A checklist that, if done in order, actually works.

How do you ensure task completion when important projects need to get implemented, when partners seem to have agreed to participate and do their bit, but when you are not really certain that you are going to get committed follow through?

It’s been an old joke within law firms that if a partner has a deadline for producing some task by this coming Friday, when are they most likely to start on it?  And you know the punchline.

Whether it’s in a practice or industry group setting, around the table with the members of your Strategic Planning Committee, or wherever you happened to be working with your fellow colleagues, this seems to be one of the most common challenges and greatest frustrations that I hear about from leaders at every level within firms.  And perhaps worse, the most common excuse seems to be, “I had a client emergency arise.”  And of course, a client excuse trumps everything!

In a sincere effort to help, here are some prescriptive steps that I have found that you can take to ensure results (in most cases) but you have to ensure that you do each one, and do them sequentially:

1. Ensure that the undertaking is VOLUNTARY. 

You may remember reading in one of my earlier rants  where I cautioned that leaders think that they can simply assign tasks and something magically is going to happen.  See Post 318 (discussing where leadership training often fall short).  I personally admonish leaders, at all levels, to expunge the word “assign” completely out of their vocabulary, because it does not work.  Rather, think of your beloved colleagues as being nothing more than “volunteers” working collectively toward achieving team aspirations.

Far too often the leader (in their wisdom) thinks that George or Jennifer is the best person to do a given task and publicly arm-twists (or subtly embarrasses) George into taking responsibility for that task.  Now ask yourself: just how motivated is George really going to be with an assignment that was delegated to him under those circumstances?  Even worse, I often see those instances where one particular committee member was absent from a meeting and the others debated about what project “to stick Jennifer with.”  (And you laughed when you read that because you just know how often that happens.)

Now, once again, should we really be surprised when people don’t follow through?  Keep in mind that when someone voluntarily takes on a task they are far more committed to ensure the completion of that project.  And what task do they most often volunteer to take on?  Usually one that either they themselves suggested should be done, or one that they personally have an affinity for.

Your role as the leader then, is to seek out voluntary undertakings from each of your fellow partners, even though you might strongly feel that someone else is better equipped to do a specific project.

The way in which I would normally approach it when I’m facilitating a group session is to say to everyone:

In a moment I’m going to go around the room and I would like to hear from each of you as to whether there is one specific task that you are enthusiastic enough about, that you would volunteer to work on, perhaps spending no more than two to three hours over the next month.  Now, when I get to you, if you do not see something that appeals to you, you need only say: ‘Pass’ – No expectations, no obligations, no recriminations.  Okay, let’s go!

2. Where necessary, break the endeavor into SMALLER steps. 

Some of the tasks that need to get done may be fairly large, by which I mean that to complete the total undertaking requires more than two or three hours of some partner’s time.  When that happens, get the partners to break the task down into its logical and sequential few steps and estimate a timeframe for doing each.  Even if you think you know how long each step should take, you want buy-in from the individual doing the work.  Then when someone is taking on this task, we can examine which small step of the task to start with.

A simple philosophy worth sharing with your team:

If each of us were to take one small project or the first step to progressing a larger undertaking, and if we each were to commit a modest investment (two hours) of our non-billable time to implementing that task over the next month, then cumulatively and incrementally, we would make significant progress over time.

You ultimately want your colleague to take on only that which they can comfortably complete with a few hours.  If they volunteer to do more, it may be out of a need to impress their peers and I would thank them but come back to the more modest initial step as being what would suffice for now.

Your job as the leader is to ensure that they are not setting themselves up to fail — and thereby also setting you up to fail . . . as their leader.

3. Ask each partner, specifically, what he or she will DELIVER back to your next meeting.  

It is quite conceivable that even an enthusiastic team member might go off and tackle some project only to ultimately deliver a result that was not anywhere near what everyone in the group was anticipating.

To avoid this, it’s very helpful that everyone think about any particular task in terms of a tangible deliverable or outcome — i.e., what they expect to bring back to the next meeting — whether it’s simply a written report or evidence of what action was undertaken.  Ideally, it is something substantive and tangible to show that progress has been made.

As the leader, you need to ask each partner to briefly summarize (for the group):

  • What they understand the work is that needs to be done,
  • How they might approach the task, and
  • Whether they foresee needing help from anyone else.

Doing this will put them in the right mindset for owning the task and ensure that both they and you understand exactly what the outcome or deliverable will be.  You might say something like:

I want to ensure you and I both understand how this will unfold.  Could you please describe to us what you will do and what we might expect to see at our next meeting?

4. Ask for a PERSONAL commitment. 

Now ideally, one of your group’s operating protocols is “NO delegation.” SeePost 323 (the highest performing teams have rules).  This works best when there’s universal acknowledgement and buy-in that, within the team, it’s unacceptable to for a partner to voluntarily take on some project only to then pass it over to an associate or someone more junior to execute.

When you have finally determined the parameters or scope of the undertaking, you then need to look your partner in the eye and say:

Now George, you understand that what is required here should take about three hours to accomplish.  Given your current and anticipated client obligations, are you comfortable that you can invest three hours and deliver your report for our next meeting?

When people give their word — especially in front of their peers — the level of personal commitment increases dramatically.  Indeed, one of the greatest motivators amongst intelligent professionals is the fine art of subtle peer pressure. Another suggested approach that works:

What can we all expect to get from you by the next meeting?  Are each of us unconditionally prepared to give our group a solid commitment that we will absolutely complete any and every assignment that we voluntarily agreed to take responsibility for?

The underlying philosophy becomes one of not letting the team down.

5. Determine an acceptable completion DEADLINE.

Ideally you want to have tasks accomplished before your next meeting such that any status reports might be circulated to everyone to review ahead of time and not waste the time of everyone at the meeting.  For that reason, you need to be very specific about a date for any report to be circulated to all group members.

For some strange reason, I’ve noticed that we often will pick a Friday as our deadline.  Where possible, a Monday may make for a better deadline as most people don’t really jump on their individual project until the last minute anyway; and a Monday often allows the weekend for more reflective thought.

6. Produce a WRITTEN summary of the commitment. 

When working through the various tasks that need to be undertaken during a meeting, it is advisable to that they all be written down — on either a whiteboard or paper flip chart — for all to see who is going to do what and by when.

To help people remember their individual commitment, you should then transcribe those flip chart sheets into meeting minutes and circulate (within 24 hours) to all attendees, asking everyone if there are any mistakes in what has been recorded.  Most organized people agree that there is something about the physical act of writing down a commitment that makes it easier to remember and more likely to be acted upon.

What you definitely do not want to have happen is for everyone to come back to the next meeting and you start by asking George how he did with his particular project only to have him respond. “What! I don’t believe that was what I promised to do. I think you are mistaken with what you notated as my deliverable.”

7. FOLLOW-UP with each partner one-on-one.

Finally, one of the most valuable ways in which you can spend your leadership time is following up with your colleagues, between meetings — to offer your help in ensuring that they complete their task and complete it on time.

You know that your star performers don’t need your oversight.  They absolutely do what they say they will do, which means being really careful about what they say they will do.  Others in your group may well need someone with patience to prod them a bit and offer their assistance, so that those best intentions actually do get implemented.

Now I have had hundreds of sessions with practice leaders over the years, where I have walked them through these steps, carefully explaining each and what is required.  At that end, I pose this question:

So now we get to the next monthly meeting and when you call upon George to report on his project, we all discover that George did not complete what he promised.  Who do you think is at fault?

And you can just see the discomfort in their eyes.  Eventually, knowing full well that it’s caught-you question, someone will venture, “Well, clearly George is at fault.”  My response?

Your job is to be a source of help, of support; to nag and to be their conscience mechanism; to make sure that they are following through on their projects.  So yes, technically George failed in completing his undertaking, but you too have failed as a leader.  You cannot afford to come back to a group meeting and discover that some voluntary projects have not been completed as that sets the standard for your entire group.

Here’s a reliable rule-of-thumb:  High-performing leaders will invest one-third of their leadership time, the non-billable hours they might make available, in one-on-one coaching of the partners in the group including following up and helping to ensure that projects are completed.

I didn’t promise that my approach would be easy.  I only promised that it works.