalibrate expectations, if necessary.
  5. Check in early and often. Once the work is underway, it’s very important that internal customers are kept in the loop. Present early drafts of the work, pressure-test initial conclusions, and ensure that stakeholders are aware of the project’s progress.

Certainly, this process may lengthen the start of a project; it might even result in a longer timeline than initially estimated. But if we spend even a few minutes each day looking ahead and planning future work, we’ll eliminate false starts, missed deadlines, and wasted effort.

And while it’s very tempting for the eager front-line associate to “jump right in” and commit to a task without question, this approach often ends with missed expectations.

For those on the front lines receiving assignments, it may seem difficult — even inefficient — to shift work into Quadrant II. But with a disciplined approach, it’s achievable. And by doing so, more work will get done on time, expectations will be met, and you’ll be seen as proactive and — most importantly — dependable.

By Paul Weinstein