If you were going to do it, it would already be done

Working on boards of directors, dealing with problem neighbors, and coordinating with co-workers, I’ve had trouble figuring out what’s going on when people promise action. At times, I’ve found inconsistencies in myself as to what I want to achieve, and what I realistically can achieve, in my lifetime. Rooting out this self-deception has helped me focus on the things I can do. This essay is going to share what I’ve learned on both fronts.

When you encounter something that needs doing, what do you do? If it’s under your jurisdiction, you take care of it (unless you can’t, in which case see the second half below). But what if it’s someone else’s to-do?

You could just ignore it, figuring that they’ll get around to it. But that’s got issues too: back when I was a kid, we had a power outage on a nice day. A few hours in, we called the power company to ask about progress. There was a power outage? It turns out everyone in the neighborhood figured someone else would call it in, so the power company knew nothing and the power stayed broken. If you want stuff fixed or improved, you need to tell someone about it. (Unless something is clearly a work in progress.)

There are four responses to this. Exact wording will vary, but generally when you bring a concern to someone’s attention, their response falls in one of 4 boxes:

Oh, yes, we’re working on that.
This is usually a good sign. They’re aware something is suboptimal, and aware there’s room for improvement. “Meanwhile, you can workaround that…” is additional confirmation they’re being truthful, or better yet, specific details: “So-and-so is working on that”, or “I think I’ll have that fixed by the end of next week.” However, if this is on the to-do list, you may be in trouble. How long will it remain a to-do? Is work on it imminent, or is it on a wish-list that no one ever looks at?
Oh, that shouldn’t have happened. Let me take a look at that…
Again, this is a good sign: although this is a newly identified issue, they acknowledge something went wrong for you, not you did something wrong. They’re taking interest in the issue instead of denying it.
No, that’s now how that works.
This takes a lot of forms. “You’re doing it wrong,” and “That’s not our procedure,” also fall in this category. This is bad news: someone has a process, and would rather blame you than improve the process. The only way you’re going to get change is to force it.
Um, I need to think about that.
Sometimes, this might be in the form “Okay, I see. I’ll talk to my boss about that.” This person either isn’t familiar enough with the issue, or doesn’t have enough agency, to make a decision on fixing your issue. While there’s uncertainty here, this is more likely to turn sour than work out. Environments with clueless or disenfranchised employees aren’t the kind that do continual process improvement, but there are other reasons for this attitude.

Any worthy organization is always trying to improve itself, so they’ll take feedback to heart. Likely issues will get raised early on, and therefore be addressed and fixed so that they won’t be issues anymore. If this cycle happens in a reasonable amount of time, then problems won’t last long. Thus, unless you’re running into an obscure problem, or you’ve stumbled into a recent problem—be it a bug in the new web site or dysfunction caused by a corporate reorg—the problem won’t be there, because it’ll already have been fixed.

But what if it’s not? With the above four as a starting point, what else should you consider?

  • Was there a major recent change? Is there something that happened recently that triggered or manufactured the problem? If nothing has changed, this problem isn’t new, or they do everything else ass-backward too, that’s a sign they don’t improve.
  • How obscure is the problem? If it’s an unusual situation, they may legitimately not have known.
  • What’s their history? Do comparable problems linger, or do they address them quickly? Observed behavior is a better predictor than promises.
  • What’s their culture like? Are they proactive in other areas, or are they usually slow and regressive? Is there continual improvement, or do they resist change even when it’s good?
  • What are the people like? It’s been said if you want something done, ask a busy person. Are these people who like to be busy, or bureaucrats who just want to look busy?

So what do you do if you’re stymied?

  • Talk to the right person. In poorer-run companies, the employees sometimes accept their peasant roles and refuse to think. They do what they’re told, and since you’re proposing something different from what the boss said, you’re wrong. But the boss may listen.
  • Use postal mail. When you don’t know who to talk to, and can’t get a straight answer, postal mail tends to be processed at a higher level. It’s got a better chance of being read by someone with authority.
  • Take your business elsewhere. Give your money to people who aren’t idiots.
  • If it’s a government agency, write to your legislators. They love stories about how they’ve rooted out inefficiency, so unless it’s one of their pet projects, pointing them at it and letting them have at it may be effective.

Dealing with Stalls

What if you’re on the other end of this issue? How do you get it done?

If you’re working on a project and observe a stalled task, how do you take possession of it? There was a board of directors I served on where this was a regular problem. If I jumped in and took care of something, someone else would often be upset that I had “taken over” their task, even if they’d been promising for weeks that they were just about to get to it. Other times, there was some new problem that came up, or perhaps I was the only one who had observed it. Again, if I took it on, folks were upset that I hadn’t gotten permission to do what obviously needed to get done: I was supposed to get approval first.

But asking for approval stalled too. Much business was done via e-mail. As a volunteer group, we all had limited time, so the high-priority things got dealt with and everything else was dropped. Asking for approval for non-critical things meant nothing except critical stuff ever got done. It made us dysfunctional.

Eventually, I stumbled into a strategy that worked in these cases: “If no one objects, I’m going to…”

Instead of seeking approval, give opportunity to veto. It allowed my peers an opportunity to speak up if they had objections, or it interfered with other plans—but they only objected if there was a good reason. They didn’t have to each write a reply giving approval, which (if they did it, which they often didn’t) only made more mail for us to wade through each day.

When using this, set a time limit on it: “If nobody objects by Saturday night, I’m going to flummox the wombat in the cherry cow.” That way, others can’t object later if it “slipped their mind” or they “just hadn’t gotten back yet.” They were warned; it’s their own fault if they missed their opportunity.

Others adopted this approach, and eventually it became part of that board’s culture. It reduced stalls and reduced the e-mail volume. And when somebody announced they wanted to take action on something, somehow the comments seemed more on point, with less of a rambling discussion.

If you do this rarely enough, you can get away with it. But if you need to use if more often, and others don’t seem keen on it, then be politically savvy about it by looking for good opportunities to snag tasks: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Larry’s plate is filled flummoxing all the cats before his vacation in 2 weeks. Unless there’s an objection, I’m going to take on the milk slicing?” Or, “Dawn’s had a lot going on with getting her elderly mother into the nursing home. Is there any objection to me helping her out and taking care of the carpet tuning?”

I strongly suggest this approach.