It’s Monday morning 9am: You are the Director of Product Marketing at a tech company, and you love your job. You’re ready to jump into work, armed with your to-do list (split between short- and long-term goals), which you refine every Sunday night. You’re feeling energized about what is ahead this week.
It’s Monday at noon: You are working through your plans for the day and looking out on a busy week when you open the notifications you had paused on Sunday night. You have:
- 28 comments assigned to you in three different Google Docs
- 32 notifications in the Asana system you use for task management, including updates on your tasks, new subtasks, and feedback on tasks you thought you had completed
- 115 notifications in Slack, including channels you cover closely and direct messages
- 26 text messages, half of which are work-related
The updates come from your boss, your five direct reports, your peers in the organization, and a range of people technically junior and senior to you in the company that are on the brand marketing, sales, customer success, finance, and HR teams.
Among these updates, which are nowhere on your already lengthy to-do list, are 25 tasks you have been “assigned” by people across the company.
You go way below the line. “I don’t report to these people!” “I had a prioritized plan for this week!” “How on earth am I going to get to all of this?” You pull out a meditation app and some headphones. You take some conscious deep breaths, and you come out of this shock and overwhelm with a question:
How are ubiquitous SaaS tools like Slack, Asana, G Suite, Confluence, and others supposed to function in a workplace in a way that supports alignment, solid prioritization, and the idea of clean agreements?
Does this sound like your Monday? Let’s talk about communication and task management SaaS tools in the context of Conscious Leadership.
Companies and organizations large and small have over the last 20 years moved from a more hierarchical leadership structure to a network or matrix structure. Things are flatter. This offers more opportunities for creativity, rapid change, and innovation, but it comes with challenges as well in terms of a structure for decision-making and planning.
The flatter and more dynamic organizational structures offer more access to anyone in a company by anyone in a company. That’s democratic (small d), and it feels aligned with Conscious Leadership ethics and also with business success among high performers.
SaaS tools have sprung up to meet this new structural philosophy and to put a growth and collaboration mindset into software tools that function as the operating system of great companies.
I myself love and use many of these tools. My entire business (executive coaching and consultative company coaching) runs on a blend of Slack, G Suite, Asana, Quickbooks Online, Dropbox, and YouCanBookMe.
So what’s the problem?
Where I see issues arising in the companies with which I work is that there are no clear agreements or understandings about how to use these tools. How can companies amplify the upsides SaaS tools offer without undermining focus, expectations management, and a culture of harmonious collaboration?
What I see is that although long-term planning and decision-making vehicles like V2MOMS and OKRs help with long-term alignment, the day-to-day is getting extremely confusing without clear parameters for the daily operating cadences at companies.
I think Conscious Leadership and good company culture and management require some company-set parameters, and I have a few thoughts on what those might be.
First, we all want to cut down on silos, and we like the idea of information moving up and down a reporting path. However, companies are still on the hook for creating two things: (a) a clear and respected reporting structure for every team member, and (b) clear decision rights across teams and among them. If our Director of Product Marketing reports to the CMO, that person ought to have a sense of how to prioritize team requests from across the company in comparison to short- and long-term goals set in partnership with the CMO. There is a genuine tension here. We want our head of product marketing to be in contact with the product and sales teams, but we need to ensure our product marketing lead isn’t left in complete overwhelm with fragmented attention. To avoid that, the CMO and product marketing lead should be in constant contact about prioritization. Additionally, the decision rights around what tasks that product marketing lead does, if things get complicated, ought to rest with the CMO. It doesn’t mean that every slack assignment needs to be vetted with the CMO, but our product marketer needs to know (as do the others on other teams assigning matters to product marketing) that the avenue for decision rights and discernment around what to do and not do follows a known reporting structure.
Second, we need to apply the notion of what I call Conscious Communication to the SaaS tools that enable a rapid collaboration and assignment system in companies. I wrote in detail about the four forms of Conscious Communication here. In short, I recommend that team members, especially leaders, distinguish between these four types of speech:
- “Suggestion” -- an idea or contribution I make to a conversation
- “Preference” -- a statement that represents something I want
- “Request for Agreement” -- an ask that I and one or more others come to an agreement on the who, what, and when around a topic with authentic bilateral or multilateral consent
- “Order” -- direction I offer where I have decision rights and where I’m requiring that something occur
This can work well enough in live meetings (and it’s still challenging there), but things get very fuzzy on task management and collaboration tools. As such, whether it’s this nomenclature or something else that works better for your company, I strongly recommend you adopt some language that can clarify between something that is offered as an “idea” and something that is offered as a “mandate.” Otherwise, depending on one’s level and personality type, we end up with a heap of wasted work or a missed expectation.
Identifying labels for different types of input should be part of the broader process of creating clear reporting and decision-making structures. I recommend that companies get clear on who can and cannot "order" or "mandate" or "assign" something to someone and link that to getting clear on the decision rights across the company. Structures like Bain’s RAPID format work great, but they’re not embedded in our day-to-day SaaS operating systems and tools.
One of my clients reported recently that someone in another team had assigned one of their OKRs to my client. Another client reports that the biggest complaint among independent contributors on a data team is that their superiors aren’t completing the assignments the IC’s have made in Slack. A third mentioned that because these assignments are public, there is a sense of shame in not completing things that have been thrown over the transom without a clear understanding. There’s room for some flexibility here, but I feel these systems have become so unbounded that reining things in with clarity now would be a huge salve to employees and a boon to leaders’ being aligned with their direct reports.
When and only when we decide who can require someone to do something and we craft some language applicable to our SaaS universe, we can start to contemplate how Clean Agreements might become possible in our software suites.
If you want to dive in to the details of what makes a Clean Agreement, read up. If you’re reading this ahead of a COVID-19 vaccine, read about how I think the pandemic amplifies our need for clean agreements. In short, we view most of our expectations as agreements. They are not, which is one reason they are so often unmet. Many of us walk around work (and life) wondering why no one is doing what they said they were doing. Often we are walking around letting ourselves off the hook for not doing what we said we were going to do. As such, most of the executives and companies I coach view Clean Agreements as one of the most transformative features of Conscious Leadership.
A Clean Agreement requires that a specific “who” will do a specific “what” by a specific “when.” Shoddy agreements (hereafter referred to as not agreements) often miss on all of those fronts. In addition, Clean Agreements are mutual -- bilateral or multilateral. An order is not an agreement. That’s okay. Within an established environment of decision rights, orders are fine. If, however, you want to make an agreement (which is often required where you don’t have decision rights), both or all parties need to have a clear and well-considered “yes” to a very specific request for agreement.
Here, my friends, is where I think every one of the SaaS tools mentioned in this post fall short. I would be delighted to be corrected, but in my experience, none of these tools offers either a clear technical implementation of decision rights or a manner of confirming a clean agreement. An “assignment” does not an agreement make, as should be more than obvious from the above discussion.
Without getting more serious about this, the ramifications are meaningful:
- Deferential employees taking on more than their 100% responsibility and becoming overwhelmed
- Aggressive employees laying off tasks they dislike with relatively no check on that behavior
- A toxic culture of missed expectations
- Failed attempts to de-silo an organization because teams recoil against the absence of boundaries as being untenable
- Eroding of focus and prioritization of meaningful long-term goals for teams and the company
- Lots of below-the-line drama
So, if you want to make these SaaS tools work even better at your company, I believe it is incumbent on you to establish clear guard rails for how assignments can be made and how clean agreements can be established. I can think of many ways this might be achieved -- ways that allow for clarifying questions on requests and a “consent” around an assignment -- but this is something companies ought to be developing in the context of their structure, their culture, and their tools. If you want me to facilitate that conversation, reach out here.
I’m very energized around this conversation. Asana, Slack, G Suite, Confluence, and the others have so radically increased transparency across companies that the alignment difference is palpable. Now, I think it’s time for some solid reflection about how to optimize our use of these tools in a more conscious way. And soon enough, turning on your notifications each Monday won't require a mediation app.