Do you ever have to rely on someone to finish a task who doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as you?
Whether it’s someone in a different part of the business or outside the walls of our organization, project managers and other leaders regularly depend on other people. Since we often don’t have positional power over those people, we’re left trying to influence them without authority.
It’s one of the great frustrations in corporate life, resulting in missed deadlines, increased stress, and strained relationships. What’s a project manager to do?
Waiting for a Sign-Off
Let’s say you need a sign-off on a document in order to proceed. Let’s also say you allocated 8 days for the other person to review the document and provide their sign-off. To raise the stakes, let’s also say this sign-off is on your project’s critical path.
Here’s how I used to deal with this situation: “Please! I need you to sign off on this document! It’s really, really important! I need this quickly!”
Sometimes it worked, but often I was stuck waiting for the other person to deliver. Tick tock. The clock keeps ticking, delaying my project while the other person drags their feet.
That was old Andy. New Andy does it this way: “Here’s the document for your review and approval. You don’t need to get back to me today—we’ve allocated 8 days to the task. However, I need to let you know it’s on the critical path, which means if it takes you 9 days, the project slips by a day. Can you sign-off in 8 days? (pause)”
How would you characterize old Andy from new Andy?
The first approach communicated urgency, which can be good. But it dripped with emotion. It was just another crisis. In retrospect, it probably felt to others like the cliché “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part!” It’s like the person who uses High Priority on every e-mail (don’t be that person). What happens when every email comes with a red exclamation point in the inbox? It becomes invisible, right?
The same could be said for my first approach. Others could easily respond: “It’s just another day with Kaufman’s hair on fire. Get in line.”
Contrast that to the second approach. There’s a sense of urgency, for sure, but it also communicates the consequences of inaction.
That’s not a small point.
Many people, on a practical basis, start their week trying to put out the biggest fires. Hopefully, by the end of the week, even the smallest fires are out. Regardless, communicating urgency without the consequences of inaction is not as effective.
Delaying the project is not a threat, especially if you are careful with your vocal tone and body language. Sometimes people don’t necessarily want to do the work in the time you need, but they certainly don’t want to be the reason for a project delay. So make the consequences of inaction clear.
Reservations and Task Commitments
What about that last question: “Can you hit 8 days? (pause)”
This comes from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s research on influence. He relates the story of Gordon Sinclair, the owner of a prominent Chicago restaurant. When guests would call for reservations, his receptionists would end the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “OK, we have you down for a party of 2 on Saturday night at 6:30pm. Please call if you have to change your plans.”
Seems reasonable. But approximately 30 percent of those people never showed up on Saturday night, and they didn’t call. In the restaurant business, that can add up to real money.
Sinclair proposed a slight change to the script. His receptionists began ending the call like this, “OK, we have you down for a party of 2 on Saturday night at 6:30pm. By the way, will you please call us if you have to change your plans?” Pause.
How would you respond if a restaurant asked you that question? They weren’t asking for a credit card number, phone number, or first-born child! They just asked a simple question, “Will you call?” Most people would reply, “Sure” without much thought.
The result? The no-shows without a call dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent.
Could it be that we don’t ask for a commitment often enough? It’s one thing if we’re the boss. But what if we’re depending on a peer or someone higher in the organization? Could it be that we too often back away from asking for a commitment?
I think so. Start asking for the commitment. And pause (while they squirm) before responding.
In our sign-off example, what are the three possible answers to the question, “Can you hit 8 days?”
Yes. No. Maybe.
If they say Yes, Cialdini’s research suggests they’re more likely compelled to finish the work on time, especially when that commitment is made publicly.
What if they reply with a No? At the very least, you benefit by knowing about the situation now instead of 8 days from now. You can ask questions, such as “What’s getting in the way of hitting that date? What would it take to turn this to a Yes?”
Since their inability to commit will delay the project, you likely have to escalate the issue to the sponsor. Before you do that, ask, “Since I have to escalate this as a delay, would you like to join me in the status update?” or “Is there anything I should be requesting for you when I present this to the sponsor?” Dr. Allan Cohen suggests you should never blindside someone with an escalation. Always give them a warning first. It could be that the threat of an escalation will change their priorities.
What if they reply Maybe? I suggest that Maybe is the same as No. Ask the same questions to see if you can turn it to a Yes.
It gets a bit trickier if they reply with Maybe’s more optimistic cousin Probably. In this case, you might want to set a tripwire, say, 3 days into the task. If they’re on track at that point, you can keep the date as scheduled. But if they’re behind by that point, it trips an escalation.
Ask for a Commitment
Since learning this principle, I’ve used it with colleagues and customers with great success. I can assure you my children hate it!
Sales professionals understand it: Ask for the sale. For the rest of us, when you’re depending on someone to deliver their task, start asking for a commitment.
What questions do you have about this? What other ways do you work to get commitment from stakeholders who are dragging their feet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
NOTE: Cialdini explains the science behind why this works in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, calling it the weapon of Commitment and Consistency. Click here for my interview with Steve Martin, one of Cialdini’s co-authors. Steve talks about the weapons of influence and other applications for project managers and leaders.
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