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An informal, stream-of-consciousness reflection on business ideas, events and issues in modern business, modern life and with some specifics to the web-software industry by Paul Tomori, Internet Entrepreneur

How To Get People On Task
4 Quick Tips

By Paul Tomori
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 10:24:57 (EDT)

As a regular "giver" of orders (i.e. to staff and contractors).... and a regular "receiver" of orders (i.e. from clients and prospects), I am amazed by how subtle adjustments in communication can make all the difference in getting things done.

For me, procrastination is a nasty thing. And, I have discovered under what conditions I am more likely to procrastinate and when I am not. It seems reasonable to presume that others might be similarly compelled to getting to the task at hand by the same things that motivate me. Here are a few observations I have made over the years... things that work for me when I receive orders... and that tend to be motivating when I am the one giving orders.

1. Never address an email request to more than one person. It's amazing how often I see email come along where the sender is asking for something important to be done of too many people. It's like they think that by c.c.ing everyone who might have a hand in the task, that they will get it done that much faster. The opposite is true. When you send a task to more than one person, none of the recipients will take ownership of the request, because they will presume that someone else in the list will take it on. And for those who are lazy, they then have a convenient excuse as to why they didn't get to the task: "sorry, I thought you were just c.c.'ing me on the message"! The best practise is: specify a single person of whom you wish to be the owner of the task. It's ok to c.c. other people as long as you expressly identify them as c.c.'s. Something like this works:

    Dear Josey (c.c'd to Steven, Martha and William),
    Please send me a copy of last month's billing ledger.
    Thank you,

It becomes quite clear that Josey is the intended owner of the request, yet Josey sees that others now know that she is the owner. She thus feels a further obligation to take ownership to avoid looking foolish.

2. Do not mark all your requests as "high priority". I can think of two people who send me requests regularly. One always marks the email as high priority and the other always puts "urgent" in the subject line. It's obvious that if everything is always urgent, then nothing is really urgent. People who use these strategies think that they will get priority attention, but the problem is, like the boy who cried wolf, their constant overstating of the urgency of their requests starts to de-sensitize the recipient to any sense of urgency. Then, ironically, when there really is an urgency, they end up not getting the true responsiveness they need. The recipients have been numbed over time by the indiscriminate use of the urgency cues.

3. Always get specific in your requests. If you were to go to a mechanic and say "I think there is something wrong with my car", he is going to roll his eyes. "Ummm... can you get more specific please"? If there ever was a primary cause for procrastination, it's when the recipient does not have a clear picture of what the requester needs done. When there is little diagnostic information or no detail to the request, the task inevitably gets put off. Provide very clear instructions as to what your objective is. If there is a problem, state specifically what it is and where and when it happens. For example, we received a message from a client for whom we recently completed a website project. We got an email stating "something is not right with our website, can you please review our site to make sure it is coded properly?" Believe it or not, that was the inquiry. It really left us hanging and most importantly for the client, it left us with no clear idea what we were looking for, so we couldn't really move forward. It's worse than looking for a needle in a haystack - it's like looking for a widget in a haystack! What the heck is a widget?? Exactly! What the heck IS a widget? Define it for me please if you want me to find it.
For another example, we run a reservation system for a collection of lodgings. Once in a while one of the lodging owners will write in and say "why is my lodging not showing up as available in your system??". This kind of question is a killer. I always write back the same way:

  1. what site were you at when you noticed the problem?
  2. what page on that site were you at?
  3. did you do a date lookup and if so, what were those dates?
  4. what duration of stay did you select?
  5. for how many guests?
  6. was it a package or a regular room stay?
  7. did you check off any required amenities? if so, what were they?
  8. have you checked your admin panel to make sure that your availability is properly set?
  9. etc.

Sometimes you have to be a real Sherlock Holmes just to help someone out. My words to such people are: "help me to help you". Remember this when asking for someone to look into something for you. Give them detail. Don't leave them guessing... that is, if you want the task taken care of quickly and accurately.

4. Always specify a due date/time. You have to give people some idea as to when you need the work completed by and don't abuse this (see point 2 above). It's courteous to advise when your desired completion time is so that the person doing the work can properly schedule their own time. And, as a further courtesy to the person doing the work, don't wait til the last minute to make your request to them. When you state a date/time of completion, you give structure to the project or task and you inspire people to actually write the completion date into their calendar. That's one more step to getting what you want when you want it.

If you have any other suggestions, I am curious to hear about them. Please use the contact form on this website to drop me a line.

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