Two Simple Questions To Avoid Value-Free Change

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Often times we’re tempted to add new processes, new templates or tools, modify existing procedures, re-organize – you name it.  Sometimes such changes are called for, but other times they’re performed for the sake of performing them.  Change for its own sake is never good.  It can be a drain on time, resources and on morale.

When confronted with such ideas – whether your own or from others – try asking these two simple questions:

  1. What Business Problem Will This Solve?: Is the proposed change in response to something that is having an identifiable impact on business operations?  If so, how will this change help?
  2. What Will This Change Allow Us To Do Tomorrow That We Cannot Do Today?: Little more than a restatement of the above, this simply asks the question from another angle.  It’s important to understand how things will change as a result of any new processes, tools, etc.  Then….ask yourself, “So what?”

While you can apply these questions to process or organizational changes, you can also use them when determining whether to send an email, schedule a meeting or conference call, etc.  The idea is to simply be mindful of what you are about to do.  Think of it as an internal CBA on the fly or, to borrow a quote from my friend, John Kennedy, “Break it down, think it through, execute!”

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

“Good News / Bad News” vs. “News Delivered / News Withheld”

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I don’t agree with the whole “good news/bad news” paradigm.  There is only “news delivered” and “news withheld.”  The difference is whether the news is delivered well or delivered badly.

It’s tempting to withhold “bad news.”  Sometimes we hope that things will change and we won’t have to deliver the news.  Other times, we hope that we’ll have more and better information later.  In both cases, we tend to do the wrong thing by failing to share what we know with those who have an interest in knowing it.  This doesn’t change the nature of the news, but it may complicate your ability to resolve the situation.

The worst way to deliver such news is to put it off until you have no choice, then deliver the news late.  If you think the recipient is going to be unhappy when they hear the news you withheld from them, just think about how angry they’ll be (with YOU, by the way) when they find out that you ‘ve known for a while but didn’t bother to tell them.  You could try to cover up this fact too, but now you’re complicating things even further.

Another way to deliver such news badly is to do only that – deliver the news.  You do a disservice by showing up and only presenting a problem.  What’s the context?  What’s the impact?  What should we do?  You need to do more than show up and deliver the news.  You need to provide leadership.  A better approach is to do one of two things:

  1. Deliver the news right away with assurances that you/your team is looking into options to address the issue and that you will have options and a recommendation forward by a specific date/time; or
  2. Get with your team first to develop the options and a recommendation forward, THEN go deliver the news, options and recommendation.

This is just the same approach at two different points in time.  You’ll judge which is most appropriate based on the nature of the news and the business impact to the stakeholder.  You also have to consider the temperment of the stakeholder in framing your delivery (that’s another post entirely).  The goal is to get everyone informed, in agreement and focused on addressing the issue as a team and moving the ball forward.

We’ve all played “How Did This Happen??” where a customer or business partner demands timelines, root cause analyses, written assurances that this will never happen again, etc.  While there is value in “How Did This Happen??” in the right context, this exercise is usually intended as a punishment or to send a message.  This is more typical of an ‘Us and Them’ relationship and not the product of a true partnership.  Producing timelines doesn’t solve the problem.  Avoid this.

I like this simple approach.  Provide the recipient with the following:

  • High level details of the issue: “What happened?”
  • Business impact: “Why should YOU care?”
  • Options (including pros and cons for each): “What CAN we do?”
  • Recommendation (yours or your team’s): “What SHOULD we do?”
  • Request a decision

If you do this verbally, follow-up with a summary in writing, capturing all of the above and cc’ing other appropriate stakeholders (particularly any members of your team who provided input and who may also be implementing the solution).  Root cause analyses and lessons learned come after the fact, but initially you want a team commitment to solving the problem, not in assigning blame.

Delivering “bad news” does not have to be painful, but you do no favors by withholding information.  Go ugly early, but provide options toward getting beautiful again.  Don’t deliver problems – deliver solutions.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Staying Focused On Your Agenda

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I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, as I’m working on a post about the importance of having and working a strategic agenda that I haven’t yet posted.  However, a recent post on Morgan Hunter’s Lotus MBA blog made me think about this simple test that I’d like to share. 

Keeping your professional and personal long-term objectives in mind:

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I REALLY want?” (you have to ask it like that, with the emphasis added)
  2. Then ask yourself, “Is what I am about to do/say/write really going to get me closer to what I really want?”
  3. Finally, ask yourself, “HOW?

This is a good way to make sure you are advancing your strategic agenda while not saying, writing or doing something that you’ll regret.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese


Know Your Options: Yes, No and “24 Hours”

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We’ve all worked with the person who never, ever says “No.”  You know the guy; he cheerfully says, “Yes!” to every request….then finds himself snowed under and in a terrible mood when all the bills come due, working long hours, not responding to emails or voice mails and all too often, not delivering.  This career-limiting approach damages your reputation and the reputations of anyone who needed you to keep your commitments in order to deliver on their commitments.

When you get a request, you have three options: “Yes,” “No,” and “Give me ’24’ hours.”  Let’s take a look at each:


All of us want to say ‘yes’ to most requests.  Part of this is the drive to add value and the other is the desire to be seen as someone who is part of the team and who doesn’t play “not my job.”  However, “Yes” is a one way answer.  Once you’ve said it, you now have to deliver and there will be little that your boss can do to get you out of the particular corner in which you’ve painted yourself.  This doesn’t mean you should never say ‘Yes’; rather, this means that when you DO say “Yes,” make damn sure you have the bandwidth, resources and knowledge to deliver on your commitment.  You, your brand and your stakeholder(s) are all at stake.

For those of us with teams, a “yes” often times means committing your team to work that THEY may not have the bandwidth to deliver.  In this case, go with the “24 Hours” approach, letting the requestor know that you will talk with your team and get back to them on if/when you can deliver on their request.  Don’t “yes” your team into a commitment on which they can’t deliver (and thanks to Morgan Hunter who posts at Lotus MBA for this important reminder).


We rarely like to refuse a request at work.  As above, this comes from our desire to add value and to be viewed as someone who is an active contributor to the business.  However, sometimes “No” is the right answer – particularly if you don’t have the bandwidth or resources to deliver.  This is where having a clear, strategic agenda pays off.  You can ask yourself if fulfilling the request will also provide an opportunity to move the ball forward in advance of your or your team’s strategic goals.  Further, you can always backtrack from “No.”

When you have to say “No,” include a “but.”  Here’s what I mean; if you cannot fulfill the request yourself, you have the option of connecting the requestor with someone else who can fulfill their request.  This way, you add value by connecting the requestor to a resource who is able to help out.   Now, please don’t make the mistake of saying something like, “I think Joe can do that – let me check with him.”  Although you didn’t necessarily make a commitment on Joe’s behalf, you DID mention his name in relation to the request and if he can’t deliver…..well, you get my point.  No names until you’ve checked with “Joe.”

Make a point of following up with the requestor to make sure your referral was able to help.  Also, if “Joe” says “Yes,” follow-up with Joe, too.


If you think you may be able to deliver on the request, but you don’t have enough information to give a definitive “yes” or “no,” ask if you can get back to the requestor in a specified amount of time (“24 hours” is just an example).  Keep the timeframe minimal and make sure you remember to get back to the requestor within the timeframe that you have set.

Refer to Options 1 or 2 once you give your answer, and be clear if there are any contingencies in your response (especially if your “Yes” relies on someone else to deliver something first).


Ultimately, we all want to add value at work and to enjoy a well-earned reputation for being a reliable and consistent member of the team.  This doesn’t necessarily mean saying “Yes,” to everything, but it does require you to clearly judge your ability to fulfill a request to meet or exceed the requestor’s expectations and being very clear about your answer.  Also, “No” and “24 Hours” provide your boss with some options if you run into trouble, but “Yes” is “Yes;” you have to deliver.  Be honest, be practical and be consistent.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

The Responsibility of Judging

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One of my pet peeves is when someone says its wrong to judge.  Apart from the fact that the statement itself is a contradiction, I would challenge anyone to go for more than five waking minutes without making some kind of judgment.  Judging in an inescapable part of being a conscious entity and in the end, we all have a responsibility to judge.  Therefore, it is essential that we learn to judge responsibly.

Leaders must be willing and able to make difficult decisions that are fair, reasonable, consistent and in the best interests of the business and the people who make up that business.  This doesn’t mean that we anoint ourselves as judge and jury about everyone in the office, but it DOES mean that we have a responsibility from time to time to make judgments – sometimes difficult ones – as part of our role in protecting the organization’s culture.

Some things to consider in applying this principle:

  • Fairness: First and foremost, your standards must be fair and reasonable.  Holding oneself and others to unattainable standards makes no sense.  At the same time, you’re doing no one a favor if your standards are too lenient.  Expect the best out of yourself and others and act accordingly.
  • Consistency: Apply your standards consistently, irrespective of the individual or situation.  Consistency is not only the right thing to do, but it also builds your personal brand as someone who has integrity.
  • Tact: There’s no need to hold forth on your standards or how you view the act of judging.  Let your actions speak for you.  This isn’t about branding yourself as ‘the judgement guy’; it’s about fidelity to your principles.
  • Learn: While its essential to maintain integrity and consistency, you also need to be open to one very important fact; you could be wrong.  In the end, it’s better to BE right than to APPEAR right, so always be open to assessing your own thinking.  Wanting to BE right, means you have to be open to being straightened out from time to time.

We get into trouble when we judge others in a way that isn’t fair.  We also get into trouble when we take it upon ourselves to judge unnecessarily.  As leaders, we need to make judgments about people when we hire, coach up, coach out and promote our teams.  Accept the responsibility of judging and do so with integrity, consistency and tact.  Exemplary leadership demands consistency, leadership by example and fairness.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

The Value of Daily ‘Stand Up’ Meetings

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In reading Patrick Lencioni’s “Death by Meeting” a few years ago, I came across a simple and effective idea: the daily ‘stand up’ meeting.  Often employed in Agile development, the concept is a simple one; the project team meets for 10 minutes each day for a quick meeting where everyone literally “stands up” and the focus is on three simple questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What are you doing today?
  3. What do you need from me (the project manager, business sponsor, etc.)?

I’m currently working with some great clients who are making good use of this approach.  We meet every morning, knowing the agenda (above) in advance.  After about 5 minutes of respective prep work, the participants are ready to go.  Everyone understands that issues that only impact several members of the team are to be addressed after the meeting in a smaller group, made up of those stakeholders.

I think there are several benefits of this approach:

  • Teaches participants to collaborate to conduct highly efficient, content-rich meetings
  • Allows everyone to hear each other’s expectations of the day and each person’s take on what they believe they did the day before, providing a great opportunity to catch any problems, miscommunications, accountability issues or potential risks
  • With strong leadership of the meeting itself, the team remains focused (the leader will need to work hard to enforce the ground rules while at the same time not taking a dictatorial approach to running the meetings)
  • Significantly reduces the chances of unpleasant surprises

If you choose to employ this method, a few tips:

  • Prepare ahead of time and insist that all participants do the same
  • Everyone should be on time
  • Minimize distractions – make sure everyone is focused on the speaker and not sending emails, texting, making/taking calls
  • Stay focused, but make sure that any topics brought up that aren’t appropriate for all participants but that are critical to the project are acknowledged and dealt with as soon as possible after the meeting

While the ‘stand up’ meeting isn’t a substitute for a more comprehensive weekly project team meeting, its great way to manage expectations, make sure the team is communicating, and to manage risk.

“Above The Fold” Email – Writing To Be READ

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In a world where we’re deluged with information on a daily basis, writing effective emails is an important skill.  I’m a big fan of the ‘above the fold’ approach.  In the publishing business, ‘above the fold’ refers to placing important information ‘above the fold’ of the newspaper to entice someone to buy the paper*.  In writing email, the concept is the same – enticing your reader to READ your email and perform the desired action.  Here are some tips and tricks on writing ‘above the fold’ emails:

DEFINE THE OUTCOME: What is the desired outcome of the email?  What do you want to happen?  ANSWER that question before you write, then use the answer as a litmus test, asking yourself “is this information absolutely necessary to achieve the desired outcome?”

BLOCK CAP THE SUBJECT: Make it clear what’s coming.  For example, if you’re asking the recipient to do something, try a subject line like “ACTION REQUESTED: Budget Review/Approval” or “REPLY REQUESTED: Input To Communication Plan”.

ASSUME THE RECIPIENT WON’T READ PAST THE FIRST PARAGRAPH:  This will keep you from rambling.  Refer back to your defined desired outcome to keep it concise.

CALL OUT THE REQUEST: If the subject line says that an action or reply is requested, call it out in the email.  Start the second paragraph with ACTION REQUESTED: <What you’re asking the recipient to do>.  You can even call it out by making the text red.

USE A FRAMEWORK: Using a framework not only makes it easy on you when you write an email, but it helps your regular readers when they know that emails from you tend to follow a framework that is respectful of their time and gets right to the point.  One that I like goes as follows:

  • What: What you need
  • When: When you need it
  • Why: What the business impact is if you don’t get it

MULTI-PARAGRAPH EMAILS:  Sometimes, even the best writer has to send a multi-paragraph email.  In such cases, you still need to assume that your reader isn’t going to read past the first paragraph so you have to catch their attention and give them a reason to read on.  The first paragraph should explain the situation that prompted the email and why YOU, THE RECIPIENT needs to care.  Here’s an example:

  • “As you know, we are currently working on a project to sunset our existing CRM application and replace it with a new application.  The project must be completed before the end of July, as our busiest time of the year begins in late August/early September.  There are several issues that must be resolved in the next two weeks if the project is to remain on schedule.  Each of these issues requires your approval.  The issues and requested actions are summarized below:”

Make sure that the first sentence of every paragraph summarizes that paragraph.  This will keep you focused while you write and will also protect you if your reader takes the ‘how to read a business book’ approach and skims the first sentence of each paragraph.

PROOF: Read the email before you send it, asking yourself if everything you’ve included is really necessary to create the desired outcome.

Writing clear and concise emails not only is respectful of your reader but helps build a personal brand that ensures your emails are read!

*My friend, Art Hopkins (President and CEO at Macquarium), also notes that the “above the fold” concept is also used in UX/web design for the same purpose.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese