Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Your Problem Is Not My Emergency!

You’re busy at your job managing a group of people who provide services to other groups and organizations in your company. The pace at this time is hectic, with everyone in the group involved in doing what they do best – providing high quality delivery of the services they provide. Your pace, as manager, is hectic as well, trying to ensure that all demands by your ‘customers’ are being met with high quality results in a timely fashion, while also attempting to ensure that all of your people are fully engaged in activities that meet or stretch their capabilities without being overwhelmed. You try to stay on top of things by polling your ‘customers’ to identify what’s likely to be coming so that you can plan accordingly and identify who will be doing what when. Everyone in your group is feeling somewhat stressed, but manageably so, and is, in general, feeling good about their ability to satisfy the demands placed upon them.

Then you get a call from someone outside of your normal ‘customers’. This person has a problem of her own making, and is seeking help from you and your group. She made promises to an outside customer to deliver something requiring your group’s services in an extremely short (and unreasonable) timeframe. She didn’t check with anyone about the reasonableness of the delivery, but just assumed it could be done in the timeframe she promised. You’re more than willing to help, within reason and within the constraints of delivering on prior commitments. But this person isn’t interested in your constraints or commitments. Her problem is ‘far more important’ than anyone else’s, and she expects you to drop everything else and, if necessary, make everyone in your group available to help address her problem (see also The Sky Is Falling!).

What you want to say to (actually to yell at) this person is, “Your problem is not my emergency!”, or, to say a bit more calmly, “A failure to plan on your part should not constitute an emergency on my part.” (see also Failing to Plan Means You Are Planning to Fail!). And to then follow this with an explanation of some of the realities of life. Just as it takes a finite amount of time to bake a cake, it takes a finite amount of time for the people of your group to deliver their services. It’s simply not possible to wave a magic wand and make the time it takes to do things go away! Further, that you’ve published Standard ‘Service Level Agreements’ (SLAs) stating how long it normally takes to carry out the various tasks that your group performs. What’s more, you have even published ‘Expedited Service SLAs’ to cover cases where an outside customer is willing to pay extra money to deliver services in shorter timeframes, within certain guidelines. And that the intent of these SLAs is to enable people in the company (in her position) to set expectations with outside customers on the time it takes to carry out tasks associated with their requests (see also Pound the Facts, Not the Table).

But this person is totally unaware of either the Standard or Expedited SLAs, doesn’t really care, and simply wants her promises met regardless of the impact or even whether it’s possible (see also No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn’t Have To Do It!). She simply does not want to be confused with the facts. Her promise is her word and her problem must necessarily become your emergency! (See also, If You Want It Bad, You’ll Get It … Bad!

But you don’t say what you really want to say, at least yet. You are a good corporate citizen who wants to help the company deliver on commitments made. So you first talk with your boss to explain the situation, and he tells you that this really is a critical situation, made worse by this person’s unreasonable promises, but that now her promises actually are your emergency, like it or not.  So you hold your tongue, at least for the time being, and try to shift things around, delaying less critical activities, to shoehorn in this request (see also When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!). And you’re able to get it done!  

That’s the good news and the bad news. It’s good news in that you were able to deliver on an ‘impossible’ commitment, thanks to the ‘above and beyond’ efforts of your team. It’s bad news in that, unless something changes, such ‘impossible’ requests may become normal expectations (see also No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!). You now need to do whatever is necessary to prevent that from happening, or life for you and your group may have every prospect of become a living hell.

So what can be done to set reasonable expectations and to do whatever possible to eliminate or at least minimize ‘impossible’ requests?

First, do what you can to better inform people in the company about your services and the group’s turnaround times:
  • Get agreement with your boss and his boss that such behavior will not be viewed as acceptable in the future. If a critical need arises, it should come through the chain of management, and not be thrust upon your group by an out of control person with no knowledge of the facts of life for your group.
  • Better publicize your SLAs and make it perfectly clear what they mean. Distribute the Standard and Expedited SLAs to all organizations that may even peripherally use your group’s services. Publish the SLAs on your internal website if you have one, and get the word out about the website and the SLAs. Post copies of the SLAs in prominent places that all in their relevant organizations will be exposed to. Include your internal website on these postings.  In all of these communications, let people know that the timeframes specified are there to help them in their planning efforts with their customers to set expectations, and that quoting times shorter than those indicated in the SLAs need to be cleared with you in advance, or escalated through the chain of management.
  • Meet with the managers (and perhaps their managers) of the groups that currently use or are likely in the future to use the services of your group to let them know the realities of life, and the unacceptable demands that some people have been inflicting on your group. Help them to understand that life is busy enough without self-inflicted problems of others being foisted upon your group.

Next, for the people who directly submit requests for your group’s services, ask them to consider the following:
  • Put yourself in the group’s position. What would your reaction be if someone attempted to do this to you?
  • Don’t make promises without checking on what can or can’t be done
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep (on your own).
  • Don’t make promises on things you don’t control.
  • Don’t make promises on people you don’t control.
  • Tell your customers you will see what can be done before making promises.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Think before you promise.
  • Don’t be an a$$hole!

In general, almost everyone in a company wants to do the right things for the company, themselves, and others. People generally don’t want to do anything to hang someone else out to dry, and recognize that they should try to make sure their commitments are solid and backed by agreements by all parties who will be involved. But sometimes the pressure of the moment leads people to make commitments without recognizing the impact on others. Before making any such commitments, they need to take some time to think things through, and to remember that their problems should not become someone else’s emergency!

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