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Common language

Common language

Jenny, my recruitment manager, has just sent out a brochure to candidates without my input. The content was good, but the brochure looked crap. This hath made me mad - not so much because of the brochure's quality, but because (if Jenny had come to see me first) we could've produced a better outcome. But she didn't! When I tell her this, Jenny is equally frustrated. I never check the communication we send out to candidates, she replies. Which is, of course, true - yet it felt like common sense (at least to me) to show me the brochure before sending it out.

Familiar story, right? Regardless of what department you're working in, it's hard to determine what your employees do or don’t have the authority to do. But the solution is (or at least sounds) profoundly simple:

You need a common language.

That's what Susan Scott suggests in her book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time. Scott puts forward what she calls a "decision tree", which is basically a way of classifying different types of decisions. The beauty of her decision tree approach is that it's consistent. It provides a new "vocabulary" about different types of decisions and levels of authority which everyone shares.

root trunk branch leaf

Planting your tree

Like any language, we first have to define what the most basic words mean. Before we go into a campaign or other extra-ordinary activity, we can quickly and easily define what decisions correspond to what levels on the "tree".

Any regular interactions with candidates and suppliers, for example, are leaf decisions because I trust my team-members to handle these things competently and independently (otherwise I wouldn't have hired them in the first place). Something requiring budget and/or going out to a larger audience, like Jenny's brochure? The decision's yours - but I want to see where the bag of cash is going and what we're going to get for it, maybe making some adjustments on the way. So that's a trunk decision.

Define each level of the tree well, and everyone can do their job better. Your "actioning" team members can solve issues, pay expenses, and generally get stuff done without being hamstrung by a set of time-consuming approvals. As the team leader, you also save time having to wade through these approvals - allowing you to focus on the big ones which are strategic and are worth your attention.

The tree can grow anywhere

This same principle is useful in a wide variety of other settings.  Suppose, for example, that you had decided to embark on a marketing program, and you decided to:

  • Mail your firm's literature to some cold prospects;
  • Invite "high value" prospects to lunch;
  • Accept a couple of requests to speak at CLE meetings
  • Write  some articles for your blog or the press; and
  • Use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or woo particular clients.

So you've got yourself a typical multi-task agenda which could get complicated very quickly.

Let's put the Decision Tree into play here. The Tree suggests you can delegate this process to a large extent to your assistant by assigning the relevant level to each item. So you might give her a new list which looks like this:

  • Mail your firm's literature to some cold prospects [LEAF]
  • Invite "high value" prospects to lunch [BRANCH]
  • Accept a couple of requests to speak at CLE meetings [ROOT]
  • Write  some articles for your blog or the press [BRANCH]
  • Use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or woo particular clients [TRUNK]

Now you can both act far more efficiently (less over-communication) and minimize the risk of omission (your assistant knows when, and how, to seek your input). As a wise man once said, "don't cross the streams". With a common language like the Decision Tree, you and your teams will avoid getting tangled in one another's expectations.

Make your day less frustrating: meet MEAT

Make your day less frustrating: meet MEAT

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