How to ask for or commit to action
If you had R100 for every meeting you sat in where loads of ‘decisions’ were made but nothing actually got done and nobody was held accountable, you'd be too rich to attend meetings. You could hire a professional meeting-attender and get a massage. So, why not implement a new in-meeting practice that stipulates commitments about “who will do what by when”?
When you ask for things
Be aware that things can go off track early on in the meeting if you ask for things without really asking (i.e. if you “half-ask”). Half-asking looks like this:
1. It would be good if… 2. Someone should… 3. Do we agree to…? 4. Can you try to…?
To make a clear request you must have what Prof. Fred Kofman calls a “commitment conversation”. It begins with a request: “Can you bring XYZ to the meeting for me?” or “I’d like to ask you to email me the documents today.”
Some things to make note of in both of these examples:
• The first person – me, I • Clear, direct language – bring, email • Addressed to a specific person – you • Conditions, like place or time – to the meeting, today
A well-formed request demands a clear response. If you look at the two examples above once more, you’ll agree that there are only three possible answers:
1. Yes, I commit.
2. No, I decline.
3. I can’t commit yet because…
• I need clarification. • I need to check. • I want to propose an alternative. • I can do it only if I get Y by Z.
Anything else is what Kofman calls a “weasel promise”, which looks like this:
• Let me see what I can do. • That may be doable. • Let me check. • Someone will handle it. • I’ll do my best.
When others ask for things
None of the above means ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. They’re wishy-washy. And they’re no defense against being unprepared to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If you’re the askee:
• Seek clarification if the request is unclear. For example, if a manager asks you to “check” a document, you might ask, “What kind of ‘checking’ do you need? Proofing, shortening, fact-checking or something else?”
• Undertake to respond by a certain time if you need to check things out on your end, like whether others can assist you, whether you can deliver based on your schedule or whether you have everything you need to get started.
• Make a counter-offer with an alternative suggestion for meeting the asker’s need. For example, if you’re asked to meet a deadline today, you might say, “I’m unfortunately unable to deliver today. Could we agree on 5pm tomorrow?”
• Commit with conditions if your commitment depends on variables you can’t control. For example, “I can meet the deadline if I have all of the background material within an hour. Is that possible for you?”
And in the immortal words of Yoda (Star Wars), “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”