10/11/2011 04:17 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2011

Once Upon a Time: Corporate Version

Once upon a time ... That's not only how fairy tales begin, it's how some people manage employees and the results are often less than 'happily ever after.'

As a matter of fact, I've watched it happen several times this week as I've been out observing at client facilities and sitting in on planning sessions. The main trend I've seen is that people are letting promises and projects float in 'once upon a time,' as in 'I'll do that for you when I get to it' or 'I can do it 'next week.' Then a week goes by and no one asks, 'Did that get done?'

As a habit, it makes for really poor follow through and the cost, other than not getting important tasks done, is that employees live under the cloud of 'Am I forgetting something?' or 'There's always so much to do; how can I get to all of it?'. This commitment-light management style is not only dis-empowering for the employee, it's debilitating for the owner or manager who, after promises aren't kept or tasks remain undone, feels like 'I'm the only one who cares around here.'

The remedy is to create a culture of accountability and, as big a topic as this is, it all starts with asking these four questions at each weekly accountability and planning session:
  1. What are you working on? or How are you doing on that project I assigned? A big clue might be that they don't even mention a project you're expecting from them. I use Outlook project function or tasks, but have used 37 Signals' Basecamp for bigger organizations. I think the latter is promising but some new users resist the time it takes to learn a simple tool. Use whatever works best for your organization to keep a master list of all projects.
  2. How is it 'in time'? In other words, is it on time, when will it be done, do you need more time, what's your commitment, etc. Remember that your job is to close the 'back doors' that people try to escape through regarding commitments, so look for floating delivery dates, excuses, the words 'I'm waiting for... and other slippery time commitment symptoms. No commitment from an employee is real until it exists in a time bound schedule.
  3. What resources do you need? Do you need to pull someone else from something for help or is there a purchase involved? Asking what resources they need does not mean actually giving them resources or letting them have someone to do the work for them. If they had scheduled the project better, would they need the resources they're asking for now?
  4. How can I help you? First of all, you're helping them by reminding them that you expect results and are committed to them winning. Keeping them 'honest' is helping them live up to their own expectations as well and maybe even encouraging them to grow a bit. If you can help, do, but don't take the project back or do it for them. It's about empowerment, not enabling.

If you continue to ask those questions and add the 'how many, by when' mindset to your management style you'll have a more accomplished team and that will lead not only to an increase in production, but a greater sense of purpose. That then leads to an improved culture and a formula for success which is not exactly happily ever after, but it is happier for right now!